Just Say Yes.

I recently read an article posted on Medium by Kevin Ashton, entitled “Creative People Say No.”  I don’t have a problem with the article — I agree with some of it.  My problem is, I think that many people in our industry, regardless of title, are subscribing to this philosophy.  And while in general, creatives need to immerse themselves in their work and shouldn’t be distracted, those who have more responsibility than just creating shouldn’t have the luxury of saying “No” all the time. Those who say “No”, are doing themselves and their companies a disservice.

While it would be best for you to read Ashton’s article before reading this, I will try to sum it up: Ashton posed the question, are we preconditioned to say ‘Yes’ to things that seem benign or paint us as agreeable(like speaking at a conference or helping someone move) and save ‘No’ for situations dangerous and threatening(like taking drugs or candy from strangers)? Have we been taught that saying “No” to things makes us rude, and is that wrong?  

The article goes a step further, citing many examples of successful creative or productive people that have routinely said “No.” The true argument of the piece is that we are all so short on time — our most valuable commodity — that we should say ‘No’ more often to protect the sanctity of our process and not waste precious time.

I’m a creative. I’ll admit that I’ve been so caught up finishing a scene of a screenplay that I did not get up for hours. I said “No” to the phone, “No” to my girlfriend, and “No” to myself when I was hungry or had to go to the bathroom. That happens occasionally, and the unruly creative beast must be left alone to work it out. But this is not a formula for a successful creative business practice.

What I agree with wholeheartedly in the piece is simply that we should all say “No” to the insignificant time wasters in our lives.
Unfortunately, I feel that the piece doesn’t underscore that enough, and subsequently hasn’t been gleaned by readers. 

But those who “do not allow themselves to be part of other people’s studies,” or  who lock themselves in a room and say ‘No’ to the outside world day in, day out, are not only selfish, they’re counter-productive and foolish. Not having a sounding board limits the potential for work, and saying “No” to helping develop other’s work due to the importance of one’s own is a recipe for disaster. I fear a lot of creative people are saying ‘No’ too often, and not just as it pertains to their precious time. I think it has spread to the way many companies are led and run. 
An overprotective, paranoid shielding of one’s work, I understand and expect from inventors, scientists, even startups worried about competition, but from creative companies?

David Ogilvy would think proponents of this modus operandi were taking a piss. 
One of Ogilvy’s most famous quotes is: “If each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.”  I fear many with the ability and power to do so these days are afraid that subscribing to that philosophy will be their undoing, because the “giants” will make them obsolete.

At its core, being creative is about saying “Yes” — Opening our imaginations and seeing what is possible.  Literally opening the door to get someone else’s point of view, one that might take things in a completely different — and better direction.  As creative leaders, it’s about sharing ideas and delegating goals and responsibilities — to foster the talent we recruit. If you don’t like to say “Yes” to subordinates to help them develop, what kind of leader are you? I’ve enjoyed that part of my work as much (if not more) than anything else.

Ultimately, the POV of Ashton’s article feels set in the past; it references individual creators who want to be left alone — locked up in their labs, left to their devices…and that’s fine if we’re documenting what worked then.  And if we’re talking about managing time, identifying and separating the essential from the trivial to focus on the best use of what time we have left, by all means, hire an assistant to run to the market while you keep your metaphorical version of the Bunsen burner…burning. But today’s creativity is a collaborative effort and a team sport. Creative teams have shown repeatedly that one plus one can be more than two. Think tanks tackling creative problems (able to keep idea conception and development from flying off the tracks) can bear incredible fruit. 

Ashton says “No” guards time. I say “Yes” frees possibility.

Simple, But Novel

It’s not an oxymoron.  It’s just an endangered species.  But every once in a while it’s spotted in the wild.  And in advertising, it’s gold.  Some people think that with emerging technologies and platforms, it’s impossible to achieve success while being simple — that concepts and ideas have to be complicated to reach and engage today’s sophisticated audiences.  Personally, I think that’s a bunch of shit.  I’ll get back to this thought in a few minutes.

When you attend the Newhouse School at Syracuse University, in addition to your major, you must select a minor or concentration — seemingly to round out your specialized education with something more universal.  In my case, a television/radio/film writing major was complimented with a psychology minor.  My film courses taught me about criticism and history of the medium along with practical applications for story structure and what to do when getting behind the camera.  And my humanities and electives were fun and in many cases enlightening.  But I can confidently say I learned more, and have applied more from my studies of psychology than any of the others.  

I first made that realization as I started writing and selling film and television scripts in L.A.  Painting characters that are either familiar to viewers or more complex comes easier to someone who has spent time understanding human behavior.

I find psychology even more vital to what I do now.  Retro-color me nerd (I swear I wasn’t one), but I remember scouring the shelves of the SU bookstore for various psych books — even ones for classes I didn’t take, just to learn more about people.  I’d always believed knowing more about a situation, challenge, or even a conversation ahead of time made me better prepared.  Carrying that belief over, knowing how people act and behave under certain situations can prepare you in exactly the same way.  And in advertising it can inspire some of the best ideas.  Understanding how people have behaved in the past, how and why they act the way they do now, and predicting how they might react in the future is the foundation of advertising — it’s an industry completely rooted in psychology, and there’s no more important underlying facet to prepare us for what we do.

I’ve talked about right and left brain thinkers.  I’ll try to appeal to both about psychology’s importance: To the right brainers: Psychology teaches you why people stop and read one thing over another and what feelings have been tapped that lead to the actions they take.  To the lefties: Psychology shows, in black and white facts, how past behavior can predict future behavior.

It’s all psychology: predicting behavior, so we can disrupt and entice, rather than alienate.  Seduce, rather than estrange.  We are always trying make our targets feel something: shock, empathy, compassion, envy, association, whatever.  Ultimately, we want the target to feel comfortable enough to make a decision and take action, whether the “target” is a brand selecting our agency in a review, or consumers deciding to buy the product or service we’re pushing.

PSYCHOLOGY PERVADES EVERYTHING

Strategists/Account Execs: will tell you briefs are built upon the psychological profile of target demographic.

Art Directors: will profess that people’s general mood can determine what color will garner the desired response.

 Copywriters: will remind you that the ultimate goal is to appeal to a relatable, social truth.

Techs: will warn you that if UI/UX is frustrating, you’ve put the demo in bad mood from the start.

Planners: will advise that where and when we find people to sell to has everything to do with their mood/mindset at the time.

Now I know this all sounds rudimentary, and to a degree it is.  It’s - - wait for it - - SIMPLE.  (Remember?  That’s what I was talking about, before I lulled you into a near coma about psychology.)  Understanding psychology is understanding the SIMPLE emotions that fuel the decisions people make all day, every day.  These emotions inspire our creative and technological ideas.  And because these same emotions are being affected by our ideas, the ideas themselves should be SIMPLE.  Simple emotions, tapped at the beginning and catered to at the end.  It’s the in-between that’s complicated.  How?  Well, these simple emotions are attached to complex people, with complicated lives and problems.

AND

The way in which these simple(and hopefully novel) ideas engage the simple emotions of complex people are through a bevy of media and platforms that grow more complex by the day.   Sounds a little messy, but it isn’t.   He’s a diagram of a two-way funnel:

Again:

Simple emotions [that inspire simple, creative or technological novel ideas]

  Complex people [who own those simple emotions]

  Complex channels/platforms [populated by these complex people]

Simple ideas [carried via the complex channels to cater to the simple emotions of complex people.

“Simple, but novel” is not only possible, it’s vital to agency survival.

Simple can be disruptive and engage consumers for a few seconds, but novel will keep the ultimate idea in their heads.  Simple can get people to download an app, but usefulness and a proper user experience making it novel will get people to use the app and spread its novelty.

I’m sure someone will ask, what about social truth campaigns - - the foundation of the work of the last ten years at Crispin.  Isn’t that simple?  I’d argue the concepts of the social truth of Crispin’s campaigns of the last decade were simple; the executions made them novel.

In my mind, a good campaign is grounded in a truth and fits the audience like a comfortable, old shirt.  One grounded in truth that pushes the audience to think and feel in new ways isn’t good, it’s great.

Manifesto: the future.

The following is an expurgated version of the presentation I made last Friday, April 29th, 2011, at the Brandcenter at Virginia Commonwealth University to the Brandcenter Masters students, undergraduate VCU advertising students, faculty and local professionals.  While I spoke about my past and growing up in an advertising family and also explored a tangent about psychology (to be covered in a separate post), here I’ll focus on my philosophies about mobile and emerging technologies, and how their importance will inform the way the most successful advertising agencies will be constructed in the future.  In addition, I’ll cover how I believe changes need to be made not only on a departmental level and a creative team-structure level, but also on a personnel level; from entry level to C-suite, I believe the right kind of people will increase success without excessive human resource cost increases. 

First, let’s talk mobile.  It’s the future.  Period.  In my lifetime, it may evolve from a smartphone to a mini tablet to a wristwatch to a solid state drive and jack implanted in the back of my head—who knows?   What I do know is that it will be as small as possible, while still providing a positive user experience.

There was a time when the revolution was to be televised.  In the past six months, actual revolutions were socialized via twitter and Facebook.  In the western world, we’re constantly on the go.  Multitasking.  We value time more than ever.  One device that can function as the focal point for communication as well as content delivery, whether coming in the form of education, entertainment, news or utility?  Vital. In the immediate future this will remain the smartphone.  And though I mention the western world, make no mistake: the mobile device is a global device:

Seventy seven percent.  And nearly seventy five percent of those people have the phone within an arm’s reach, 24 hours a day.  How long until the majority of those phones are smart phones?  Well, with AT&T selling the iPhone 3GS for $49, it won’t be very long. Android will be no different.  And as the hardware becomes more affordable, more end users gravitate to the platforms, which stimulates platform development.  Brands respond by increasing their ad-spend exponentially.  Don’t think so?

Take a look at that chart.  Brands spent under $800 million on mobile in 2010.  That’s expected to triple by 2014.  And people aren’t only buying mobile phones in greater quantity to place calls; twenty five percent of internet users surf the web using mobile only.  A better experience?  No, a convenient one.  So users are out of the house, surfing the web, getting branding messages in the wild — near places they can spend money. And soon they’ll be using their phones to make payments; seventy percent of retailers are developing or exploring capabilities for mobile commerce right now. That’s nearly three in four.  Despite that increase, online shopping (via mobile) is going nowhere but through the roof, tripling from 2009 to 2010, from one to four billion dollars.  And some purchase and fulfillment never even leaves the phone; 350,000 applications are available in Apple’s app store alone.  Unbelievable.

What does this all mean?  Well, from my selfish POV, it means that if you’re a company like MIR that builds mobile ads or iAds, develops mobile sites, designs mobile apps and creates quality UX mobile commerce systems, you’re in pretty good shape moving forward.  But before I seem like I’m all code and no theory, I’ll say and underscore this:

Now I need to choose my words carefully, to avoid being misunderstood.  I do believe in the big idea.  Shh…don’t tell anyone, but I still love traditional.  I still love broadcast. And I still love print.  And I can see by saying these things, one might imagine I’m the anti-digital, the Lex Luthor to Michael Lebowitz’ Superman.  But you’re totally wrong. I’d imagine Michael and I agree philosophically on many things surrounding this topic (Note: Despite the laws of probability and outcome that would predict two people who interact with many of the same associates and friends would know each other, Michael and I have actually never met).  And I think we’re actually saying the same thing in different ways; Michael might say a mediocre idea made with great tech is better than a big idea sitting on the shelf that can’t be or never is made.  He’d likely also say that creativity itself often straddles both the editorial and technological ideating of what we do.  He’d be right.  I say no matter how advanced the technology, it will not succeed (from a branding standpoint) without a creative idea behind it.  I’m right.  And ultimately, I’m sure we both want the best brand storytelling married to the best technology.  We’re right.  And though mobile, digital and emerging technology is going to become the focus moving forward, the reality is that if you’ve cracked the brief for an overall campaign, the creative idea should be able to live anywhere.

Still, we have a big dilemma these days:

We have very forward thinking, digitally savvy technological people, and we have seasoned, track-proven traditional creative people.  It begs three very big questions:

And most importantly:

Back to question 1: Traditional agencies CANNOT survive without change.  The fundamental need for change relies upon EDUCATION.  More often than not, educating is the first thing I do when meeting with an agency or a brand partner, because they’re not familiar with how anything other than traditional advertising works.  They rarely know the difference between a wireframe and a comp.  And the first time you show a wireframe to a brand CEO who’s expecting to see full color comps because he or she doesn’t know the difference, you’re in for some shit.  Agencies and brands not familiar with digital and mobile processes need to understand what we do and how we do it.  It will better prepare them for what to expect at various stages of development, will provide them the ability to comment on work from a more confident position, and moving forward, it will allow them to be a contributor rather than an observer or burden.

Question 2: Can traditional and digital people co-exist in an evolving agency?  Short answer?  Without communication, not for very long.  Traditional ad people who refuse to communicate with technologists will first find themselves at a disadvantage, and ultimately find themselves unemployed.  I’m not saying the technologists shouldn’t be helping, by providing somewhat remedial instruction and exercising a great deal of patience, but the burden of learning the technical side of what we do (in greater amounts each day) falls to the traditional creatives.  And I’m not excluding non-creatives; strategists, account people and especially project managers must be proficient in speaking and understanding the language of tech.  Still…

This is a creative business.  The more we expand the channels in which we deliver stories and messages, the more vital it is to have a seamless communication between those who do the dreaming and those who nurture those dreams and turn them into emerging technology reality.  And until those out of the loop catch up, I believe there may be a new role at traditional agencies that will be vital for the next few years:

And that’s the bridge builder.  A hybrid traditional/digital thinker who can educate the pure traditionals in the language of digital, and play the part of conduit between the traditionals and the digital in everyday business.  Make no mistake: I’m not saying Martin Sorrell is going to shell out money for this new position.  This will likely fall to creatives within the agencies who can already play this role, making them even more indispensable.

The way creative teams are constructed will change as well.  They have to.  I think we’re already starting to see a change.  Before long, I believe the main structure of a creative team will change from the left to the right diagram, below:

That brings us to Question 3: What does the agency of the future look like? 

When it comes to agency departments, I think the siloed vs. integrated agency debate is over; integrated is the obvious way to go.  And we just covered teams.  But I believe that moving forward, agencies will survive and thrive not only based upon the structure of departments and teams, but even more upon the structure of the people themselves.  Because as long as the same types of people are put together in more or less the same kinds of teams, the results will be the same.Doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results?  Know what that is?

 

Right.  Einstein’s definition of insanity.  So who are these people I’m talking about? Who should be leading agencies moving forward?  It may be a philosophy based in generalities, but it’s one to which I subscribe.  The great majority of people in this world can be divided into one of three groups when it comes to innate ability and the aptitude to develop specific advanced intellectual talents.  The two MAIN groups are left and right brain thinkers:


Left brain thinkers are rooted in fact and process, while right brainers focus on emotion and creativity.  I did say there were three groups.  The third group is exactly who I believe are the prime choice to be bridge builders today and the ideal candidates to be leading agencies tomorrow.  They are both left and right brained and have the capacity to not only understand exactly what the creatives and the technologists are doing, they can mediate between the two, and most importantly, they can explain all of it to a client who doesn’t know what the hell any of it means.  It’s part teacher, part counselor, part psychologist.  It’s not always fun, but it is absolutely vital for agency survival.

Now, I can imagine what you’re thinking. ruminating upon.  It’s nagging you:

Am I both left and right brained?  Let’s see…  

This is not a definitive test, but let’s look at a question.  Think honestly about how you react to it:

If your mind’s tendency is to think the above, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with you.  But you might not be equally left and right brained.  However, it’s absolutely possible for one to develop a greater understanding and mastery of what was once a deficiency.  It behooves people to gain the knowledge they lack in order to make them more indispensable at the workplace.  And it’s essential for anyone contemplating a start-up of their own.  

There’s someone else who I imagine I’ll be at odds with based on my opinions presented here, and that’s Daniel H. Pink, author of the best-selling book “A Whole New Mind - Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future."  In it, Pink discusses how the Industrial Age of the 19th century was replaced by the Information Age of the 20th, which has now given way to the Conception Age of the 21st.  And though there is much in those pages that I agree with wholeheartedly, I still believe that much of its content and even the title (on its surface) seem to intimate a devaluation of left brain thinking, which I completely disagree with.  Professing design visualization as a pillar of the right brain future (which Pink does) without taking into consideration the mathematics inherent in spacial analysis, angles, symmetry and balance is just wrong in my opinion.  

Only time will tell if I’m even remotely prophetic and how agencies (and mobile technology) will evolve and flourish, or fail and be replaced by whatever’s next.  For now, survival depends upon knowing the rules and being able to play the game(s).  I made that plural because we do so much more than brand building these days.  The lines between what we do and what many in Silicon Valley now do have blurred tremendously.  Intellectual property is more on the minds of agencies today than ever; it has to be, simply because the buying public is so accessible and there’s too much money to be made via apps and platform development.  And to me, it’s just another piece of evidence in the argument for change on an organizational and personnel level that embraces digital and technological thinking and processes as an organic part of the creative process from the beginning rather than an appendage dialed up like a pinch hitter with two out in the bottom of the ninth.

Long overdue: The video/case study for “Sears Conspiracy.”

The backstory: As detailed in an article in AdAge, Sears decided they needed new creative and solicited agencies to pitch them their ideas. The caveat: agencies had to agree to relinquish their creative ideas to Sears, whether they were hired or not, and with no remuneration.  I feel this is insane on the surface, in the middle, and on the bottom with regard to proper brand-agency relation protocol.  Agencies, regardless of their level of desperation for work, must protect their intellectual and creative ideas. It’s all we have.  And unlike the entertainment world — a world in which I have a lot of experience, we do not have the opportunity to register or legally protect our ideas before presenting them.  Unlike the entertainment industry, the creators in advertising do not have a union.  In fact while screenwriters and other entertainment craftsmen and women have agents and lawyers to negotiate on their behalves and protect them from impropriety, ad agencies play the role of both creator and negotiator.  

What’s worse in this example is that Sears itself is just as unwilling to be put in the situation it expects agencies to endure; the literal definition of a hypocrite.  After reading the AdAge article, I remembered that Sears not only sells products, but provides services, among them installations. Anticipating exactly the ultimate outcome, I navigated to the Sears site and the services department and found myself staring at a pop-up window that allowed me to talk to a member of the blue crew — a live internet operator whose job is to facilitate my time on the site — a job that I find absolutely works most of the time, and had I been looking for an item Sears carries, I have no doubt the operator would have made my visit easier and more pleasant. However,  I wasn’t here for a lawnmower.  I was here for evidence and justice.  So I fictitiously claimed to be interested in having a serviceman come to my home to repair my broken air conditioner — in this case my home was the metaphor for Sears corporate office and the broken A/C represented Sears’ broken creative.  I then told the operator that I was planning on having a few repair people come out to diagnose the problem, and asked if the Sears repairman would give me his best educated guess of what was wrong AND tell me exactly how to fix it, before I decided which repairman to go with.  The response: Sears does not provide free estimates.  Evidence?  Yes.  Justice? Not really. I’m not sure what happened with Sears, but I haven’t heard that they’ve hired an agency.

In any respect, I congratulate the leaders of those agencies which decided on principle to hold their ground and not participate in such an exercise.  If nothing else, it sends a signal to the community and more importantly to the creative people at your agency that their work is of value.

Newton’s Laws of (E)motion?

Level-headed. Under control. Emotions in check. 

It’s not always an easy way to be, particularly when we’ve seen, read or heard something that has an impact on us, good or bad.  Our first instinct is to react.  To retreat from something hurtful or disappointing, to embrace the familiar and comforting. 

I was thinking about this the other night, after reading something that enraged me. I was able to quickly stifle my anger and move on, but I did consider that the thorn in my side could’ve easily pushed me to react, which reminded me of Newton’s third Law of Motion: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”  So, I wondered: does that law apply to people and attitudes — do Newton’s Laws of (E)motion exist, creating specific, predicable reactions? And more importantly, could these laws apply not only to interpersonal communication, but also to brand-consumer engagements?  So, I jumped in to see how deep I could dig an adjacent rabbit hole. 

A refresher course with proposed parallels:  

issac newton 

                                              Sir Issac Newton

Newton’s Laws of Motion/Possible Laws of (E)motion:

  • First Law: Every body will persist in its state of rest or uniform motion (constant velocity) unless it is compelled to change by forces impressed on it. 
  • (E)motion: Until affected by external forces or stimuli, one’s emotional state should remain relatively constant.


Second Law: A body of mass m subject to a force F undergoes an acceleration a that has the same direction as the force and a magnitude that is directly proportional to the force and inversely proportional to the mass, i.e., F = ma

  • (E)motion: An emotional state e, subject to an external force or stimuli F  will undergo a changeaffecting the emotional state in a positive OR negative  direction, depending on the nature of the stimuli.


Third Law: The mutual forces of action and reaction between two bodies are equal, opposite and collinear. This means that whenever a first body exerts a force F on a second body, the second body exerts a force −F on the first body. F and −F are equal in magnitude and opposite in direction. This law is sometimes referred to as the action-reaction law with F called “action” and −F the “reaction.” 

  • (E)motion: When an external force of a positive nature affects the emotional state, the tendency is for the state to continue in a positive direction (attraction). When an external force is negative in nature, the tendency is for the emotional state to withdraw, moving in the opposite direction of the stimuli (repulsion).  However, extreme positive stimuli (coddling) can result in repulsion.  In addition, regardless of positive or negative stimuli, the reaction of the emotional state is NOT equal in magnitude to force placed upon it, as level of emotional response is variable and cannot be predicted with the same accuracy as can a negative or positive response in general.


Clearly, the laws do seem to port over to a degree.  In simple, rudimentary language, one can expect an emotional withdrawal or break at both ends of the positive/negative spectrum; being coddled or berated usually leads to an emotional disconnection.  The sweet spot is where you’d expect it to be, when the subject’s emotions are engaged and inspired, but not in a patronizing or co-dependent way.  So, how does this translate to brand - consumer interaction?  Are brands’ actions generating the desired reaction (informed trial and conversion), or are consumers turning away, frustrated and/or exasperated?

Again, it seems simple, but clearly brands haven’t completely grasped it, as many consistently make the mistakes that cost them the very customer relationships they claim to covet. The rise of social media put brands on notice that they must treat current and future customers as “friends” by having a presence in social networks.  But being there isn’t good enough.  That’s like opening a retail store without any employees.  And unless a brand is prepared to engage and respond in real time, a social presence is a waste of time.  Brands smart and brave enough to communicate online must remember to do so utilizing the proper tone and point-of-view that represents the brand culture and caters to the customer base.  In a perfect world, that tone continues in-store, so the experience is seamless.  Regardless of social engagement [online or in-store], there still is only one chance to make a first impression.  The importance of that brand communication [action] and the customer’s response [reaction] cannot be overstated.  Remember, in the age of social networking, the results of simple interactions are exponential.  Fail a customer and you might not just lose him, but everyone that values that his opinion.

How to do it wrong.

As mentioned earlier, negative emotional reactions and the subsequent withdrawal come as a result of both overly negative and overly positive stimuli.  I think a cursory mention of the obvious, purely negative (poor product and poor service) suffices.  These undoubtedly send the buying public into the arms of any brand’s parity rival.

But what about coddling?  The overly positive-negative. A happy brand message that has the opposite affect than intended.  Yep.  It’s alive and well.  Example? GAP.  

This online and retail store tries too hard to be friendly, has good intentions, but ends up coming off like a needy, possessive boyfriend or girlfriend.  In the store, the sales people approach you like they’re piranha and you’re a baby lamb with a bloody stump out for a quick dip.  How many times have you sent away a third over-eager employee after you mutter, “Nope, I’m still just looking” under your breath?  The full-court press by the sales staff is enough to send a potential buyer out of the store and into a competitor.  

Today, fewer people shop the retail store, preferring to buy online at Gap.com. So you’d think this overly positive-negative issue would disappear.  Nope. The discount/coupon email has become the “it” tool of the co-dependent brand in the retailer - consumer dysfunctional online relationship.  Surely you’ve seen them: “30% off!  But only today.  You’re going to lose your chance!”  Then two days later, “40% off!” It all reeks of a teenage romance: She says, “Call me.”  When he doesn’t, she loses it: “Fine, don’t call me.  I hate you!”  Later that night, his phone rings: “I love you…”  The alternative might be worse; you do take advantage of the 30% off and a few days later the discounts increase.  Now you feel less special.  The upshot is that none of these actions put the brand in a power position; so why would they expect the reactions to be favorable?  Solution: be less desperate.  And give the customers what they want, the way they want it; find them where they can be engaged in an interactive way, rather than just talking at them.  Update: As if gleaned through ESP, the Gap has taken my last point to heart and to market, giving special discounts to those who engage on Twitter, or who check in on Foursquare in selected stores. Bravo. I’m sure GAP employees are still more or less blood-thirsty vampires and I got yet another frantic, fleeting 30% off coupon emailed to me yesterday and a 50% Gap-Groupon today, but baby steps, people.  An interactive, forward-thinking initiative that makes the customers feel special and part of the experience is a great way to start.

How to do it right.

Think great in-store customer service.  For many, especially those from the left coast, the first thought that comes to mind is Nordstrom.  This department store has the reputation of accepting nearly anything for return — even items the store doesn’t carry — just to make the customer happy.  The business has succeeded on the strengths of many pillars, but customer service is the most well known.  Knowing there won’t be a problem if something goes wrong and the item must be returned eases the burden for the consumer (read: makes a purchase more likely.) Now that’s a reputation. Brand rhetoric (action)? “No matter what, you as customer, will be happy.” Customer reaction: Happy, fearless, and most importantly, spending.

But,

Nordstrom’s edge is starting to show it’s age.  Fewer people are going to the physical stores, so there’s less of an opportunity to experience “service with a smile.” Nordstrom runs the risk of losing one of its biggest advantages.  How do they make up for this?  By recognizing that they must adjust their philosophy (just make the customer happy) to a customer who shops in a completely different way than fifteen years ago.  Is her greatest fear still not being able to return something?  Or is it a fear of wasting time searching for an item because the Nordstrom website UI sucks?  What does she really value (enough to pass along as a brand ambassador to those in her social network?)  Roomy department stores with men in black tie playing grand pianos?  Or discounts tailor-crafted for her, contests, and the ability to give feedback that will actually be acted upon?  You want to make shoppers from 1990 happy?  Save them money, shape their experience for them and wait on them hand and foot.  To make today’s shoppers happy, save them time, provide them with the tools to let them shape their own experience and leave them alone. 

Brands will find that providing consumers with additional power in the relationship and maintaining an on-going conversation will garner valuable insights from the very people who keep them in business.  In the best of all worlds, via creative technology and immersive applications and experiences, brands will be able to get this information as close to subconsciously, and certainly as painlessly as possible.  Existing customers are not only the best research groups, but the best employees.  They’re passionate and outspoken, likely know better than anyone else how to improve the products and services they use, and best of all, they’re free.  If nothing else, brands should pursue an action of treating them like good friends.  They’ll react with loyalty.

 

MIR, Year One.

A year.  Wow.  Can’t believe it’s been that long.  Things have moved along so fast in the last twelve months that it’s a bit hard to remember everything that has transpired, and as I do, it’s even harder to encapsulate it all in just one post.  And in what format?  A chronological history, from day one to today?  A detailed account of the strategy behind every step, every choice, every move we’ve made along the way?  It’s a toss-up. I’m going hybrid.  So, hopefully without giving away any trade secrets or boring anyone to sleep, here’s the story of MIR, so far…

Darrell and I met in the early spring of ’09.  On twitter.  Yep, twitter.  (Hey, we practice what we preach).  In California at the time, I was tweeting comebacks and jokes, and getting chummy with some high-level ad people.  Darrell read something I tweeted and hit me up because he needed a writer.  And believe me - holy shit - I needed an art director.  Despite different disciplines, we had a lot in common.  We weren’t long-time admen; my experience was writing TV and movies.  Darrell worked in the music and apparel industries prior to advertising. But we both grew up around advertising, with deep family roots in the ad business.  More importantly, we had complimentary philosophies and a similar work ethic, specifically, we didn’t like talking about doing things.  We just liked to do them. 

So we agreed we’d free-lance on something together.  That project went really well.  So we did another.  Ditto.  Then, when we went to do a third, we got turned away.  “No free-lancers.”  The agency wanted to work with vendors.  So, a visit to GoDaddy.com and ten bucks later, MIR was born.  A strategist friend of ours, Conrad Lisco gave us some work on Sprite and Microsoft.  And we nailed it.  And then the phone started ringing.  And ringing.  We needed more people.  And slowly we grew, adhering to David Ogilvy’s belief of surrounding yourself with giants. Chad Leddy came on as producer, and Daniel Lammon as a strategist.  A meeting with an agency on a global account brought me back to New York City, place of my birth and where I’d always wanted to live as an adult.  Even with the expansion, MIR was lean and mean, building a reputation of doing quality, cutting edge work quickly, from analysis to strategy to creativity to full in-house development and execution.  So we kept getting work.  And now, twelve months later, we’ve worked with every holding company, many of the best agency networks and independents in the world and on behalf of incredible brands, including four of the top ten in US ad spend, who spent over eight billion dollars in the last year.

Sure, there have been difficulties with agencies, and running a company is not always sunshine and smiles; the stress can be very high.  But I wouldn’t trade this last year for anything.  The friends I’ve made are far too numerous to count.  If I were to make a list, I’m sure I’ll forget someone, which would be hard for me to live with.  But I trust you all know who you are and know how much I appreciate your support, trust and friendship.

That’s really the derivation. MIR was a creative entity born out of a little frustration and probably more than a little desperation.  I’d bet a lot of great things were fostered under similar circumstances.

So what about the MIR philosophies? I get asked about these a lot.

Like most things (in my opinion), they’re simple:

  • We care about doing great work and take on clients that expect that level of work from us and deliver their share of the same. 
  • We reserve the right to say no.
  • We stand up and push back for what we think is best for the brand and campaign.
  • We hire people who are smart, creative and charismatic, regardless of the position.
  • We hire people we’d hang with out of the office, what I call “The TV staff writer test”:  I don’t care how good your spec scripts are, if the show producers don’t want to hang out with you for 14 or more hours a day, you’ll never get hired on staff.  Never. 
  • We believe digital and related emerging medias are the only remaining consistent form of advertising that are truly global and that all other channels should revolve around and support them.  
  • We think mobile is the future, and that people should “unlearn” the belief that mobile=cellular phone.  What two of every three people on this planet own and have within two feet of them as you read this is a mobile computer that happens to feature a phone.  It is a delivery system of messages, entertainment, education and utility.  All of which can be provided and/or sponsored by brands.
  • In The Godfather, Michael Corleone said, “It’s not personal; it’s strictly business.”  As it pertains to social media, we disagree.  We believe “Business is personal.”  Brands who embrace this will succeed.  Those who don’t will end up like Santino at the Toll Booths.
  • We still don’t like to talk about doing the work, we like to do it.

Yo Mamma’s so old, she uses an iPad

(as first published on Stuart Foster’s The Lost Jacket)

January 27th.  At some point during that day, you were probably listening to Steve Jobs announce Apple’s latest panacea. 
I have to admit, I was fearful about this new device.  Fearful that it would be yet another thing for which I’d serve a financial life sentence in commitment with Apple for hardware and service.  Still, I tuned in to the reveal of the iPad.  Steve and his minions talked all about what it could and would do, how nothing would be the same again.  And then something wonderful happened; I realized I didn’t need it.

I know there will be dissenters, which is healthy.  But hear me out, at least on my personal reasons.  Digital magazines?  They look great on this thing.  However, I like physical, tangible magazines.  That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t read a magazine on the iPad, but I would never read them exclusively on the iPad.  The device also seems a little cumbersome as a book reader to me; I’d probably opt for a lighter weight kindle.  The video/YouTube capabilities on the iPad are no better than my laptop for out of house viewing and nowhere near as good as my Sony Bravia at home.  The photo organization looks great, if you’re into that.  I’m lazy.  I take tons of pictures and don’t catalog anything.  My behavior will only change when a camera comes out that allows me to orally name the photos as I take them and labels them accordingly-write that down! Apps have new possibilities with the Pad’s bigger screen, most specifically games, but I’ve no time for games out of house and at home, the PS3/Bravia combo has no equal in my mind.

So there it was: I had to reconcile that there might actually be a new Apple product for which I have little to no use.  Then it dawned on me: Who the fuck do I think I am?  We (in the tech and creative sector) think Apple designs, develops and creates just for us.  This is exactly the “world revolves around me” egomaniacal shit that I abhor in others.  We might all be guilty of it here.  Because if you (like I) use an iPhone and a MacBookPro, this thing might not be for you.  Guess what?  There are people other than us.  People who don’t rock what we do in our messenger bags.  People who have computing needs that need to be met and don’t need a fancy laptop, because it’s too delicate, too expensive or too complicated.

So who is this for?  I’ve mentioned students in the past.  I remember lugging 10 books in a bag from Lawrinson Dorm to Newhouse at Syracuse University in the snow.  Having all those texts on an iPad would rule.  You can take notes with the “Notes” app and transfer them to MS Word via email.  Not too bad.  Plus music, video, games.  Alas, I think 18 year olds all would want full fledged laptops, so maybe not.

Little kids?  It’s potentially a computer-learning tool, a first step towards a computer.  And think about how amazing an animated pop-up book might be to a little kid on that thing—integrated video…it could be very cool.  But it’s a big expense for that short of a life span of usage, especially if the kid quickly grows into an iMac.

How about in the workplace?  Remember the iPad is more like the iPhone than a laptop.  By that I mean it’s essentially a shell.  Apps will define what it can become.  It could have tremendous practical applications in the business world.  Think about how many of those “things” UPS drivers carry there are.  You don’t think there can be an application like that for an iPad?  Are you insane?  The screen can become anything, can access any information in the cloud, and can take signatures.  Hello?  I think time will tell if this application finds legs, but I think the possibilities are endless and if developers are only focusing on entertainment rather than utility, they are hunting for gaming treasure and missing the boat already filled with gold.

So what does that leave us with?  In my opinion, it leaves us with the biggest demographic of all.  There are over 40 million people in the United States alone over the age of 65.  Forty.  Million.  Many of them are afraid of computers because they find them too hard to use and complicated.  Have you ever been on the phone trying to talk a parent through a computer problem?  It’s like getting kicked in the nuts during a root canal.  But these people need to be integrated technologically – they can’t just be ignored.  If only there was some…thing that made computer tasks simple.  A computer product that was truly user-friendly and didn’t do too much.  Email and music, perhaps a little video, maybe sort pictures from friends and relatives, surf the net, allow people to read their favorite magazine or book.  40 million potential customers.  That’s a big Twinkie.  And a big demographic, which I’ve dubbed the “late adopter.”  I’m sure I’ll never know if this was one of the prime directives in the iPad’s development, but I can tell you that I’ve heard from several friends that they plan to buy the iPad for a parent.  Because it’s big enough to physically handle without dropping even for clumsy people (as opposed to an iPhone), can be used around the house, and running it will be a snap.  Do you think 65 year olds care about flash?  Multi-tasking?  Nope.  The only thing missing is video chat and a front-facing camera so the grandkids can see Nana.  But Jobs has to save something for iPad 2.0; he has a responsibility to bilk Nana out of her social security.

Social Media: why brands need to be there

Beyond coming up with creative ideas, one of the biggest things I do is sell; I sell my company’s capabilities.  And in many cases, that means selling through a social media plan to brands, or to agencies on behalf of brands.  And along with conveying a need for a social media presence that deals with the positive (reaching and engaging customers, promoting new products and services and introducing new interactive or immersive experiences that further promote the brand and the brand message), there’s also a need to deal with the negative: mitigating problems.

We’ve all heard it and said it: conversations about brands are going on, whether the brand likes it or not.  The idea that a brand would choose NOT to be present, listening, responding to criticism or identifying and correcting false information is beyond foolish; it can be costly.  A bad review of a product or a rant about poor customer service that goes unaddressed makes a brand look out of date, disinterested in its customers, or both.  False rumors that circulate about a brand can spread through digital word of mouth like wildfire.  If circulated by credible people with a large following, it’s a potential crisis.

Last week, I played a part in what I believe to be a microcosm of exactly how a problem like this can develop.  I happened to be trolling around on the Crispin, Porter + Bogusky website, looking at the work (and Alex’s silky smooth hair) when I noticed the title of the most recent article in the CP+B aggregator – an engine that scrapes the net for anything which contains pre-programmed keywords related to the agency.  The article headline was Ad Agency MDC Partners Could Be for Sale, Deutsche Bank Says — Let the Bidding Begin.” Wow, I thought.  I know people at that holding company and some at nearly every agency MDC owns.  Had I been in a coma?  Did I not notice someone previously mention this?  Surely the article had to have been referenced.  I looked at the article date.  It was published that day — possibly moments earlier, especially considering it was at the top of the CP+B engine results.  For a quick moment, the idea that MDC might be for sale – something that I’d prefer not be true – was overshadowed by the fact that I might be the “twitter scooper” in my circle of friends, or followers, a group over a thousand strong, many of whom work in the ad and marketing business.  So I tweeted what I believed to be breaking news and a link to the article.

My tweet was retweeted by a several people, most of whom have over a thousand followers, and the net of potential recipients of the news was quite wide.  The next morning, Miles Nadal, Chairman and CEO of MDC Partners saw the tweet and responded, denying that MDC was for sale.  I retweeted Miles’ response, and so did several others.  It’s remarkable how quickly the spreading rumor was shut down.  I attribute that to two things: the level of credibility associated to someone like Miles (he is the CEO) and the speed with which he responded.  This potential publicity hiccup was birthed, lived and died in less than fourteen hours. AdAge actually devoted a story to MDC’s denial of any potential sale.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t know if MDC is actually interested in selling – I’m not on Miles Nadal’s speed dial no matter how much I’d like to be.  What I do know is that MDC got a lot of publicity for nothing, which isn’t so bad.  The article mentioned how highly regarded MDC is by financial experts who suggested holding companies with even deeper pockets than MDC (specifically Dentsu and Havas) might be circling.  Again, these are not the worst things to have written about your company.  And to be honest, even if they aren’t entertaining offers, I’m sure the phone may ring a few times this week and give Mr. Nadal a taste of who might be interested and how eager they are, measureable on a scale of 60-foot Hatteras to private Carribean island.  By the way, when the article was written, MDC partners stock was at $8.87 a share.  Today it hit $9.00, its 52-week high.

More than anything else, I think this experience is a cautionary tale to brands.  What happened exemplifies how having the right brand representative following or informed about online sentiment is vital.  Being able to identify and respond to false information and rumor is equally important.  What you don’t know can and probably will hurt you. If any brand managers or CMOs think otherwise, there’s a bridge I’m looking at out my office window here in Brooklyn and…well you probably know the rest…

The Outsiders Conspiracy

(Originally posted on September 29, 2009)

I said I’d probably be all over the place with this blog: the advertising business, thoughts on movies and television and general observations, some of which might persuade you to consider petitioning for me to be sent off to a home for the bewildered.

This post I fear may fall into the latter category.  But if I’m not adhering to any rules as far as topics go, I might as well jump all over the place from the get-go.  So, with that in mind, I hereby present the following:

A couple of weeks ago, The New York Daily News ran a feature piece about the stars of the 1983 movie The Outsiders and what some of them are doing now, complete with pictures.  I think the writer completely missed what I’ve believed for a long time but repressed out of fear I might be hushed or taken away to some government facility and never heard from again.  Maybe the Daily News writer had planned to make it a facet of the piece, but was hushed — pressured with who knows what to keep it quiet.  But I can no longer remain silent.  Whatever happens, happens.  At least here is the evidence that may be the paper trail to find me.  I didn’t just vanish.  I was a fly in the ointment and some one high up pushed a button.  See you in the third act when you rescue me.  With that said, I present The Outsiders conspiracy:

I firmly believe that on the set of the motion picture The Outsiders, a scientific discovery was made by one of the stars.  Someone found the fountain of youth.  And that someone shared the discovery with several, but not all of his or her costars.  I suggest that the evidence to support this theory is virtually undeniable, or at least worthy of a long panel-type debate and discussion, with appropriate catering.

My basis for this theory rests primarily on the way several of the stars have aged, or more specifically, how they haven’t seemed to age at all.  Far too many to be a coincidence.  Now, twenty six years later, it’s clear to determine who got invited into the magic trailer for a sip from the fountain:

Winners: Rob Lowe, Ralph Macchio, Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise, Diane Lane, Emilo Estevez.

Losers: C. Thomas Howell, Darren Dalton, Leif Garrett.

Though respect suggests that Patrick Swayze be left out of the discussion, I feel the need to qualify his omission: despite the fact that he didn’t exactly age gracefully before being dealt the worst of cards and ultimately losing his battle with pancreatic cancer, he was born at least 10 years earlier than all of his co-stars.  He is thus exempt from this discussion, as is Francis Coppola, simply got old, Sofia Coppola, who was too young in the film to qualify, and Tom Waits, who arguably may have clinically been dead during some if not all of the filming and various periods of time since.

The question now is, will any of these forever young stars come forward and admit they got a taste of the elixir of life?  Will any of them ever age?  If not, will we see Karate Kid 7: Macchio becomes Miyagi? Rob Lowe in Oxford Blues: Senior Crew and Still Gettin Laid, or how about Matt Dillon in My Geriatric Bodyguard?

Dr. Strangewohl, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love twitter

(Orignially posted on September 23, 2009)

I love twitter.  There, I said it.

I don’t expect you to understand or concur.  Twitter is a different experience for everyone.  I can’t speak for anyone else, only me.  And it feels as if twitter was tailor made for me.

Throwing out comedic comebacks in short bursts and at a frenetic pace?  Coming up with funny conversation starters?  Are you kidding me? That’s how I became the class clown all through school.  That’s how I got writing jobs and sold pitches to studio and network execs in Hollywood.

And at least in my experience in the advertising world, it has been a game-changer.  Why?

There’s such a large presence from the ad community on twitter.  And if you’re trying to make things happen, that translates to Access and Opportunity.

I liken our twitter feeds to a huge restaurant, or cafeteria.  Sometimes I eat by myself; sometimes I’m with a big party (in a conversation).  But what’s great about twitter is that I can be sitting alone and see…let’s say…Ty Montague and Harvey Marco from JWT together at a “table” nearby, having a talk…and I can interrupt their conversation without being rude or intrusive.  Unbelievable.  And there it is: Access and Opportunity.  I don’t care if you’re asking someone at Harvard Business School or a streetwise con what those two things mean.  The hybrid answer?  The tenets of a successful bid-ness transaction, yo.

Access:

Imagine trying to gain access to an ECD or a CCO via the more traditional digital method, a cold email.  Just think about the things that need to happen to achieve the desired result:

  • Need to find the target’s email address (not easy to find, by design)
  • Email must not be spam filtered out (many agencies have filters)
  • Email must get past the target’s assistant (who could easily toss it)
  • Target (who certainly gets 100s of emails a day) has to notice it.
  • Target has to actually to open it, not toss it.
  • Target has to read it.
  • Target has to respond to it.

Feeling me?

With twitter I can just say “Hey, Rob (Schwartz)!” and he essentially turns and looks my way.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  It’s not as easy as that; because it’s not just about access and opportunity.   It’s really about being able to take advantage of those two things.  Because getting someone’s attention is worth nothing if you can’t make an impact.  And this brings me back to the restaurant/cafeteria analogy and the interrupting of the conversations of those you wish to befriend.

Taking advantage of Access and Opportunity:

This is really where twitter leaves off and you begin.  There’s an old saying, “I’d rather be lucky than good.”  When I was a very confident 22, I was always quick to say, “I’d rather be good than lucky.”  I was 22 – what did I know?  When I was closer to thirty, I said, “You know what?  A little luck wouldn’t be so bad.”  The great thing about twitter is it allows you to be both.  The access to the people you want to reach and theopportunity to interact with them is the luck.  Taking advantage of that opportunity by saying (tweeting) something witty, helpful, insightful —memorable, that makes your target take note of your existence?  That’s being good.  Knock it out of the park and you’re in business.

I’m sure this comes as rudimentary for many of the people I follow and who follow me, but there are people I meet with or talk to everyday who don’t yet have a presence on twitter, who “don’t like it” or “don’t get it.”  I think people in the ad game probably get it better than anyone else – we’re in the business of delivering brief communications that make an impact.  But to those in any field who are considering the benefits of twitter, I feel a great need to convey the opportunity that twitter provides.  Unparalleled access to the people you want to reach and an opportunity to have them (even for a brief few seconds) as a captive audience.  Don’t miss out by not taking advantage of the situation.

And if you are part of the ad world — whether agency side or brand side — remember the opportunity you have via twitter.  The cafeteria analogy?  Brands have that brief moment (and everyone’s attention) where they’re essentially standing up and saying, “look at me, and what I have to offer!”  Be careful.  Hit the audience over the head with something too strong, too contrived, too forced and you’ll turn them off – AND once you do that it’s hard — very hard — to ever get invited to the cool kids’ table.  But provide something fun, helpful, interesting and you become memorable, accepted, maybe even followed.  Now, I know my designer and AD counterparts will say I’m putting too much stock in the written word (why shouldn’t I — I’m a writer!), but think about it; though twitter can link to images, rich media, apps — any kind of experience, the communication that starts it all — those 140 written characters are all we have to make that first impression.  So choose your words well.