Friday, 27 March 2015

Every Ad is Someone’s Baby

A colleague said that to me the other day. It’s important to remember sometimes, when you take a break from the trench warfare that is agency-client relations, that your co-workers aren’t just people doing a job. Whatever your role in an agency, your work is your baby. Still more so as a designer or copywriter. Every line and placed graphic is part of your personal validation, evidence of your ability. And for it to be questioned and picked apart by those around you is no easy thing. You really do have to work to have a thick skin, because your work is both inherently personal and inherently vulnerable.

And that’s a good thing. It would be easy to dismiss what I’m saying as just the prissiness of artistes, self-obsession, unnecessary touchiness. But that’s what makes for great work. Great work, at any level, at any level of ‘importance’, demands personal commitment. If you can’t care, you can’t work – as I’ve said before, if you can’t bring yourself to care, why would your audience?

So care, and fight, and rage against those who want to change what you’re doing. And bend, and compromise, and conciliate. Because those twin impulses are what advertising is about – creativity plus corporate. Practical art.

And as an account handler, with a foot in both the client and the creative worlds, respect your client, certainly. But also respect your creative partners. Because they are the key to making the work that you really want to be a part of. And the ads that you are making are their babies.

A little care and attention goes a long way.

Don't Be Defensive

This is another anti-ego post.

It’s easy when you’re throwing ideas around to become fixated on your own positions and thoughts at the expense of everyone else’s. This is true whether it’s for a pitch or a campaign execution, or whether you get Nandos or KFC for lunch.

(For the record, the correct answer is of course Nandos.)

The point is, if you argue your point, and you’re still out-voted, you have to be able to accept it. Even if you’re the boss – one of the best skills in leadership is knowing how and when to give way, even to subordinates.

And sometimes it isn’t even about outright rejection of your ideas. It can simply be becoming defensive when your ideas are questioned or challenged or tweaked. You can’t defend your original vision to the death.

The most important thing in all this is to remember that your colleagues are competent. Sounds obvious, but in the heat of the moment it’s easy to unconsciously behave as though you’re the only person capable of good ideas. Which isn’t generally a popular or safe opinion to express.

And with that established, you have to then understand that if your ideas aren’t the ones that win out in a discussion, there are two options: First, that you need to step back and work out how to express your ideas in a better, more engaging way, or second, that maybe, just maybe, your ideas weren’t all that effective in the first place. And that perhaps it’s just possible that you only believe that they are great ideas because they are your ideas.

Food for thought.

Although for the record all my ideas are the best ideas.

Intermarché and Ugliness as a Virtue

This is a slightly older campaign to talk about, but if you haven’t already heard about the Intermarché “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables” campaign by Marcel in France, you should really check it out.

It’s a very simple idea at its heart: promote the sale of ugly vegetables, in order to save money and resources for Intermarché, and for its customers. The less appealing produce was sold alongside the standard fare – except clearly marked at 30% off the normal price. Obviously this was quite an easy sell in a way, as everyone wants to be thriftier in the current climate, and it appeals to our environmental side as well.

More to the point, it was a witty, fun campaign, and captured the imagination. The campaign ran with jokey slogans about the produce which underlined the fact that, ugly or not, this was still good food that doesn’t have to be wasted: “An ugly potato makes beautiful mash”.

Intermarché is an up-and-coming brand, a plucky outsider, and this helped establish it as a brand that cares for its customers. 13 million people saw the ads for free on social media, and it wasn’t just a viral phenomenon; sales have gone up 24% since the campaign began.

And think about it from an image point of view. Ugly may be ugly. But it also conveys honesty, straight talking, and trustworthiness. Think Oliver Cromwell and his portrait, warts and all.

Who wouldn’t trust the brand that places value and quality over skin deep, superficial prettiness?

It’s a genius bit of insight.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Taking Things to Heart

This too shall pass.

You’ll find throughout your career that you have good moments and bad moments.

(I know! I was surprised too.)

Consistency is of course a good thing to strive for but it is never going to be a reality. You are human after all (I hope). So there will be highs and lows, great successes and the odd abject failure. And of course everyone around you is human too, so even if it’s only a minor failure in real terms you can find that it is treated by others as piss in their coffee.

Here’s my point:

Don’t take it to heart.

Neither the good nor the bad. Enjoy the praise and the accolades when you get them. Learn from the mistakes and the blame. But don’t dwell, don’t be complacent, don’t think of your character as being comprised of these moments.

You’re not defined by the past but by the present. Jumping for joy over last week’s performance review can lead you to fall right into a pit. And obsessing over an error-strewn Excel sheet can blind you to a new opportunity waiting for you. So look forward, not back.

Don’t misunderstand me – it’s natural and normal to feel down when things go badly, and to feel invincible when things go well. But be mindful, because scientists have found that the leading cause of 78% of screw ups is the belief that you finally know what you’re doing.

A career is a winding road of ups and downs. Just have the patience to see that nothing is permanent, good or bad. The sooner you can adjust to that, the faster you can react and respond, and avoid the traps of complacency or dejection.

Defeat and victory are both impostors. The true goal is just to keep learning.

There is Nothing Wrong with Selling

There’s an ad campaign going around in London, of various images sent in by people with the tagline “#beframeus”. Every time I read it I read “be fram-e-us”. And it annoys me. When I get home I’m going to try to find out what this campaign is all about. Because that is all the information given.

And that’s the problem. Sure, I’m going to make the effort (hopefully, unless I forget because I might have better, more interesting things to do), but I don’t really want to. And most other people I imagine don’t want to either.

“You cannot bore people into buying your product.”

Too many advertisers try to be overly clever with their campaigns, to make it a puzzle, to make it a mysterious pathway of content to carry the audience forward.

That would be nice if the audience were watching every ad in a row like a movie. But we don’t. We watch piecemeal – we watch at random. You can’t assume anything about how much the audience has seen. Of course you don’t want to patronise the audience. But don’t force them to do research to understand what you’re doing.

Too often this byzantine form of advertising is done because we’re afraid that our audience hate advertising, and want to have some kind of organic content experience. I’m not quite sure what that even means. But here’s the point.

You can’t be afraid of selling the product. Don’t hide behind clever lines and “guerrilla” advertising that is so guerrilla that it lives in a part of a jungle that no one has ever visited.

If you have a point to make, make it.

I don’t give a shit about #beframeus. Tell me what you want me to buy.

(Having looked it up it seems to be JCDecaux' new editorial content feature. So I guess in the end it doesn't matter that no one knows or cares about it, since the target is so small anyway.)

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Strongbow is Selling Itself on the Basis of Quality and I am Confused

You may well have seen the spot by now. It’s no longer particularly new. A TV ad highlighting the seasonal nature of cider apple growing, and the care and attention that goes into making Strongbow cider.

And I’m confused. Because Strongbow isn’t known for quality. It’s known for being cheap, plentiful, and not particularly nice. There’s a reason people mix it with squash. And that it’s one of the main ingredients of snakebite. I have no beef with Strongbow. But it isn’t known for quality.

(Although interestingly in Australia Strongbow is branded as an English heritage product. Cutesy images of trees and apples and everything.)

The point is, there are other ciders, even mass market ones like Magners, which place their quality and care as a key selling point – and it’s believable because they are actually quite nice.

So why is Strongbow going down this route for its advertising? We can only assume that they feel a need to aim for a more mature audience.

After all, Strongbow ads have traditionally been very strong, playing on humour and funny scenarios – exactly the kind of thing to appeal to a younger class of drinker, who wants something cheap but also wants a brand that seems to understand and care about their sense of humour. But perhaps that market is under threat by own brand supermarket offerings, which are much cheaper and taste about the same. Advertising can only trump cost to a point.

That there is one of the most interesting market developments of the last few years. Many value range branded goods are suffering from the competition of cheaper supermarket-made alternatives.
(It’s probably worth an article of its own. I’ll have a think.)

But here’s the main point: if you see an advert that looks odd, seems unusual or out of tone for a brand, start thinking. Why is it there?

Quite often, the answers are more easy to reason out than you think.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Rapid Remarketing with Berocca

Berocca is a well-known alka seltzer-type vitamin tablet.

(Those are sometimes known as effervescent tablets. Advertising!)

It has an ad that’s been running for a little while now, showing a guy detailing all the things he has to do today that mean he needs Berocca. It’s a nice, fun little ad that does a good job of outlining why you need this product and how it helps you.

But that’s not what’s interesting about it. What’s interesting is how blatantly it is acting as a moment of remarketing and repositioning. Because the beginning of the ad shows the star’s friend coming up and remarking that he must have had a big night.

Berocca has a reputation for being a hangover remedy. I can’t vouch for its effectiveness but that is the name it has for itself. That’s all well and good but clearly to Berocca it’s too limiting a label. And so, quite obviously to anyone with an ear open, Berocca is rebranding: not just for hangovers.

In just a couple of seconds Berocca acknowledges its reputation, and then declares that it is so much more. It’s so fast you barely notice, but it’s an open, rapid remarketing. And it is very effective.

And that’s it. I just found it interesting.

Personal Selling from Crowdcube

Here’s another nice, simple sell from a brand – a series of ads on the Tube right now. Crowdcube is an investment company (I know, from the name I would have guessed communal box sharing), and their big selling point is that they allow you to pick and choose investments and personally support new up-and-coming businesses, some of which are featured in the ads.

There are small-scale breweries, storage space companies – the list goes on. The key values in all this are choice, and personal connection. And it’s a good way to market investing. It’s an area that too often has the air of corruption, high living and immorality. So why not inject a little personality and humility to it?

Each ad gives you a feel for the businesses featured, an idea of their personality, and why their individual traits might make you, the reader, connect with them. And that’s the most important aspect, and the most apt for the current market.

We see everywhere now the economic power of the small scale. Not because of efficiency, or expertise, at least directly. But because people have come more and more to value a personal connection to products and services.

It’s why craft beer is exploding. It’s why artisanal coffee shops are a thing. It’s why Innocent Smoothies tell you where their fruit comes from and make the growers the heroes of their ads. It’s why supermarkets tell you which farm raised your chicken.

And it’s why Crowdcube wants you to have a personal connection to your investments.

After all, it works on KickStarter. The world of investing blew wide open with that little idea. Investing becomes not just easy, but filled with emotion and choice.

And it seems to be what we want.

And contrary to popular opinion, advertising isn’t about telling you what you want.

It’s about finding out what you want, and giving it to you.


#TheDress and Jumping on a Trend

We’ve all heard of the #thedress phenomenon by now. A dress the changes colour depending on how you perceive it. Psychologically it’s very interesting. But what’s just as interesting from our perspective is the reaction of various brands and agencies to it – and what that says about the state of advertising.

First off, the creator of the dress (Roman Originals) has now released a white and gold version to mirror the original blue and black – capitalising on the moment and making use of the viral nature of the meme to create a (perhaps brief) trend. Since the meme began their sales have skyrocketed.

Meanwhile across the web various brands have referenced it, if nothing else to continue to be part of the conversation and engage their followers. (Again, social media is as much about keeping afloat as about getting ahead.)

Another interesting example is the Salvation Army spot by South African agency Ireland/Davenport that played on the meme to make a serious point about domestic abuse. It shows a model wearing the white and gold dress while covered in bruises, with the copy “Why is it so hard to see black and blue?” This ad actually was generated within the agency before searching for a charity to associate with – which if nothing else is a rebuke to those who say that advertising has no soul to it.

There’s a broader point to all of this. In a world of memes and trends and viral events, it can seem that advertisers are a bit passé, a bit out of step. The reality couldn’t be more different.

What advertising does is to ride the waves of trends and new events, to defend brands from risks and pitfalls. It also gives the opportunity, as with the S.A., to capture a moment and produce something that cuts through by speaking to people in a way that makes them listen at that moment – that is contextually relevant. After all, advertising is all about communicating with people in a way that engages with them.

Certainly the media world is changing beneath our feet. But while the medium and the method may change, advertising will always exist. Because advertising is not reliant on bricks and mortar. Advertising is about communication, and about communicating ideas. That is the core, and as long as you communicate it, you’re in advertising.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Social Media is Different

This is more of a memo to those on the client side.

I get it. We get it. Social media is scary. It’s fast-paced, risky and unpredictable. You just want to have nice organised initiatives with clear goals, and obvious start and end points.

But social media doesn’t fit those rules. And we all have to learn that. Because effective social media is never going to fit into neat calendars with pointed dates and transitional movements from campaign to campaign. Because it’s social. And it doesn’t need your content. You have to prove to people why they should like, comment, share and subscribe.

There’s a well-known joke that using social media for free means that the people using it are the product for sale. There’s a lot of truth to that. But we’re a living product and we do determine our behaviour.

And social media is, well, social. Brands which post at particular times and respond in particular ways don’t tend to be that popular. Because good social media doesn’t just mean knowing your audience, it means understanding them and empathising with them. Having a genuine conversation with them.

So enough with the Turing test, brand approved, signed-off, squared-off model. Social media is about the genuine – so let it be a real conversation.

You might find that people like you more as people than as a company.

The Interesting Product Trilogy Part 3

It seems I can’t leave this topic alone.

This is more just a clarification of the underlying point of the previous two posts on motivation and the justification for advertising.

Why do you need to work to advertise boring products?

Why waste money advertising the mundane?

Both of those questions are themselves begging the question. What makes a product boring?

Boring is subjective. That is the issue that too many people don’t understand. What makes great advertising is not the ability to make something boring into something interesting. It’s the ability to make anything interesting. Because boring is not a meaningful term for a product. Boring is a limitation that we work around.

After all, what makes flowery smells exciting? Why do ads about fermented grain fill us with glee?

Beer is not a fun product just because it makes you drunk. That’s a leading factor, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Products are interesting because we decide they are interesting. Sure, we are human. We have biases and tendencies. But ultimately our defining trait is our sociability. That is to say, our ability to change opinions and behaviours based on what others around us believe – or even simply what we think that they believe.

The point is, when dealing with dullness it’s important to remember that dull is not a scientific concept. It’s a human one. And you only have to be limited by it as far as you want to. Or as far as your abilities allow you to stretch it.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Why Advertising?

What’s so great about advertising? What interests you about it? It’s an industry that comes in for a great deal of flak. Advertising is to a lot of people a shorthand for dishonesty. For superficiality. For the soulless materialism which, it is alleged, is consuming our world. Obviously I disagree with that assessment. I hope you do as well. But why choose advertising?

I’ll tell you my first impulse towards it. I enjoy self-expression. Be it writing, or talking, or any other form of creativity. Communication interests me.

But it’s always been drilled into me that you have to be practical. It’s not enough to be artistic because the world is full of artists big and small. So use it in a way that can also sustain you, in a sustainable way.
Hence, advertising. Creativity, but corporate.

That’s a bit unsatisfying as an answer though. I think there’s more to it than that. Because I don’t see advertising as just caged artistry. Advertising is practical art.

What I like about advertising is that it’s all about expressing ideas in the most engaging way possible – and it’s like any kind of art form in that regard. Maybe it’s a bit idealistic to say that adverts are a form of art. But both are essentially about communicating ideas.

In advertising the idea is often pre-determined. Perhaps “sell more toilet cleaner” is not enough of an artistic impulse. Perhaps that disqualifies it from being “real” art. But Renaissance painters weren’t obsessed with the purity of their work. Trust me, they really weren’t. Art wasn’t respected in the same way back them. So they did most of their work to order. It wasn’t art for art’s sake, just a way to make a living. Art was an industry – with clear standards, competition, and a vicious love of gold. It still resulted in some of the greatest works in human history.

(There’s at least one post to be written about Renaissance art and advertising. It will come.)

In any case, the execution of the ideas is where so much of the interesting work lies anyway. An idea is important. But ideas change as you express them.

Moreover, with advertising, unlike other art forms, there’s a clear way of finding out how well you’re expressing those ideas – in the commercial success of your advertising. You learn quickly how best to communicate to your audience. It’s art with energy, art with focus, art with fight.

So there it is. I like advertising because I like art, and I’m interested in communicating ideas. And advertising is like art after a couple of Jaegerbombs.

Being Bright is Not Enough

A lot of my compatriots (read: competitors) trying to come up the rungs – or just get on the ladder – in advertising have a flaw. I know because I also have it. A belief that you are smarter than everyone else. That you don’t have to work as hard. That it can all be effortless for you.

That thought is your single biggest enemy.

It makes you lazy, it makes you superficial. And it makes you lose.

Contrary to popular opinion – and as I’ve said before – good ideas are not that rare in the world of advertising. And smart people are not some rare commodity.

Being smart is not enough.

Even if you truly are an exceptional brain, you have to work to get ahead. No one wants to pay for how gifted you are inside your head if you can’t translate that into results in the real world.

So what’s the real answer?

Being thorough. Being really thorough. Being so thorough it’s boring.

Being thorough is not sexy. But it’s the only way to do well consistently. I had a great teacher at a past agency who drilled into me the difference between good work and great work – not raw cleverness and sneaky ideas, but being thorough.

It might be the single most important quality to learn for any junior member of an agency.

Why? Because it’s the ability to anticipate and fix problems before they become problems. It’s recognition of the need to be humble, to go the extra mile, to support the team. It means always being prepared; to be an expert in any subject on demand, not just willing to do extra research but actively pursuing that knowledge.

From my own experience, I can say how important this is. I used to be nervous about speaking in front of people.

(I mean I still am, but I used to be too.)

I found a way to get past that fear though, and actually present with very little nervousness. How? The 11 Ways of Being a More Effective Speaker Through Yoga? No. Being prepared. Why would you be afraid of speaking, of questions, of making mistakes, when you know the answers? When you’re completely prepared it really limits your ability to mess up.

You might think you’re a good speaker – and that you can freewheel enough to get away with any lapses. You can’t. You will get found out. And there are far fewer second chances in business.

Here’s a strange – but fitting – analogy. Thoroughness is like the difference between flowers in a vase and a flowerpot. Both look good, but only one has lasting power. You need a strong base of hard work and dependability in order to do the exceptional.

It’s nice to be brilliant. If you can combine that with consistency you’ll be on to a winner.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Urgent Appeal for Two BMWs

I’m writing this on the train. Right in front of me are two advertising posters. Both of them are by cancer charities. Both are trying to raise money.

The headline on the first reads: “Urgent Appeal for Macmillan Nurses”.

The headline on the second reads: “Win £40,000 or two BMWs”.

The picture on the first is of a nurse in uniform.

The picture on the second is of the aforementioned cars, some cash, and a photo of a beach holiday.

It’s genuinely difficult to know what to think about these two posters.

It’s certainly rare that you come across an advert that is so crass and poorly done as the second of the two. I’d be interested to find out which was more successful at raising money. I mean supporting nurses is nice but two BMWs are hard to resist.

It’s just such a strange study in contrasts. One is a thoughtful, targeted appeal to help a charity support patients. The other, as far as you can tell from the ad, is essentially a raffle which happens to be going to a cancer charity. Except the ad is clearly from the charity itself.

The cynics might suggest this is pure advertising – that this is what you get when you trust advertisers with a sensitive subject like cancer. Crass, self-interested, superficial.

I disagree.

The first poster is the one which is a product of good advertising. An agency probably had a hand in it. There is a thought process involved. The second is the product of people who have no idea about what advertising is about.

If you couldn’t tell that from their respective production values (and you can), you can certainly tell it from their differing outlooks.

The second poster treats its audience as though it thinks they are selfish – that you can only be persuaded to help the sick through the chance for personal gain. That the passengers on this train are all vain robots, with nary a shred of interest to be had unless you dangle a picture of the Bahamas in front of them.

Sure, in my case that’s true, but I’d like to think that I’m the exception.

Joking aside, that second poster does seem like an aberration, a strange outlier of advertising. And it is the point I made before that I think is significant. Both of these ads are for a noble cause: raising money for people suffering from cancer. And yet that isn’t enough by itself to make their case. One side clearly determined that they needed to make a call to people’s emotions. The other, that it was all about money. I think most of us would agree which is the more appropriate, and the most effective.

But it is the work of advertising to make these things happen. If you think you can market your ideas on your own, you are welcome to do so. But the odds are that you aren’t a natural advertiser. Get help from the experts.

Because even the best of causes needs to be communicated properly.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Why Put Toilet Bleach on TV?

Why waste money advertising things that just aren't interesting? 
These days people have a myriad of ways to tune out and turn off advertising for things that don't interest them. So there's a legitimate question to ask about the reasons for advertising the mundane.
This piece is effectively an extension of one of the thoughts behind my last post - why after all should consumers buy into things we don't buy into ourselves?
Sometimes it does have to be conceded that there are certain products and circumstances in which money spent on advertising is no longer worth the candle. It certainly may be the case that television is ceasing to be a worthwhile medium for more humdrum products. But that is not to say that advertising for them needs to be abandoned.
There is though a very important point here, which is that with TV ad effectiveness dropping, advertisers for less “sexy” products have to innovate a lot further than most to keep getting their message across.
This can manifest in highly creative art direction, which can act independently of TV and instead work with lower cost formats such as out of home or print (to further this point there are some great recent examples collated at After all, in some ways the obvious solution to a less interesting product is to use your creativity to render it more interesting.
But equally, you can go what we might call the "Ogilvy" route, putting emphasis on facts and figures to drive home trust in products - and this is something that print and social media can do well, by capitalising on the higher dwell time and a broader scope for longer copy. Most especially with social media, that dwell time gives the opportunity to build a rapport with your audience, to build personal connections that just aren't possible in other media types. The power of that kind of personal connection is exactly the response we can give to those who would argue for the death of FMCG advertising.
The truth is that if so-called "boring" products can’t be advertised, nothing can. The heart of advertising is convincing people to buy into not only the product, but also the brand behind it, building a relationship between brand and customer. If the message is good, and the relationship is maintained, engagement will follow.
That is as applicable to toilet cleaner as it is to Toyotas.

Be Enthusiastic About Vitamin Supplements, Improved Wifi, and Enamel Flooring

This is another post about good qualities for an ad person. In this case though this is a quality that is not just for juniors but applies throughout your career (as far as I can tell).

Be enthusiastic about everything you work on. Even if its objectively boring. As with a lot of these articles the point sounds strange but is also very obvious. You need to be able to find enthusiasm in everything, be it a pan with a new innovative handle, or a slightly improved formula for cake mix.

Now this might sound like I’m just advocating for a glassy smile to make the client happy – I’m not. Being respectful and saying the right things to the client is something you should already know. I mean, come on reader. Get your head in the game.

What I’m saying is you have to find some genuine enthusiasm. Not for the client’s benefit directly. But for the benefit of you, and your work. We all know that we do our best work when we’re enthusiastic about the work we’re doing. But why limit your enthusiasm to the times when you get to work on a beer account or an exciting jewellery brand? Sure, those are a little more obviously interesting. But someone who can only summon up their best work when they get what they want is never going to be more than a mediocre account handler. And you don’t get the great accounts by showing yourself to be unequal to the task when it comes to the more mundane ones.

Let me give an example. This is actually from the creative side. I had a creative director at one of my past agencies who could be enthused by anything. He got excited describing the qualities of a new corporate wifi outlet that one of our clients was releasing. In most other industries having his level of enthusiasm for marginally better wifi would be considered a mild form of delirium. But this is one of the most respected creative directors in the UK. You don’t get to the top through disinterest.

So what does this translate to in the day to day? Simply, it means having a genuine curiosity about life, and about what is going on around you. I hope you do have that (you probably shouldn’t have chosen advertising as a career if that isn’t the case). You have to be able to find a reason to work harder, care more, and take an interest in everything that goes on around your account.

David Ogilvy talked about this, that if your client is a petrol supplier you should spend your weekends at petrol stations talking to drivers. You can’t advance without having the will to learn more.

"Most of the young [people] in agencies are too lazy to do this kind of homework. They remain permanently superficial."

Frankly, it’s a lot easier to do that kind of research and active listening now than it was in his day. Even just searching Google for news once in a while is enough to make a big difference. But you have to be willing to make that effort. And curious enough to keep making the effort even when it eats into your ‘free’ time.

Advertising is the art of driving people to care about goods which often have very little natural emotion pull. How can you possibly succeed in that if you can’t even drive yourself to care about them?