5.19.2004

It's not an ad for soap, it's an ad for me!

Advertising is a competitive industry. The past few years, tough economically, have made it even more so.

Couple the scarcity of jobs with the insecurities that come included with being a "creative", and a difficult situation arises.

Part of the agency culture is the discussion of the book.

The book is simply a creative's collection of ads that they've personally worked on. Sometimes the term is actually describing the physical portfolio shown to prospective creative directors, friends, family, women at bars, etc.; but generally it's used to describe a creative's oeuvre, their entire body of work.

The book is the carrot that's dangling from a stick in front of every creative. "Sorry you didn't get a raise this year. At least you got some good ads for your book!"

So, early on in a career, a creative is given the notion that the best thing they can do is get good work in their book - the idea being that someday they'll be able to work in a better agency then they work now, one which will... let them produce a better book... to get to a better agency... to build a better book...

It's another endlessly repeating cycle. We're not allowed to be happy in our current position. We're supposed to constantly be looking outside, elsewhere, upwards, moving from agency to agency.

(And what makes an agency "better" in this scenario? Their stockpile of gold booty, the ubiquitous advertising trophies, or 'hardware' as it's sometimes called, which was addressed in an earlier post.)

So, a creative is left with a mindset that their work needs to benefit themselves foremost. Their sole purpose is to generate ads in the award-winning style, so that they can one day work at an agency that has themselves won awards. Bringing along any "hardware" to add to a future employer's stockpile can, in this model, only improve the situation.

So we end up with creatives feverishly forcing award show style work on every assignment, regardless of the client's needs.

It gets even worse. Paging through an award annual could lead someone to believe that plastic surgeons and neighborhood ethnic restaurants are the most advertising-savvy businesses in the world.

The shame of the situation is that agencies generate the work in advance of even meeting the client, then shop it around until someone bites. If the work ever "runs", meaning if it ever gets inserted into any publications, it's usually in a donated or very cheap placement.

It's work that never gets seen by the public, and benefits only the creatives involved by appearing in their book, and, in some instances, in award show annuals.

So there's a situation created where agencies are hiring creatives not based on their ability to do actual work for actual clients but on their ability to do make-believe work for make-believe clients.

This is like hiring a construction foreman because he's played with legos. Just because they can put bricks together doesn't mean they can build a house.

It's also a disservice to the client, because creatives are constantly trying to present work that features their creative talent more than the product at hand, and the client is expected to pay the agency, who then pays the creative, for the favor.

The sad thing is that some clients seem to also follow this idea that they need to be cool, that the agency is the "arbiter of cool," and the only way to get some cool is to do as the agency says.

5.18.2004

And the award for most awardable ad goes to...

Advertising award shows are a pretty constant topic of discussion around an agency.

While good in concept, the modern award shows are starting to become like the European royal families of old: Exclusive, yes, but inbred; and riddled with sickness.

Now that's a pretty bold statement. There's a definite merit to sharing work, and the idea that the work is curated should mean that there's some sense of taste that can be shared. A person couldn't become a great cook without first tasting great food.

But the problem that seems like it's starting to emerge is that these shows don't feature good taste in general; but instead something very specific.

Award shows like the One Show (still, maybe just because of lack of challengers, considered to be the definitive) arrange for a body of judges to sort through and filter out what they consider the best work from the years entries.

But who are the judges, and what are their criteria?

Overwhelmingly, the first credential for a One Show judge is the number of One Show trophies - gold colored, fat little pencils, which could hardly be a more symbolic shape - a judge has themselves won.

So this means that a One Show judge is qualified to be on the jury because they have in the past produced the kind of work that a One Show judge is likely to select.

Don't bother reading that part again because it won't make any more sense the second time.

In computer programming, it's called recursion. It's the snake that's eating its own tail.

If the judges are selected on their taste, but that taste is defined as liking things that such a judge would like, what kind of work is going to be selected by a One Show judge? One Show style work, of course.

So what's this mean? It's starting to seem like it means that this idea -that taste can be awarded by a body of judges, the so-called "arbiters of cool" - is only going to constantly be rewarding the same type of work it's been rewarding, forever, on and on.

The judges themselves readily admit it. The heartiest praise that can be given, and is given, over and over, in the "judges choice" section of the annuals:

"I wish I'd done it".



So, what's the motivation to buy the show's annual book, if it's the same type of work shown, year after year?

Better yet, what's the point in entering the show? To show how closely one's work can match that of the previous year's winners?

It's as if the One Show has decided that it's a tuning fork in the note of D minor, and to hell with the rest of the other notes. Sing our tune, or be forever off key.

So, this of course has obvious benefits to the One Show community. It can propogate their ideas, benefit them perhaps with an increase in business, and create the impression that their certain style of work is more correct.

But the flaw, and the bit of reasoning that we're all supposed to not reason, is that advertising is first done for clients, not awards, and not all clients need One Show style work.

One Show style advertising works great for the fifty or so clients that show up in the annuals, year after year. But what about the other 99% of good advertising - the stuff that connects consumers with products, connects businesses with customers, and that enriches, enlightens, delights, and informs in spectacular and myriad ways?

Is it just not any good?

And if we measure an ad creative's talent by the amount of awards they've won, are we doing our clients and our agencies a disservice?

Vittles

Sometimes things are easier to understand when we look at them from outside of our frame of reference. A football game would seem completely chaotic, violent, and senseless from the line of scrimmage, but from up in the Goodyear we can see the plays being run and follow the ball, and, to some people, it seems to make some kind of sense.

Metaphors are a good way to change one's reference, and to see in full something one is too close to see in anything but fine detail.

So, since we're so close to advertising, let's use a metaphor to explain things in more broad terms. Cooking is actually pretty similar in a lot of ways to advertising. It's a combination of art and science. And a good ad has a lot in common with a good dinner - it's well balanced, satisfying, and pleases the senses.

Maybe we can use it in an ongoing fashion to help us understand advertising a little bit more clearly.

Why this is even necessary.

The thought versus feeling debate also splits ad creatives into two camps.

Some people feel that advertising is like sex: talking about it will ruin it, and you're either good at it or you're not. It's best to play it by ear.

Some people think that advertising is more like chemistry - different elements will come together to combine in different ways. Some will react, some will be inert. But there's a science and a method to it that can be solved.

In the end it's probably like golf. Good form and club selection will give you consistency, but in the end its instinct and the wordless connection between the mind and the muscles that gets a golfer under par.

So, we can talk here about form and strategy, and it definitely helps, but instinct and coordination will only come from practice and experience.

It's cool to not work.

An idea has been going around that goes something like this:

When you really break it down, anyone can do what we do. Anyone can have a good idea and make an ad. So ad people are really just becoming arbitrators of cool.


So what does this even mean? Dictionary.com helps out a bit.

arbiter: One who has the power to judge or ordain at will: an arbiter of fashion.


So it seems like the idea is that, people buy things that are cool, and that, as "creatives", we've given ourselves the power to decide what is cool, and then, by waving that power over a product, we can influence people to buy it.

So then, maybe what this is saying is that advertisements don't have to, and probably shouldn't, do any work for the client other than make them cool. Maybe ads shouldn't include any product benefits. Maybe ads don't even have to be about the product at all.

This kind of thought works in the favor of creatives in more than a few ways.

Cool is a fleeting sensation. As an example, as of May, 2004, the iPod mini from Apple is considered cool. It has its own momentum of consumer interest which stretches the iPod's appeal beyond its usefulness: all it does is play songs. And the Mini's usefulness is actually less in comparison to the first generation iPod. It stores fewer songs. But the first generation iPod, only a few years old, already seems to be considered very, very uncool.

So this seems like it creates a constant refresh cycle; an agency must constantly work to re-apply "coolness" like a fresh coat of paint.

A counter example might be the ubiquitous Sharpie marker, from Sanford. While Sanford may try to tinker with the basic premise to generate some fleeting consumer interest, its original Sharpie will probably still sell in high volume. It's story never changes: It makes a permanent black line on almost anything. So a Sharpie marker may never be cool, but it's still a great product and one Sanford is glad to make and sell. And Sanford has probably made more money from Sharpie Fine Point Markers than Apple will make from it's current generation of iPod mini. But it's probably not a great account for an agency because it doesn't need that constant re-injection of cool.

So then what, in the end, is more important? Short lived fame, or long lasting repute?

I think I feel that my thoughts are more important than my feelings.

Purely for the sake of an example, let's look at this upcoming presidential election. Current polls have both candidates neck and neck. A person could get the feeling that no matter what happens, 40% of people will vote for one guy, 40% of people will vote for the other guy.

If you ask these people, it might turn out that one group would say something like,

"The guy I want to vote for seems like a good guy. He speaks from his heart and he does what he knows is right. He has good values,"

and the other group would say,

"I think this candidate has a good platform, and he's got policies that I think will be good for the country and good for me in the long run".

A felt decision versus a considered decision.

Do people generally fall into one of these two camps? Is it a fair way to divide up the population?

"I go with my gut."

"I think things through and do what's prudent."


At a restaurant, some people might order what they feel like eating, some may order what they think will be a good value. Do we choose different times to use either type of choosing? Is that decision active, meaning are we aware of it? Is it imprinted from birth?

Can we use advertising to influence which kind of choosing people will use when it comes to our product? Should we?

I'm not much smarter than you don't think I am!

You're going to notice that a lot of ads seem like they are tailor-made so that only someone dumber than you can appreciate them.

After that you're probably going to start thinking that it's done out of simple hubris: "I can figure this out, sure, but there is no way Joe Pukepail on the street is going to be able to understand it. Let's dumb it down."

That's certainly not far from the truth, but the actual issues at play are probably a little bit more complex.

It's probably not completely off the mark to make an assumption at this point: No one is setting out to make bad advertising. People aren't sitting around on a pile of money trying to burn through it as quickly as possible.

So where are these dumb ads coming from? What's causing them?

From the start.

I've titled this website "adbetise". Dictionary.com tells me that betise is a synonym for folly. It's the kind of thing I'm going to be writing about: folly in advertising. While the entire concept of advertising is certainly in itself a form of folly, we're going to have to accept as our premise that there might be a way of approaching the foul practice with a hint of wisdom and of good judgement.

We're going to have to accept that it's possible that a dollar spent on advertising can in fact be a dollar well spent. We're going to have to operate under the assumption that businesses, in their current form, exist; that consumers, in their current form, exist; and that it is conceivable, within the vast reaches of the universe, to attempt to bring the two of them together without making oneself entirely spiritually bankrupt.

We accept this premise in the same way that we accept war, that we accept poverty, starvation, material excess, and the lack of good programming on network television.

It's what we've been handed, and it's our lot to make the best of it.