Lightning Strikes Twice

The 2nd in a series about how big ideas are good for business.

Some ideas are so big that if they work once, surely they will solve other problems, too.

I’m not opposed to recycling ideas for different clients. In fact, a creative director I worked for years ago encouraged it. Now, I hate to think we would commoditize our creative output, but when you’re in the business of generating lots of solutions, you start to see how the same answer can solve multiple problems. This approach saves the agency time and money when the same answer solves multiple problems. But is this good for clients?

Back in my agency days, we landed a plum account, doing national recruitment advertising for Compaq Computers. For younger readers out there, Compaq was swallowed up by HP back in 2002.

Compaq made solid hardware that did nothing flashy, but their products worked well. And all the computers, printers and other bits they manufactured were all a lovely shade of beige. What’s funny is that their industrial design was a mirrored reflection of their own corporate culture. Not a lot of sizzle, not a lot of sexy, but that is exactly who Compaq was looking to recruit.

Our assignment was college recruiting. Because it was a new account for us, one of the bigwig CDs from the New York office sat in on the initial client meetings where strategies were discussed. Since Compaq was local to Houston, it was decided to bring me and my writing partner, David Morris, in on the project to add a little local flavor.

So this jack-wagon from New York calls to brief us. In the meeting with Compaq, it was decided the “theme” for that recruiting campaign would be “water.” Dave and I just looked at each other, rolling our eyes (good thing there wasn’t any Zoom back then). Then Mr. Jackwagon instructed us to not show him any of that trite, predictable, low-hanging-fruit crap — or else! (I don’t recall if he actually threatened us, but we’ll say he did just for dramatic purposes.)

So Dave and I banged our heads together. After some brainstorming, doodling, crying, hand-wringing, fist fights, a few beers and the like, we agreed the coolest thing about “water” had to be Aqua Man, especially pre-Jason Momoa. In fact, we really liked that over-the-top drama from the mid-1960s DC Comics.

For our initial comps, we went to a comic book shop, bought an old Aqua Man, scanned it in and created a story about an underwater superhero who used Compaq technology to defeat the forces of evil. Captain Q was born. No one saw this concept coming. Our CD loved it so much that this was the only idea pitched to Compaq, and they jumped in head first.

I won’t go into all the production details because that is not the point here – and that is an adventure in and of itself – but I have to mention the immense talents of the dearly-departed George Toomer, the illustrator who helped bring our vision to life. Using George’s art, we crafted  messages for mailers, a 12-page comic book, ads, handouts, booths, banners, and all the usual campaign trappings. It all worked extraordinarily well. So much so, the campaign exceeded all projections and goals way ahead of schedule. A big win for Compaq and the agency. A big idea in action.

When I first decided on writing this post, this is where the big idea ended. I was planning on going into excruciating detail about how the Compaq project went. But then I had another idea:

Does lightning strike twice?

Before we go any further, let me clear the air. I’m not above stealing, even from myself. Austin Kleon is right, but I am a professional and do not condone outright copying or plagiarism.

Maybe the big idea is not about the success we had for Compaq, or creating a superhero, but more about using a medium again for another project.

Comic books are surprising versatile. As a medium, you can do just about anything with them because they are both visual and verbal. You can cheat the boundaries of conventional narrative, play with the defined spaces and create entirely new universes. What’s even better, rules and conventions keep getting broken as artists push the boundaries even further. Comics are an amazing art form.

Since most of my work is in the B2B world, seeing comics in a corporate environment can be downright shocking, and the unexpectedness creates both impact and memorability.

*COE = Center of Excellence, PR = Project Request, POS = Point of Sale

While at Sysco, I was charged to come up with a new position that would help the Brand Managers’ push their heavy workloads more efficiently through the design production process. We created a position replicating what the agency world would call an “Account Manager.” Briefly, the role would be like the account executive you’d call at your agency to get your projects knocked out, but for our purposes, this would be an internal position, not outsourced one.

This was not the big idea. How the Account Manager was introduced to the marketing staff was.

What we wanted to do was be able to show the Account Manager in action so that the Brand Managers could see how much easier their lives would be with this person’s guidance.

The initial presentation took the form of a skit, where I played the role of the Account Manager, and four of my peers played various characters who would touch the project as it went through the production process – the client, a coordinator, designer and Quality Control. To support the story, I created a comic book, where each frame described a step in the process.

After the presentation, each member of the staff was given the comic in the form of a puzzle, something colorful and fun that they could keep at their desk as a constant reminder of how the new Account Manager was going to help them.

There was no room for ambiguity. Understanding was crystal clear. A couple of Brand Managers told me this was hands-down the best presentation they’d ever seen at Sysco.

The big idea here is about using mediums differently. There are always opportunities to recycle ideas, turning them into something fresh and new. As these two stories started coming together, it occurred to me: maybe Marshall McLuhan is right – often times the medium is the message.


Good Advertising and Other Sh*t

So other day I am walking down a bike path that cuts through our neighborhood out here west of Houston. I look down just in time to see a small, cylindrical, earthy colored tube. A little less delicately put, it appeared a doogie had performed its morning constitution on the path. Rather than being grossed out, angry or disturbed, the first thought that came to mind was

The world looks mighty good to me
‘Cause Tootsie Rolls are all I see.

I had to laugh.

I don’t know if this ad is still around or not. I have not seen it in some time. But there it is, permanently tattooed on my brain.

This tiny incident made me think a lot about the proclamation that advertising is dead. Maybe it is. When was the last time you heard a jingle, a catch phrase or a line that resonated with you so immediately that in less than the blink of an eye your first thought was brand’s message from long ago?

This begs the question: 40 years from now, will anyone say “Dilly Dilly”? Or worse, will anyone ever utter “It’s your thing. That’s our thing.” Which I’ve heard ad nauseum lately from AT&T. Unlikely.

Advertising, at least the advertising that brought Tootsie Roll to life, is long dead. Yet that same thinking still permeates the agencies that created the AT&T pablum, as they try to make the next break-through, memorable ads. Unfortunately, the results are nowhere near as impactful. Or memorable for that matter.

I believe that advertising is far from dead. In fact, I could argue it is more alive than ever before. So much so that rather than being a nuance that consumers will actively go out of their way to avoid, it is quickly becoming a necessity for business to survive as we get deeper and deeper into the Information Age. What’s disturbing, though, is that with all the necessity, the creative is not there to meet these needs.

Even Apple, who for years, led the way with not only breath-taking technology, but also with innovative ways of talking about it. Their marketing and branding efforts convinced millions to part with small fortunes for their little electronic do-dads. To their credit, they tried to recapture some of their old advertising mojo recently with the animated ad where the girl writes on her MacBook but is too scarred to share her work with the world. But how successful was that ad? Although a sweet, lovely story excelling produced, it vanished as quickly as it appeared, with another AT&T ad, car lot spot or other form of cultural noise eager to takes its place.

Now, to be clear, I am not saying the Tootsie Roll jingle is the pinnacle of advertising excellence. Or is it? Something so simple yet it still resonates decades later, bringing an old brand to the top of mind. That is powerful.

We’re in a tough spot here, gang. The business world is clamoring to reach new customers. Businesses NEED great advertising. There are so many channels, so many opportunities to do great things that can make a huge difference, but it is high time to take the gee whiz out of the technology used to communicate and put it back into the messaging. Where it belongs.


Seen & Noted

How Design Thinking and Employee Experience go hand in hand
Create an environment in which people want to work

Is political correctness to blame for the dearth of great advertising?

Avoiding the Standardization of Imagination

Why the Creative Digital Consultancy Is the Ad Agency of the Future
A new model for a new age

Why You Need to Design Your Design Culture

Marketing And Modesty from the Ad Contarian

Aaron Dignan: Being a Leader Means Giving Up Control
The author and entrepreneur says too many companies are clinging to Stone Age ideas about what it means to lead.

Pretend That You’re An Advisor to In-House Departments by David C. Baker

First Hand — Designer Matt Gardner on overcoming the pressure to be a ‘creative’ creative

How Brands Exploit the Aesthetic of Relevancy
Social media, design, and the meme machine that capitalizes on “wokeness”


The I’s Have It

As this site has been assembled over the years, it has lacked focus.

Although it is a personal website, being that I am one of those people who is strongly defined by their work, it has needed that glue to hold it all together. I’ve been stewing on this for a while and I am finally ready to move forward with a philosophy, a cohesive thought about what I do and what I had to offer the world as a Designer.

I used to think I made logos, ads, movies, websites and other sundry things. That is true. Along with that simplistic view on my work, I have also proclaimed that it’s the act making these things that gets me out of bed every morning — the challenges that keep me interested in the things I do. This has been truly a simplistic way of looking at things and entirely wrong.

So I dove into the deep end. Pulling a Simon Sinek, I asked myself “Why?” over and over again. Much like a scene out of Ant Man and the Wasp, I’ve gone deeper and deeper down inside and found an answer to all those why’s. I was looking for answers that were not about me, why design, and how I can help make the world a little better than before.

Over the past few weeks I have been working in earnest to compile work I’ve created over the years. It now populates this site. Not everything, but numerous pieces that represent this philosophy and shows the world what I actually design:

Identities, Information and Influence.

I’ve looked at a number of other words to describe what I do, but all those words merely describe things. For me, Identities, Information and Influence are not things, rather they are outcomes. These are what I strive for, toil over and pour myself into so that together with my clients we will  make the world a better place.

Not only are Identities, Information and Influence outcomes, this is also a flow. A way of looking at design in total.

Identities are the most basic building block of communication, the starting point to broadcast who you are to the world.

Information design helps people you are trying to reach make better decisions.

Influence is the goal — to encourage change and make it easy to take further action.

This is a simple yet rich view of Design, one which I will continue to explore conceptually within this site and practice with my clients for years to come.


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