Damn Yankees

The offending image, as seen in my Twitter feed.

Sometimes I just don’t understand media.

Last week an ad broke in which images of New York Yankee ballplayers were “printed” in the foam of beers for an advert. Major League Baseball quickly put the kibosh on the ad citing it was in violation of their standards. So the ad got pulled. As Seth and Amy used to say… Really?

The banned image is all over the place. Social media, spotlighted on trade sites and will come up in a Google search without even trying.

In this day and age, why bother having standards? Do they even matter any longer?

If something is controversial in any way, it is bound to get picked up by a media outlet and blasted everywhere. And being online, it might just live from now until doomsday.

Similarly, the latest issue of Cosmo got banned from Walmart, yet that cover is plastered everywhere. Do rules designed to protect young people and those easily offended stop any of this from happening?

How effective are those standards now?

The Seven Most Hated Words in Advertising

Hate is a powerful emotion and should not be bandied about lightly.

You reserve hate for things like Hitler, terrorism or Brussel Sprouts. But you may also reserve the right to hate the following seven words when spoken by your client:

I’ll know it when I see it.

When you are presenting new creative work and at the end of the presentation you hear these seven words spoken in the ensuing discussion, run, don’t walk, and get as far from this client as possible. When these vile words (all of which are innocent enough individually) are strung together when reviewing work, the outcome is almost always deadly.

Generally speaking, “I’ll know it when I see it” means your client has no idea what they are doing, no clear direction and that makes them unwilling to commit to anything. How can they commit to an idea when their decision will make something that has been abstract suddenly become concrete?

The consequences of working once “I’ll know it when I see it” has been put on the table are as follows:

  1. You iterate until the client sees “it”. Which is fine if you are charging by the hour, but if you you are working on a fixed price, you just lost all hope of turning a profit on this project.
  2. You will turn yourself inside out trying to hit the target from every possible angle. This can be a positive thing, right? It is good to stretch yourself, but ultimately no. You have a good many talents, but good telepathy is probably not one of them.
  3. You will second guess yourself to the point of madness. Shattering your confidence in your abilities is disastrous.
  4. If you’ve read previous ramblings I’ve posted, you know how I feel about stress. “I’ll know it when I see it” is very stressful and will rarely give you the opportunity to do your best work.
  5. Since you’re already in the presentation phase of a project, you’ve eaten up a lot of time and now you are going back to the drawing board to start all over again. The potential to get stuck in an endless loop of despair is great.
  6. Odds are good your client will never see “it”. This is frustrating for both you and your client. Frustrated clients are never a good outcome under any circumstance.

Running away is rarely a good option. So how should you handle the situation should the Seven Evil Words be spoken?

  1. Even though these words will sting, keep a clear mind, stay focused and think. What was it about the work that elicited this reaction? Did you miss something? Did you have clear direction to start with? Did you have a proper brief to start from or was it started over a casual phone call? Use this time to educate the client.
  2. Ask questions. Try to tease out an understanding of why your client does not see “it”. This is hard and often times does not bear any fruit, but as a professional creative it is your responsibility to try.
  3. See if you can get the client to latch on to one thing that they do like about what they are seeing. This will give you something you can build on, even if you are starting over.
  4. Go ahead and invest a little more time on the project. Yes, this can be a frustrating option, but devote some time in an effort to keep your client happy. You could land on the right answer. Just don’t overcommit yourself, that’s where the madness comes in.

Years ago I worked at a small boutique design studio. We had taken on a new healthcare client and were in the process of building their brand from scratch. We got them to chose a name fairly quickly but we ran out of luck when it came to the logo.

Historically, when pitching logos we would show a client three designs, each carefully thought out and executed. Having named their business, we had a ton of designs in mind and pushed it out to showing five. We take in the black boards, got some disagreement and lackluster response and were asked to come back with some more designs. Okay, you don’t always hit the mark.

So we went back to the studio and worked up more designs. This time we took in seven designs. Same response. I can see my boss is getting a little testy about this, because we have shown some outstanding choices, but he agrees to go back to the studio to work on a 3rd round.

We go back to the client’s office and spread all 20 designs out on the conference room table. After some hemming and hawing, those seven words that should not be uttered came out of the client’s mouth:

“I’ll know it when I see it.”

What happened next is the stuff of legend. My boss politely says that we have given you much more than you asked for. There are multiple choices that not only solve the problem, but give the new company a strong foundation to build itself upon.

The client asks to see more designs. At that my boss stands up, gently collects all of the designs spread out on the table and calmly replies “I’ll send you my bill” and we leave.

They paid in full.

Advertising Emergencies

Dave Trott posted a piece recently about taking the creation of adverts too seriously. He’s spot on.

Who hasn’t gotten that call, usually after hours, from your client/marketing manager/whoever, screaming, with their hair on fire about missing a deadline. Something fell through the cracks. Someone bought an insertion and didn’t bother letting anyone else know. Armageddon was at hand.

Your career might not survive, but it’s not like anyone has ever died because an ad wasn’t released on time.

This isn’t open heart surgery after all.

None of what I say is to minimize the work we do. Quite the contrary, I whole heartedly believe creative marketing work is more valuable than ever.

But people freak out about marketing work. They really, really, really stress out about things. Why is that?

Like so much of life, it goes back to confidence. Confidence is the antidote to stress. If you feel confident about your ability to get things done, why stress out about them.

Early in my career I almost died because of an advertising emergency. We were pushing a deadline and needed to get film up to the publisher in Chicago. I was voluntold to deliver the film to the FedEx up at the airport, the last pick up of the day. Doors close at 9:00.

It was after 8:00 when I hopped onto the tollway up to Intercontinental. And, of course, a huge thunderstorm was blowing in. One of those storms where the windshield wipers have a hard time keeping up with the ocean of rain coming down.

I’m driving like a madman. Minutes are ticking off as I start to hydroplane. I start to lose control of the car. I have never been so scarred in my life.

Right there and then I decide to slow down. I might miss the last flight out. I might have some explaining to do the next morning, but it beats being in an accident over some film.

Nothing we do is worth that kind of worry.

I made it in time and drove home slowly.

There is no such thing as an advertising emergency. Get your act together, do the work, follow through, communicate. Just do your job and you’ll alleviate all the emergencies.

Punt It Over to Marketing

Yesterday I was approached about doing a billboard. The company I work for does not promote the use of billboard advertising. I personally don’t believe in them either. Despite whatever Clear Channel or any of the other media company says, in my experience I have yet to see any kind of significant return on the purchase of billboard advertising. So, of course I declined the request.

But the guy persisted. He had to have a billboard. He had to get our name out there. “We’re dying in the field and this billboard is the only thing that will save us” was this guy’s stance.

If things are that dire then call it quits.

A billboard, or any other ad for that matter, will not save a business.

It’s easy to punt problems over to marketing departments and have them take a stab at solving a problem. What gets me is that when they ask for help, they are quick to offer up tactics but rarely tell what it is they are wanting to achieve. A billboard is a tactic, not a solution.

Solutions are hard to figure out. They require considered thought, and often, some time. Rarely does an innovative idea present itself under duress.

After some quick chatter with a colleague about the problem, we came up with a good solution:

Rather than make a huge investment in a billboard, how about cleaning out the local Krispy Kreme and driving around to a few customers’ locations and drop off some doughnuts. Don’t even try to sell anything, just let them know you’re available should they need you and have a nice day.

This solution that would save the company about $10,000. In the process it will create bigger impact on the business and perhaps some goodwill with our customers. But it requires work. And unfortunately, he will never do it. It’s easier to scratch your name on a P.O. and it is to rent some real estate for a couple of months.

Marketing can do many great things to help a business grow, but rarely is it the solution to a fundamental business issue.

Lessons from the red-headed stepchild

Earlier in my career I did a lot of recruitment advertising and employee communications, the red-headed stepchild of proper advertising. At times, it was a fun and rewarding work – Connecting people with hopes of a better life, which is what changing jobs is all about.

The creative process went like this: You’d meet with a client on Monday, pitch creative on Wednesday, then produce and ship the materials by Friday. Ads would run on Sunday and by Wednesday you’d have a good idea if you were successful or not. It was a grind, but one that offered instant gratification, something other forms of creative work do not allow.

All new assignments started the same way: We’d go meet with a new client and talk about their goals for the adverts and what made their company different. We would dig into the company to learn about their culture, benefits packages and any other relevant bits the might make them look like an attractive employer to a job-seeker.

“Our benefits are the best-in-class…” No they’re not. In fact, almost every major corporation in the US at the time offered identical packages.

“We have a diverse workforce…” This one always got me. Most of the clients who made this claim were anything but.

Over time, we got a cynical about these kinds of claims: If you have to say it, you probably aren’t it.

I’ve thought about this a lot over the past week, especially as I grokked on the posting entitled Are these good ads good.

The point of that post was to question the validity of those advertisements as ads. What I did not dive into is that those ads do indeed give you a deeper understanding of who the company is, and the values that they hold. There is something to say for that.

The end result of those ads from The Gap and Apple is the complete opposite of the returns from the briefing sessions with my recruitment clients mentioned above. We would know what they offered their employees, but we struggled to understand who they were. And how to put a face on an otherwise faceless organization.

But I keep going back to my premise: Does this form of advertising that focuses all its attention on social issues, explicitly telegraphing the company’s values and beliefs translate into conversion and sales?

There has to be  balance where the company can project their values, not overtly but through the products and services they offer. It’s not about what you say or how you say it, rather it’s about what you do that defines who you are.

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