January 13, 2014

Stealing For Success

Back in my agency days I was a pretty good copywriter. Not great and not terrible, but pretty good.

I like to think that if I had focused more on creative work and less on agency management I could have been better. Of course, this is the kind of bullshit we all tell ourselves to excuse our mediocrity.

In my career I had a few hit campaigns (way too few). While these hits lasted a brief time, they represented the most enjoyable days I spent in advertising. It really is fun to have people talking about something you've created.

One of my hit campaigns was the result of precision stealing. I didn't steal the idea, but I borrowed a structure. By paying attention to what really good creative people do, you can learn a lot and apply it to your work.

My partner had a terrific idea for a campaign we were working on. She got the idea from a character in a movie. The character never actually appeared in the movie but was referenced in it.

But we were stuck in the "idea" stage. We couldn't figure out how to make the idea into a spot. (By the way, one of the biggest problems creative people have is understanding the difference between an idea and a spot. I've written about this before.)

Anyway, we were struggling. One morning I was riding down the elevator of our building when I asked myself a question: How would Hal Riney have written this spot? One minute later I had the spot done.

Riney frequently used a technique in which he would have a narrator weave in and out through the dialogue moving the story along. Of course, he didn't invent this structure, but he used it very effectively.

The spot I did looked nothing like anything Riney would ever write, but by borrowing the structure I took a good idea and made it into a good spot.

In other words, I took an idea someone borrowed from a movie, applied a technique someone else borrowed from film school, and out popped something pretty good.

Sometimes, creativity isn't about inventing. Sometimes it's about re-arranging.


Adam said...

Couldn't agree more. I often think creation is mostly selection. In the world where "everything has been done before" craetive peaople come up with new and surprising combinations of "old" things.

CRL said...


You are way too modest in your self evaluation. Using my personal list of the way Bob Hoffman would judge a campaign (both pre and post) I can count multiples of hit campaigns. For those who would like the Hoffman Five Evaluator it is:

1. Does it tell a story?
2. Will it make the brand famous?
3. Will it create more heavy users?
4. Will it increase client dales and profits?
5. Does it follow the imagery / efficacy scale?

Against these criteria the campaign you cite was a major success as were many, many others you created.


Doug Kessler said...

Amen with added Hallelujah.

Matthew Tarpy said...

Kaiser Sose? I mean, come on!

VinnyWarren said...

Stealing from Hal is always a great idea. I briefly worked for Hal towards the end of his career. The real genius of Hal was being the VO for all his clients. Ka-ching! I worked in the Chicago office and I was given the task of recording him from his firehouse in SF. Everyone else was too scared to interact with him. I had worked for Ed McCabe so nothing scared me anymore.

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