June 21, 2018

A Copywriter's Burden

There was a time when being a copywriter was a lot simpler. It wasn't simple, but it was simpler.

We would be given a stack of documents about 1,000 pages deep -- primary research, industry information, briefing documents, strategy hypotheses, meeting memos, competitive category ads, focus group transcriptions, and no shortage of opinions and mandatories -- and our job was to turn this mess into 30 seconds of persuasive copy.

It was a rigorous exercise.

There were some copywriters who could never master the art of rummaging through a pile of paper to find the essence of what needed to be said. There were some who were very good at finding the essence, but not very good at finding an interesting way to say it. The very best could do both.

But the burden of being a copywriter today is much less straightforward. Today's copywriter is not really sure what she is. Is she a brand builder, a click maximizer, a storyteller, a community builder, a content provider, a conversation starter, a data interpreter, a three-times-a-day tweet machine? How do you keep true to a brand essence when you are "optimizing" for so many different objectives?

In fact, in the wrong hands, writing copy that is optimized for a ragbag of different media and a variety of different purposes can become antithetical to the idea of a single, simple brand identity. The tactical invariably drives out the strategic.

When that copywriter took a thousand pages of input and reduced it to a simple, singular proposition it became pretty clear how a campaign could spin out of it. In fact, the iconic "1984" spot by Apple started its life as a print ad that never ran. The concept superseded the media tactic.

But how does a focused brand strategy survive an hourly demand for "content?" Just take a look at the drivel that is coming out of McDonald's social media machine and try to find anything resembling a brand strategy.

There is a big difference between a being a novelist and being a copywriter. A novelist starts with a simple idea - "war is hell" - and expands on it to create a sprawling landscape. The copywriter does the opposite. He takes a sprawling landscape and, if he's any good, reduces it to a simple idea. Or at least he used to.

What does a copywriter do today?

June 19, 2018

Advertising: The Science Is Terrible

There was a time when I taught science for a living. Don't get the wrong idea, I know very little about science. The only reason I was doing it was that it was impossible for the New York City Board of Education to find enough qualified people.

Later on in life I served for a year as Special Assistant to the Executive Director of the California Academy of Sciences. Once again, it had nothing to do with my credentials in science, it had to do with their need to do better marketing for their scientific endeavors.

However meager my background in science, hanging around with scientists and science teachers taught me one thing very clearly -- there is a big difference between facts and bullshit.

And to put it simply, in the advertising industry the science we get is terrible.

It is mostly conducted by interested parties with a point to prove. In the real world of science, research that is conducted by interested parties is viewed with great skepticism. In the real world of science, research must be validated and verified by disinterested third parties before anyone takes it seriously.

The "metrics" you get from Facebook, the "data" you get from your consultants, and the reports you get from your agency are all unreliable at best and bullshit at worst.

The most unpleasant part of trying to find out just how crappy the science you are getting is is that you have to be a real prick to do it. You have to ask the people delivering the "science" the following questions:
  • What controls did you use in your study?
  • Did you repeat the study to verify it?
  • Have you had peer review to substantiate your methodology and your conclusions? 
  • Did you have a third party replicate your study to validate it?
In virtually all cases the answer will be stunned silence and you will be treated with thinly disguised contempt for asking such silly questions.

We have gotten used to bullshit masquerading as science, and we accept this bullshit without appropriate skepticism.

It is remarkable that an industry that spends half a trillion dollars a year thinks it knows so much and actually knows so little. Now that our industry has caved in to the silly notion that data will be our savior, it is more important than ever to question the science behind the data.

The closer you look, the uglier it gets.

June 12, 2018

The Power Of Talent

Today, about a million or so people will pack the streets of my home town, Oakland CA, for a parade to celebrate the Golden State Warriors who last week won their 3rd National Basketball Association championship in 4 years.

This is a phenomenal achievement that has been equaled by very few teams in the history of the NBA.

The NBA has a few things in common with the ad industry. For one thing, management people and coaches are highly mobile. Steve Kerr, head coach of the Warriors, was once General Manager of the Phoenix Suns. Alvin Gentry, head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans (who the Warriors defeated in the Western Conference semi-finals) was most recently assistant coach under Steve Kerr with the Warriors. As a result of management and coaching mobility there are very few secrets in the NBA.

The systems, the data, and the tactics are all well-known to everyone and are easily interchangeable. While there are some management groups and some coaches that are certainly superior to others, by far the biggest difference between winning and losing boils down to one thing - the talent of the players on the court.

As Steve Kerr said after the Warriors' victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers,  
"We had more talent than they did, and talent wins in this league."
This is a lesson that has been lost in the ad industry. We have become obsessed with systems, data, and tactics. If we got a peek behind the curtain, I'm sure we would find that the systems, the data, and the tactics of one agency group are substantially interchangeable with those of another. We have forgotten that what makes one organization superior to another is the talent of the players.

Imagine if Publicis had taken the $20 million it is spending on its "Marcel" AI gimmick and instead had invested it in hiring 20 or 30 of the best creative people in the world (I don't know? What does a top creative make these days?)

Imagine the impact on the organization that this would have had. Imagine what this type of talent could have done for them.

But no. To Publicis, systems and woolly ideas about "co-creation" and "collaboration" are more important than talent. They'd rather spend $20 million to have some mediocrities in Paris be able to connect with some mediocrities in New York than spend the money to hire 20 or 30 brilliant creative people who could establish an unprecedented powerhouse of talent.

Is it any wonder that the ad industry is viewed as an industry in extremis? Any industry that values systems and processes over talent is an industry in decay.

June 05, 2018

Advertising's Edifice Of Nonsense

There is evidence all around us that advertising is in a downward spiral, characterized by...
  • Consumer disgust with advertising
  • Loss of confidence in agencies
  • Massive confusion by brands about how and where to advertise
  • Widespread belief that advertising has become less effective
  • Uncontrolled fraud and corruption
One of the reasons for this nosedive is that the ad industry is in a cycle of stupidity that it can't seem to extricate itself from.

The longer the silly fantasies of online advertising go unchallenged, the more entrenched they become. The more entrenched they become, the more they seem axiomatic. The more they seem axiomatic, the less willing people are to challenge them. The less people are willing to challenge the childish nonsense that marketers have to come to accept as fundamental to their strategies, the further the ad industry will deteriorate.

Here is some of the foolishness that brands have come to believe, and that few are willing to challenge...
  • Consumers want to "join the conversation" about brands, and co-create with brands, and become brand ambassadors by sharing their enthusiasm for brands
  • Consumers are smitten with "brand love"
  • "Personalized" advertising (meaning advertising delivered by ad tech) is more "relevant" and therefore more effective
  • More credibility is given to dubious "research" that supports these fantasies than is given to  actual facts
So let's have a look at some down-to-earth reality, which I have stolen from a previous post, and see how it aligns with the platitudes of online advertising.

First, I want you to think about your refrigerator. Think about all the stuff that's in there: The cheese, the juice, the jelly, the butter, the beer, the soda, the mayonnaise, the bacon, the mustard...

Now think about your pantry and cabinets. The cereals, the beans, the napkins, the flour, the detergent, the sugar, the rice, the bleach, the paper towels...

Next your medicine cabinet. The toothpaste, the pain relievers, the shampoo, the soap, the band-aids, the deodorant, the cosmetics...

Now your closet and dresser. Your socks, your underwear, your shirts, your pajamas, your swim suit, your t-shirts, your sweaters, your jeans, your sneakers...

Now your garage. The battery, the tires, the wiper blades, motor oil, gasoline, the air filter, the muffler...

Now answer these questions:

    •    Do you “share branded content" about any of this stuff?
    •    Do you feel "personally engaged" with these brands?
    •    Do you "join the conversation" about any of this stuff?
    •    Do you ever "co-create" with any of these brands?
    •    Do you feel like you are part of these brands' "tribes" or "communities?"

Now answer this: If you don't, why in the fucking world do you believe anyone else does?