Mad Men Carousel: A Book Review

Okay, um, wow. I am positively blown away by Matt Zoller Seitz’s book, Mad Men Carousel. His sentences are paragraphs, paragraphs are chapters, and chapters an entire work in density not length. I mean this in the best possible way. I never knew that when Don was stopped at the railway tracks, he was contemplating suicide. Or when Betty vomits in their recently purchased automobile it ruins the new car smell and is a form of revenge because Don has stunk up their marriage. Matt brings tons to light.

He schooled me on what is really going on in a series I have watched five times. In viewing, I was enamoured with the historical accuracy and the portrayal of the ad business, specifically the pitches. My last viewing was paired with this book (like martinis and oysters). I would watch a few episodes and then read Matt’s corresponding analysis. Then I would switch the order by reading then watching.

In so doing, I got an incredible amount more out of the stories, characters, and historical context. Matt is incredibly balanced. He calls the series out for missteps and mistakes especially when they appear to back off issues and subjects when they shouldn’t. He acknowledges the complaint of many that, “the series is merely a high-toned soap opera gussied up with period detail and allusions to literature, mythology, and other signifiers of respectability.”

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Goodbye Static Tales

“Thus I rediscovered what writers have always known and have told us again and again: books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.” Novelist Umberto Eco was echoing (all pun intended) Charles Dickens who previously spoke of life as a “furious plagiarism”.

This addresses the fun conundrum of brand storytelling. If every story has already been told then how can a plagiarism differentiate a brand?

Of course, the answer is that stories differentiate in their execution. Protagonist and antagonist. Character archetypes and fables. Three acts. These notions are important but are not at the core. The answer for brands lies in relevant and fresh approaches. Ones that are not one-way narratives but a dialogue and experience that influence changes in thought and behavior.

In the old days ad gurus would say, “Do not sell the mattress, sell the sleep.” Coke does not sell beverages, it sells happiness. AirBnb promises you will live like a local rather than making a hotel room the destination.

Michael Shermer believes, “Humans are pattern-seeking story-telling animals, and we are quite adept at telling stories about patterns, whether they exist or not.” Storytelling in marketing is constantly debated. Yet, the fact remains a banner ad, a poster, a 30-second television ad all tell stories. If they don’t the consumer makes up their own. If they do it well, a consumer inserts themselves into the narrative.

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We Compare to the Top Brands

Have you noticed the same handful of businesses lead every brand ranking, are mentioned repeatedly at conferences, and are consistently referenced in books and articles? One cannot escape testimonials to Apple, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Harley-Davidson, and Disney. It is if there are only a handful of successful brands on the planet.

Now it seems consumers believe that to be true. Wunderman and Penn Schoen Berland surveyed 2,000 people aged 18 to 65 in the US and the UK, and the findings were consistent across generations, geography and gender. Here is an amazing finding: 87% of US and 85% of UK consumers compare all brand experiences to those they consider the best, such as Netflix, Amazon and Starbucks.

That means when we pick up our dry cleaning, rent a bicycle, or buy a shirt we are judging the experience as compared to ordering a venti cappuccino from Starbucks or streaming Better Call Saul.

After working with tons of brands and consulting to agencies who work with an exponential number of brands I am confident I know what consumers truly want from brands. They demand a solution. A solution that makes their lives easier and more enjoyable. Netflix, Amazon and Starbucks do that.

All that other brand stuff involving authenticity, consistency, and transparency are in the next consideration set. Those considerations are important for sure but when you boil it down consumers consume. Sure, some vote with their wallets if a brand does bad or badly but we buy to satisfy our very selfish needs and wants.

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Creativity: The Rituals and Routines

Recently my stepdaughter shared an article called Rise and Shine: The Daily Routines of History’s Most Creative Minds. She is entering the creative and competitive world of acting and writing in film and television. In sharing she could not help but note that I am well practiced in the routines of coffee, long walks, and inebriation (aren’t I the greatest influence?).

All family kidding aside, I struggle with the discipline and creativity required by writing. Writing is so much of what I do now. Branding and marketing requires conveying relevant and different ideas so I have always honed this talent. Now I am writing fiction and screenplays, as well as, ghostwriting for others. I like to think I am getting better at the craft but that does not mean it gets any easier.

Oliver Burkman’s article is a review of Mason Currey’s book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. In it Currey notes that Joyce Carol Oats worked the morning, took a big break and cranked up again in the evening. Anthony Trollope set the goal of 250-words per quarter-hour. Meanwhile, Friedrich Schiller could only write in the presence of the smell of rotting apples (for me it’s fermenting grapes).

I like background noise and always have. Since studying in high school and university, the tunes or television have been on. As I type this blog on my computer, one earbud is in place hooked to my tablet where Better Call Saul is in rotation.

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Ad Greats on Social Media

The advertising greats who dominated Madison Avenue in the 1950’s and 1960’s left the industry an incredible legacy. Among the assets passed down and still passionately referenced are their quotes. Taken in the aggregate these bon mots represent key philosophies of business and communication. It is amazing how timeless these musings and lessons remain. Yet, much has changed in the practice of delivering compelling communications.

“Advertising” is too confining a label, consumers play an ever increasing role in how brands define themselves, technologies proliferate at ever greater speeds and we are firmly in the grip and promise of social media. This led me to wonder what the leaders of Madison Avenue would think about social media. So I combed through their thoughts to find relevance and application.

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The Slow Decay of Substantive Content

William Henry wrote In Defense of Elitism in 1994. Though the title may come across as pompous the book is actually a rallying cry for curiosity, exploration, and discovery for all. Henry was the Pulitzer Prize-winning culture critic for Time magazine. The book was slammed by critics as a very thinly veiled stab at egalitarianism. In fact, it was an attack on the dumbing down of society. More specifically, it identified the strange path America was on and goes a long way to explaining where it finds itself today.

One passage points out, “Today, even critical books about ideas are expected to be prescriptive, to conclude with simple, step-by-step solutions to whatever crisis they discuss. Reading itself is becoming a way out of thinking.”

Henry was accurate but may have miscalculated how quickly and, to what extent, this has taken hold in society. One only has to see the headlines in once-respected newspapers and magazines or take in the astonishing range of poorly written blogs or view scrolling tweets of perpetuating nonsense to conclude that we are losing the ability to search for, develop, and discover knowledge. This morning I was greeted with the following headlines from various sources “7 Things You Need to Know About …”, “13 Do’s and Don’ts of …”, “The 9 Most Common …”, “Top 10 Tips for …”, “5 Ways to …”.

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Dissecting FT Weekend’s New Branding

Two months ago The Financial Times refreshed FT Weekend. This was introduced through an integrated marketing campaign “aimed at a growing readership who favour the immersive experience of print on the weekend while remaining highly engaged with digital journalism during the week.” That is an insightful and challenging objective.

What piqued my interest was the print component. The campaign’s tagline grabbed me (isn’t it great when that happens?). The three lines are compelling. “World-class writing” is sharp and smart. I can see how they arrived at it and am grateful they did. The cornerstone of journalism is a free press. That means possessing honesty and objectivity and marrying them with insight. Those are lofty ideals to sell a paper. Perhaps too lofty and I expect FT and their advertising agency thought so too.

Instead they now focus on global reach and fresh perspective along with how they write and communicate. The three words in the tagline are absolutely power-packed. The line represents the core skill-set of journalism and what must be the overriding differentiator of any publication online, off or both. That is quality of writing. As far as I know no other publication is landing on that notion or boldly claiming it even though it is fundamental.

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Law Firm Marketing

The marketing of professional services firms is tough stuff. Whether it is accounting, advertising, architecture, or consulting firms, you name it, there is tons of competition and finding a unique position for the business is elusive. How about law firms? There are over 50,000 law firms in the United States with two or more lawyers, 173,000 solo practitioners, and 1,315,561 licensed attorneys. That is a big category folks.

A category that has historically and currently wrestles with the very idea of marketing. I am not talking about those tacky accident lawyer ads on TV or the calls for people to join class-action lawsuits that remind us of a John Grisham novel. Nor I am not talking about firms who think a logo and a website is all the marketing they need or those that buy ad space on a few city benches and wait for the phone to ring.

This hopefully helpful bit of writing applies to firms of size who would much rather focus on the practice of law rather than the perceived hell and distraction of marketing. Having worked with over 12 law firms on branding and marketing, I have noted a handful of challenges that are universal.

Marketing is a Dirty Word

This is a profession that was once not allowed to market. It was, in a word, illegal. I always thought that was cool. An industry forced to function on referral only. The concept was … do great work and more will come. Legal services was the purist form of business natural selection ever. All law firms had to use was a three person name (Smith, Jones & Smith), state they had been around for decades (Since 1933), and support the local community (Member of the Chamber of Commerce and The Elks). And, for a time, it worked.

Of course, times changed. When marketing became fair game, law firms put a partner in charge of promoting the firm. This was a short-term experiment because the partner knew nothing about marketing. Around the turn of this century, firms hired professional marketers from consumer product companies. I loved witnessing this epic failure. Cola and soup marketing do not translate well to legal services.

The last ten years has seen law firms flirt with every manner of marketing. Some experiments have worked but the vast majority has not. Marketing is still being grafted on law firms and that is the problem. Grafting is not enough. Marketing must be a core skill.

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We Are Addicted to Stories

How many stories did you tell today? Think about that for a moment. I am not talking about the stories we tell ourselves because that is constant. Our head gets choked with rational and irrational sagas. I am talking just about the ones you tell. Did you share the tale of your commute with colleagues? Did you tell an anecdote from your high school days?

How many stories did you hear today? If you spoke with three people you probably heard upwards of twelve to fifteen stories. Little ones are seeded throughout our conversations. Big ones entertain and engage.

How many stories did you read today? Between newspapers, that novel you are working your way through, and even advertisements you will have read a ton of stories.

How many stories did you watch today? We live in an era of binge-watching. Movies are everywhere. We can load tv shows and movies on our devices and consume them anywhere. Most shows now have four or five subplots so there are plenty of narratives to follow.

John Gottschall author of The Storytelling Animal says, “We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” Stories are the primary construct for human interaction. It is how we connect.

I have been practicing storytelling and narrative psychology for the past ten years. What has surprised me is we see narratives even where there are none. The storytelling format affords meaning to our lives. It is an engrained form of problem-solving. It helps us make sense of the world.

Humans have always been storytellers. We started with pictograms on cave walls then became masters of the oral tale before we took up the pen. Stories provide a way for humans to feel control over the world. They allow us to see patterns in chaos and meaning in randomness. They are sorting devices and educational vehicles for what has come before, what is happening now and what may take place.

Storytelling shows us how other people think. We compare and contrast when digesting stories. This may affirm our own beliefs and perceptions but more importantly they can throw them into question.

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The Hot Dog Stand Story

This business fable has stayed with me since I first heard it in university. Over the years, interpretations have popped up at conferences, meetings and in articles. It is an entertaining tale offering different lessons depending on what is emphasized. Apologies to the original author. I would gladly give credit if I knew who you are. Here is my version.

There was a man who ran a roadside hot dog stand. It was located far outside the city. For years he worked hard to make it a success. That effort paid off and eventually people would travel long distances for one of his hot dogs. It became a popular and sentimental institution. Families formed traditions around visiting the stand and tourists were told to fit it into their schedule if possible.

So what made it special? It was not one thing, it was a combination of quality and care that was difficult to match or copy.

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