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.

Read more

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 …”.

Read more

America’s Top-Selling Consumer Product

The Summer, 2017 edition of Lapham’s Quarterly tackles the subject of Fear. This literary magazine examines a theme using primary source material. Each edition contains dozens of essays, speeches, quotes, art, photos, statistics and excerpts from contemporary and historical authors. I attest that its Spring, 2012 issue on Communication is among the finest things I have ever read.

On the subject of Fear Lewis H. Lapham’s Preamble is highly compelling, intelligent, and troubling. He cites “the innovative and entrepreneurial American genius for making something out of nothing and the equally innovative and entrepreneurial American genius for self-deception.” His point being that the country has lost its capacity to reason critically. What I have noticed in the last two years is America is becoming more tribal and trivial. Ever greater numbers of smaller, more specific self-interest groups take increasing exception with whatever is being said by whoever says it.

The publication and Lapham himself  believe “Fear is America’s top-selling consumer product, available 24-7 as mobile app with color-coded pop-ups in all shades of the paranoid rainbow. Ready to hand at the touch of a screen, the turn of a phrase, the nudge of tweet.” It is important to note that when fear rules populaces crave a strong man. History is replete with such examples and a near corresponding number of disasters.

One could read this piece and conclude that the publication is anti-Trump. That is far too simple a conclusion and naively narrow in perspective. Indeed, in its totality this issue basically concludes people reap what they sow. America is not a Trump America but its fear gave Trump, his supporters and doctrine ground to flourish. American’s now react to a tagline to convince them of deeper thinking and reasoned arguments. “Just say No to Drugs”, “Shock and Awe” and “Make America Great Again” are mind-numbingly inane and absolutely deceptive or self-deceptive.

Read more

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.

Read more

You’re Out of Order: 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.

Read more

Why Aren’t Marketing Departments Run on a P&L?

Jay Baer has it right. Baer is a marketing consultant, speaker, and the author of book, Youtility. He said, “Make your marketing so useful people would pay you for it.” It is a wonderful notion. The quote gets at excellence in marketing while holding the practice accountable.

It is strange that most marketing departments are structured so loosely. I am not talking about the organizational structure. There is far too much written and explored on that topic. I contend that the organization of a marketing department would become extremely clear, efficient and effective if it was subject to being its own profit and loss center.

Instead the vast majority of marketing departments get a budget. The team executes within that spend and produces mediocre results for the most part. The next year the budget gets a little bump to reflect inflation and higher costs. This cycle repeats until the CEO removes the head of marketing due to vague results.

I have run global marketing teams and advise companies on how best to set-up their marketing organizations. In chats with CEOs and CMOs I passionately suggest the P&L route. CEOs love it. CMOs not so much. That is too bad because it would make marketing so much better and would weed out the real good CMOs from the ones who bluster and obfuscate. This move would have positive impact on CMO turnover.

Read more

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.

Read more

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.

Read more

Storytelling Good Reads

Enjoy this round up for recent and relevant storytelling articles. Some are geared to the practice of writing but you will find they can be applied in a commercial context to help drive your brand, marketing and advertising.

Inciting Moments (find it here)

From the Writers Write blog comes this education on two types of inciting moments that drive interest and the story. At its root is how a problem is solved so this construct can be applied to a brand beautifully and creatively.

Storytelling Is Not a Strategy (find it here)

Kelly Wenzel, Chief Marketing Officer at Contently, chooses a provocative title for this piece but the content is less contentious. It deals with content marketing. A term I have always disliked…has there ever been non-content marketing? Those who choose to identify themselves as content marketers seem to believe the goal is producing and pumping out more and more stuff. Wenzel gets teasingly close to what should be happening – a solid theme that motivates the audience and supporting communications that keep it fresh.

Read more

Intended Messages Do Not Always Arrive As Intended

In 1906, O Henry penned his short story, By Courier. It runs just shy of 1,500 words, yet, it is packed with entertaining and fascinating lessons in communications. I am not talking about the craft of short story writing but rather O Henry’s lessons on how intended messages are not always received as intended. If you care to, I recommend reading the story prior to absorbing what follows or enjoy the synopsis. Here is a link to the story.

By Courier features a man and woman sitting on different benches a distance apart in a park. They use a young boy to run messages to each other. These messages get twisted and turned for many reasons. The man initiates the back and forth with his own subjectivity. The boy relays it in less refined language and different emphasis. The woman absorbs the message with her own interpretation. There a couple of to and fro’s that further confuse. Eventually the tale ends with a fun and ultimately clear resolution.

Of course, clear resolution or even understanding does not always take place in our interactions and communications. We make assumptions, embrace subjectivity, lack empathy, fail to grasp key points, and hear-what-we-like-to-hear among other issues.

Communication comes in many forms. There is written, spoken, visual, gestures, non-verbals and more. All communications share the same steps. O Henry’s story captures these beautifully:

  1. Motivation or reason for communicating
  2. Message composition
  3. Message type … digital data, written text, speech, pictures, gestures and so on
  4. Transmission of the message using a specific channel or medium
  5. Natural forces and human activity that influence the message in sending
  6. Message reception
  7. Interpretation and making sense of the original message

These steps come across as rather clinical, if not, linear. If you think about it, they are far more dynamic especially in our sped-up, always-on, technology-driven world. When I communicate or design communications for clients, I try to build this complex “sandwich” by first focusing on the bread. The bread are numbers one and seven of the steps.

If you concentrate on your motivation and reason that will add intended clarity. Then you have to mentally ‘hop-over’ and think as the recipient. How will they receive, interpret and decode your message. This will further refine the message. You will never get it perfect because other elements come into play. However, that effort will pay off in greater accuracy of intent and, often, appreciation by the recipient for you having taken the time to think and communicate from their perspective.

Let’s close off with The Blind Man and the Advertising Story. This is well- and oft-told tale in business schools. You will find many lessons in it as well. The biggest is wrapping a fact with personal and emotional relevance. I invite you to note the others.

An old blind man was sitting on a busy street corner in the rush-hour begging for money. On a cardboard sign, next to an empty tin cup, he had written: ‘Blind – Please help’.

No-one was giving him any money.

A young advertising writer walked past and saw the blind man with his sign and empty cup, and also saw the many people passing by completely unmoved, let alone stopping to give money.

The advertising writer took a thick marker-pen from her pocket, turned the cardboard sheet back-to-front, and re-wrote the sign, then went on her way.

Immediately, people began putting money into the tin cup.

After a while, when the cup was overflowing, the blind man asked a stranger to tell him what the sign now said.

“It says,” said the stranger, ” ‘It’s a beautiful day. You can see it. I cannot.’ “