Some years ago, one of my sons, having seen several black-and-white movies and the photos from my childhood, asked me if everything was in black and white when I was a boy. I smiled of course but recognized the logic of his question. One’s perceptions are shaped by experience, and his experience told him that the past was in black and white. Only the present was in living color. It’s why Spielberg chose to shoot Schindler’s List in black and white — his experience of the Holocaust came from either testimonial interviews or archival footage, all of which was free of color. Which brings me to the title of this post.
When I first stepped into the advertising freelance pool as a moonlighter, I was working in the marketing department at THE Ohio State University (the capitalized definite article is the subject of some derision and a future post I’m sure, so stay tuned). While moonlighting, I found myself creating ads for myself. Experienced copywriters and ad folks know that this can be a difficult and perhaps a vain exercise, suffering from both hubris and futility as the word “vain” so aptly captures. But for a young tyke, it was heaven. No restrictions! No approvals necessary! The sky’s the limit!
This led me to create an all-type ad (I was, of course, a copywriter with limited software skills at the time). It was an ad filled with puns, which was standard in the 1970s and early ’80s advertising. Pretty awful stuff. Unhappily, I didn’t keep a copy of it but it had something to do with slashing prices on big words, what Donald Trump calls the best words — and who claims there is no better word than “stupid.” He would know I guess. Ten dollar words are basically words no one ever uses in everyday speech and so will of course never appear in advertising or a Trump tweet. I remember one of the words in my ad was onomatopoeia, a real sizzler at 50% off. Another was portmanteau, which was now two for one (ha, ha!). You get the gist of this. Young and foolish, I thought everyone knew what I knew or at least wouldn’t admit to not knowing what I knew. But in advertising, readers who don’t get it aren’t readers. They’re turning the page or scrolling to the next story, etc.
This naïve but informative experience behind me, I began taking a particular interest in how ad agencies promoted themselves. Over time, I saw many examples of witty ads for agencies, but the only ones that signaled a given agency's value (i.e., its creativity) were related to open houses at their new digs, clever holiday wishes, or wry invitations to a local or national advertising awards show. That's because agencies worth their salt need only one testimonial: the work they do for their clients. When you visit an accomplished, sought-after shop, what you see on their walls is work done for their clients. When you visit other shops, you see handsome displays about themselves, their insights, their USP, their unmatched approach to discovering value, and tons of other proprietary baloney. They have unique processes, liberating creative briefs, POVs, and a wealth of blather that gives yadda yadda yadda its meaning.
When advertisers get pitched, they see this stuff with remorseless regularity. It’s an experience that always baffled me because the marketers I have met aren’t stupid. Maybe they nod off during the creative part of the pitch. But typically they don’t, mostly because the presenters are creatives and are often more entertaining than the suits. After an hour or so of PowerPoint slides, anything remotely creative feels like unregulated eye candy if not heroin. No slight on suits, which will become apparent shortly. That’s because when an account is awarded, all the agency's proprietary blather — rather than just showing the work and the sales increase the work delivered or showcasing work done on spec — is COMPLETELY beside the point. The agency rate, a history of compelling work, the speed of getting it done, the quality of the media placement, deep familiarity with the category, among other winning ingredients — all those things matter more. Not to mention that the head of marketing was in the same fraternity as the new business guy or whatever personal connection the players at large have. Outside of brain surgery or nuclear physics, what you know rarely trumps who you know.
In many ways, advertising is like any number of sports. The perennial winning team presents X strategy. The other teams adopt X strategy. The next winning team revolutionizes the game by introducing Y strategy. Being different is easy. Being different and winning is generally a crapshoot. Success comes from insight, brilliance, and courage — the very qualities that accompany failure almost as often. So, when it’s time to choose your agency, choose wisely. Sometimes the half-off shop might be what you need. And when the half-off shop has a Y strategy, it might be worth your while to go all in.
©2017 John Hofmeister. All rights reserved. First published at jhofmeister.com
I recently suspended my Facebook account upon reading more and more reports of its collusion, if not willing complicity, in undermining the 2016 election cycle, not to mention the unending sale of my interests, my online purchases, and my internet habits to the ad tech industry, an industry which now knows what we’re doing online and by extension what we do offline, which includes who you email, what shoes you are looking for, what news you’re reading, or app you’re playing while sitting in a stall at the airport vainly searching for some privacy — privacy which we freely surrender to ad tech without really knowing we are, mostly because the AGREE box we have to check to proceed to buy Q-Tips or use an online service, a box that comes at the end of 43 or so paragraphs of impenetrable copy in ALL TYPE is designed to overwhelm us and wear us down so we’ll just say, yeah, whatever, I just want to buy some Q-Tips already. But I digress.
Facebook is good for some things, mostly to keep track of what my family and friends are up to, however important, inane, incredible, or ridiculous. Aside from that, it’s little more than an echo chamber of shared belief and interests with few meaningful exchanges with colleagues or family members whose political predilections either frighten, terrify, or depress me. I, for example, post stories from the NYT, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, New Yorker, and Atlantic Magazine — my sources for news, a list that Steve Bannonwould call elitist/globalist swamp stewards and Trump just callsfake news. Of course, he calls any news fake that he doesn’t agree with. He’s proven himself a serial philanderer, habitual liar, andignorant narcissist. Yet he’s president, and we’re stuck with him until we’re not. I suppose a democracy always gets the leaders it deserves. The list of how Trump will leave office is relatively long, probably an indication of hope rather than likelihood. I got into several spats with friends and family about Facebook posts and have decided that arguing with beliefs is a useless undertaking. My reposts from the Times or Post are mostly reviewed by those who already believe their import.
The emerging science of how people will attach more securely to beliefs clearly proven to be based on falsehoods is still in its infancy. Consider the old saying: you have a right to your opinion but not to your facts. It’s futile to assume there is any set of agreed upon facts. Of course, it doesn’t require much insight to understand that belief is territory beyond the borders of fact simply because belief is the outright suppression of facts at worst or surrender to some higher purpose at best.
Take the belief system that came with being a Catholic born in 1952: the Virgin Birth, the resurrection of Christ, the ascension of Mary into Heaven, life after death. None of these things reside in proof or fact, only in belief. And for those who do believe in them, or in any other number of believers in the truths of Islamism, Mormonism, Hinduism, or Rastafarianism, to name but a few, I say well, if it’s working for you, making your life more fulfilling and death less alarming but not getting in the way of how I choose to live, which is without all these truths, I say go for it. Live and let live, with a decided emphasis on let live. Don’t ask me to make my decisions on your beliefs. Of course, there are some things which we all have to agree to: we shall not kill, abuse children, torture animals, or find pleasure in the suffering of sentient beings, and the like. The list is fairly short. The finer points of what we disagree about and why one’s beliefs wanders into to troublesome territory is what civil discourse, the legislative process, is really for. Abortion is a good example of this problem, being one that rests on fundamental belief versus fundamental right. However we resolve it, there will be a sizeable group of people who will be unhappy with the outcome.
And with this extended regression, I return to Facebook. I guess knowing what others believe based upon their posts is basically a healthy thing. It informs me of many people’s willingness to place belief before fact, to choose falsehood before demonstrable scientific truth, to assume one’s values are, or should be, universal, rather than particular and insular. This disparity accounts for the marvels and the horrors of the 20th Century — a time of astounding scientific and human progress that rode alongside an era of unmatched human violence, cruelty, and suffering. It’s what separates us from the beasts — a separation that will either move us forward as a species or consign us to the fate of the dinosaurs. Who’s to say? If Facebook is an indication, I find no solace there. Yet, maybe one post will find one soul ready to admit, hmm, I hadn’t thought of that. Which is about all I can hope for.
©2017 John Hofmeister
I’m an old creative director and copywriter. Which in this business might mean I’m about 45, in my early 50s at the outside. But I’m older than that. So old in fact that I don’t get direct mail from AARP anymore. Probably because I’m a member. They’re pretty good at scrubbing their lists. I’m also old enough to have Medicare, which as a freelancer, makes the whole healthcare shopping nightmare a bit less onerous. So what kind of advice could I possibly have for young creative professionals?
It’s this: be kind to people as you ascend the ladder, get promoted, and make big money — because you never know who you will meet on your way down. And for many, if not most, there will be a down — or a way out or a way on to something else — where every kindness shown finds its way back to you.
The ad business is ridiculously unkind to seniors. There’s always someone coming up through the ranks who’s cooler, more with it, more tuned into the cultural zeitgeist than you are. It’s not that you stopped paying attention or that you aren’t tuned in. There’s nothing rational about kicking old creatives to the curb. Well, it isrational because it’s about money. That kid coming up the ladder is hungry and will do what you do for less — usually lots less. And in this business, like any business, it’s money that matters. The young turk’s ideas will have a certain je ne sais quoi about them — and in advertising it’s only natural to rush to the new, and new by definition is not old and it’s certainly not improved. It’s just novel. You’re in a business where no one knows why some things work and some things don’t. It’s subjective and generally a crapshoot. It’s like when clients ask for something that will go viral — as if anyone knows what the feck is going to go viral.
Being kind to people means taking some interest in their worries and fears, being honest with them about their talents and opportunities, and accepting them for what they are rather than what you want them to be. In my experience, people don’t change much. Time will sand their sharp edges — it just doesn’t remove them completely.
And finally, remember that sucking up has its advantages. Everyone likes to hear nice things about themselves, especially bosses. But saying nice things to colleagues and subordinates is really just a form of sucking up when no one’s looking — because it doesn’t get you much until you’re coming down the ladder, but it will get you something eventually if nothing other than admiration. Being liked is a gift that gives lots back over time. You might not race to the top, but you won’t plunge to the bottom. And even if you do, they’ll be commiserating souls looking out for you.
Hardly anyone will take this advice. If they do, it’s probably because doing these things is already part of their nature — or they acquire it slowly, well past its expiration date. They say that youth is wasted on the young. Advice generally shares the same fate.
©2017 John Hofmeister
When I'm not writing for clients, I write about things that interest me.