Category: Craft

Don’t ask.

Roman Thumbs down 2
Wanna buy a toothbrush?

Here’s a hot tip for you ad-makers: Don’t ask for the sale right off the bat.  Really good salespeople already know this. Really good marketers also know this. Normal human beings know this. But whoever’s been producing the bulk of advertising lately don’t seem to know it. They apparently think they have to start off by asking for the sale. “Looking for tires?” “Tired of paying high prices for catheters?” “If you die, have you planned enough for your funeral?” “Wanna buy a toothbrush?” (this latter isn’t an actual lead line in an ad, but a punchline in an old joke about marketing, which I think you can reconstruct yourself.) All of these may sound like perfectly innocent questions, but we all hear them as sales pitches.

It’s a well-known fact that nobody likes being sold to. Even when we’re in the actual market to buy something, we don’t like being pitched. It feels pushy. It feels like the sales person only sees us as a mark. And forces us to have to answer something unpleasant back, “No.”

And yet, generation after generation of marketers, who themselves don’t like being sold to, seem to think other people aren’t like them. They just charge right in asking a question that they know they don’t want the honest answer to. They force an answer before we have a chance to even consider their offering.

Even as I’m writing this, I just received an e-mail ad with the subject line: “We haven’t heard from you lately, what’s wrong?” Nothing’s wrong, Bucky; now go away. The first line of this e-mail put me on the spot by asking why I hadn’t clicked on any of their recent e-mails lately (or, in my case, never). “No. No. No. Go away.” I felt like shouting. Did the poor guy who is responsible for this e-mail marketing think this approach would work? That starting off defensively, negatively, would somehow win me over? It’s like a person whom you work with asking, “How come you never want to go out with me?”

Never Ask a Question

Years ago, when I was in art school taking an advertising class from one of the industry’s great copywriters, he told us a maxim: Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ask a question in an ad. Even if it’s a rhetorical question. The reason is that the person reading or hearing the question will, in their mind, automatically answer it.  And, more often than not, the answer is “no.”  He pointed out, that once they’ve said “no”, even to themselves, they’ll shut you out. “No” is the most negative of responses. And people don’t like saying no. It makes them feel negative. I even felt bad sending that e-mail I just got to the spam bin. I feel like I just cost that poor guy a commission, or his job. I’m an awful person. A monster. And I hate that guy for making me feel that way. I want him to die. And now I even feel worse about myself. I’m a seething mass of negativity. And I have to lie down now.


I’m okay now.

But I’d go further than the No Questions Maxim. I’d advise you never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ask for the sale anywhere in an ad, not even at the end. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a CTA (call-to-action) in it . It’s okay to let people know what you’d like people to do after they read the ad; go to this URL for more info, think about us next time, ask your doctor, etc. But it shouldn’t be to ask them to make a decision about whether or not they’ll buy. Leave that open. Because once you’ve forced the decision, that’s it. Once they’ve said no, heard themselves say no, they imprint that in their memory and condemn you and your low-priced catheters to the spam bin forever. So don’t ask.

Besides. They know you’re trying to sell them something. It’s an ad, for crying out loud! Just don’t sully the mood by asking them to part with money out in the open.

Introducing: the Death Word


Don’t use this word. Ever.

When “introducing” is used in a headline,  it takes the average reader less than 14.2 nanoseconds to recognize that you’ve got nothing interesting to say. (I made that datum up to impress the engineers among you. Let’s just say it doesn’t take much time.) And since, in every reader’s mind,  all ads are perceived with disdain and irritation to begin with, to flag one with the death word, “Introducing,” is to insure that it will never be read…not unless it’s part of the sentence, “Introducing the best way to stick your elbow in your ear.”

(Admit it, you just tried to do that. Didn’t you?)

“Introducing” is also a gerund. Which means it’s passive. Of course, this is covered in the first hour of any community college copywriting class. But it doesn’t seem to have sunk in lately, at least judging by all this year’s crop of $4.5-million-per-30-second Super Bowl spots. If you want your ads to be read or listened to, don’t use the passive voice. Don’t use other gerunds like “celebrating” (as in  “Celebrating 50 Years of Excellence”), “innovating,” or “leveraging.” The passive voice sucks all the life out of your ads. It makes them dull. It makes them ignored. It makes you waste the $4.5 million you just spent on your Super Bowl spot.

“Introducing” betrays an amateur copywriter, without even a hint craft or talent. No professional copywriter would ever use such a lazy, lifeless verb like “Introducing.” Not in the headline. Not in the copy. Not in the script. Not in the content of a website. It’s a dead word. And it screams, “I’m a hack!” Such a hack would also not hesitate to use a phrase like “passion for excellence,” “formula for your success,” or “the difference is in our people,” in their copy.

But there seems to be much more hackitosis in advertising these days.

“Introducing” also embarrasses the client who would tolerate such a passive, lazy word in their marketing. It tells all of us, unconsciously (in 8.9 nanoseconds), that the advertiser isn’t all that enthusiastic about their product. So why should we be?

Do you ever, in normal conversation, use the word “introducing” as a predicate? When you are introducing two friends, do you say, “Liam, introducing Miyako. Miyako, introducing Liam.”? Do your e-mails and texts use that word? Then don’t write your ads using it.


Unless, of course, you have a very good reason. And a note from your editor.

Giving Bad News

inkjet-hypodermic-needle-2Be honest. Do any of you ever read those agonizingly composed letters from marketers that begin with the deadly phrase, “Your business is important to us…” (YBIITU)? In the first place, even if you open the envelope or the e-mail, you know what this means. It means bad news coming. They’re raising their rates; they’re closing your local branch; they’re discontinuing a service you’ve enjoyed; your frequent shopper points have expired…something bad. In other words, YBIITU means the opposite; that “your business isn’t important to us,” at least important enough to be honest upfront. And if it were that important, why would you do this bad thing to me?

YBIITU letters are examples of marketing that shoots itself in the foot. We have all, as good little Pavlovian dogs, become conditioned to regard this phrase as the buzzer before the electric shock. It’s the commercial equivalent of the equally deadly phrase in a romantic relationship, “We need to talk.” Somehow, you know that the “talk” isn’t going to be about something positive, like whether the Kings have a shot at the Stanley Cup this year. “We need to talk,” is the bell that announces the bad news coming; “I’m seeing somebody else,” “This isn’t working,” “I’m moving out,” “You’re moving out,” or “I’m going to have to raise my rates for you sleeping with me.” YBIITU is the same. It’s the wrong way to deliver bad news.

Yet the writers of these communications, while they may stay up all night carefully composing their obsequious prose, don’t seem to get what starting off with these shallow clichés does to their audience. It immediately causes the defenses to go up. The same happens when they leaven the first few paragraphs with self-aggrandizing language that extols how much the company thinks of itself, of how many customer-service awards it’s won, of its commitment to excellence. Nobody gives a damn about your customer service ratings (those are rigged anyway, we all know). We’re only scanning for the bad news you’re about to hit us with; the broken glass in the sandwich.

Well, how do you give bad news to your customers?

Be honest. Be upfront. Since your customers are already going to be wary of the contents of this letter, just cut to the chase and say right out, “It pains us, but we’re going to have to raise your rates 1.5%” Then you can explain why. But the bad news is already over, and, usually, it probably isn’t as bad as you think. It’s like when the nurse gives you a shot. The good ones just do it quick and painlessly, before you can even tense up. The bad ones talk about how it’s not going to hurt, but may “sting a bit,” and then slowly push in the needle.

Relate to your own experience as you write these letters, too. When you hear someone yammering on about all the good things you should be grateful for in doing business with them, don’t you start thinking, “This is going to be bad.”? You brace for the pain. And that amplifies it when it eventually comes, way down in paragraph #4.

Likewise, make it short. Don’t fill up the page with cant about how great you think you are. We don’t care. In fact, it makes you look like an egotistical jerk. Bad news is worse when it’s verbose. Just opening a letter with bad news sets an “off” tone for the recipient. We can smell it. And if we see hundreds of words in 10 point type, you’ve added insult to injury by requiring us to sit down to do a lot of reading. Most of us won’t anyway. We see “YBIITU” and immediately start scanning below for the sting.

So if you have a rate increase to announce, or you’re closing a store, or you’re no longer supporting some popular software, don’t take more than 50 words at most to say that. Be deferential, of course, even apologetic. But be brief and honest.

And never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever say that my business is important to you. That just makes me think the opposite.


Let’s make certain words go the way of the Passenger Pigeon

They once blackened the skies, but with diligence, we took care of that.

If I have to read one more Website, ad, brochure, PowerPoint slide, or e-mail that uses the following words…well, I don’t know what I’m going to do. Probably nothing more drastic than to immediately mark it as “spam.” As an activist, I’m a wimp. But these words fill the skies like passenger pigeons once did. They need a mass extinction event.

Here are some words I’d like to see terminated…yes, with extreme prejudice:


“Methodology” is a malaprop, at least as it’s usually used. It’s one of those misapplied Latinate words (okay, Hellenate) intended to make the user sound more cerebral than he is; a word with unnecessary decoration on it. Broken down, “methodology” means “the study of methods” not the methods themselves. There’s usually no “logy” at all. But you read “methodology” so often when “method” would do just fine…and usually more accurately.


This isn’t a word. In fact, anything “…set”: “toolset,” “mindset”…I can’t think of any more at the moment.   What’s wrong with just “skills” or “tools” or “frame of mind”? People who say “skillset” want you to think they are more credentialed than they are. It’s a mask. When they describe their “skillset” they usually have just one skill, like the ability to sort socks.


Did you mean, “talking to people”? I must admit, I’ve heard myself use this asinine word way too often, and I’m trying to stop it. Usually I think, right afterward, “I can’t believe I just said ‘engagement.’ I sound like an asshole.”

“Engagement” in the military sense is a euphemism for a fight in which people are killed—not a good thing—less than a full-on battle but more than an exchange of withering insults. Or it refers to that cooling-off period after you’ve rashly asked someone to marry you.  But in marketing and branding; it usually means the wishful thinking that your customer actually gives a shit about you when you’re not in their face,”engaging” them.


Meaning “business” or “company”. When you use the word “enterprise, ” however, you’re sounding like you have an MBA from some name-on-request, online university. Can you think of an enterprise that isn’t a business? (Aside from the aircraft carrier and the starship, I mean.) It doesn’t mean that “enterprise” can’t sometimes be used to describe the whole magilla that is a modern, commercial operation, but stop to think about another word for a change; you know, to liven it up a bit.


People do love to use words that end in “logy,” don’t they? But unless you have a defensible patent on it, it’s just a way you do things around here; it isn’t technology. It’s only a method (and not a methodology).

What’s even worse is “technologies.” Plural. What makes that thing you do plural? Does “technologies” sound more hi-falutin’ than simply “technology?”

And my problem with it is that both “technology” or “technologies” sound way too precious, like when people pluralize “water.” (Don’t make me demonstrate.) Years ago I needed to get a new shirt in LA and I went into this snooty store in the Beverly Center (let’s face it, a shopping mall), where the sales clerk described what he was selling as “shirtings.”  The signage over that part of the store also said “shirtings.” Shirtings are $300+. I went to Nordstrom, where they had shirts. For $40.


Do you think it makes you unique to describe your company as customer-centric? Can you imagine any successful company (aside from a derivatives trader) that is not customer-centric? And when you use this mule-of-a-word to describe yourself, you sort of invite closer scrutiny of how UN-customer-centric you really are. Especially if you keep talking about yourself: “At Dingbat Digital, we’re customer centric. We do this. We believe that. We, we, we. But enough about us. What do you think of us?”


Next time somebody uses the word “granular” in a PowerPoint presentation, ask them what they mean by it. Is it composed of grains? Does it promote regularity? Does it make you want to rub your eyes?

Full confession here: I also misuse this word. I’ve hired somebody to kick me under the table when I do, though. And my frame of mind when I do use it is, “Oh, shit! I don’t know what I’m talking about! Say “granular” quick!”


Usually used as an adjective for “provider.” “We’re a solutions provider.” What your customer, or prospective customer hears is “We still haven’t figured out why we started this company. So we’ll do anything you pay us to do.”


This just means rotund, fat, bloated, and beyond the reach of the law. It also means you use criminally negligent sweatshops in the developing world to pay little girls twenty-two rupees a month, working under life-threatening conditions to glue, sew, weld, dye, solder, or assemble your solutions providing technologies.

The Net

That’s a phrase I’d also like to see stuffed and mounted in the Smithsonian (preferably in a dramatic diorama showing prehistoric people driving herds of it off a cliff). But it’s also my exhortation. Seriously. Stop writing like this. Hire a writer. Or if your hired writer is writing like this, get another writer. At least get them to come back with simpler, fresher, more direct words.

I promise, I’ll try, too.




iPhone 5I couldn’t help noticing the new iPhone 5 commercial from TBWA/Chiat/Day. It features a montage of pretty, young people taking pictures of all kinds of pretty things with their iPhones. Very pretty. Lots of appetite appeal (as we say in the biz). Lot’s of demonstrations of zooming, and cropping, and panorama-inginging-ing. It’s accompanied by pretty piano music with a simple chord and beat, like you’d expect from Chiat/Day and Apple. Very pretty. Altogether it is a quintessential example of clean, simple advertising.

Years ago, when I was going to Art Center to learn how to be an ad creative,  I was fortunate to take a rare class from Chiat/Day legend Lee Clow. (As far as I know, it was the only class he ever taught there…and with good reason.) Clow was the CD behind the historic “1984” Macintosh ad. He inspired us to keep things simple, to go for the heart, and to make things elegant. You can certainly see his influence in this new iPhone ad. He was one of the main reasons I decided to make a living in advertising…instead of neuro-ophthalmology.

The only copy in the ad is also simple, coming at the end where a voice over announcer says, “Every day, more photos are taken with the iPhone than with any other camera.” Very strong. Very simple. Very Clowesque.

Only it’s a fairly outrageous statement. Is it true? Are more photos taken with an iPhone than any other camera? With the Apple iOS continuing to lose market share to Android-based mobile OS, you have to ask yourself.

According to industry reports, last year Apple iOS had fallen to less than 20% global market share to Android’s 70%. And in an article in Fortune this week, iPhone is projected to drop to 9% from a high of 22% just six months ago. So either iPhone owners are taking pictures much more frequently than anyone else (like Samsung Galaxy III owners, or Canon or Nikon owners) or it’s just…oh, what’s the nice word for it? You know; when someone represents something that is different from reality. It’ll come to me.

I think, listening to my friends who are loyal Apple owners (whether Mac, iPhone, iPad, iPod), that they are so in love with the brand and the product that they must believe that the whole world is pretty much Apple-based now. Why else would you have any other brand? Apple is frequently reported in the press as being the world’s largest company (at least in terms of market cap), even though it’s a long way from being the actual largest company, too (see Fortune’s list of Fortune 500). So doesn’t that mean that more people have iPhones, iPads, and Macs than any other similar appliance?


I was looking at the stats on a client’s website yesterday and a curious datum hit me: Under “Page Views by Operating System” 72% were from Windows OS (which would include everything from Windows 8 back to, I guess, Windows 95), but just 7% were from Mac OS (it didn’t parse out the versions). If you add the mobile iOS , the total Apple share of this activity was less than 19%.  The balance was from Linux and Android.

I was surprised. This doesn’t seem like the world’s largest company. These numbers seem about consistent with Apple’s market share 20 years ago.  Not a whole lot of movement in the 29 years since Mac was introduced in 1984. By the end of that decade, Mac penetration into the personal computer market was also in the single digits. Like today.

In an article from last fall, ZDNet’s tech reporter Adrian Kingsley-Hughes headlines: “Mac OS X Overtakes Windows Vista in Global Market Share.”  The numbers don’t lie:  a whopping 7.13% for Mac to a pathetic 6.15% for Vista (never popular to begin with and by last year already on its way out). Further down in the article (you’ll notice, with a hilarious graph) he concedes that total Windows share has been unchanged for years at 92% to Mac OS X’s  7%.

So how can more people be taking pictures with an iPhone? And Apple be the largest company on earth? And everyone be using a Mac? It certainly seems that way whenever you go into a Starbucks and try to find an open table without that bitten apple staring at you.

Perception is Reality

This is Rule #2 of the Unbreakable Rules of Marketing. And Apple really does a bang-up job obeying it. Their ads, their brand, even their loyal customer base, all speak with one voice to control and cultivate that perception. There is only one choice in terms of computers, smartphones, tablets, and media players; and it’s Apple. So the iPhone ad can confidently state that more people take pictures with an iPhone than with any other camera, and nobody’s going to question it. It sure seems that way; so it must be true. The perfect sophistry.

Apple has done such a good job at synonymizing the iPhone with smartphones in general that when we see crowds of people holding up their little rectangles to take a picture at an event, we all assume they’re holding up iPhones. It’s hard to tell a Samsung from an iPhone at that distance, anyway. If we see someone using a tablet in public, we also assume it’s an iPad. In fact, no one uses the generics “smartphone” or “tablet” to describe these things; they’re iPhones and iPads. They’ve become the Kleenex®, Bandaid®, Aspirin®, Xerox®, and Coke® of electronics…without the ®s. That’s brand nirvana (except to the trademark attorneys).

Will anyone stand up for Windows? Anyone?

Of course, no one’s going to challenge Apple’s claims of brand superiority. You don’t have loyal gangs of Windows users coming to the defense of Microsoft. People who use Windows (including me), don’t feel particularly religious about it. It’s pretty much a generic when it comes to operating systems, even though each iteration does pretty much the same thing each new generation of Mac OS X does. But we’re not going to leap at the throat of someone who complains about Windows. Try criticizing a Mac or an iPad to an owner, though.  Those people are fanatics. (I can’t wait for the reaction to this post.)

It’s not because Apple products are so much better. It’s because Apple branding is. Just look at its market cap (#1 at $500 billion) versus its actual size (#55 at $108 billion). Apparently, people are five times more likely to buy Apple stock than Apple products.

Steve Jobs has been described as a visionary, a genius, an inspiration to all who seek to create heaven on earth. Of course, none of the innovations with which he is credited did he actually come up with first; the personal computer, the WYSIWIG graphical interface, the laptop, the smartphone, the tablet, the touchscreen interface were all developed by other people at other companies before his muse visited him. What he was a genius at, and what Apple continues to excel at, is brand marketing.  Nobody does it better.

Okay now, Apple owners. Bring it on.


Mass extinction onestarbucks-latte





One of these two pictures is of something awesome.
Can you spot the difference?

There are some words that have been overused and abused and lately one of them is “awesome”. No, the word itself isn’t awesome…well, it is…but it isn’t, especially when it is used as a malaprop. I don’t need to clarify, right?

Oh, okay…if you insist:

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first definition of “Awe” is

“Awe: 1. Immediate and active fear; terror, dread.”

So unless that pizza you  took a picture of with your phone (a phrase that is guaranteed to confuse a time traveler from the past) to put on your Facebook Page is about to smother the surface of the planet in a tsunami of molten cheese, causing a mass extinction event not seen in 65 million years, it probably isn’t awesome. Neither is the vente soy caramel no-whip latte your barista pronounced as an “awesome choice” (except in its tsunami of planet-smothering adjectives).

The OED’s definitions of “awesome” itself are:

1. Full of awe, profoundly reverential.
2. Inspiring awe; appalling, dreadful, weird.
3. a. In weakened sense: overwhelming, staggering; remarkable, prodigious. colloq. (orig. and chiefly U.S.).
b. In trivial use, as an enthusiastic term of commendation: ‘marvellous’, ‘great’; stunning, mind-boggling. slang.

Note the third and last definition, “In trivial use…”

What bothers me, a writer, about the overuse of words like “awesome” is just this trivialization. Words like “awesome,” “passionate,” “content,” and “engagement” are used so frequently and without thinking that they soon lose all meaning, all the life sucked out of them. They end up like packing peanuts, bulking up our language without adding anything of value.

My grandfather, a farmer, used to say that a weed is any plant that’s growing where it doesn’t belong. Some words are like weeds, choking weeds. And “awesome” is the Himalayan blackberry of adjectives. Of course, if the Himalayan blackberries engulfing my backyard continue at the current rate, they are liable to become awesome.

My friends and family recognize this as a running joke with me (and roll their eyes). My co-author and business partner Cathey Armillas now uses the word “awesome” just to tease me (as she does with gratuitous exclamation points, another peeve of mine). And I, in retaliation, put two spaces after a period, which drives her crazy. We know how to goad each other. Other friends and colleagues also use “awesome” too much, but now, when they post or e-mail me, they put a smiley face behind it and tag me.(See? It’s a self-marketing device.)

So at least I’m getting them to be more conscious of it. (A ploy to get people to change their thinking and behavior–also marketing.)

English is a dirty language.

Some people are defensive about “awesome” and challenge my complaint with the argument that language evolves and the current usage of the word means, “something pleasant.” You know, democracy overcoming meaning. I’m not challenging that. After all, the current meaning of the term “terrific” means “wonderful” where it once meant “filled with terror.”  And the term “fag” once meant bundle of sticks, then cigarette, then a demeaning name for a homosexual, and now just a jerk, regardless of his orientation.  Or how the word “literally” which used to mean “in the exact, actual sense; not figuratively” now  also  means “intensely” or “figuratively.” English is terrific that way (in both senses of that word). Yesterday’s “decimated” (reduced by 10%) has come to mean reduced by 100%. Definitions are now crowd-sourced (see the many entries for “awesome” on Urban Dictionary).  And democracy always wins.

In fact, English is itself an impure language. It is a living, dynamic means of communication and evolves all the time. It’s a mongrel tongue.  In a way, it’s a hyper-creole. As it exists today, the majority of English words are not English at all (in the original Anglo-Saxon sense) but French, Hindi, German, Japanese, West African, Spanish, Dutch, or just made up by Shakespeare (an alien). The OED estimates that there are over a quarter million words in the modern English vocabulary. English just gobbles up other innocent languages and digests them, growing and growing to engulf the world. It’s the Himalayan blackberry of languages.

But that’s good because it means we have, on the tips of our tongues, a vast resource of expression. If language is power, we have one of the most powerful languages that has ever existed. So we should use it wisely.

Tiny vocabulary. Tiny thoughts.

George Orwell’s theory of language was that a limited vocabulary leads to limited capacity for feeling, or thought, or ideas. At least that’s what he has one of his characters say in 1984. The character, a word-destroyer in the Ministry of Truth, explains that “…the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought. In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word.” Like “awesome” for instance. Not being a psycho-linguist, I can’t answer to the validity of this theory, (well, I could, but I’m too lazy to look it up), but as a premise, it has persuasive appeal.

One problem with having just one default adjective for the whole range of positive feeling is that when it’s a word like “awesome” you’ve got no place else to go. If your pizza is awesome, what word are you going to use to describe a mass-extinction event? Or even just something a little nicer than that pizza? (I know, but it could happen.) You’re already bouncing against the ceiling of potential human reaction, like an escaped party balloon. You’ll just have to pop when the shock wave hits you. Speechlessly.

But this gets me to my real point. Finally. I’m not decrying the promiscuous use of the word “awesome” based on some Grandpa Simpson in-my-day crankiness. What I’m decrying is the laziness of people’s speech. And this is nothing new to this or any generation. With a quarter million words to choose from, why is it that so many people can only think of one adjective to describe something pleasant, or delightful, or tasty, or refreshing, or exciting, or invigorating, or comforting, or inspiring, or even terrifying? English is a pretty versatile toolbox of ways to express nuance, scale, complexity, abstraction, and feeling. And a lot of us are smarter than Frankenstein’s monster grunting “Food goooood! Fire baaaad! You awesome!”

So we should use all of our words. They’re free after all. And we should collect more and use them (correctly) in sentences.  ‘Kay?




The Courtesy of Seduction

Ever feel that irk, right in the middle of an especially intimate conversation you’re having with someone at a restaurant–say you’re about to ask them to to marry you (or move out)–when the perky waiter pops in to ask if you’d like your iced tea refilled or if you’d like to see the dessert menu? Magic gone. Moment lost.

Of course, the waiter doesn’t know you were in the midst of a life-altering conversation. He’s just doing his job (though I think he really does know, mischievously). But this isn’t about the bad timing of waiters, it’s about empathizing with your advertising audience’s feeling of being interrupted.

Whenever you run an ad, you’re interrupting somebody. They may be reading a fascinating article. Or watching a nail-biting movie. Or trying to watch a viral video of some stupid idiot falling off a roof. Or listening to an infuriating conversation on talk radio. Suddenly, at the worst possible time, in you pop, like that interrupting waiter, to tell them they may be paying too much for their wireless data plan. So chances are pretty good that your ad you’re so proud of has more than likely just pissed them off. Not a good start.

All advertising is just plain rude.

I  remember taking my very first ad design class at Art Center College of Design from veteran art director Ray Engle, and the first thing he said on the first day was, “All advertising is an interruption. It’s rude.”  He went on to say that when you conceive an ad, say a TV spot, you need to empathize with that person sitting on the couch . He isn’t waiting on the edge of his seat for your commercial. He’s watching a show. And you’ve just interrupted him and broken his concentration, and, more than likely, ruined his mood. Worse, if he was watching some program he was not that into, he’s much more likely to change channels. Or worse yet,  just turn the damn thing off to go out and enjoy the beautiful day. We can’t have that! Civilization as we know it would collapse.

The crits of our amateurish concepts in that first advertising class all started with Engle’s primary criterion, “Is this this worth the interruption?” If not, it got ripped off the wall (Art Center is a harsh school).

So it had better be worth it.

But what can we do?

But if all advertising is an interruption and is just going to piss people off, what can we do?

Well, for one thing, you can try a little old fashioned seduction. Make sure that if you do run an ad, it’s not dull. Or irritating. This is where creativity comes in.  Ads that entertain are not being gratuitously funny at the expense of the advertiser. Entertainment serves a vital function.  It holds the attention of the viewer just long enough to keep them from fast forwarding, changing channels, or clicking “Skip Ad”.

It also makes a peace offering, rewarding the person you’ve just interrupted with a joke, or at least something of interest…so they’re not as irritated. It’s sort of like the slab of steak the cartoon cat offers Butch the Bulldog so he can sneak past him to get to that evil mouse. Think of your intended audience as the bulldog and the mouse as his inner desires…and you’re the cat. Or pick your own metaphor. I don’t care.

In short, don’t sell, seduce.

Skip-proofing your message

Nowadays technology makes it is easier than ever to filter out advertising. And the only way to fight against that if you’re an advertiser is to make sure people don’t want to filter it. This is the role of entertainment. It’s the slab of steak. Or the cheese. And you don’t crave the steak or the cheese because you need protein and calcium; you eat them because they’re delicious. (If you’re a vegan then, of course, this doesn’t apply and you are impervious to seduction).

You’d think marketers would realize this. Instead I’ve read so many posts and heard so many advertising professionals denigrate the role of entertainment in their advertising, that it’s somehow just useless, existing only to keep childish creative people employed. Or that it isn’t professional. And that the new marketing all depends on getting to the psychometrically targeted customer, so you can close that sale as efficiently as possible. The new marketers have water glasses to refill and dessert menus to proffer and tables to clear. But since they don’t seem to appreciate that the people they want to sell to don’t necessarily want to be sold to (even if psychometrically targeted), they’ve forgotten the simple courtesy of seduction.

There’s nothing wrong with seduction.

Seduction is a good thing. It’s respectful. It’s at the heart of all brand marketing. It may be quaint and old fashioned but it’s still a part of human behavior.

Compare these two marketing techniques:

The quaint, old-fashioned, brand marketing way: You take somebody out for a nice dinner. You make witty conversation. You make them laugh. You laugh at their jokes. You listen to them and show you care about them. You call them the next day to see how they are. You make another date (if you both had fun on the first one). You repeat, cultivating the relationship into something meaningful and mutually fulfilling. You get married and have beaucoup kids.

(At least that’s how I think seduction is supposed to work. Hm. Maybe that explains something in my own life.)

The new, hot, direct marketing way: You find a targeted qualified lead with an online SEM tool and hit them with, “Hey, have sex with me! There’s a chance for dinner at a moderately priced restaurant. But wait, there’s more, if you’re willing to do some ‘other things’ (wink, wink) there might be a movie in it for you, too. But only if you act in the next hour.” You then add them to your CRM and invite them to “like” your Facebook page.

Which technique would work better on you? (See how I care about what you think.)


Talk about emotional

Sprint girl screen shot baby
Leo Burnett’s “Girl” spot for Sprint

I know it seems like all I do is bitch and grouse and criticize about what people do wrong in marketing. At least that’s what my daughter thinks I do. But I wanted to bring this spot to everyone’s attention. It’s a simple commercial from Sprint that started airing last fall. And I saw it again tonight. The concept is so simple and so beautiful, and being the father of a little baby who’s all grown up, emotionally knee-weakening.

Done by Leo Burnett, it features a “time lapse” of a little girl growing up before your eyes, all on a smart phone. The message is the longevity of Sprint’s service with the Samsung Galaxy SIII smartphone and its unlimited text and data. A hand touches one phone to another, transferSprint girl screen shot 2ring the images of the talking girl instantly from one person to the next, as she grows older by the second. To me the gesture is so perfect, and reinforced by the poignant soundtrack of Alexi Murdoch’s “All My Days”. I was a goner. And if I weren’t so hip deep in my contract with AT&T (curse them!) I’d definitely reconsider Sprint. I may still.

I’m going out on an uncool limb here and state that it’s a great and memorable ad, obeying all of the 9 Unbreakable Rules of Marketing. But especially #3 Creativity, #5 Simplicity and #7 Emotionality.

But that’s just my empty-nester opinion.




How to write a Creative Brief

A Creative Brief is one of those things that can make or break a successful ad or marketing campaign. But in my experience, few know how to write a useful one. And the reason seems to be that the people tasked with writing it (whether account executives or clients) seem to be unclear on whom the brief is for, or what its function is. So I’m going to clear this up, as service to mankind and to countless unborn generations.

What is it supposed to do?

The Creative Brief is a kind of work order, a blueprint, for the function of the piece that is to be created. That piece is a device designed to persuade somebody to do something you want them to do. Doesn’t matter what; an ad, a commercial, a poster, a blog post, a website, any marketing tool. The very reason you’re doing an ad, say, is not to do an ad (that would be silly, though I’ve seen so many briefs start with “to do an ad”); it’s to change somebody’s mind. So make sure this is in the brief; what you want them to think or do after they see the thing.

Whom is the Creative Brief for?

The clue is hidden in the title. The creative team. They’re the ones who have to actually create the ad, the website, the brochure, the piece. Hence the adjective, “creative.”  And in order for them to have the best information to make an effective ad, website, video, brochure, or thing, they need a useful brief–written for them.

The Creative Brief, contrary to what most seem to think, is not for the client, or for the account executive. That would be another brief, not the “creative” one. It’s for the creatives.

But doesn’t the client have to sign off on the creative brief?

Of course! (Notice I used a bang. Because someone’s life is at stake.) The client (or if you happen to be the client writing the brief, you) needs to sign off because this brief is the thing you’re going to use to see whether or not the wacky ideas your creative team comes up with actually do the job you set it to do.  That’s why it’s fundamental to the brief to define that outcome.  So if your creatives come to you with a left-field concept, instead of reacting to it based on whether you simply “like” it or not, you can hold it up to the criteria in the brief and see.  And the creative team can hold it up themselves to see, even before they take it to you. Makes it a much more professional, efficient, and objective process.

How long should it be?

The clue to this answer is also in the name, Creative Brief. A good brief, even for something as complex as an integrated marketing campaign, should be no more than one page. That’s right. If your strategy is so complicated that it won’t fit on one page, go back and think a little more. You don’t get points for word count.

A Template for a Creative Brief

This template was first created by Dave McAuliffe at McCannErickson years ago, one of the most brilliant account executives I ever worked with. I have ported it with me ever since, sharing it with every AE at every ad agency. It is, as far as I’m concerned, the quintessence of how a good Creative Brief should be designed. And because I’m on a mission to improve advertising in the world (rather than join the cranky myriads decrying how evil and bad it’s become), I’m sharing it with you here. Feel free to copy and paste it under your own company’s format. It’s my gift to you.

The Creative Brief template is set up as a questionnaire. Answer the six simple questions and you’ve done a useful brief. Of course, add all the housekeeping stuff, like client info, job number and name, delivery dates, media etc.–do I have to do everything for you?

Now go to lunch.


What is the purpose of the ad?

What outcome do you want to see after the ad has run? Increased brand awareness? Lead generation? Product preference? Direct sales? Indirect sales?

What is the single main thought?

Describe the single most tangible thing about this product or service that the customer would care about. What problem does it solve?  This is the main thought that a reader should get right away, even if she doesn’t read or hang around for the rest of the ad.

What supports this?

Stick to the provable facts. “Because we said so” or our own claims to leadership won’t hack it.

Whom are we talking to?

Describe the person who will most likely act on this ad (not the client).

What else has to absolutely be included in the ad?

Charts? URLs?  Product images? Award medallions? Phone numbers? Promotions? Disclaimers?

What do we want the audience to do?

What action do we want them to take? Call? Go to our website? Buy? Sign up? Walk their dog? Stop smoking? Just keep us in mind?

Rules for Non-Writers

Not everybody likes to write.

This post is not for professional copywriters, or professional writers (copy or otherwise). You guys can go about your business. The points I’m going to make here are for the normal 99.99% of people who hate to write, who equate writing with their worst days in school, who think they are bad writers, but who, nevertheless, frequently find themselves tasked with writing something–like the content for their own website, an e-mail,  a white paper,  a cover letter, a Dear John letter, a term paper, or even a blog post. My sympathy goes out to you. Which is why I’m being so saint-like in writing this post.

So I wanted to give some little tricks you can use to overcome your aversion to writing. That’s easy for me to say, I know, because I happen to like writing. I love it, in fact. Some even think I have a syndrome somewhere in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) that describes my compulsion to write. But they’re nuts.

But even though it is easy for me to say, and while I can’t make you love to write, I can at least point out some rules you can follow to just get on with it. They aren’t an exhaustive list, but they might be helpful. So here are some rules:

1. Write like you talk.

The mistake that most people make when they start writing is that they write like they think the thing should sound. They imitate what other, similar pieces sound like. But what they end up doing is stringing together a series of banalities that mean nothing. They use words like “passion” and “commitment” and “solution” and “leverage” as though they were little silicon implants, packed in there to flesh out the prose. And when you read that kind of writing, your eyes glaze over. In fact, you’d better not read it while driving.

But think about it. If someone were to talk to you like that in person, would you think they were crazy? Or mind-numbingly dull? Or just full of gas? Well, why would you write like that to them? If your eyes glaze over reading it, why would anyone else stay alert while they read your version of the same?

So write like you talk. This doesn’t mean you should use slang, or incomplete sentences (unless for effect), or bad grammar. This doesn’t give you permission to commit the “Me-I” pronoun error. Nor can you let typos slide. But it does mean that, as you write it, the piece should sound like it’s coming from a living, breathing human being. I always tell people to imagine you’re having lunch with the person you’re writing to. Write that script.

Some writers I know say it helps them to read what they’ve written out loud to themselves or a friend chained in their basement, to hear what it sounds like as a script. I don’t do this, of course, except in my head. But some people say it’s useful. Whatever the technique you use, keep thinking, while writing, that you are actually talking to another person.

The bonus to writing like you talk, is that you’ll talk prettier, too.

2. Show some empathy.

Besides their aversion to writing, nearly every sane person has an equal aversion to have to read bad writing. Have pity on them. They didn’t do anything to you. Why would you want to bore them to death? Think how many more people would read the user agreements to software licenses  if they were written more with more empathy…or at least a with little more entertainment.

Pick somebody. If you can imagine for yourself a specific person you’re talking to while you write, it will help you enormously. Even though you may be writing something for millions to read (or dozens in the case of this blog), remember that they all read it one at a time. So pick one person out and think about them. Put yourself in their place. Would you want to read what you just wrote? Then rewrite it.

Speech coaches tell us, when we’re talking to a large audience, to pick out a friendly face or two in the crowd and make eye contact with them. It tends to make your speech more engaging because the eye contact is part of our social animal thing. Same goes for writing. You can’t make eye contact. But you can imagine it.

3. Put the gerunds down.

They’re evil, at least in place of actual, fully tensed-out verbs. This also has to do with the rule to write like you talk. Let’s say you bring a friend to lunch with the person you’re hypothetically writing to; would you say, “Introducing Monica.”? Or would you say, “This is Monica.”? See the difference? One sentence has a subject and a predicate, the other is just stupid. But how many times do you see ads or taglines written with the stupid gerund? “Introducing the 2013 Lexus!” “Announcing a breakthrough in the war on acne!” “Leveraging Solutions for a Brighter Tomorrow”.

The other problem with gerunds is that they epitomize the flattest, most passive voice. They reek of non-commitment. Generally it is better to lean toward a more active tone. It doesn’t mean you can’t ever use a passive “to be” verb. Sometimes it’s unavoidable (like in this very sentence). But just try to keep up and moving around. It’ll do wonders for your circulation.

So lay off the -ing verbs.

4. Read good writing.

My mom, who was a wizard in the kitchen, used to say that if you want be a good cook, you have to know what good food tastes like. The same applies to writing. Just immersing yourself in good literature can, by osmosis, improve your own output. The sound of language itself is musical. It’s often inspirational. The perfect word, a well-turned phrase, a memorable line are delights in themselves.

If you read good writing, then, or hear it in movies or speeches, then your brain will start to imitate it, just like it sought to imitate the “commitment to excellent solutions” kind of writing before. Reading junky writing is like eating junk food. The output (and your arteries) will suffer.

5. Watch the bangs, buster!

This is a special pet peeve of mine (and many of you already tease me like the playground nerd I am), but please, please, please, think several times before you put an exclamation mark at the end of your sentence. It doesn’t make it any more urgent. Or exciting. A bang doesn’t make up for a bad sentence anymore than Cool-Whip makes a stale cake better.

There are some who end every sentence with an exclamation mark. But, using the empathy rule above, don’t you see what this does? It comes across as yelling. And who likes to be yelled out? Okay, so you’re excited about the big news. Putting a ! on the end isn’t going to convey that excitement any more.

One of my first mentors when I was learning to write used to say that you should never use an exclamation mark unless somebody’s life was in danger. This is an exaggeration, of course. There are plenty of appropriate applications of bangs–“I’m going to be a father!” “Turn that racket down!” “The basement is flooded!”–but if you just shoot one off at the end of every sentence, regardless of content, you’re going to be out of bangs when something really important happens.

Challenge yourself. If you feel tempted, out of habit, to bang the end of a sentence you’ve written because you aren’t confident it conveys intensity, rewrite the sentence. After enough practice, you’ll wean yourself from bangs. Unless you really need them. I mean, really.

6. Strip out the extraneous, fluffy, superfluous, inessential, excessive, redundant, useless adjectives.

Some people seem to think that adding more adjectives to a noun will somehow bring the noun to life–like increasing voltage on the monster. Lawyers, in particular, seem to be adjective junkies. But look at any website and count the adjectives they don’t really need. Now look at yours.

But if you feel tempted to add them, think what would be lost if they were gone.

7. Practice. Practice.

Which, gets to me to practice. As with any skill, the more you practice writing, the better you’ll be at it. Think of any opportunity at the keyboard as a drill in honing your craft. You can even take time to write a better e-mail, a more thoughtful Facebook post, a text.  Write poetry for yourself. Write short stories. Write essays. Set up a blog. Nobody has to read it. But you’ll become a much better writer. That is, if you want to be.

Or, you can always hire people like me.