A collection of aphorisms, Vol. 1

—————-

Advertising projected a story on a screen. Digital opened a door on the screen to participate in the story.

—————-

Hierarchy is a relic of the industrial age. Build fluidity into your culture for the connection age.

—————-

Outcomes, not outputs.

—————-

98% of RFPs are written based on the sins of the previous agency.

—————-

Agency leaders should realize that potential clients are uncanny in their ability to smell desperation.

—————-

100% ownership of a great idea that goes unproduced is worth zero. Get comfortable sharing your ideas early and often.

—————-

Admitting what you don’t know is the first step towards learning it.

—————-

Banking on RFPs to provide new clients is akin to believing you can earn a living at the craps table.

—————-

If you’ve made your thing, offer to help someone make their thing.

—————-

Scarcity is good. Mystique is even better.

Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable

To take one step is courageous;
to stay on the path day after day,
choosing the unknown, and facing
yet another fear, that is nothing
short of grace. 

—Excerpt from Sangha, by Danna Faulds¹

———————————————————-

Believe it or not, about 15 years and 30 pounds ago, I used to run marathons. Yes, the 26.2 mile kind of marathons. The crucial part of training for marathons is the weekly long run. Each week over the course of a 4 month training period, you add one more mile to your long run than you ran the previous week. Near the end of your preparation for the race, you’ll probably have logged three runs of 20 miles or more. The rationale of this type of training—or madness, depending on your point of view—is getting your body used to being comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. After all, there’s really no way to avoid being uncomfortable at some point during an endurance race that covers 26 miles.

Two cases in point. During my first marathon in the Fox Valley, we were treated to 40 degree temperatures and a 20 mph tailwind for the first 18 miles of the course. At mile 18 we turned back into that cold wind, at which point my entire body immediately cramped up—with eight miles to go. Uncomfortable is not the word. Excruciating and soul-destroying come to mind. But I eventually finished the race and was given the customary finisher’s thermal foil sheet, medal, and long-sleeve t-shirt. Two years later at the 1996 Grandma’s marathon, I absolutely cruised for 25 miles, until I hit a complete power outage. But with only 8 minutes of exertion left, I knew I could easily gut out those last moments of discomfort to get my finisher’s medal.

Uncomfortable circa 1996

Now that I’m older, I run much shorter distances, but I’m still faced with many days when it just feels flat out uncomfortable. I have to actively remind myself in those instances that eventually this feeling will pass, and I’ll be better conditioned because of it.

So what does this have to do with what we usually write about on this blog? Okay, confession time. The last three years have been the most uncomfortable period of my professional career. Allow me explain.

In late 2008, I decided I had enough with advertising. I had done everything I wanted to do. Got in all the important award annuals, won multiple best of shows, and worked in Minneapolis for an agency I had always admired. But I didn’t love what I did anymore. In fact, it had become boring and tedious. Campaign after campaign after campaign. Telling clients we actually affected their business, but what we really did was just delivered was marketing materials. Great ads with great thinking, but in the end they were ads.

There were still things I liked about my profession. I loved design, more so than ever. I had discovered a design blog called Grain Edit, and I started tinkering with the simple “mod-style” of illustration that Charley Harper and Saul Bass pioneered, and that shops like Invisible Creature carry on today. I loved thinking and strategy—I just didn’t want that freedom of thought to be limited to ads. I had gotten my first taste of digital, and loved all the moving parts, and the need for collaboration that was talked about often but rarely put in practice at traditional shops. I had an idea for a creative school for special needs kids. I had ideas for businesses. And I really liked this thing called social media. But what was I going to do with all that?

With no finish line in sight, I pushed myself to be uncomfortable. I admitted what I didn’t know. I was willing to learn, in exchange for sharing the valuable things I did know. And I was willing to give up a position of respect in an industry that I had worked in for over twenty years, in exchange for something unknown, for psychologically starting over. There are lyrics from an old Yes song that say “don’t surround yourself with yourself,” and that’s basically what I did. All I had was experience, guile and my work ethic.

I was really good at making stuff like this. And then I walked away. (sorta)

Nothing would come easy. I moved back to Milwaukee from the Twin Cities (something I swore I would never do—heh) to work for Fullhouse, which at the time was a fast growing digital shop. It appeared to be a good match. They were interested in my experience developing creative and working on brand strategy. I was interested in taking that and applying it to digital, and learning as much as I could about digital, social, and technology.

I tell this story often. Having been spoiled by some of the strategic and creative minds I had worked with while in Minneapolis, I doubted I would find that back in Milwaukee. Call it snobbery, but when you work with some of the best, your expectations are forever changed. On my first day at Fullhouse, I was put in the third floor conference room with @deziner. I remember 15 minutes into that meeting I caught myself wondering about her: “What on earth are you doing here?” She belonged in New York or Minneapolis or London. I knew in a 30 minute meeting that Cindi Thomas was someone I wanted to work with and learn from for a very long time. I got the chance to work with a lot of other really smart people there as well. Perhaps some of you have heard of guy named @augieray who went onto Forrestor, and is now VP of Social Media at USAA. There was also @cullenob, still one of the most driven professionals I have ever met, and the wicked smart digital strategist @gkalantzis. I’m not sure what was more amazing about James Newell—his front-end development skills, or his ability to remain so centered with all the talent and intellect he possessed. I often commented it was a little bit like working at NASA in the late 60s. There was a similar attitude of just figuring out how to do things.

If you haven’t heard, things did not work out at Fullhouse. Ironically, ownership could not get comfortable with being uncomfortable at a time when the industry landscape was changing for everyone. Twelve months after I started, Cindi and I along with Andy Wright, left to start Translator. Within the span of just over a year, I was not only back in Milwaukee, but I was back to being involved in a startup agency. Add to that I felt a bit like an insect in mid-metamorphosis. I was completely out of traditional, but still not embraced by digital.

Translator got off to an unexpected slow start—a large local client that promised to bankroll our first year if we left Fullhouse, backed out after we quit. This was financially devastating to the three of us, to say the least. (See mile 18 of Fox Valley marathon above). The immediate setback challenged why we had started the agency in the first place. Was it the promise of money, or our belief system?  In a variety of rather surprising situations, my abilities were second guessed. This led to a stunning loss of self-confidence, something I hadn’t experienced in over 15 years. After only five months, we went through a partnership change at the agency. This contributed to us losing control over the product idea Translator had created—Meet-Meme.

When work finally did start to come in, it wasn’t a trickle, it was a flood. The zero to 120 mph pace led to more issues. I was left thinking, maybe I made a mistake. Maybe I’m too old for all of this. Maybe I can’t change.

It was all extremely uncomfortable.

But at the same time, progress was also being made. Through our former Fullhouse colleague (and all-around good guy) Micah Eberman, Cindi and I got a chance to work on a huge project for R/GA, an agency we both greatly admire. The work we did was extremely well-received, and it provided validation for the type of thinking the two of us had been collaborating on since we first met at Fullhouse. That style of thinking—what I would describe as a mash-up of the Diageo brand essence wheel, user-based behavioral research, and creative storytelling—is really the key to our current success. It results in complete stakeholder buy-in at the highest levels, and is what continues to attract new clients to Translator.

polish moon

Mod-style illustration and packaging hits the shelves soon.

We started to have success. My confidence came back. Not only in myself, but in delivering on the vision that Cindi and I had for what it meant to be a modern “agency.” We executed in what we believed in, even if that was outside the defined norms of what it is to be an agency. The compliments we receive from our clients are not ordinary. “You took what was in our heads and finally made it clear and actionable.”

Earlier this year, we were fortunate to be recommended to Brendon Thomas, who had an idea for a crowd-powered music booking platform. Shindig is about to launch in beta, and today we are closing on first round funding (w00t!). The hard lessons we learned on the first product partnership didn’t stop us from trying again. This time around the partnership was built upon mutual respect, and the experience has been vastly—and pleasantly—different.

We’re funded. Dig it.

My old ad colleagues ask me what Translator does, and when I explain it to them (without getting into deliverables), they say “I still don’t get what you do.” And that’s okay. We’re not defined by our work. We’re defined by how we think. Our clients—who are often C-level or company founders, are drawn to that and like it that way. Our approach to idea architecture and experience design is focused on transforming their entire business—not just their marketing.

In addition to morning lab sessions, we started the Translator XSMKE series. Rather than start or join yet another local committee to try promote creativity, we just decided to do our own thing. So far we’ve put on 5 events this year, including a live performance for the launch of Nineteen Thirteen’s first EP, a screening of the documentary Miss Representation, and a live staging of The 3six5 with @LenKendall. We’re interested in promoting and cross-pollinating all forms of creativity, in art, music and technology. It has nothing to do with being a typical agency—and everything to do with being us.

It’s often said about marathoners and professional endurance athletes that there’s no talent gap between winners and losers; rather, it’s the mental trait of not accepting your limits that decides who wins. Whether it’s growth, progress, innovation, change, none of it comes without a price. It’s human nature to stay away from things we don’t think we can pull off. Failure is embarrassing. And so we stick to doing what we know how to do. It’s safer that way.

Not that long ago, I seriously thought my best days were behind me. This weekend, I will turn 50 years old and I am here to say I survived being uncomfortable. I got through it, and I love what I do again. I’m better now than I was at 40, plus I can do a lot more things I never thought I could do. And what’s best, is that I especially love the people I work with everyday at a single long table we all gather around at Translator—Cindi Thomas, Kirsten Corbell, and Ben Leisch.

Yes, some days are still uncomfortable. That’s part of growth. As with running, I try to remind myself to breathe, ask myself why it’s uncomfortable, and remember that I am on the path day after day for a reason. When I stick to this the sky is the limit, and there’s never any finish line.

I’d love to hear if you have a similar story, or maybe if you’re going through the trials that come with being uncomfortable.

———————————————————–

¹Special thanks to my Kripalu Yoga instructor Heather Burkart for reading this during class on the night of November 2, 2011. Roughly translated, Sangha means a community with common goal, vision or purpose.

As @deziner has taught me, there are no coincidences. None.

Legal vs. Right

Today I happend across this in an article in Adweek about digital advertising trends. You can check out the entire article here, but this one stood out to me:

“Researchers have found that major websites—specifically Hulu and MSN.com—have been following visitors with a file called a “supercookie,” which continues its tracking even after users delete it in their Web browsers. Not surprisingly, this doesn’t go over well with consumers. When called out, Microsoft and Hulu apologized and claimed to stop the practice. Don’t look for them to disappear completely, though—supercookies are legal.”

The last sentence said so much more to me than its context within the article.

Legality, it seems, can be relied on and utilized as a reason to continue behavior that is wrong. It’s a sad state when we need to get used to something that people are uncomfortable with, or opposed to, simply because a committee deems it “legal.” I know this is the case across the board in practically every subject known to man. I’m just incredibly disappointed that companies in the new digital age aren’t learning from mistakes of the past.

We’re better than that. At least I thought we were.

 

Here’s to the crazy ones

Somewhere in the basement, I have a photo that was taken of me as a young, long-haired art director in 1987. It is a polaroid of me sitting at a drafting table, using a burnisher to rub Letraset into a headline that would be pasted on a key line to create an ad that would run in the newspaper.

Yes, read that sentence again and let every bit of irony sink in.

There will be many blog posts written about the passing of Steve Jobs. I can’t pretend to offer commentary on the magnitude of his contributions to the human race, but I can offer my own personal experience of how Apple changed my own world.

Shortly after the aforementioned polaroid was taken, the art department I worked in purchased a Macintosh SE loaded with Aldus Pagemaker, a scanner, a printer, and a black and white monitor the size of Volkswagen. I believe I used it to do rough layouts that would be used as a blueprint for a paste up artist at the Milwaukee Sentinel (yes, more irony). In 1991, I took out a $10,ooo loan so I could buy a Mac SE30 loaded with something called Photoshop, a monitor, scanner, printer and a Syquest drive so that I could do free-lance work. Believe it or not, even at that cost it was a good investment.

At my first agency job in 1993, I got to drive a IIci. By then, we were using Quark Xpress, Illustrator and Photoshop to create final files. I still remember pushing Photoshop to its limits. Back then, layers hadn’t been invented. If you wanted to do anything cool, you had to save each individual file change every step of the way. Doing a simple blur in a 300 dpi file back then took at least 90 seconds to process. I scanned images out of stock photo books, because back then the internet was called the information super highway, and only one person in the agency had access to it.

The mid to late 90s were the dark era for us Mac users. There were clones, threats of bankruptcy, and the hardware and OS were notoriously unreliable. My IIfx at Kohnke Hanneken would literally crash 12 times a day. Hence the term, “Save early, save often.” But we continued to believe. If the electric guitar was the symbol of free thinking, creativity and coolness in the 60s and 70s, then the Mac became that symbol for our generation. Because of the Mac, advertising and design began to look different.

Then crazy uncle Steve came back.

First, there was the candy colored iMac, the computer for the internet. Agencies, publishers and production companies bought the G3, then the G4. OS X may have been the most important thing Apple ever launched, because mercifully, the computers stopped crashing. Within a few years, everything that used to be sent out to a high-end retoucher could now be done on Mac. Macs began showing up in video and audio suites. In no time at all, internet bandwidth and processing speed increased exponentially. Every six months, crazy uncle Steve would show us something new, an iPod, an iMac that looked like a lamp, a Mac that looked like a toaster. The introduction of the MacBook Pro literally changed my life. As an art director/designer, I used to be chained to the desktop. Unless you had a system at home, you stayed at the office until all hours of the night. Now with a laptop you can work anywhere, anytime, on anything.

One day in 2007 Steve Jobs took the stage with an iPhone. The world spun really fast that day, and it hasn’t slowed down since.

The iPhone made me sidestep careers, going from advertising and design, to wanting to understand digital, social and human behavior. After all, who are we without our smartphones? My good friend and client Jim Atkinson of Guinness Atkinson Funds puts Jobs on the same level as Leonardo da Vinci. I don’t believe that is a stretch. Never before has so much power, knowledge and creativity been put in the hands (literally) of so many people.

Apple suddenly became cool for everyone. Those who had derisively dismissed Apple a few years earlier “swearing by their PCs at the office,” now carried iPhones and purchased iMacs for their home. They took pictures, made movies, and listened to music. They bought iPads without even knowing why they needed one. Apple made us all more creative. Technology could indeed make us all more human.

If the legacy of a person is to be a bridge upon which others can cross to fulfill their future, Steve Jobs is (not was) the Golden Gate. His greatness is impossible to measure. Count me among the millions of grateful fans, believers, and crazy ones. We know what it means to Think Different:

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Steve Jobs, 1955-2011, To Infinity and Beyond

I just tweeted your business, but nobody was home

Walk into any establishment today and you’ll inevitably run smack dab into a sign that says “Follow us on Twitter.” Generally it’s communicated on everything, and proudly indicates “Yes, we have checked that box off on our marketing tactic list.” Unfortunately many of these Twitter accounts are unmanned or only exist to tweet the latest sale, special or company news. What a shame.

Case in point—over the course of the past few weeks, I’ve had lunch at a very good local establishment. Each time, I’ve checked in on foursquare and subsequently tweeted how good the food was. In fact, during the second visit, one of my followers tweeted me to see how my lunch was. “Fantastic,” I responded, including the restaurant’s twitter handle in the reply.

bird house closed

Hello?

So, two visits, half a dozen tweets about the great food, and a direct recommendation to someone on Twitter. The establishment’s response?

Nada. Zilch. Zip.

What an opportunity lost. A simple, “Thx, glad you liked it,” response would’ve elicited another tweet from me telling them I’d be back. Fact is, had they simply retweeted my recommendation to another Twitter user it would have been better than any advertisement they could run. But, it’s apparent no one is even listening. I look at it this way: would the management not respond to me if I praised them in the restaurant? Social media is just a matter of behaving the same way online as you do in your offline business establishment. Simple stuff, but it still remains a mystery to many businesses.

Here’s a suggestion: Don’t start a Twitter account as a business just to say you have one. This is actually a pretty common mistake. If you are on Twitter, you need to actively listen and participate. You’ll hear great things you can share with your follower list. And if you hear negative things, you’ll be able to proactively and positively respond and find out what you could do better next time.

Listen, then respond. It’s how conversations get started.

———————–

This post was first published in the April 29th issue of BizTimes Milwaukee.

Human Behavior: Green and Gold, Through and Through

I can never remember not being creative. I can also never remember not being a Green Bay Packer fan. In fact, these two traits are somehow intrinsically linked. Some of my earliest formative memories from age three or four, are the joy and freedom of drawing scenes from Packer games. Piles of stick figure bodies with a stick figure ball carrier jumping over the top. These crayon drawings would adorn the Westinghouse refrigerator in our home at 2304 Lawn St., Racine, Wisconsin during the 1960s.

In those days—before North Face and Mountain Hardware clothing—my mother and father would layer up with bulky long underwear before making the pilgrimage to attend a Packer game at Lambeau Field in December. They’d go to the games in Green Bay with friends of our family, the Maritatto’s, who just happened to live two blocks from another Italian household by the name of Lombardi. During a weekend visit to their home, I tagged along with my older brother on a walk to the Lombardi house. He rang the back doorbell and asked for an autograph. We were ushered into the house, and Marie Lombardi led my brother to the den where Vince was reading. I stayed in the back hall entry way, peering down the darkened basement at a Packer rug at the foot of the stairs. Over forty years later, this encounter of me merely watching Marie Lombardi cook Vince some scrambled eggs for dinner somehow has taken on mythic proportions.

We had these before Wii

Long before there was Madden NFL 11, I had a collection of mini plastic football helmets that you’d buy from a gum ball machine. We had sand colored tight pile wool carpeting in our tiny living room, and I drew a football field with white chalk on the carpet in order to stage a football game with the aforementioned helmets. My makeshift field pretty much looked like the frozen tundra. Oddly, I don’t remember my mother complaining much about having a gridiron sketched on the living room floor. What I do remember is there was a Detroit Lion helmet with a pencil sharpener in it. Man, that little helmet could bust tackles.

For two seemingly never-ending decades, Dan Devine was followed by Bart Starr was followed by Forrest Gregg was followed by Lindy Infante. I held out hope and never wavered. I passed the years by hating the Bears, because the Vikings had not quite reached that level of hatred. Yet.

Then there was the moment. If you are a true Packer fan, you remember where you were when Brett Favre hit Kitrick Taylor for a touchdown to beat the Bengals in Week 3 of the 1992 season. Because it was then and there we had a flash forward that took us all the way to a victory in Super Bowl XXXI. If you’re like me, you just knew it in that instant.

I am a Packer fan. I watched year after year of stinging playoff defeats in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, and finally in 2007. I watched our flawed hero think he had actually become bigger than the team we loved. Horrified, I watched Hector willfully climb into the Trojan horse. In an epic story that demands an ending worthy of the great Greek dramas, Aaron Rodgers must defeat the Men of Steel, whose best player Troy Polamalu is suffering from a bad achilles. Pinch me, although I may never want to wake up.

I am a Packer fan, even though I own only one piece of licensed clothing which I won’t even wear today. Instead, I will watch Super Bowl XLV in a black Nike knit hat, a navy fleece Red Cross pullover, with a brown scarf my mother knitted wrapped around my neck. I wear this because it is what I wore when we destroyed the Giants 45-17 which began the current winning streak. If I do not wear this, somehow the gyroscope in the universe that connects my every move to the outcome of the Packer’s fortunes will become unbalanced and we stand the threat of defeat. I cannot allow this to happen.

A few weeks ago, @deziner asked me what the obsession with football is about. I answered the speed of the game, the violence, the fact that there’s so much hand-to-hand combat, quite unlike any other sport. But if I was asked what my obsession with the Packers is, I don’t know that I’d be able to answer. Certainly, geography and lineage play a role. (I mean, we can be brand loyal to detergents our parents purchased). Although despite my fanaticism, my two boys have zero interest in football, let alone the Packers. They’ll probably be drawing comics during the game, so they have the creativity gene, but not the Packer gene.

I am a Packer fan. In fact, I love the Packers. It’s a weird behavioral thing that certainly needs some user research. I find it to be completely irrational. I yell and scream at the TV. I read about the team incessantly. I will text 6 other Packer fans just like me throughout today’s game. I am blindly brand loyal, even though I have never once—ever—seen an ad for the team that states its features and benefits.

I am a Packer fan. It’s been a lifelong experience that continues to build on experiences.

Huh.

Packers 31 Steelers 17.

Just sayin’.

There Will Be Blood: Harley-Davidson hires Victors & Spoils


The above scene from Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece There Will Be Blood was indelibly etched in my mind the moment I saw the movie. In a story awash with metaphor, the power of this image sticks with me the most. As Daniel Plainview’s well erupts in smoke and fire, I couldn’t help but think the cloud resembled a malevolent genie uncorked and rising from deep within the earth.

At about 9:50am on Tuesday morning, I had the same type of experience, although it struck a little closer to home. This tweet from @edwardboches caught my eye:

I clicked through to the AdAge article. Yes indeed, the iconic American brand Harley-Davidson had hired the crowdsourcing agency Victors & Spoils for creative duties.

Let the power of that sink in for a minute.

Harley-Davidson had kept their account at Carmichael Lynch for over 30 years. If you’re looking for the definition of classic traditional agency, you don’t have to look much further than CL. Everyone knows their work for Harley over the years. Open up an annual, there it is. What’s so stunning in all of this is that Harley-Davidson didn’t go the usual route. They didn’t walk the account six blocks over to Fallon. Yes, they went to Boulder, but not to CP+B.

No. Harley-Davidson opted for a completely new model. An agency that utilizes a creative crowdsourcing platform.

Cue the genie, please.

I posted a link to the article on my Facebook page, where I  knew many of my ad colleagues would see it. I left a comment inducing Rob Franks, my good friend and copywriting partner of ten years, to start the diatribe. It took him about five minutes to respond with this:

I’m too busy single-sourcing radio scripts to give a shit.

I read that half a dozen times. I laughed harder each time. I’m still laughing as I read it again. That takes talent.

Over the course of the day, the message thread grew. The sentiments ran the gamut from distaste, to cynicism, to an uneasy embrace of a new way of doing things. There’s obviously a fair amount of emotion around the whole crowdsourcing topic, which is to be expected. It’s human nature when we sense huge change happening. Here are some of comments:

Are we all gonna submit ideas for the $5 grand they pay if we win? Boo…

May their brand rest in peace.

I don’t want to be an old bitter creative bemoaning what may be yet another interesting advance in our business. I’d rather keep an open mind for now and avoid being late to the party, if there is a party.

I find myself conflicted, agreeing with aspects of each of the opinions.

As a digital immigrant, I love the idea of crowdsourcing in general, especially when it comes to product ideation, development and improvement. Mountain Dew’s dewmocracy.com is probably the best known example.

Perhaps due to my past experience working as an art director and creative director churning out campaigns for years, I have a distaste for this approach being used for creative development, one being rational, the other being emotional. Rationally, I don’t see how crowdsourcing can deliver the type of cohesive platform across all channels that a growing number of us believe to be the holy grail. I think that takes a belief system and a culture, and I don’t see how crowdsourcing can be that. Maybe I’m wrong. Or maybe it depends on how well the ideas are curated. I guess we’ll find out soon.

The emotion comes in when you consider whether this is undercutting an already stressed industry. Ad agencies have always played the canary in a coalmine role in an economic downturn. Marketing budgets are the first to get cut. Agencies reduce staff, cut salaries, workloads increase. A portion of the creatives who might try their luck at crowdsourcing may have recently been laid off. So they’ll take their shot at 10 ideas for $750 in hopes of hitting the jackpot. I’ve used the word predatory to describe this on occasion. Maybe that’s too strong or way off base. And after thinking about it a bit, I did some research and now have a slightly different view.

Victors & Spoil’s John Winsor, like many before him, has done nothing other than be a smart capitalist. He saw a market need (lower marketing costs) and a vast resource (limitless ideas in the heads of creatives of every type, everywhere) and is employing technology to deliver the resource cost-effectively to the market that needs it. In and of itself, is that wrong? My answer is no. It’s actually incredibly smart. In the past, natural resources such as oil and coal were delivered by technologies like wooden derricks and steam shovels. In this story the natural resource is ideas, and the technology that delivers them is a laptop, a wireless signal and Skype. The tricky part is that the natural resource is contained within people, not encased in the earth. Therefore, there is a perception that this amounts to intellectual strip-mining. Not difficult to see why veterans of the industry used to making six-figure salaries get emotional about that.

Edward Boches always smartly points out that consumers are freely uploading tons of branded content to YouTube every day. Some might say, yes, but how much of it is watchable? That’s not really the point. It’s amount versus cost of content, and those have gone in completely opposite directions in the past few years. When content was scarce, you could charge a higher price for the creation of it. That’s how free markets work.

This of course leads to the debate about how crowdsourcing further devalues creative. But as an industry, agencies have long been doing a good job of this themselves. After all, crowdsourcing is really not a new concept. Clients have always been trying to cast a wide net for ideas as cheaply as possible for years. It’s called an RFP.

I think one aspect that I haven’t seen examined is what if any effect this will have on smaller shops. In the late 90s, I worked for Kohnke Hanneken, one of the best small regional shops in the country. Our work regularly made the annuals, no small feat for a shop from Milwaukee. We all worked hard, really hard. Most of the craft was done not between 9 to 5, but between 5 and midnight. That leaves me to wonder what this new paradigm will do to small creative shops. If I mashed up today with back then, I wonder if Rob Franks and I would choose to work more hours on The Blood Center of Southeastern Wisconsin at night, or go to a coffee house and try  to make a buck through Victors & Spoils. Conversely, I have to ask does the opportunity to work on a major brand that may not ordinarily come through a small shop turn out to be healthy for the creatives? Perhaps it will.

There’s no small irony that this major news involves Harley-Davidson, the last great manufacturer in my home town of Milwaukee. Long gone are names like Allis-Chalmers and American Motors which employed thousands of people. After finishing the radio script he was working on, Rob Franks thoughtfully took the time to add this to the Facebook thread:

As to whether or not this represents a new agency paradigm or is just a case of a strapped client (fact, not opinion) saying “sure, fine” because of a giant groupon discount waived in their face - who knows. Time will tell, I suppose. But of this much I am certain: You can do the best work in the world and it won’t matter one iota. Harley wants to use new media to reach beyond their core (who either already own Harleys or are broke due to working class erosion), and you are not going to sell $20k secondary vehicles to 20-somethings that either don’t own a vehicle in the first place or don’t even drive the cars they do have. There’s a reason they started selling the brand as an outlaw lifestyle to square, balding accountants and the like: because they are expensive and superfluous. You can make the argument you need a car. Hard to make an argument that you need a motorcycle. Sales of this brand will never trend up again. It’s not an ad or media issue, but an economic one. Believe it.

There’s a lot of truth there. So as a manufacturer of motorcycles struggles to remain solvent, the industry that manufacturers advertising struggles with it’s own cataclysmic spasm of change. Crowdsourcing feels like outsourcing to a lot of people. This creates an unease best expressed as “Are we next?”

So what do you think? Will crowdsourcing be a benevolent or malevolent genie? Will it deliver the same quality of work? Will it forever change the industry? If you’re a creative, do you see it as a threat, or an opportunity? Please weigh in below.

The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated

Nope. That’s not a reference to the fact that I haven’t written a post in two weeks. Although I do feel kinda invisible.

I refer to that famous quote because I believe it should be appropriated by traditional ad agencies, who after an 18-month long string of death due to social media obituaries, flew out of the grave on Tuesday when Wieden + Kennedy broke The Old Spice Man social media campaign. Check out the eye-popping stats from Mashable here.

Not sure if this is Wieden or Kennedy. Or perhaps Lee Clow shaved his beard.

Yes, there are still many questions that need to be answered, some of which we bandied about during Translator lab hours yesterday:

Is this a stunt, or a long-term sustainable means of engagement?
The last tweet from @OldSpice began “Well friends, like all great things this too must end.” Huh. That’s campaign speak to me. To me, by definition, social doesn’t end. It’s what @faris describes as constantly connected. Yeah, that’s good. I’d pose this question to @streetzapizza and @AJBombers : If you took a three-month hiatus from Twitter, would you still be as connected to your customers? (And if you did, what would it do to your sales?) The challenge for Old Spice and W+K becomes now that you found a brilliant way to make connections, what’s your plan to sustain them?

Do I laugh at this in front of my laptop, but still walk past the product on the retail shelf? The work is brilliant. Hysterical. Definitely spreadable media. (And please, for the bazillionth time, stop using the term viral video). I honestly have no idea how Isaiah Mustafa did not crack up while performing—they were doing these at a rate of one every 7 minutes.

But.

Agencies get hired to sell things, and fired when they don’t. Okay, they get fired for a lot of crazy other reasons too, but that’s a different post. Dudes—or gals who purchase personal products for your dude—are you buying Old Spice in the near future? I loved the videos, but I will not be a purchaser. That makes me a passive endorser. Is that what brand managers are after? In checking HootSuite, I see that my former Minneapolis colleague @alangdell (who is much younger and hipper than me) just tweeted:

This Old Spice campaign is just amazingly entertaining. I still don’t want to buy it, but I’m glad someone is financing this.

W+K is doing a helluva job changing the perception of Old Spice. But to a lot of us, the product is still—well—Old Spice. Certainly time and sales figures will tell. I’m sure there will be plenty of data on that to come.

Despite those questions, this work validated one thing for me. Don’t count traditional agencies out. They will eventually adapt to the new platforms and channels. There are way too many smart people to assume they’ll never get it.

It will still take time. It may come with pouting, holding of breath, and a fair amount of bitching and moaning, (I’ve covered the subject) but eventually the sheer intellectual and creative capital of those trained in doing something one way will eventually adapt to doing it a new way. To be conversationalists. To be co-creators. To create experiences in addition to campaigns. To walk a high-wire in real-time and collaborate with other disciplines and produce amazing results.

This is a really good thing. And it makes the discussion of who will rule the modern communication roost—traditional, digital or a T.B.D. evolution of both—even more interesting.

Let the debate continue.

Branding lessons from a bean counter

I’m on vacation this week, which is always a good time to catch up on reading, both online and off. I try to read Seth Godin everyday, but like you I’m way too busy to read everything he publishes. Well, this post last week You’re already self employed nailed it. (Again.)

Oddly enough, I heard this very same thing about 20 years ago while sitting in Jim Wicker’s office, who was head of accounting at the now defunct Mil-Mar Shoe Company. I worked as Creative Director for Mil-Mar Shoe Corp., which owned the now defunct Warehouse Shoes, a regional chain of 22 retail stores. I don’t remember the impetus for the conversation, but Jim said something to me that stuck with me forever: “You need to look out for the Mark Fairbanks’ brand.”

Trust me, Dan Schawbel he was not. He was a bean counter, and openly said so. But from that day forward I understood I was working for one person: me. I was self employed. I was my own brand.

Jim Wicker talked like this man. But he looked nothing like him.

This helped guide me throughout my career. I looked for opportunities that provided challenge and therefore personal growth. When I stopped learning, I moved on. I set goals for my brand: agencies I wanted to work for, individuals I wanted to learn from, skills I wanted to develop, a reputation for my creative, and oh yeah, these little gold and silver things called awards. I think it’s worked out pretty okay.

It’s a valuable lesson (one that you can’t learn soon enough) to get in the mindset that you are always self employed even if you receive a paycheck from an employer. Yes, it’s good to identify with and be proud of the company you work for. Years ago, I totally bought into the Kohnke Hanneken brand, because I knew working at the top creative shop in Milwaukee would be the best thing for my brand in the long run. I was (and still am) proud to have been part of that agency. But in an industry as volatile as ours, it can often be a painful discovery to realize that no agency is bullet-proof and nothing lasts forever. Always begin with the (your name goes here) brand. It will make you a better and more valuable employee, team member and contributor to your community.

Don’t take it from Seth. Take it from Jim Wicker.

We interrupt this ad to bring you an ad

A funny thing happened to me on the way to watch the new Nike “Write the Future” TV spot @addy_dren had just tweeted. An obnoxious Honey Bunches of Oats banner ad took over the page.

Yes, that’s right.

On my way to willingly engage with one ad, another one intrusively stopped me from watching it.

He must have seen this coming.

To quote Colonel Walter E. Kurtz: “The horror, the horror.”

I immediately tweeted my disgust, of course. My friend and former copywriting partner Rob Franks picked up on the irony replying “we’ve reached an epically sad era of meta-proportions when an ad is interrupted by an ad.” Indeed we have.

Maybe I’m making a big deal out of nothing. Then again, maybe I’m not.

For me, it was the perfect intersection of the sublime with the vulgar. If you haven’t seen the full-length version of the Nike ad, it’s fantastic. A brilliant concept flawlessly executed. (C’mon, a bearded Rooney living in a trailer park? Awesomeness.) I’ve embedded it so that there’s no chance you have to sidestep another ad to watch it.

I think a great TV spot is by definition social. Spots like this get written about, talked about, shared. While watching the Lost finale at a gathering at our house, out of the blue my nephew brought up the Write the Future spot—although he referred to it as the latest World Cup spot, not a Nike spot. [And to put it all of this in context, I was reading a post about the ad, when interrupted by said cereal ad unit. It's curious that I now actually engage with great TV spots more often on the internet—the best spots are regularly tweeted—than I actually do in the broadcast medium they were created for.]

Now for the raspberries.

Advertisers and agencies, hear this: takeover ads suck. I mean, do you have to, really? They’re obnoxious. I’m sure Honey Bunches of Oats thought they got digital because in the two second glimpse I saw of the ad unit before I nuked it, it appeared to have embedded video and all the bells and whistles of a rich media unit.

But you stopped me from getting at what I wanted. See, digital is about what I want. Don’t kid yourself thinking you’re so 2010, when you’re really so 1983.

And if you think I’m just picking on some poor cereal brand, something like this will draw a user in without constructing the equivalent of a damn tollbooth.

Faris Yakob has this dead-on assessment of how advertisers and agencies have initially approached digital:

The emergence of a new media system is typified by a period of transposition, where the behavioural grammar of the previous system remains dominant. The first television shows were radio shows with people talking directly into camera. The first films were stageplays that had been filmed. And the first marketing forays online took what we knew about media and branding from broadcast media and applied it to a whole new space.

This doesn’t just apply to how we approach developing a great digital presence that embraces utility, sharing and co-creation, . It goes further into rethinking what is acceptable behavior when it comes to digital advertisements. A lot of the talk centers around brand behavior in social, but as long as there are take-over ads of this ilk, our work is not done. A good friend of mine who is a brilliant strategist, painfully recounted an old-school agency partner’s disdain for digital summed up thusly: “It’s just not intrusive enough.”

Good lord. Please cue the Marlon Brando sound byte again.

The bottom line is, if you absolutely have to be intrusive, please do it off-line. Because a lot of us are busy making on-line the place for engagement and great experiences.

What’s your take on it?