Two Things College Profs Should Teach Ad Students (But Often Don’t)

The student across the table from me at the Portfolio Review had one of those deer-in-the-headlights looks my way when I asked the question. It was a question that I thought was simple enough, but apparently it was a real brain teaser. I wondered if I was dealing with a kid who had just had too much to drink the night before at a frat party and was regretting it now. But she seemed fairly lucid, so I asked again:

“What was your thinking behind this campaign?”

She stammered out, “Well, I, uh, guess I just thought this logo effect would be cool and the colors looked pretty good.”

I asked it again to another student and got, “I did this because that was our assignment, to do a logo and an ad and a website…”

I kept hearing this and started to notice a disturbing pattern: More and more kids coming out of college into the Advertising profession don’t know diddly squat about how to sell their work in any convincing manner.

Oh, they have talent for sure. They can write well. They can design well. They know how to service an account at a junior level. But the ingredient they’re missing is one they should have been equipped with as early on in their schooling as possible – strategic thinking.

Colleges and Journalism Professors, listen up.

We in the professional working world expect you to teach them this stuff. Frankly, for the truckloads of money their parents are shelling out to your school or the amount of debt they’re going to accumulate due to student loans, they deserve to be in the best possible position to succeed. Not settle for another line of work.

So yes, you’ll excuse me if I hold your institution under a microscope to ensure it continues to prepare kids for the landscape in front of them.

Which brings us to the other thing I find lacking more often than not: presentation ability.

How much good do you think it does to teach them the merits of great Copywriting and Graphic Design and Web Development if they don’t know how to persuade a Creative Director or Account Director or client of the work’s reason for being?

I’m not asking them to be superstars in this skills area right after graduation. That’s unrealistic. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to want them to be able to present their work thoughtfully and with confidence.

It’s not that they can’t get into the profession on talent. It’s a question of how far they can go. I don’t know too many people who advance that high up in a company in this field and also suck at selling.

Some choose to want to only go so far because they don’t want to get too far removed from what they love most, such as writing or design. I can totally respect that. But what I can’t respect is not being equipped to have the option of that choice because they weren’t given the presentational skills early on.

Wait, wait. Don’t tell me. Here comes the excuse for talent rising above all shortcomings:

“Great work sells itself.”

Let me know when you’re done sliding on that rainbow and read on when you are.

Because while great work should sell itself, it often doesn’t. There is an entire minefield of internal and external challenges to that brilliant work seeing the light of day and resembling what it began as.

It needs savvy, sophisticated people to link the mindset of the audience with what that work is striving to address. And while it may still get shot down or suffer what the great Luke Sullivan calls the “death by a thousand cuts,” you give it a fighting chance of emerging through the storm of critiques with a strong rationale.

I was lucky. I went to a Journalism School, Drake University, where I was given the ability to partake in campaign simulations that gave me not only a real taste for agency roles but also presenting work to a real company. I couldn’t get up there and justify buying off on a campaign because it was “cool.” I couldn’t just get by on creative writing alone.

I had to dive deep into the company’s challenge, learn about what hadn’t worked up to this point, what their competitors were doing better or worse than them, try to unearth a few nuggets of insight and use that insight to help them live up to a promise their audience could believe in. And of course, I had to sound really good in expressing that thinking.

It didn’t matter whether or not they were actually going to use that winning work. It was the presentation that mattered. And when our team experienced technical difficulties during the presentation and lost to another agency by 1 point, I learned a lot about improvising on the fly, walking a client through the thought process and, in the end, how much I hated to lose. Crazy valuable stuff to learn before I donned a cap and gown.

I was lucky a second time when my first Creative Director taught me about how to write better Creative Rationales. It didn’t need to be a 10-page report but 2-3 paragraphs that the client could use while hopefully bulletproofing the work. If we were taking the client in a new creative direction, why were we choosing to take them down that path?

And I was lucky a third time when my second Creative Director told me I needed to try a couple of classes in comedy improvisation. Trust me. This stuff scares the crap out of you if you were like me with no training but it’s a good thing for the long haul.

But…for the investment required, I think colleges and universities can help students accomplish a whole lot of the above before they get into the working world. They won’t all be lucky to fall into the right environment upon graduation and have great mentors when they get there like I did. Therefore, they deserve to be involved in more simulated or real campaigns. They need to learn how important strategic thinking is in the equation. And they should know what it’s like to present their work with passion.

Without these ingredients, we’re only going to have more graduates coming out of school who know everything about how to post and tweet and create hashtags and Instagram but don’t know why they’re doing it in the grand scheme of things as it pertains to the brand. They’ll be tactically intelligent but strategically empty.

On more than one occasion, I have been told by interns on how they had learned more with me in 12 weeks than they had in years at school. I’m proud of that and disturbed at the same time.

Yes, I still believe a college education is worth the investment. But please don’t tell me we can’t do better.

Are We Giving “Buzz” Way Too Much Weight?

“So, we’ll like, create a series of posters that are really in your face. Offensive to some, but whatever. It’s going to generate such a buzz. And everybody will be all over it in the media, so it’s a win-win.”

I picture the person saying this to be a Creative Director with a goatee, thin glasses, maybe a funky hat of some sort that’s backward. Oh, he’s so cutting edge. After all, he worked at DBKCF&GHA and worked on (Insert Campaign He Likes To Name Drop Here). Yes, I’m stereotyping. Like you haven’t seen a version of this person.

When marketing efforts like the recent “Deserve To Die” posters surfaced, I had to stop and wonder:

Where does cause marketing get off angering, hurting and offending without cluing in the people it’s trying to enlist to join its cause?

When it causes head-scratching to the point of where someone wants to violently rip down the ad, does achieving “buzz” become overvalued?

After all, these ads got buzz. And the cause behind it, Lung Cancer Alliance, is certainly a worthy one. I’m no fan of lung cancer, are you?

So why is getting buzz for it wrong? Because the strategy is so off. Consider this: In these ads, I have told that if I belong to a certain set of people, I deserve to die. Or that someone I care about deserves to die.

Most of us know there’s more to the story. But then, we wouldn’t really know what that is at this point, would we?

Because that’s the extent of the teaser ad. No call to action. No website. No QR code. Nothing. Just telling certain people they’re as good as dead and deserve to be.

I suppose that my writing about it proves that people noticed the work. But what troubles me about the whole thing was that it took too long for us to figure out the point of that work. The idea behind the “Deserve to Die” theme was to clear up a misconception that people who get lung cancer must have done something to deserve it, which is not necessarily true.

So to prove how absurd that sounds, posters with the message of “Hipsters Deserve to Die,” “Cat Lovers Deserve to Die,” and “The Tattooed Deserve to Die” started appearing across the country.

OK. I get it now. It’s still a reach.

I’m just not sure that people who are cat lovers are going to follow this awareness/conversion sequence:

“What the hell is this? Saying I deserve to die? Oh, it’s about lung cancer. So what you’re trying to say here is that people who die of lung cancer didn’t do something to deserve it, which is a misconception. Therefore, I guess it’s OK you said I should die. And I’ll support you now.”

Wow. Talk about a long and winding road.

In contrast, I like the guerrilla work behind the “Truth” anti-smoking efforts in recent years so much more. Why? It doesn’t insult the audience into trying to make its point. It says, “Hey, we’re all in this together against the big, bad, evil tobacco companies who are manipulating the people we love into buying an addictive product.”

It actually tried to rally us to work together against an identifiable enemy, almost immediately. Not divide us or keep us in the dark for days and weeks. In the “Truth” ads, we’re only in the dark for about 10-15 seconds tops before we understand the message quite well and what we need to do from here.

The people behind the “Deserve To Die” ads may say that lung cancer is the enemy we could rally around, but how long did it take us to find this out? Too long. Far too long. In a worse case scenario, I shudder to think about what kind of sick wackjob might’ve done harm to someone because a poster told him that someone deserved to die. In a lesser scenario, this kind of teaser doesn’t satisfy a society built on immediate gratification of answers. We get these answers from our search engines, from our social networks, from our smartphone apps. We expect the same in relatively short order from our other forms of media too and when we can’t get there by at least being given an outlet to use those devices, we turn into versions of the Hulk that want to smash things in our path. Including the brands and causes that made our lives that difficult.

I don’t mind when people stage a “body bag” event outside of a tobacco company to illustrate how many people die from smoking every day. The key here is that you can be provocative, even shockingly offensive to some, when the payoff is right there to complete the loop.

People often need that. It’s not that they’re stupid. It’s not that they’re mindless drones who will buy whatever we tell them to. It’s that they deserve more information for the buy-in of your work being in their face and them absorbing it. Teasers can’t hang like this for weeks on end, causing anger, hurt and frustration at an enemy that turns out to be a worthy cause. Because by then, it’s too late for people to fully understand what’s going on.

Nobody deserves that from advertising.

News station, Korver polar opposites on Rose’s dark day

“NBC Miami reporting that a Derrick Rose Hologram will take over as a starting point guard for the Bulls.”

“NBC Miami reports the Chicago Bulls have lost the Eastern Conference Finals to Thomas Dewey.”

“NBC Miami reporting their baseball team is missing.”

When NBC Miami reported prematurely that Bulls point guard Derrick Rose had torn his ACL – even though the report ultimately proved correct – you can see the importance of how knowing you got it right the first time becomes on Twitter with the actual tweets from people above. In the time the first tweet was launched from NBC Miami on the injury, thousands of tweets exploded in the Twitterverse of how the station was reporting it. NBC Miami then had to put out a tweet to say the news on Rose’s injury was premature – wow, do you think? He hadn’t even been to the hospital yet to have an MRI, but somehow a news outlet in South Beach knows what’s going on with his anterior cruciate ligament??

Boy, did they ever luck out with ultimately getting it right, because prior to that, on Twitter they were all kinds of wrong. I surely hope they didn’t turn around with a “you heard it here first” spin.

On the other hand, let’s celebrate someone who not only got it right but also didn’t have to apologize for it in between – the Bulls’ Kyle Korver. So many athletes put out foolish, PR-nightmare tweets and posts before they have any business doing so, so it’s refreshing when someone from within the organization rises up and posts something thoughtful on Facebook like so:

Right about now, the disbelief has faded, anger has subsided and were all wondering… why? Why. Why. Why Derrick, again? Derrick is more than an MVP to our team. He’s our friend, our brother he inspires us to be the very best we can be, just by who he is and how hard he plays. That he has spent so much time this year hurt, was frustrating. Now that he is out for the rest of the season, well its just plain sad. No one is to blame; what happened, did. We send him our prayers, our love, our good wishes that he heals and comes back stronger, better, healthier than ever before. 

Bulls fans. Now is not the time to ask why or to get bitter. Now is the time to refocus and ask “How are we going to win this Championship?” We have the best Team in the league. This season has proven, we are a TEAM and it has taken us ALL to have the best record. Lets focus on whats ahead. This is an incredible opportunity for All of Us to step up and make it happen. We’re all gonna have to work harder and smarter. We are all gonna have to believe in ourselves. That we are more than the sum of our parts. We need YOU to believe with Us. We need You to believe for Us. We are going to keep going strong. One quarter, one game, one round at a time. Until its over. That’s how we’re gonna do it.

How often can an athlete write something like this when the moment of winning/losing is so fresh? Almost never. Usually it involves a tweet followed by a second one that starts with “What I meant to say was….”

The entire Chicago sports media on that day didn’t put out something so eloquent and in tune with what people were feeling at that moment. Far too easy for most of them to go negative and say, “This team is done.” Wow. How…uninspiring. Especially when you’ve watched a team like this play every game without most of its starters, including Derrick Rose and still have the best record in the NBA. Back to you, Ron and Kathy.

Here’s my point – rapid-fire journalists on Twitter need to remember they’re playing with a loaded gun in the social media realm. It’s going to be hard for them because their instinct is to be the first one breaking the story. Yet it’s dangerous to just get it out there before thinking, “Hey, maybe we should check our sources before posting this to see if that source is actually real.” That’s Journalism 101. They don’t need to overanalyze their tweets to death before publishing, but they have a responsibility that if they want to be taken seriously, there’s going to be thousands of people who will retweet that news, especially the more dramatic it is. And then all of their followers could potentially run with it.

When news that’s done in error is spreading like wildfire, you don’t blame the wildfire. You blame the person who started the wildfire.

Sure, it’s more than a little scary to know what the potential of starting a panic with bad information could be. But it’s the world we’re living in that’s getting faster by the day. When we do screw up, we apologize for it lightning quick. I get that we’re human beings and all make mistakes. The best we can do is try to put a little more thought behind the content we generate rather than rushing to be the first one to say something. The problem isn’t so much the tweet alone but the ensuing effect. If journalists want to continue to be taken seriously, the more of them that set off a Tweetpanic won’t help.

In that sense, I think Kyle Korver reminded us of two things that day:

1) How timeliness and thoughtfulness can and should very much live together in harmony in the social media universe.

2) Great performances in clutch moments don’t always happen during a game.

It’s Overthinking Season in North Dakota!

This is an ad for North Dakota’s tourism. It’s talking about having dinner, drinks and how the evening might just turn for the better.

We're guessing the people who think this ad is X-rated don't watch much True Blood.

Yet, the North Dakota Tourism Division had to pull it because it was too racy.

When I heard this, I thought maybe I was looking at a different ad. Not this one. I was wrong. This was the one, indeed.

“Dinner. Drinks. Decisions. Arrive a guest. Leave a legend.”

So please tell me what’s wrong with the ad.

Is it that guys are smiling at women? That can’t be it. If guys can’t flirt with women, we should ban all beer advertising, then. Good luck with that.

Is it that those guys are going to leave town as “legends?” Because if people talked endlessly about their exploits and adventures in North Dakota that would be…bad?     Because men and women don’t hook up and routinely talk about what happened last night to each other?

Come on. Vegas Tourism has been running ads for years about What Happens in Vegas Stays In Vegas, even if that means using a different identity along the way. There’s nothing here to suggest the scenario even goes that far.

Still, this ad was pulled. One person called it “sickening.” I’m guessing that person doesn’t own a television, read magazines or listen to the radio. And/or that he’s Amish.

Now, I’m not even going to speak to whether the ad is good or not. OK, scratch that. This is not the greatest ad. Partially because I’m not sure what it means to be a legend in North Dakota and partially because the cliche image could be anywhere in the world, giving me the impression that there’s nothing good to show in North Dakota. Wow, a place where men and women meet each other in a totally nondescript nightlife setting? Two tickets to North Dakota, please! I’m sure they could’ve found somewhere attractive in the state to shoot the ad. You can make any place look attractive with the right lighting and camera angles.

But let’s put ad critiques aside because there’s an even deeper problem here and it’s been going on forever.

“It really just takes one or two (negative comments) and then people jump on the bandwagon,” said Sara Otte Coleman, director of the ND tourism division.

Exactly, Sara. You get it. You see this lunacy for what it is. So the right move rather than pull the ad would be to recognize that this isn’t really some “will of the people” as much as a Loonie and Lemming Stew – a couple of people who overthink an ad and a lot more people who follow them into far-fetched judgment. All that’s missing is Fox News to capture the “Uproar in North Dakota” for a full overblown masterpiece.

No. No. No. We’ve got to draw the line. Now’s as good a time as any, so here goes.

I’m just tired of the overthinking.

I’m tired of the political correctness.

I’m tired of catering to people far outside of the target audience who are given too much credence because they happen to yell the loudest in the room.

And I’m tired of too much media influence from the next “Family Values For A Better Tomorrow Who Force Those Values On Everyone Without Asking” Group.

It’s time to stand up for Common Sense.

Brands tell stories that are intended for a certain group of people. Not everyone. Maybe not even your wife and kids. You may see the ad in the media, but that doesn’t mean it’s for you. It’s trying to please the people who would buy it.

But here’s the real interesting thing – if nothing else, that ad did far more than I ever would’ve expected for it in that it started a conversation across the web about North Dakota. People by and large couldn’t believe the thing got pulled. The tourism people were quoted. Comment boards were burning up.

Bam. Mission accomplished. If I was North Dakota tourism, I’d be sending those protesters of the ad a thank you note. Maybe they were planted and were working for the department of tourism all along (conspiracy?).

Point being that if the people protesting this ad had never done so in the first place, this ad would’ve passed like a ship in the night. It just wouldn’t have registered. Because this ad didn’t stir the pot. The protesting over the ad did. And that’s what every group that protests advertising fails to understand. The more you talk about it, the more offended you become, the more you go on talk shows voicing your anger,  the more attention you give to the very ad you want people to ignore. So if you really want to get people to ignore the ad, don’t talk about the ad on every news network you can find.

And if you’re a marketer, don’t give every voice on the web equal weight. Because it’s not true to say that every voice deserves that. Because you have to distinguish who your best customers are, who your best prospects are and who the people who’d never get within 50 miles of your product are.

I didn’t say completely ignore those naysayers either. Speak to them. Listen to their concerns and address them, whether it’s by phone, email or social media. See if they’re the kind of person who can be reasoned with in an intelligent conversation or they just want to hurl stones at your brand to call attention to themselves like uneducated, ignorant neanderthals.

Converse. Ask questions. Answer questions. Don’t be the brand that invites more drama by running from the questions. Be the brand that offers a helpful solution. You’d be amazed how rational people just want to be heard more than anything, even if it means they aren’t going to get their way.

“Have you ever tried our product?” “Would you like to?” “Why do you feel that way?” “What was the problem because maybe we can suggest a solution?” You’ll know fairly quickly if you’re dealing with a genuine customer who matters, a customer who can be saved or a whiner who never had any intention of buying your wares.

You don’t have to agree with them either – but explain your side in detail too.

Opposing opinions is what makes the world go round. Just remember whose opinion you’re trying to covet most. And whose you have to shake your head at.

When you’re faced with a dissenting opinion from someone over an ad you ran, whether it’s online or offline, how do you handle it? Ignore it? Address it? How do you go about it?

Lesson of Lowe’s: Your Competitor Royally Screwed Up. Don’t Just Sit There.

Attention, Head Media Buyer for The Home Depot. Can we talk? You’ve got an opportunity for yourself handed to you on a silver platter if you’re intelligent and I’ll bet you are. So here’s what I want you to do.

I want you to pick up the phone and start placing ads on “All-American Muslim” like no tomorrow.

Don’t overthink. Don’t overanalyze. Just do it. I don’t care what your demographics are. I don’t care what marketing research tells you. I’m as big a fan as anybody of market research but when your competitor shoots themselves in the foot so badly by blowing their nose on an entire race of people, you’ve got to seize the moment and welcome those people with open arms.

For those who haven’t heard, Lowe’s did a royal screw-up by caving to outside pressure and pulling its advertising from TLC’s program featuring the lives of five Muslim families in Michigan. The backlash has been swift and the outrage intense, not just from Muslim groups but many others. Russell Simmons even offered to buy up all the airtime on the program that advertisers voided.

To me, the danger isn’t so much associations like the Florida Family Association, which urged people to engage in an email campaign to pressure brands like Lowe’s that advertised on the program to pull their advertising.

The danger is when brands actually listen to these fringe groups, tuck their tail between their legs and run for the hills instead of acting like intelligent brands that weren’t born yesterday.

Lowe’s justified the move like so: “Individuals and groups have strong political and societal views on this topic and this program became a lightning rod for many of those views. As a result, we did pull our advertising.”

Ah. I get it. So the loudest voice in the room wins, no matter how bigoted and divisive their opinion may be. Just making sure that’s how you make your decisions.

Lowe’s acts like this came out of the blue and caught them by surprise. Nice try but I don’t buy it. Running from lightning rods is what big companies tend to do when they want to appeal to everyone under the sun. Ironically, that’s the opposite of what Lowe’s did anyway in the end. But why does controversy have to be a bad thing? I don’t think it has to be and can be a good thing. Lady Gaga is controversial. And massively successful. I doubt she’s hurting from controversy.

Let me replace all of the official public statements from Lowe’s, probably written by their PR firm or internal marketing people with the only two words that people really hear: We’re afraid.

Memo to brands of America: Beyond what you see on marketing analytics, the people who buy your stuff will be gay, Muslim and mixed racial couples.

And last I checked, their money is still as good in this country as a white person’s.

It’s too bad that showing these types of groups in advertising or advertising on programs featuring such groups beyond the white American family is seen as “progressive.” It shouldn’t be. It should be off the table as something advanced for us to talk about as a brand differentiator. It should be common sense that this reflects modern reality, so we can make marketing decisions based on deeper, more important factors.

But I digress from my mountaintop to speak purely on a marketing level so you can apply the lessons learned from this situation to your own:When you have a scenario like the Lowe’s one where a competitor does something stupid, you have two choices:

1) You can be lazy and have a nice laugh at your competitor’s expense. You may say you’re not going anywhere near the situation with a 10-foot pole and believe the customers will naturally trickle over to you.

2) You can get off your butt and move quickly to cater to the disenchanted audience. It’s called being proactive because it’s the right thing to do marketing-wise and in some cases, morally as well.

You buy media where they dropped media. You use social media to target the voices that are angry. You issue releases and blog posts speaking to the pains people are expressing. And it’s not really about the competitor at all as much as heavily amplifying how much stronger YOUR principles are. Don’t waste any time retelling their story – the disenfranchised are already doing that for you. Tell yours in a way that helps the audience connect the dots easily on how you’re different regarding that particular issue.

This window of opportunity can happen at the most basic local level too. Not all that long ago, a auto dealership in the Chicagoland area fired a man for coming into work wearing a Green Bay Packers tie. Now, I bleed Bear blue and orange, but obviously that’s just a dumb move. The media picked up on the story and the auto dealership that formerly employed him got some massive and unwanted attention.

At this point, other dealerships nearby could have just reveled in a competitor screwing up. But one had the initiative to seize the moment while the story was still hot. They hired the Packer-wearing tie salesman almost immediately. Not only was that the right thing to do, but the focus shifted from one stupid dealership to how the new dealership did something heroic. THEY became the new focus of the story.

My point is, when events like this happen to a competitor, don’t run from the chatter. Dive into it. You want to talk about how you can engage a community? You’re looking at it. Put up or shut up time.

There’s one thing Lowe’s got right in separating itself from a program with the words “All American” in it: When brands are this easily swayed by the agendas of extreme groups that they forget their own values, whatever it is they’re building together is anything but All American.

Have you ever capitalized on a competitor’s mistake to acquire new customers and become the hero? If so, how did it happen and what did you do? Share away, hero.