Comics Journalism: Tales From The Cusp

Last week I had the opportunity to spend some time at The Cusp Conference, a 2-day celebration of all things design put on by the agency team at Multiple. I originally planned on writing about all the guest speakers but frankly, there were so many of them I would be writing solely about each of them between now and next year. So I decided to select a few shining examples of speakers at Cusp who inspired me and opened the mindset to how I view design. If one of them strikes a chord with you, you’ll want to attend Cusp in late October next year when it comes back around.


So often, we think of design in a traditional sense, such as graphic design, illustration, sculpture and painting. But we don’t often think of how design can be applied to business models to create ambitious industry approaches. See, things that can look beautiful (or even just orderly) on the surface can also be filled with clutter – and in the path of changing that clutter are people too close to the problem within the company or industry, set in their “that’s the way it’s always been done/that’ll never work” ways. And yet, they never asked the customer about their experience. Imagine that.

Thankfully, the people I’m about to focus on this week with a few different selections are showing in their own ways how to make such changes through good design.

Bad Design: Journalistic formats that give little clarity to issues

Jon Stewart gives news outlets like CNN an epic FAIL for good reason. If you are a news outlet that doesn’t give insight and are nothing more than trying to win the race to be the “first to speculate,” that’s bad design. If you’re a journalist who makes it harder for the audience to understand the elements of a news story and is guessing right along with everybody else, what are you really adding?

Worse, what do you add by shouting about it as a foursome? Tell me that this doesn’t cause greater divisiveness. Cable network news is often bad design.

Good Design: Change what a news narrative can be and how it can be interpreted so that the audience is able to better absorb the issues at hand.

Who says the news solely has to be on TV? Who says the news solely has to be streamed via video? We have to look for these new opportunities that the traditional newspaper is having a hard time fulfilling.

What if investigative reporting met the graphic novel format and was delivered through a tablet magazine?

Such as how Erin Polgreen and Joyce Rice are delivering it through their digital news magazine called Symbolia, for example?

My morning at CUSP came with a jolt of inspiration from these two ladies who have already been covered by Fast Company a few times. Simply put, Erin went from reading a Wonder Woman comic book to reading a news magazine and, in between, a light bulb went off. She realized that perhaps a form of “Comics Journalism,” could bridge borders.


Indeed, it appears this bi-monthly product is proving that to be true. Published online, through the iPad, Kindle and in PDF form, Symbolia focuses on everything from rollerbladers in Northern Iraq, secret species in the Congo and Zambian psychedelic rock. What the duo has realized in that process is that comics have become a powerful teaching tool for their stories to people outside of the U.S., of which 45% of their readership consists of.

What’s more, even the comics format itself is elevated at Symbolia, with uses of animation within stories. Imagine a band being featured within the pages of the magazine that you can actually listen to and watch in a whole new interactive way – and then share it?

No matter what your preference of story is, think about what this format holds for a not-too-distance future when more and more of us will be able to absorb our news and share it with others who can appreciate it. I’m talking far more than just liking and sharing something on Facebook. I’m talking about getting into the content like never before. Combine that with investigative reporting that’s more insightful than much of the present product and guess what?

That’s good design.

Next: How Dr. Joyce Lee used a personal challenge to create an important health care solution to bad design.

The Future Favors The Nimble Agency

Big or small, traditionally focused or digitally focused, only one kind of agency will be left standing in the future:

The nimble one.

There is a grim future for agencies that have a process that looks like so:

Writer and designer team get Creative Brief.

Writer and designer concept, concept, concept, concept, concept…

Eureka! They stumble across an idea they love. Brilliant.

They present to their Creative Director.

Revise, revise, revise, revise, revise, revise, revise, revise, revise.

Think he’ll like it now? Hopefully so.

Re-present to Creative Director.

Looks good. Except just change this, this, this, this and this.

Writer and designer change all that stuff.

Cool. Now they present it to Executive Creative Director.

Nope. Won’t fly. Start over.

Writer and designer utter 500 curse words under breath toward ECD.

Concept, concept, concept, concept.

Present again to Creative Director.

Present to ECD.

Present to account person.

Present to account person over that account person.

Revise, revise, revise, revise…doesn’t the client hate blue? We should change that.  Well, even though this is technically something the audience will never care about, we should probably put that in too. But let’s ask 3 other people to make sure. Joe sent Mary an e-mail on this to confirm and he’s waiting to hear back since she talked to that client in the initial meeting and he wasn’t there.

In the meantime, more changes.

Revise, revise, revise, revise.

Rehearse presentation to client many times over.

(Wow. And this is just to get out the door of the agency, huh? Sure as hell hope it’s stellar work by now.)

Present to client.

She pretty much likes it. Just a few changes to make and it’s good to go.

Back to the agency.

Revise, revise, revise, revise, revise.

Back to the client.

Almost there, just a few more things to tweak.

Revise, revise, revise, revise, revise, revise, revise.

Photo shoot. Who do we know? Him? Her? Them? Let’s take a look at a few different options. Better yet, let’s have 3 meetings on it before we decide.

Locations – where are we going to go based on the budget?

Meet, meet, meet, meet, meet.

Choose photographer.

Wow, so many options. I’m sure this won’t take long at all for us to settle on just one.

Color corrections. Tweak, tweak, tweak, tweak. Can we get this yellow more yellow? Can we get this red less purple and more red?

Oh, it’s not a print ad we’re talking about? A radio spot then?

Let’s listen to a bunch of demos.

Choose the talent.

Schedule the session.

Can you put a little more smile in your voice?

Edit, edit, edit, edit.

What’s that? It’s a video, you say? OK then. Edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit.

How’s the sound quality?
How’s the video quality?
Let’s go through several rounds of back and forth internally.

Who saw it? Did Jim see it? Did Lisa see it? Did Bill see it? Did Ann see it? What did she think? On the email, did you CC her and him and everyone but their dogs and cats? What did he think? I heard he liked it for the most part but had just a few tweaks. Oh crap. You know what that means.

Tweak, tweak, tweak, tweak, tweak.

Eventual client approval.

Media placement. Negotiations. Phone calls and emails fly back and forth.

One ad produced.

So how long did that take?

Two months?

Three months?

Maybe more?

This process of production doesn’t work anymore. It literally doesn’t fit with the actual living world around it. It is the comet that is going to kill certain agency dinosaurs. Some of these slow-moving, methodical brontosauruses are dead already.

The rest of us in touch with Planet Earth will find a way to speak on behalf of clients in a way that balances creativity with a more timely approach. Put another way, we are able to say a lot more messages of relevance in the time you take to generate one message. One very expensive message.

Sure, it’s going to run many times over the next several months. OK. Congratulations. It’s still one message.

Meanwhile, once the dinosaur finally presents the completed ad to the world and it gets written up in trade publications and the creative team dreams of awards and the Executive Creative Director takes a picture with the client, one simple fact will remain:

That one ad, no matter how good or how bad, will have a very limited shelf life.

People may very well like it. But it still will have a definitive expiration date that may not justify the amount of work gone into creating it. It won’t run for years. If it’s like most, it will run for months. Heck, some even run just one or two times! It is a home-run-or-strike-out proposition. And nobody hits a home run every time out. But they can hit a lot of singles, doubles and triples.

Yet, I still believe there is very much a place in the world for traditional media. There is great power and beauty in a print ad done well, a radio spot said compellingly, a TV spot that captivates our senses and a direct mail piece that delights when we open it.

But the inefficient, long and winding production process that goes into creating it will be its undoing. Its process can’t compete with the fluidity of digital media and the immediacy of what we demand from brands.

Its only hope is an agency that breaks down the internal walls of approval and can get out of its own damn way so that great work can get out the door of the agency more frequently.

We have always strived for this in agencies. But now, more than ever in our fast moving world, quality will mean the life or death of an agency. We don’t need factories that churn out crap work more frequently either because that’s not a solution. Unless your solution includes miserable creative people who are continually looking for a job.

While some agencies can spend months coming up with one grand message, I will take a walk in a city full of millions of people who expect to access a website, view a Facebook page, connect with a colleague on LinkedIn, read a blog post, watch a video, share a photo, hold a Google+ Hangout or listen to a podcast on their smartphone or tablet – within only a few seconds.

Our demand for higher quality content from brands sooner rather than later isn’t a phase or describing some select group of people. It is the way of our world.

Quality in an agency system that lets better work rise to the top without overthinking, internal politics and logjams is the only hope. That takes three T’s: Talent, Trust and Technology:

Talent: You can’t fake talent at the Creative Director level. It comes from someone who knows a great idea when they see one. They don’t let logistics and technicalities bounce that idea off the table too soon. They don’t need to show it around the agency and collect a million opinions to know if it’s great. It requires the talent to write a Creative Brief that isn’t comprised of two sentences but gives the team real guidance (without confining them by telling them exactly what to create). And it takes the talent to understand that you’re not only in the business of serving the client but representing a hard-working team back at the agency that is counting on you to present brilliantly. It takes a special person to be creative, clear and captivating. You’ve either got it or you don’t.

By the way, you need talented vendors too. Not all printers, for example, are created equal. If you go with a trade printer who can get you a too-good-to-be-true deal, you probably shouldn’t be surprised when they screw up your business card that calls for rounded corners, unique textures and fancy die cuts.

Trust: You can’t fake trust. If you have the talent in the form of the best people in the right roles, how much second guessing and back-and-forth should there really be? Or if you have talented people who also have egos the size of Mt. Rushmore, there can be a lack of trust (and humility) there too.

Technology: The first two above are hard. They’re human elements. This one is much easier. When you have project management software like Basecamp (we use this at Caliber and love it – as do our clients), you are literally putting the team on the same page. Everyone can see the latest files, discussions, timelines, etc. It’s a beautiful thing. Assuming everyone actually uses it, it virtually eliminates the “Did you send me that latest version?” question that comes so often with conventional e-mail. This and other tools like it only make internal and external agency communication easier and faster.

When talent, trust and technology are humming along, you not only eliminate unnecessary steps in a cumbersome production workflow. You have a better culture and better relationships.

It’s not a big agency thing. It’s not a small agency thing. It’s not a traditional agency thing. It’s not a digital agency thing.

It’s an intelligent agency thing.

Because whether you realize it or not, life is happening while your ad is in production.

The future favors the nimble.

The REAL Winners and Losers of Super Bowl Ads

There will be enough posts today about the winners and losers of the Super Bowl adfest. I won’t bother you with one more but instead give you something to think about in terms of the true winners and losers beyond the actual ads themselves.


Winner: Television Media and the Advertising Industry

“We don’t want to be advertised to.” I hear that a lot throughout the year and there’s certainly some truth to that. But that has nothing to do with the fact that we have social media now. People have never wanted to be advertised to. That was true when Caveman A was trying to sell a rock to Caveman B. It has always, always been about treating our audience with respect for what they need to help in their everyday lives and conveying that in a sophisticated way that compels, entertains and delights. Rather than, say, barge into their faces and say, “You’ve got to have this now, Now, NOW!”

At its best, the Super Bowl reminds us that there is still very much room for the kind of magical television advertising that excites us and gets us talking.

Think about it. Here we are, camped out around the television and some of us are actually going to get a refill on hot wings during the game because we don’t want to miss…the ads.

I know. Maybe it’s an anomaly. But obviously, what’s undeniable here is that TV advertising still matters. And while this is the day of the year where it gets the highest profile, let’s not pretend that this is the only day we pay attention or take action based on something we watched. Hard as it is to believe, we have to put down our smartphones, tablets and laptops sometime.

This doesn’t mean that TV can exist the same as it ever was and coast on the status quo. I still think far too many advertisers, including some during the Super Bowl, are missing the opportunity to leverage the eyeballs focused on the TV screen and convert them to the web. What if our TV spots drove more people to videos to see the rest of the story? Or landing pages? Or – gasp – Google Plus Hangouts? Is that so far-fetched of an idea knowing that TV can push people online extremely well in the right circumstances? No.


Loser: Every social mediaite who proclaims traditional media “dead.”

I live, breathe and work in the social media realm every day but where some find it chic to call traditional media “dead,” I give you Exhibit A: Super Bowl ads. We do ourselves a disservice when we ignore what’s in front of us, which is the potential power of television to drive business to, of all places, online. Hell, it just makes us look dumb. You’re tuning in. I’m tuning in. Everybody and their Grandmother is tuning in. And this isn’t the only day of the year we do, even if it’s less than we used to. If you’re saying that this medium still doesn’t have relevance, don’t forget to outfit yourself with a pair of blinders.

Those of us in social media should remember that TV can be an excellent tool for driving the consumer online to continue them down the sales funnel (I spoke to this changing role of TV in an earlier post). Because when the message is spectacularly motivating to the right audience at the right time and the next steps to take are clear, TV and the web can work together as effectively as peanut butter and jelly.

Do I think we are living in a world where digital media is largely unavoidable in most, if not all media plans? You bet. I’ll go one better – if you are not involved in social media, you are less of a relevant business to your audience because chances are excellent that they are utilizing at least one social media channel right now. We’ve evolved from the traditional vs. digital conversation. It’s usually not an either/or. It’s often a true integration of the two more than ever, not throwing a few TV and print ads together in a campaign and calling it “integrated.”

This doesn’t obligate us to always choose traditional media but it does obligate us on more occasions than not to at least consider it as a potential tool in the brand strategy toolbox. Nothing to me is an automatic “given” in what tactics one should choose, whether that’s Facebook or TV. But even if we don’t ultimately have a single shred of traditional media in our plans, we’ll be doing right by our clients to at least look at all our options. Calling any potentially viable ones “dead” is only hurting ourselves and the brands we’re trying to build.

How about we kickoff the first day after the Super Bowl with that approach?

Traditional Media’s New Role In A Digital World

You can look at the last cover of a news magazine like Newsweek and wax nostalgic about the good old days if you like. I prefer to think of the positive of what a final cover represents in choosing to use but only a simple hashtag of #lastprintissue.

Newsweek's last issue in print

Newsweek’s last issue in print

It’s not a period of finality on a brand. It’s an acknowledgement that the brand will be conversed about in other ways. Digital ways. And that it can continue to have relevance – maybe even more than it has recently. It will be read on a laptop, on a tablet, on a smartphone. It will be shared faster rather than lie exclusively on the coffee table of a physician’s office.

Yes, of course we can see this giant shift to digital all around us – we’ve seen it for years.

And yet, some operate as if digital isn’t the new norm of communicating across most demographics. As if every fourth person on this planet isn’t using a social media network. Is it any wonder why those are the same people who go kicking and screaming into obscurity?

But you won’t count me as one of those who say the ways we’ve known are dead. Instead, I see them as shifting into a new skin that may feel funny and different at first, but is necessary for the long haul.

To survive, traditional media should embrace its new role as not necessarily the end-all, be-all of the conversation with the buyer but instead the media that drives the buyer online to learn more, build a long-term relationship and encourage greater sharing across the web.

TV can do this. Print can do this. Radio can do this. Direct can do this. And in certain instances, they have. Beautifully.

It’s too bad that it just isn’t sold this way enough by certain reps of this form of media. They choose to sell their channel as an alternative to digital media instead of selling the concept of how the entire lifecycle can potentially begin with them and integrate into the digital world. Many choose to ignore the reality that their customer has to diversify their marketing mix and that, yes, that should likely include digital. Those that do operate as if we live in a print or digital world of absolutes when we don’t. We watch TV and use iPads. We read magazines and use smartphones.

Our lives are integrated. Brands must be too.

Imagine if someone could show you not just the typical demographics of their publication/station but actually showed an ability to drive traffic to a website. Then you’ve got something. If that commercial drives people to explore your Facebook page in greater detail where you are running a contest, then you’ve got something.

Drive them to a Facebook page. Add a hashtag. Continue the story that was begun in a traditional media setting on a YouTube channel. Could the conversation that begins in print then advertise an upcoming chat on Twitter at a select day and time?

Yes, I realize some of the responsibility here lies not only with who sells the media but also who creates it.

Guilty as charged. I’ve created ads in the past that pretty much had the logo as the call to action.

But it becomes an increasingly expensive proposition when all we ask people to do is notice our logo and little else (I’m getting much better about changing this mindset in myself).

Or when we ask prospects to spend thousands on one ad – if I’m going to do the equivalent of going to Vegas and letting it all ride on one hand, can you give more information on my odds first so I can feel really, really smart about what I’m about to drop on the table?

I once had a client who was in this situation, didn’t have a ton of money in the ad budget and was being solicited for business by a radio station asking him to advertise during a rush hour time slot. After explaining the client’s goals for the brand and the audience we were targeting, I was looking for some extra justification on why we should drop thousands on a small window of time.

“Everybody listens to him. He’s a former Dolphin and we’re in Miami so there you go.”

Um…no. There I don’t go.

She couldn’t explain how that ad would work for my client in any kind of customizable way (when did this become too much to ask?). She could only talk about listenership in broad terms that couldn’t help my client make a decision he’d feel good about. Asking her about online conversions? Ha. I’ve seen deer in headlights with more clarity.

And yet, we know the opportunity for conversion to online after engaging with traditional media first is there for those who craft messages and sell advertising around it accordingly.

Consider the findings of a report by Deloitte earlier this year called “State of the Media Democracy” in which 2,276 respondents in the UK between 14-75 years old were surveyed.

64% of respondents visited a website after seeing an advertisement on TV.
61% visited a website after seeing a magazine ad.
59% visited a website after reading a newspaper ad.

Here’s the shocker – guess how many respondents visited a website from a mobile app ad.

A whopping 12%.

Traditional media as online media driver has great power and potential. To declare it universally dead by any stretch of the imagination is just wrong. To pretend it works in exactly the same way in today’s world as it always did is just as wrong.

For all of our conversations about brand integration over the years, we can still integrate online and offline so much more. This is good for all media. Electronic and otherwise.

Advertising is a Cubs fan’s best friend

I suppose this day was bound to come. Maybe deep down, those of us who are Cubs fans all knew it. Here we lie at the inevitable moment where our grand old ball park meets the revenue demands of the modern day and the only way to maintain its existence in a new era is to adjust.

I would like to see "World Series Champs!" on this marquee in my lifetime, wouldn't you?

It’s uncomfortable. It’s unpleasant. And it’s absolutely necessary.With Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s “Fenway Plan,” the Cubs potentially could gain in the neighborhood of $150 million in advertising and sponsorships from Wrigley Field and the surrounding streets.

It’s a thought that causes excitement for a marketer and terror for a baseball purist. A time where advertising settles into the role of Bad Guy, and people begin to get emotional about the future with a mixture of fear and anger. Some say Wrigley is beautiful and that the addition of a Jumbotron in right field or a lot more ads would be horrible. Some say it’s a wreck and are all for change as long as they don’t have to pay for very much of it at all. And some dare to suggest that the Cubs should move to the suburbs and knock the stadium down altogether. I wager most of those in the last category are the same bright minds who said the Bears should play in Gary.

At the end of the day, I turn to the brand itself as my guide. And that’s where the answer of all this becomes clear as day.

The Cubs’ brand is Wrigley Field. Think about how rare that is for a moment. We can over-romanticize the Friendly Confines, but there is a very short list of stadiums that are so embedded into their teams that is impossible to unlink the two. This is one of them. In other locations where professional teams are based, you can transport them across town, to a suburb or across a river and the fan base won’t bat an eyelash.

But even the brands with the most cherished heritage need to make some concessions to the modern era. The Cubs’ brand is no different. It’s a new ownership, a new management team and even a new philosophy that’s trying to build a culture of winning. Look around the game – is someone going to think Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park is any less hallowed ground because of some giant ads? I’ll take giant ads if it brings a giant championship.

Purists will grumble that a Wrigley with increased advertising upsets the beauty of the place. You know what? They may have a point. But you know what else I’d hate to see even more? A wrecking ball hitting it and watching them play in the suburbs. That my heart could not take (sorry, suburbs).

Yes, they have a responsibility to respect tradition, too.

Only a fool would make the kind of improvements that practically eliminate the iconic elements that make Wrigley, well, Wrigley – like the scoreboard, for example. The foul poles that carry Jack’s “Hey Hey” catchphrase. The front marquee. The ivy. But there can be a best of both worlds. Advertising does not have to upset the character of a ballpark if done with taste. It’s a challenge. But not an impossible one.

Yes, I have not agreed at all with how much some ads have dominated architecture in this town more than ever on Mr. Emanuel’s watch, and I’m an advertising practitioner. But in this case, there’s a difference. I don’t expect bank advertising draped on the Wabash Avenue Bridge but I do expect it in a baseball stadium. Whether or not people welcome it, they expect it. And if you think they’re going to stop coming because of it, I give you Exhibit A: 103 straight years of not winning a championship. They’ll live. They put lights on the place and although there was a stink, most got over it. When the Bears redesigned Soldier Field to look like a spaceship landed in it, some people had a stink and most got over it.

By the way, one thing to point out to my social-media brethren who say advertising is “dead” – judging by the mayor’s proposal, it still matters a whole lot. Sure, in our world of tweeting and posting, traditional advertising’s role is rapidly changing. But it’s not going away. And if you’re rooting for this home team’s ability to eventually and consistently compete in baseball’s top tier, you’d better be rooting for advertising and its benefits for the long-term.

And when the Cubs win a World Series? Here’s what I think.

You’ll be dancing along the blocked off streets of Sheffield and Waveland or inside the stadium watching the last out of the World Series replayed over and over on the Jumbotron.

At that point, I’d pity the poor soul who says, “Yeah, but I sure wish Wrigley didn’t have this many ads.”

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