Archive for the 'Creative Development' Category

31
Jan
16

Pharma Advertising and the Talisman of Doom

Despite years of experience in the real world of stringent regulations, many pharma brand managers still believe their mission is to push the boundary of the permissible in an effort to promote a doubtful claim. So begins an exhausting round of creation and revision in which language is tortured and communication is reduced to a string of factoids.

As any rational person could foresee, it’s all for naught. The medical, legal and regulatory departments of even the tiniest pharmaceutical companies know their mandate: to ensure the FDA doesn’t send them a warning letter. The result is overreaction, leading to the stiff, stilted and stagnant prose we now accept as the norm in pharma advertising.

It doesn’t have to be that way. If marketing, medical, regulatory and legal teams met with their advertising agency on at least a quarterly basis, it would take nothing more than honest work to find a viable solution to any marketing problem.

A marketer who feels market share is slipping could discuss ways to cast their brand in the most favorable light. Trouble is, this would mean moving away from the “pre-approved copy,” brand managers cling to like a mystical talisman. Like such a talisman, this pre-approved copy is incomprehensible to its supplicants. It is simply understood to work. The result is a process that values consistency over contextual sense, and demands that every single communication contain exactly the same magic words—regardless of its intended purpose.

But the first step in making pharma advertising actually motivate its many audiences is to kick this addiction to all types of mechanical thinking.

Breaking the obsessive cycle.
The antidote to this toxic behavior is a multistep process. It begins with a frank discussion of the problems implicit in marketing to consumers or the healthcare community. Instead of charging ahead with a bold statement that will never get past the lawyers, brand managers must build a consensus with medical, legal, regulatory and agency creatives about what can and can’t be said about the product in different contexts for different purposes.

This is important, because a creative team can only motivate an audience to action if it works within a coherent messaging strategy. In the absence of such a strategy, it’s common practice for an agency to create a stab-in-the-dark positioning, only to have it arbitrarily eroded over a period of months—until it becomes meaningless.

That’s how we end up with headlines that promote “stepping in the right direction,” accompanied by the image of a pair of sneakers—not for a drug, mind you, that treats topographical disorientation. Somewhere, buried beneath this landslide of silliness is the thought that there are steps one can take to control the condition in question.

As if every other conceivable medication for every other conceivable condition doesn’t start from the premise that it exists to take your health in the right direction.

Clear, declarative and actually true.
But the dreary process leading to ineffective messaging is completely unnecessary. Instead of winnowing down unsupported claims until you settle on something that’s inoffensive, why not start with a powerful affirmation of what you can say under the law?

As I see it, the origin of the status quo lies in the misapprehension that marketing and advertising are fundamentally about coming up with something “poppy,” “strong,” or “catchy.” The memorable ads from the deep past that had those attributes succeeded for only one reason: They were grounded in an underlying thought process that changed the way people thought about the entire product category.

Now, I’m the first to say this is stacking the deck. By law, the FDA cannot allow pharmaceutical companies to communicate the way Volkswagen used to. But the underlying idea—i.e., of having an underlying idea—is something pharmaceutical brand managers can emulate. Not by puffing up their product with not-so-subtle innuendo, but by translating the concrete concerns of their audiences into clear, declarative statements.

Changing this tried and true process requires a radical shift—away from anxiety and authoritarianism toward a collaborative approach that acknowledges and respects the expertise of others. I’ve seen for myself the miraculous change that comes over a “stubborn” regulator once someone bothers to hear them out. The change was so pronounced, I can only equate it to a religious conversion in which everyone in the room who was blind was finally able to see. To see, that is, that great advertising in any field arises from a balance of multiple points of view.

15
Dec
15

Can’t Say No? Say What You Know.

Look into the mission statement of many an ad agency, and you’ll find some kind of happy talk about “serving our clients.” In many instances, this boils down to demoting your business model from Consultant to Vendor. Now, maybe you see this as a non-issue. I’ve heard more than one agency head conclude that if a client wants to spend three times as much for work a design studio can do, that’s their problem.

To which I say, “hogwash.”

For one thing, doing so amounts to fraud. By demoting yourself to Vendor while charging Consultant fees, you’re participating in the fiction that your clients get full value for their money. But at the end of the year, when the shop-worn nonsense you agreed to fails to move the needle, someone on the client side is bound to notice. Are you planning to say, “Don’t blame us, we’re just the Vendor”?

This phenomenon explains why many high-value accounts bounce from agency to agency like a basketball on steroids. Ironically, it often happens that the creatives from the latest agency bounce with the account to the next. That’s because in today’s literal-minded environment, who’s better qualified to work on an account than the person who last participated in its demise?

And that, mind you, is despite the insistent drum-beat of agencies seeking new hires with “fresh thinking.”

Business model 1: Self-abasement
Now, I’ve heard the counter argument many times. It’s about needing a particular client in the portfolio to attract similar clients. Or it may be about having a complete roster of product categories covered because, again, in today’s literal-minded environment, a cookie brand will never hire an agency with only cracker experience.

But I’ve also heard near-death exhaustion in the voices of entire agency teams, when they’re driven to the edge of insanity by abusive clients who are:

• Obsessive-compulsive
• Money-grubbing
• Lacking in visual imagination
• Willfully ignorant of the limits of language

…and possessed, shall we say, of colossal egos.

Yet, even clients with a more humane attitude can drag your work down out of gross incompetence. As long as I live, I’ll never understand why the study of marketing effectively includes no meaningful introduction to the principles of visual and verbal communication.

After 22 years, I can count on the joints of one pinkie the number of “experienced brand managers” who didn’t need to be reminded, at each presentation, that water is wet, the stove is hot, and a Web site is not an a-dimensional repository of novel-length marketing blurbage.

Of course, by now, I hear someone in the back of the room shouting, “That’s fine, but we have to deal with what is, if we want to stay in business!”

Business model 2: Collaboration.
Right. And there’s always room for compromise in any collaboration. But the first step to preventing Abusive Client Syndrome is establishing that collaborative relationship from the start and insisting on it all the way down the line.

Even when your client is a classic Type-A personality, there are things every agency must do if we have any hope of reversing the industry-wide trend toward ground-eating serfdom.

Above all else, refuse to be silenced. You can’t win every point, but never refrain from laying out the truth. Over time, I’ve seen the phrase “pick your battles” morph from a savvy management strategy into a cowardly avoidance strategy. Try attracting top talent with an attitude like that.

A commitment to standards.
Of course, client management begins with actually retaining clients. But even if you feel you can’t say No to your more difficult clients, you can say What You Know and make it concrete with tangible examples. You may not achieve all your goals, but you’ll establish a basis of respect for your expertise.

And that can be tough—partly because the more persuasive you are, the more irritation you’re liable to cause. But it’s the only thing that will keep your agency from losing its creative edge. Because the mandate to say “yes” at all costs is the very death of creative thinking.

If that seems too difficult to pull off, you may have fallen victim to the language of acquiescence. “We don’t want to spin our wheels,” I hear, or “we don’t want to dilute our efforts,” or a thousand other platitudes that exist solely to make the spine-extraction process less painful. But as it stands, your only prayer of working with the clients you deserve is to say What You Know at every turn.

31
Oct
15

Creativity Training. Exercises in Futility.

Dig into business journalism and you’ll find a celebration of creativity that’s always in full swing. But as you’ll discover, corporate America’s idea of creativity is a grotesque piece of ideological taxidermy.

Instead of the real thing, you’ll find a lifeless homunculus, stuffed with mantras that mistake terseness for truth. Predictably, these mantras, as delivered by WebEx gurus, offer a showy variation on the brainstorming session—that hilariously misnamed ritual at which the brain always fails to appear.

The problem lies in the assumption that a topic as complex as human creativity can be reduced to bullet points. Sure, get together and encourage each other to follow your creative instincts. Just don’t expect to find them on an inspirational Web page promising 10 steps to boost your creativity.

Where the value might lie.
That’s not to say a seminar couldn’t offer a useful service, if only it helped your staff recognize the roadblocks they install to real creativity. Each session of such a seminar would start with a heartfelt Pledge of Non-obstruction

I believe the value of my input is delimited
by my talent, expertise and experience

I honor the difference between personal preference
and objective evaluation

I affirm and avow the crucial distinction between
a tactic, a strategy and a creative concept

And before the altar of my own conscience,

I promise never to invoke rigid, ideology-derived models
in defense of politically expedient solutions

Stop chasing unicorns.
In the real world, however, creativity seminars offer an array of techniques under the mistaken assumption that creativity is as simple as “breaking out into groups” with a handful of Flair pens and a stack of multi-colored post-it notes. I don’t know where this philosophy of unrealistic over-empowerment comes from, but it’s as delusional as the quest for a magical horse.

For example, there’s no way to find creative solutions to something you know nothing about. In my case, when it comes to repairing a leaky faucet, I could brainstorm and walk away from negative thinking all I want. But if I dared to take a monkey wrench to the pipes, the only thing I’d create would be a flooded apartment.

That’s because creativity only exists at the crossroads of training, expertise, experience and innate ability. It can’t be coaxed, jump-started, trained, or motivated. Instead, it arises spontaneously in the minds of people who have worked hard to earn it—through the constant application of skill and talent to the knottiest problems.

In that sense, American corporations would save oceans of time and money if they A.) improved hiring practices so they ensured that only people with creative abilities end up on the payroll, B.) fostered a corporate culture that encouraged calculated risk-taking and C.) worked actively with local and regional communities to revitalize our education system.

Take positive action.
Can’t find employees with a grasp of the creative process? Take a look at the stilted, budget-starved curriculum your kids are stuck with. Yes, even if they do have iPads in every classroom, the chances are, your state hasn’t spent a dime on real arts education in 50 years. Trust me, the annual staging of Oklahoma or Cats doesn’t count.

But if that level of social responsibility is too rich for your blood, there’s still a better use for your tiny staff development budget than investing in a New Age pseudo-psychologist. Far better you should pay for art, creative writing, music or dance classes for your staff—and make them mandatory.

These experiences, repeated regularly, will put your people in direct contact with the confluence of abstract thinking, instinct, intuition and the restraints of the medium that are the essence of the creative process. The goal is not to turn the head of the Accounts Receivable team into Georgia O’Keefe, Phillip Roth, Steve Reich or Twyla Tharp.

Instead, the long-term payoff will be an increased sensitivity to nuance and the real version of “critical thinking” that our overwhelmed public schools have no idea how to teach. And before anyone asks, upgrading their iPads won’t help.

In other words, if you want to foster creative thinking, there’s no substitute for involvement in real creative work. Yes, the vast majority of your staff-members’ endeavors will never reach the walls of the Met or the main stage at Carnegie Hall. What they will do is turn on the lights in a few dozen tired brains, most of which have been switched off by the dull routine of our meeting-drenched, inbred-political, hurry-up-and-wait corporate culture.

23
Aug
15

“Killer Copy”: Drowning in a Cardboard Sea

Stick with copywriting long enough and eventually someone will ask you to “refresh” an existing block of copy—whether it’s a one-page promo or an entire Web site.

At first, and I have to say I get fooled every time, it sounds like your client really wants to revitalize the tried and true. They’re looking, you delude yourself, for a more clearly defined brand voice. Or maybe just something less boring.

If you’re dealing with a consumer product, it’s even easier to get snookered, as your imagination goes into overdrive to create a distinctive persona for the…whatever. And sadly, that’s where all the frowning starts.

In the first place, you rarely get the full story from your Account team, for the simple reason that an MBA doesn’t include any meaningful training in critical thinking. All that talk about “fresher?” It all boils down to “shorter.” Turns out some market researcher discovered a roomful of lie-abouts only wanted to look at pictures.

So you’re enjoined to write something “catchy, fast” or my personal favorite, “smart.” Smart copy for people the average marketer believes are too dumb to read more than 50 words at a time? I don’t think so.

Who are you talking to?
If your goal is more effective communication, you need to start with a clear picture of your core audience. Not, mind you, some marketing-conference abstraction like “Fixers and Forgetters” or, say, “Dipsomaniacal Nincompoops,” but real people who actually have a snowball’s chance of buying your product.

And that has to be your most important demographic profile. Yet most marketing is done without the slightest acknowledgement of how many options consumers have, including the option to live without the product. Leaving aside the 50 gazillion people who rush out to buy the latest i-gadget, you’ll need a whole lot more than a bunch of Reasons to Believe to make your brand top of mind for any consumer.

Your marketing approach has to grow directly out of the personality of that select group of customers who think you’re swell. And depending on what you’re offering, snappy headlines, catchy lead-ins—like the ones on Yahoo that someone is perpetually telling me to emulate—may not be the ticket to higher market share.

You might, instead, have to tell the truth.

Because that’s what effective copy is about. Getting the truth out in a way that’s memorable, precisely because it lets the product speak for itself. To do that, you have to unlearn everything you’ve either picked up by osmosis from today’s degenerate advertising culture, or from those ridiculously terse maxims that revolve around letters of the alphabet. As if real communication were ever a formula!

Speak up, in a clear voice.
That’s it, forget about the 4Ps, the 8Ms, the 6 tips “every copywriter should know“—and just speak, person to person. Sure, you might need to create a persona for yourself to write through, but that’s a standard part of the creative tool kit. If all you’ve got up your sleeve is a list of best practices, do us a favor and write a textbook on marketing communications instead. We all need a good thick book to prop up that wobbly bookcase in the den.

Anyway, once you’ve found your voice, get to the core message right away. Remember, you’re asking someone to turn off Game of Thrones to read about your client’s…whatchmacallit. As I see it, your best shot is to engage your targets as real human beings, not prey on their fears about missing the deal of a lifetime. If, and I mean if, the product has something to offer, its benefits don’t need all that hype. For instance, any phone company leading with the phrase:

“Pricing Plans You Might Actually Understand”

…would immediately get my attention.

But that’s where we come full circle. Because the desperate cry for someone to punch up the copy always comes from clients who know their product is weaker than weakness itself.

Freshen the copy? That’s putting the tablet before the ISP—unless you’ve actually put in the time and imagination to develop a meaningful product and now have the courage to sell it.

And to everyone who’s worried about alienating an audience by being too definitive, let me point out that nothing on this Earth is more alienating than the sugar-coated oatmeal that generally passes for “killer copy.” You’d do better going door-to-door, than drowning your pitch in a cardboard sea of punchy phrases.

06
Jul
15

Hotel Web Sites: Too Checked Out for Branded Messaging.

As travellers know, hotel Web sites are among the most functional e-commerce sites around. Yes, most of them feature the ubiquitous marquee, but that’s as close to any kind of high-level messaging you’re liable to see. And that messaging is itself ultimately offer-driven.

Can anyone tell the difference between Sheraton and Ramada? Not online. Between the input boxes and those tidy little retouched jpegs of the rooms, the only thing you have to go on is the logo. Yes, they use different color schemes and, yes, different fonts. But this ladies and gentlemen, is not branding.

A brand, after all, is a promise. Yet the only contract any of the hospitality giants makes with consumers is:

“We’re a hotel. With rooms. Which you can stay in. For a fee. Pick a date and enter your credit card number. Don’t keep us waiting.”

Keeping in mind that many business travelers stay at hotels prescribed by their companies, some differentiated attributes ought to be selling these hotels to whomever’s in charge of hotel bookings at XYZ Corp. And, of course, you might reasonably expect that leisure travellers would like to feel they’ve chosen a hotel chain for a reason.

Especially, that is, if they’re planning a stay in a major US city where the options are all over the map in terms of price, features, location, etc., etc. But by remaining so blank, these Web sites are not only tarnishing their brand’s image, they’re damaging the image of the entire industry.

“Who cares where I stay?” is the question anyone would be tempted to ask after visiting these sites. “All hotels are the same. Same disappointing “Continental Breakfast,” same stodgy furniture, same prohibitive minibar. Same iffy cable service.

Offline, on it. Online, off it.
Ironically, one of the few travel-related brands to have an advertising concept is hotels.com. Yet, as memorable as the Captain Obvious campaign is, it has nothing to do with the service the Web site provides. Even if I stretch my imagination and conclude that the message is, “Hotels.com is the obvious choice for travel reservations,” the concept spoils itself by simultaneously making the obvious look ridiculous.

Booking.com, at least in TV spots, is much more convincing, even if their Amy Schumerish play on their name’s phonetic similarity to an indelicate word is a bit limiting. More successful is their other play on their name, “Booking.Yeah,” which effectively uses something approaching millennial diction to hippify a boring topic.

Offline, these two brands have done something to transmit a message, a promise, a statement of purpose. But there’s no trace of that messaging on the Booking.com Web site, which might as well be a site for Orbitz or Travelocity for all anyone would notice—logos aside.

Where, I can’t stop wondering, did anyone get the idea that “Buy Now” is a brand identity? On the other hand, you may wonder why I find this so irritating.

Schlock and loaded with clichés.
Despite having survived for over a century in one form or another, through many ups and downs, advertising and marketing are fragile things, whose immortality you cannot take for granted. Mail boxes, airwaves and screens crammed edge-to-edge with schlock are as deadly to the psychological ecosystem of sales as CO2 is to the lungs. Every year that we crank out crap is another year we erode our audience.

Meanwhile, gloom and doom analysts continue to have a field day at the supposed demise of the traditional :30 TV spot. But the real reason people click away is that TV spots and all of traditional advertising went into an accelerating decline after the ’60s. A TV spot today is, with few exceptions, a dreary landscape of tedious clichés. No wonder people reach for the zapper.

Let no one think, however, that digital advertising is “inherently” better. Sites like these from the travel industry, which are only the tip of the iceberg in the schlockification of the Web, will inevitably have the same effect on digital space.

The issue is not the medium, but every bit the message. Remember: the bad work you post today is the baseline you’ll struggle to rise above tomorrow. Because if this trend continues, the much-vaunted “impact of digital media” will be the fond memory of a few archeologists, only a couple of dozen years from now.

31
Jan
15

Writing the Big Bold Blah

No matter what branch of advertising a creative settles into, at various times the call will go out for a “big campaign theme.”

Always ready to oblige! For what creative doesn’t relish a real challenge, as opposed, say, to the unending iterative stream of “corrections” they receive from clients who A.) have no idea what they want and B.) have no idea what advertising can and cannot achieve.

Trouble is, in most instances, the basic ingredients for baking up that big theme are missing. That is, the creative team is faced with a brand or product line that:

• Has no unique attributes
• Delivers only highly qualified benefits
• Is heavily burdened by legal or regulatory requirements

And yet, in the back of most brand managers’ minds is the model of the iconic, freewheeling, fun-loving campaigns of the early 1960s. Not that any of them has the courage to get behind a message like “We’re No. 2, so we have to try harder.” Even something as generic as “Frosted Flakes are Grrreat” is way too audacious for our litigious times. And it’s easy to see why. Use a line like that and you’d actually be asserting that your brand consistently delivered a measurable result.

Naturally, a classic line like “Come up. Come all the way up to Kool,” would evoke such a flurry of air quotes, you’d have half the advertising strategists in the country in the ER with advanced carpal tunnel syndrome within five minutes of proposing it.

Of course, the real secret behind the success of the classic campaigns that a typical client likes to shame us with, is that they had nothing to do with taglines, photographic styles or celebrity endorsements. On the contrary, they succeeded because the brand delivered something of value—directly, effortlessly and with none of those niggling qualifications that are the buzz-kill of today’s marketing.

Real reasons to believe
More to the point, they got people to believe, simply because their products “kept it real” as we say now, in an era when so little is what it’s cut out to be. The Avis people, initially, not only claimed to try harder, they actually brought a new level of service to car-rental—that is, until the bean-counting revolution of the 80s ensured the only thing an American corporation would ever deliver was money to its shareholders.

Customer value? Quality? They survive only as mechanical claims or, just as bad, as the exclusive purview of brands charging outrageously inflated prices for services that used to be taken for granted.
Now to get the kind of service everyone used to get from the travel industry, for example, you have to be a Super Black Onyx Titanium Elite Plus Member with annual billings in the seven figures. Everyone else gets wait-listed for the cattle car.

And it’s within this environment of decidedly lowered expectations that a creative team is routinely asked to conceive a Big Idea campaign that will open the flood gates and storm the barricades. Sometimes they even succeed—and sometimes, with unexpected consequences.

As long as I live, I’ll never forget the day a brand manager for a major national brand told me he couldn’t use the campaign idea we’d come up with because it would be too successful and they wouldn’t be able to handle the call volume.

Pause for a moment and let that sink in.

Auto-mat marketing
The fact that we were asked to go back and deliver something less effective is beside the point, as poignantly absurd as it sounds. For my purposes, what it illustrates is the futility of so much best-practice saber-rattling, including that infinite series of top ten lists purporting to guarantee success.

For in a marketing/advertising environment governed by ignorance, anxiety and petty whims, why should anyone attempt to raise the bar, move the needle, push the envelope or use any other quaint metaphor for creative achievement? My message to clients? If you want a great campaign, become a great company. Then we’ll have something to say that grows naturally out of real brand attributes. If not, there’s a wealth of automated headline-generating software available online for a reasonable fee.

You just plug in your brand attributes and in a few moments, your campaign theme is ready. No squelchy conference call phones, no pesky creative presentations, and no perky account people asking about your personal life. Best of all, you’ll have the campaign you deserve, which is all any brand can ask for.

15
Dec
14

Effective Web Design: Sliding Into the Psyche

In the last few decades, the design aspect of consumer electronics has taken on more and more importance. Today, people buy their technogear as much for its look as any real understanding of what’s going on inside. That’s not surprising really, considering that’s how most people get into relationships and have for countless centuries—all those volumes of chicklit to the contrary.

So in a world more dominated by looks than ever before, it’s hard to understand the discrepancy that occurs so often, between the design of a product and the design of the Web site built to sell it.

“Submitted for your approval,” as the man used to say, are two contrasting sites: BeatsByDre.com and Bose.com. The site developed for Beats is well synchronized with the style of the products themselves, whose clean lines derive from geometric shapes, softened with a biomorphic aesthetic appeal. The flat digital design complements product design nearly perfectly and leaves plenty of light and air for copy to work its motivating magic. That image and text both have room to breathe on what is, essentially, an e-tail site, is an understated triumph I can only wish would be more broadly imitated across the Web.

That this wish of mine is likely to remain in the provenance of magic lamps and the genies who inhabit them is borne out by the site developed for Bose speakers. Ironically, here is a product many people would agree achieves a high watermark in design and technological efficacy. And yet its Web site design harkens back to the deep dark ages of supermarket circulars.

Grabby hands.
Splattered with price bursts, slathered with iridescent colors and embedded in one of the cheesiest background images I’ve seen in a decade, you’d think Bose products were, in fact, the cheap knock-off version of some other brand. In a prime example of the devastation wrought by Marketing Anxiety, the image on the left depicts the arm and hand of a sedate listener, enjoying a game of scrabble over a glass of wine—while the image on the right depicts a cartoony “bopper,” looking for all the world as if she just stepped off the set of the ’60s TV show The Mod Squad.

Thank you, Bose, for reminding us that the world is diverse, i.e., full of sedate white people and people of color who love to rock out, even at the risk of traumatic neck compression.

The only thing missing here is the “Why Pay More” sticker or “The Perfect Gift for the Holidays,” although the latter is fairly well covered by the unsubtle subliminal snowflake bursts. Red snowflakes, at that.

Now, even if you were to conclude that this is a matter of taste, you’d have to concede that the Bose site suffers from metastasising visual clutter. It’s the classic example of a site that makes users say “Better come back later when I have more time.” And it’s easy to see why. A user’s eyes are drawn nowhere, precisely because they’re drawn everywhere.

Pushy talk.
To look at the Bose site is to instantly lose a bit of faith in the quality of the product. This is irrational but true—even for someone like me who actually owns and likes a pair of Bose speakers. A site so heavily layered in cheese makes me wonder if I’ve made the right choice.

Why? Because advertising design of any kind, but especially the digital variety, that’s so jam-packed with marketing messages, is inherently manipulative. The site says “Hey, why don’t YOU buy a product, ANY product from us RIGHT NOW?

Instead of giving me a reason to fall in love with the brand, the brand is reaching for my wallet on the first date. Even in today’s “benefit” oriented dating culture, this is not anybody’s idea of a smooth come on.
And that’s the gross error Bose’s marketers have made.

Know that if you shove me against a wall and say, “You want a speaker. Come on, you know you want it,” you’re not getting the sale, even if your product’s all sparkly and shiny.

But if you create an environment where I feel safe discussing my speaker needs openly and without shame, I just might grow to think you’re the best speaker company in the world. I might even come over and help you rework your Web site.

That’s because—hello, pleased to meet you—I’m a person, not a consumer. And until brands get this into their heads, we’ll see more of this garish, loud and demeaning approach, as we slide into the next half-decade of “the millennium.”




Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY

m.laporta@verizon.net
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