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[Another one from the archive – from Adweek in January 29, 2001. So much has changed since then. Then again, perhaps not.]

I was sitting in another brainstorming meeting, trying to figure out a new way to invigorate sales when the brand manager began discussing his main competition. For someone who was getting his butt kicked on a regular basis, this guy spoke rapturously about his rivals.

They had smart ideas. They had a great sales force that could be counted on to do what they’re supposed to. They had a great brand with a great heritage. They had a strategy, a media plan, a creative profile that rocked the free world.

By the time he finished, we were ready to give up.

I’ve worked with dozens of clients, and I’ve worked with their competitors. None of them have it all figured out. This isn’t news to anyone. What is news, however, is that all of them think that the best and the brightest, the smartest and the swiftest, the best looking, thinking, dressing, dancing people in the world are working for the competition.

And that, of course, means they have the smartest, best and most effective systems selling the cool est, greatest and most wonderful brands.

This is what I call the Moriarty complex, and it’s garbage.

The Moriarty complex is the belief that the competition is peopled by evil geniuses. It’s based on the character from Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. Moriarty was the brilliant mastermind behind every bad thing that happened.

Clients think of their competitors the same way Sherlock Holmes thought of Moriarty. While this may, in some strange way, fuel their egos (“It would take a real genius to stop me!”), the ultimate result is a sort of helplessness in the face of a juggernaut. It’s often followed by a desperate attempt to ape the actions of the competitor whose success the brand manager desires.

But there is another way: Think about what your competitor fears.

Look, nobody has it all figured out, not even the competitor who’s eating your lunch. There is something he’s worrying about, some problem he’s compensating for, some storm cloud lurking on the horizon. Figure out what it is.

How? First, look at the landscape from your competitor’s perspective. Then let that old paranoia sink in. The one where you recite the litany of genius that is the competition. Only this time, that competition will be you.

Suddenly, you will see the myriad opportunities available; opportunities that will be twice as effective because they are striking at the heart of the competition. Opportunities that will generate more fruitful creative challenges because they cover new, uncharted territory. Opportunities that are more strategic because they take a broader, category-wide approach.

Just do it. You will make your brand stronger. You will remove your competitors from the Mount Olympus on which you’ve placed them. You will make them vulnerable, assailable and a lot less intimidating.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

It is. In fact, it’s elementary.

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[This essay originally appeared in Adweek in 2002. Yep, 2002. As true today as it was then…]

Not the agency. Not the client. Something in between.

The arguments between advertising agencies and clients are legendary, but they beg the question: Who’s really in charge here? I’ve worked at agencies where the clients were in charge because they paid the bills. I’ve worked with some clients who told me my job was to tell them what to do and others who told me to shut up and make the logo bigger. So who’s in charge?

This question came into sharp focus for me recently during a discussion with a smart friend who happens to be a brand manager. We were discussing how to market two products in his portfolio. One had over 100 years of history behind it and was a household name. The other didn’t even exist a year ago.

Talking about the newer product, I said, “The issue facing this brand is …” when he interrupted me.

“I’ve only got one brand,” he said. “The one that’s been around for 100 years. The other isn’t a brand yet.”

I was confused, so he went on. “The way I look at it, a brand only exists in the consumer’s mind. That other product isn’t a brand yet because consumers don’t really know about it. It’s still a product.”

This idea ran contrary to almost everything I’d ever thought about brands. I had thought product was brand, no matter how small, how obscure, how bad the advertising. If it was out on the shelves, it was a brand.

What I realized is that this idea may have been true in the past, when product, brand and need (or, said another way, “the consumer”) were all neatly aligned. But it’s not true now. Now they are three distinct entities. And as such, each requires its own champion.

Now, consider the product. Who is the expert on the product? Who spends all their time thinking about how it is made, if the distributors are happy about it, if the sales people understand it, if the factory is going to make enough of it this month, if the quality is going to be up to snuff, if corporate is going to kill it in favor of another product? The client, right?

Now, who spends all their time immersed in the culture of consumers but also standing apart from that culture in an effort to observe it, analyze it, understand it, predict it? Who knows what the trends are, what the motivators are, what’s cool for whom, when and how? And who can use that weird double sight to create instinctual insights that resonate with millions of consumers everywhere? The agency, right?

And the brand? The brand is where the client and agency meet. The client comes at the brand from the perspective of the product, and the agency comes at it from the perspective of the consumer. And while overlap is good – smart clients should think about consumers, and smart agencies should understand their products – the strength of the brand will lie in the intelligent resolution of their differing perspectives.

Perhaps the most important thing about this idea is that it gives shape to the discourse between agencies and clients over strategy, planning, equity, direction and that mother of all flash points, creative. Each knows what their role is. Each knows what they bring to the table. And each knows who they really work for.

They work for the brand.

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[This essay originally appeared in Talent Zoo in 2009. It appears here in a slightly different form.]

I teach advertising at an arts university. And as such I am regularly in contact with artists and artists-in-training. And often they tell me that the reason they are in my class is that they want to use advertising as a job to support them while they get on their feet as artists.

The writers point to Fitzgerald and DeLillo and the visual artists point to Warhol and the musicians point to Barry Manilow. (Okay, I made that last one up.) They say “I could do what they did.” And I ask them what that is exactly – and they say “create art for commerce.”

But here’s the thing. We don’t create art for commerce. What we do is use artists to create advertising. This is not the same thing. And while it is not efficient, we can take comfort in the fact that nothing in the creative process is efficient.

If it’s not efficient then why do we do it? For two reasons. First, thanks to their course of study, artists are uniquely attuned to the subtleties of the tools advertising uses – sound, vision, word and movement. In this sense, they are the ultimate craftsmen at their trade – and we employ them because of their training and innate ability to do things with sound, vision, words and movement that others simply cannot do.

The second reason is because of art itself. Art is about a long term insight – one that resonates with people not just today, but tomorrow and next year and for years after that. And because art is about an emotional connection – one that defies the rational, that cuts through everything around it and grabs the viewer and demands attention, reverberating with that person in a way that non-art never does.

This tension between the short term commerce and the longterm art is, however, the basic dynamic that exists every day in every creative person in every creative department in every agency in the world. Every time they look at a brief, every time they concept, every time they present, every time the revise. And the only difference between what happens at some shop you consider “artistic” with one you consider to be “full of hacks” is where the participants have drawn the line.

What line? The line that defines whether, on this project, at this stage of the process, we’re thinking short term or long term.

Many clients think they want the former, and feel they are constantly pushing their agencies – usually through the persons of their account people – to achieve this. They have numbers to meet, bottom lines to respond to, bosses to accommodate. But the fact of the matter is that they actually want the latter. They think they want something that will close the sale today, but they really want something that will close the sale every day. They just feel more comfortable being able to recognize what will make an impact today, because they are living and breathing in the “today”.

But when clients start talking about something that is “breakthrough”, about something that “cuts through the clutter”, about something that is “compelling” – and when they start using examples like Bernbach’s VW ads, or the Mac “1984” spot or Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign, what they are really saying is “show me something that will beat everybody to tomorrow. Show me something that will not just answer the specific needs of this creative brief, and therefore be useless to me next week when the populace has moved on. Show me something that will change the game for my brand, because I know that only by changing the game can I truly succeed.”

And thus we learn that creatives are not the only ones experiencing this tension between the short term commerce and the long term art.

So what do I tell my students, these artists-in-waiting who are considering going into advertising? I tell them this: if you want to be an artist, be an artist. Really. No harm, no foul. But if you’re interested in using the long term insight skills you’ve been honing lo these many years to create short term solutions – short term solutions that still, somehow, resonate long term – if you’re not only capable of making that intellectual jump, but if indeed, that challenge actually excites you, then stick around.

Class dismissed.

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[This essay ran in the UK journal “Contagious” in 2009, in a somewhat shorter form. It appears here at it’s original length, for the first time.]

Here’s how it used to work:

We’d do an ad. It would drive a consumer to a store. The consumer would buy the product in the store. End of story. The consumer was happy, the store was happy, the client was happy, and most of all, we were happy.

But here’s how it works now:

The consumer does not go to the store, because they think they’re going to lose their job so they’re cutting down on spending. So the store orders less because they don’t want to spend money on stuff that’s just gonna go bad on their shelves. So the “stuff makers” (read: our clients) produce less because there’s less demand. And because they’re selling less stuff, they cut their advertising budgets (why spend more to sell less?). And because there’s less money in the advertising budget, we lay off people, too. Which doesn’t do a whole hell of a lot to encourage any of us to go to the store and buy more stuff – and thus the whole cycle repeats endlessly until the snake swallows it’s own tail and would the last person left please turn off the lights before he leaves?

But maybe we’re looking at this the wrong way round. Perhaps the desperate times we’re in mean we need to turn the equation upside down. Perhaps we should start thinking of our job as ways to drive consumers to stores. As people who generate value at the store level.

Any brand that creates marketing programs which create real value for the retailer – that make his store more exciting, more memorable, more unique, more special – that literally drive people to his store (as a destination, as opposed to “a place where a bunch of my product happens to be”) will not merely survive in this crummy economy. They will create a relationship that will pay big dividends when the recession ends and we go back to worrying about other things than losing our jobs.

Some may say that agencies are already doing these things. Sales Promotion, Advertising, Event-Marketing, Shopper-Marketing. And while this way of thinking uses elements from each of these disciplines, it is important to understand how it does not as well.

Sales promotions is commonly defined as being about that last five feet of the sale – when the consumer is already in the store, at the shelf, with the money in his hand, ready to spend. But here’s the thing; consumers aren’t in the stores these days. As a result, many promotions can’t even get started, let alone work their magic.

Advertising, in this context, could be defined as the “first five feet of the sale”. When people are in their homes or on the streets or even quaintly listening to the radio. On the one hand, this makes advertising a perfect tactic for driving people to retail. On the other hand, traditionally, clients feel that since they’re the ones spending the money, every last penny of the messaging ought to be about them. Rare is the advertiser who will part with any fraction of that money for someone else’s message. And when they do, it’s usually some sort of tag at the end that lists a half dozen logos that theoretically stock them. That’s not making the store special – to the consumer or the retailer.

Events pose a different challenge. Because traditionally event marketing has been focused on going to where people were and creating buzz and excitement there, confident that consumers would then go where ever they were bidden. But now they must convince their clients to stage something exciting at the actual retail environment. In other words, going where the people are not, in an effort to draw them in. Trading in the specs of Vanderbilt Hall for the parking lot at Safeway.

And lastly, Shopper Marketing, which is, by and large, about leveraging and maximizing existing shopping patterns and habits of consumers when they’re in the store. The fact that they’re not in the store right now means shopper marketing has to use all that tremendous data and insight in a new way. One that applies those behavioural observations to what happens outside the walls of the retailer.

It sounds somewhat disparate and chaotic, and it is. But here’s a unifying thought. In good times, a brand’s story is usually not about itself, it’s about what the consumer needs or wants – and how the brand fulfills that need or want. In times like these, the brand’s needs are uniquely aligned with the retailer’s – how do we get people back in the store. And the brands that can fulfill that need today, are the ones that will be around to fight again tomorrow.

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[Note: This essay ran in a slightly different form in Advertising Age on March 15, 2009. It appears here now for the first time.]

If we’ve learned nothing from this recession, we have learned this: Job security is an illusion (although, to paraphrase Woody Allen – as illusions go, it’s one of the best).

The good people are trundled out the door with the bad. Experienced with the inexperienced. The smart with the stupid, tall with the short, raw with the cooked, left-brained with the right-brained with the non-brained.

Which begs the question a lot of folks in this industry are already asking themselves – if there’s no job security, does it really matter whether you’re employed by an agency or by yourself?

Yes, it does. Because not everyone is cut out for self-employment. Unfortunately, they often don’t learn it until it’s too late. So here are three reasons why you should stay – or, barring that, why you should try to get hired at another agency if you get fired.

Reasons to Stay

  1. You don’t want to be responsible for EVERYTHING. – when you’re on your own, you don’t just do the work, you also find the work, manage the work, bill the work, and pay for the work. You spend an insane amount of time doing a lot of stuff that people you currently know only via email and forms in triplicate do. It’s one of the paradoxes of life, but really, it shouldn’t surprise you; a big company hires you for a specific skill set, which you do over and over again. When you’re on your own, you can’t afford to hire all those specialists – so you become them. If you don’t want to, don’t go.
  2. The world – Most agencies are part of a global organization that is truly remarkable, and if they ever put it to work in a meaningful way (you know, more than just something to mention on the website) we’d see some really incredible breakthroughs. And I have to believe that very soon, someone will figure it out, and you may not want to be on the outside looking in. By the same token, there’s very little chance that you’re going to walk out of your current set-up with an international network like the one your agency has right now. Unless, of course, your name ends in “orrell”.
  3. You may need someone to hate – look, sometimes the only thing that can get you out of bed in the morning is the fact that some idiot scheduled a meeting for 730 that you absolutely have to be in. But when you’re on your own, there’s no one to hate but yourself, and if you’re cool with yourself, well, it’s very easy to find yourself laying on the couch watching Dr. Phil all day. And while far be it for me to tell you not to hate Dr. Phil, it is way less lucrative than hating your co-workers (see Dr. Phil’s special episode: “Hating you, hating me – a guide to employment success”)

Okay, but hold on a sec. Because just as there are people who aren’t cut out for self-employment, there are some folks who aren’t really cut out for agency work. Who spend years banging their heads against the wall (because of “job security”) to find out that they’d be much happier on their own. So here are three reasons to go – whether you jump or are pushed is your call.

Reasons to Go

  1. Do the work you want to do – think your agency is going in the wrong direction? Think that the new client is killing the soul of the company – and everyone else? Fine. Hitting the bricks gives you the opportunity to design a roster and workload that’s exactly what you believe in. Only “great” work? Only “work that’s finished by 5pm”? Only work “that celebrates the mystery of kittens”? It’s up to you. It’s not easy, of course, but then neither is doing work you hate, over and over again.
  2. You may be more cost-effective – Business, of course, is always about making money. In this economy, however, it may actually be about how to lose less. Going out on your own instantly makes you more cost-effective, to your future clients sure, but also to your old employer – who is suddenly no longer saddled with paying your social security, withholding and healthcare (note to self – you now have to pay your own social security, withholding and healthcare). Admittedly, this is short term reason, but careers – and agencies – have been started on less.
  3. There’s no where else to go – just because the economy sucks doesn’t mean that brick wall (or, if you prefer, glass ceiling) that you’re banging your head against is any less real. Sometimes your career demands that you step out for a while. Especially if you have an insight into the business that your current employer can’t take advantage of. Remember – all the stuff that Jobs and Wozniak brought out under the Apple name was stuff that HP had and didn’t know what to do with. If you’re in the same boat, you’d be a fool to stick around – no matter what the economy says.

Either way, it’s up to you. And it always is. The trouble is, we forget that because we’re usually up to our, ahem, necks, in work. And we don’t learn it again until the next time the economy heads downtown.

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[Note: This essay ran in a slightly different form in Advertising Age on December 02, 2008. It has appeared in countless blogs since then. It appears here now for the first time]

They teach you how to design. They teach you how to write. They teach you how to take a client to lunch and they even teach you how to get a job. But no one ever teaches you how to be fired.

So in these perilous times, if you are one of the folks recently employment-free, let me be among the first to welcome you to your new life. Or at least, to your new life for a while.

And while I’m not going to lie to you that there’s anything I can say which will make if enjoyable, I can offer some advice on how to survive it with a minimal amount of therapy.

So here are six simple tips on how to be fired. Take them for what they’re worth. And tell me if they make sense to you. (Hey, it ain’t like you got anything else to do…)

Step one – Get fired.

You’d be surprised how many people walk around for a couple of weeks acting like they’ve been fired before they are actually let go. Freaking out that they’re gonna be laid off, moping around the office, and then it doesn’t happen, and they’ve wasted all that time when they could’ve been, I dunno, working maybe. Or looking for a new job. Or drinking. Or anything. So don’t sweat being fired until it happens. It won’t do you any good.

Step two – Freak out

Okay, you’ve been fired. Congratulations. The axe has fallen and it’s got your neck all over it. Well, at least that’s over. And while eventually it may all work out for the best, right now, it sucks. So freak out. Grieve. Scream. Yell. Throw things. Cry. Drink. Whatever. But get it out of your system. You absolutely, positively have to deal with it now, otherwise you’ll carry it around with you for the next thirty years. Which is okay if you don’t mind it rearing its ugly head when you least want it to. And it will.

Step three – Make a story

“He who controls the story controls their destiny.” I think C.J. Cregg said that. But it’s true, and you have to assume that once you get an interview, the first thing they’re going to ask you (or maybe the second, after, “Would you please stop shaking my hand”) is “Why did you leave your last job?” How you answer this will reveal worlds about who you are. Do you say “I got fired and I have no idea why?” That seems frighteningly uncurious and rather disingenuous – neither of which are qualities anyone wants to hire. Do you say “I got fired and I hate those bastards and I will spend all my free time hunting them down like the dogs they are”. Hey, at least it shows passion. Either of these are better, however, than just standing there stammering. Some come up with something. And then stick to it.

Step four – Be the Brand

We are in the business of selling brands. Or at the very least, bringing them to life. We – of all people – should know how hard it is to be convincing about something that is ill-defined. So why would you go into the job market without a clear brand for yourself? I don’t know. And yet, everyone does it.

So after you’ve figured out what you’re going to say about why you’re suddenly so damn available, figure out why they should hire you. What’s unique about you. Or said another way – figure out they should hire you and not the ten thousand other yahoos who’ve recently been sacked because the economy is in the toilet.

Wanna be really smart? Take it a step further. Customize your brand to the people you’re talking to. You know, like you always told your clients they should do. For exactly the same reasons.

Step Five – Eliminate what you hate

There will be a part of being fired that you really hate. (I don’t mean the being broke part. Everyone hates that – everyone with any brains at least.) So figure out what it is and figure out a way to get over it. Maybe you hate not having people to hang out with. Then go to Starbucks. I’m serious. Or maybe you hate not having a routine. Make one – get up, walk the dogs, read your mail, write something, whatever. Or maybe it’s explaining to your nosy neighbors why suddenly you’re wondering around the neighborhood in your pajamas at eleven a.m. I don’t know. But figger it out and get around it. Otherwise you’re gonna add another level of stress to the stress of being out of work. And who needs that?

Step Six – Embrace Repetition

Face this fact: You’re gonna be saying the same things over and over again. You’re gonna have your elevator pitch. Or you’re gonna have the thing you tell your neighbor. Or the spiel you make in an interview. Work it, polish it, refine it – but for God’s sake whatever you do, don’t get bored with it.

Usually when we’re presenting to a client, we only have to do it once or twice – maybe three times. We’re just not used to bringing the same enthusiasm the tenth or fifteenth time that we brought the first two times. And that’s exactly what you’re gonna be faced with when you’re interviewing.

Our natural instinct, of course, is to adjust what we’re presenting. Not necessarily make it better, just make it fresher so we can keep the passion in it, because otherwise we’ll feel bored by it. But look – even though this may be the tenth time you’ve said this exact same stuff, it’s probably the first time this particular person has heard it. It’s new to them. Make it sound like it’s new to you too.

Because the sooner you learn how, the less you may have to.

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Look in the paper any day of the week and you’re bound to see another story about how enormous mega-nationals are plundering the most arcane and private bits of my personal data in order to produce marketing that is so tailored, so ingenious, so insidious that I am helpless in the face of it. Marketing that allows their agencies to craft advertising messages that are so highly tuned to the particular peculiarities of my personality that I am forced – on some primordial, pre-evolutionary, subconscious level – to buy whatever snake oil, motor car or dessert topping they happen to be selling.

To which I say, “I wish.”

Look, I’m in advertising. So was my father, and his father before him. And I’m here to tell you that I would love to have that kind of information at my fingertips. It would make my job so much easier. Something concrete and substantial. “We’re talking to these people. And they live here, and they eat this and their day looks like this and these are the things they believe, wear, think, feel, buy, blah, blah blah. Now, go make some brilliant advertising that uses all this information to trip their subconscious wires so we can sell a ton of stuff!”

The advertising wouldn’t even have to be “brilliant”. With information like that, it could be fairly mediocre and it would still be wildly successful. How could it not?

But you know what most of us creatives get? “Our consumer is women, age 18-54, average household income, average education. Some have families. Some don’t. And there’s no particular geographic skew – they’re pretty much every where. Now, go make some advertising I can sell to our client.”

Think about that for a second. Women 18 to 54. Now there’s a unified group. Not a lot of changes go on in a woman’s life between those years that might possibly impact the way she feels about a product. Or even whether she needs it or not.

Now, I’m not denying that all that information is, indeed, floating around out there in the info-ether. And I’m certainly not suggesting that you shouldn’t take every precaution to make sure it doesn’t wind up in the hands of identity thieves and other nefarious hackers.

But I am saying that I can count on one hand the number of Fortune 500 companies who are actually making any meaningful use of it in their marketing. Maybe less. Yeah, less than one hand.

I know this because I’ve tried to get them to use it, and they are, by and large incapable of it.

Do you know how many Fortune 500 companies have basements filled with entry forms or servers filled with email addresses that are just crying out to be used and aren’t? I mean, if you actually filled out one of those forms it’s reasonable to assume you have some kind of relationship with the company. Or that you want one. So you wouldn’t be averse to receiving some kind of communication back. Something that included you in the brand family, right? Something that said, hey, thanks for being interested in us. We’re interested in you. Simple right? When was the last time you got something like that? See what I mean?

Seems obvious, so why aren’t they doing it? Mostly because they’re too busy thinking about tomorrow. Tomorrow’s deadline. Tomorrow’s sales numbers. Tomorrow’s media placement. American business is so overloaded right now with the now that they can barely use the tools they’ve used in the past, let alone use these tools of the future.

So does this mean you’re safe? Of course not. There are dangerous folks out there trying to steal your identity so they can empty out your bank account and leave you destitute.

They’re just not going to try to sell you anything while they’re doing it.

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