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Scott McKay is a Toronto strategist, writer, creative director, patient manager, half-baked photographer and forcibly retired playwright.

This little site is designed to introduce him and his thoughts to the world. (Whether the world appreciates the intro is another matter.) If you'd like to chat, then you can guess what the boxes below are for.



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    "They had their cynical code worked out. The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket."

          – George Orwell






    "Advertising – a judicious mix of flattery and threats."

          – Northrop Frye






    "Chess is as an elaborate a waste of time as has ever been devised outside an advertising agency."

          – Raymond Chandler



    can your voice be better? you sure as hell better try

    A long, long time ago, playing with a cassette tape player in my friend Mike's suburban basement, I figured out that I can't stand the sound of my own voice. 

    I think we were recording ourselves doing half-remembered Monty Python sketches (I remember the Spanish Inquisition as a particular favourite), and needless to say as we recorded we assumed we were breathtakingly funny. We were strange teenagers, after all, and we understood these strange and weird bits so well. How could it not be amazing?

    Well, I won't debate the comedic worth of what we did. (Mercifully, that magnetic tape has no hope of being found in listenable condition.) What really hit me, as we played the tape back, was the fact that my voice was so unexpectedly nasal and awful. I couldn't stop thinking about it, analyzing it, trying to hear the sound in my own head the way it had come out of the tape player so I could stop it sounding that way.

    That's exactly how you should feel about your past work.

    Especially the work in your book.

    I'm not talking about excuses – blaming various imperfections on client, account or production interference, budgetary woes, or the failure of the satellite to deploy. (Yes, my partner and I had a great idea killed because a telecommunications satellite didn't reach orbit and crashed.) Anything that's been so dreadfully affected by such things probably shouldn't be in your book anyway. 

    I'm talking about the work that you've put in the front of your book thinking it was the best thing you'd ever done. The work that got you jobs. The work that got you awards.

    How could you have made that work better?

    If you're any good at this creative thing we do, and sure as hell if you want to get better, you have to face that question. 

    Me? I cringe at almost everything I've done – stuff that's been at the front of my book, done really well for clients, even won awards. I can't look at it without thinking about what I'd change, what if I'd tried harder at that headline, how could I have looked at it from a different point of view. And I try like hell to apply those lessons to what I'm doing today. That's the only way I know for my work to get better.

    Yes, as that great creative director Crash Davis once said, you have to play this game with fear and arrogance. That's just as true when standing in front of the client or your account team, as it is in front of a nasty fastball pitcher who likes to throw inside. That's for the show. 

    Inside your head, as you stand in the batting cage or hunched over your keyboard, you think about all the people who can do it better, and you analyze and try different things and make tons of mistakes and, slowly but surely, you learn.

    You get better.


    schadenfreude for Ozymandias, king of kings

    As much as I'm reluctant to comment on other agencies, this article by Seth Stevenson in Slate about the decline of Crispin Porter + Bogusky is worth your time, if only to remind you of the Golden Age of advertising – Subservient Chicken, The King, Peter Stormare acting weird around Volkswagens – that will soon only be a distant memory on Youtube, alas... sniff...


    Pointing at the mighty as they lay fallen is the whole point of this, I suppose. (Hell, I was impressed that I was able to spell "schadenfreude" without looking it up.) Now that Burger King is on its way to number three in the market, VW has moved on, and Mr. Bogusky is doing special projects in his backyard, it feel very much like it's time to point out that the emperor's suit was remarkably skintight and transparent...

    But let's be fair. It's possible that BK's sales *may* have been affected by a little thing known as the Economic Situation, as we so euphemistically call it for our clients. And they've had some leadership changes. Can you blame everything on their marketing?

    Now, I was never a fan of their "weird for the sake of being weird" approach. Admittedly it was ground-breaking stuff when it launched, but to me it felt like work done to impress other ad weasels and show judges. If that was all CP+B had been capable of, then I'd be applauding with Mr. Kane myself.

    But there was another side to Ozymandias, one that actually made me believe the hype. 

    The Whopper Freakout campaign showed real brilliance. To persuade a client to address a perceived weakness by coming at it head on at a hundred miles an hour truly was remarkably brave, innovative and absolutely turned weakness into strength. It's simple stuff, but powerful.

    Can you think of a better way to honestly show how passionate people are about your product? (I'm aware that the honesty came at the cost of a lie. That's how we roll.)

    These guys had something magic. I'm sorry they seem to have frittered it away. 

    One more thing: the Deutsch VW Passat ad with the Darth Vader kid and the remote ignition that the Slate writer likes so much? I don't get it. Isn't it a better ad for remote ignition, or George Lucas, than it is for Passat? Has our advertising really not progressed past the point where having your audience think, "Aw, that brand seems to vaguely understand me by exploiting the fact that I have kids" is counted as success? 

    At least CP+B tried.

    Maybe Ozymandias was the wrong literary reference. Maybe I should have written about Icarus.


    talking to the people we really work for

    I recently had the opportunity to present work to clients.

    Um, no, not the usual suspects – not the client's marketing people, the ones who we present work to day in and day out.

    I mean all the other people who make up this client. A couple of hundred of customer-facing people who work in non-headquarters roles – the folks who never see silly things like creative strategies, and who never hear suits talking about "leveraging" things – stared down at me from the seats of a rented theatre. They were a true cross section of the thousands of people who work for and with this organization.

    These were the real clients. These were the people who actually do what this client is in business to do. Also in the audience were several board members, and the entire executive team.

    And despite a sudden attack of dry mouth, it was an incredible experience. Let's say it focused my mind on what our campaign was really about, and forced me to boil all the thinking we'd done about it down to its bare essentials. (For instance, at the last minute I cut a bunch of stuff about our planning lingo; I realized it was irrelevant to them.) But it also made me think about our work not just as "creative" but as part of the organization itself. After all, the creative is something every employee will see, and publicly wear; if it sucked, I wasn't the one who'd have to literally stand in front of the target audience every day.

    On a deeper level, I knew that I had to relate the campaign back to them. The creative couldn't just be a clever idea that would float out there in the world, and perhaps be vaguely to them by bringing in a logo and URL at the end. (Saw a spot this morning for Raising the Roof that did exactly that; hope they got it produced pro bono.) I had to prove to all these people that the work and its message all came from the reality they experience every day. That was the only way they'd feel a part of the campaign, be proud to talk about it with the people they serve.

    And while we won't know how it alll turns out for a few months, the vibe was very positive.

    Well, at least they didn't throw anything.

    And I learned something crucial about what we do, and why we do it.


    keep your fork, Duke, there's pie

    Recently I saw this short article in the Atlantic about a study (sadly, not actually from Duke University) proving that "humble" leaders are "better liked" by their employees. 

    Ahem. As you know being liked isn't exactly in anyone's list of useful characteristics of a good creative, or a good suit, or a good client. As much as I want to find value in such well meaning nonsense, I think the best thing you can call it is misleading.  

    The conclusion doesn't exactly help:

    Leaders who are open with their feelings and keen to learn and grow are better liked and perceived as more effective.

    Being perceived as being more effective sounds a little Machiavellian, doesn't it?

    A closer read reveals that the original study was based on only about 50 interviews with people of various levels of a wide range of organizations. Hardly scientific, not much more rigour than a high school social studies essay. Then, at the very end, the article mentions that a follow-up study being done with 900 employees and managers has validated the earlier results:

    They found that leader humility is associated with more learning-oriented teams, more engaged employees, and lower voluntary employee turnover

    Okay, that sounds like actual information. (Huzzah!) And that feels right, too, based on folks I've worked with and for. When you're working for someone who lets you have some of the answers, someone who lets you feel some sense of control over your work, you spend a lot less time trolling Linkedin for headhunters. And you spend less time buying coffee for similarly disenfranchised coworkers so, for once, they'll listen to you complain.

    Under the opposite, negativity becomes an atmosphere that you swim through all the time. It takes so much extra effort to get anything done. (Ever tried running in a swinning pool?) And I think significantly, that last point about lower turnover is the real value of "humble" leadership. More than the time and money expended on hiring, the real killer is the lost knowledge that walks out the door every time another employee leaves. Clients value people who know their business. Pushing green fodder into client meetings to replace losses reeks of that mild unpleasantness at the beginning of the last century.

    As I've said before (hell, it was my first post) being a manager or leader isn't and can't be about bossing people around – not for anyone in any industry, let alone creatives. It's about getting them to buy in; listening to their objections and issues, then dealing with them; it's about not denying the truth of their feelings and opinions, and accepting that you will not bully them into submission. To me this David Cooper quote means that, as a good leader, you won't even realize you're eating humble pie:

    "Perhaps the most central characteristic of authentic leadership is the relinquishing of the impulse to dominate others."


    slow down, you're not dancing fast enough

    Don't know about you, but lately I've been feeling like two diametrically opposed forces are taking over my work life. 

    The first is the overwhelming sensation that we all need to slow the hell down and do a lot more thinking. Our clients are under more pressure than ever to get results faster. Our campaigns, which must now reach across more media than ever before, have less and less time to get planned and built. And there's so much more information coming at us before we make those decisions – and yet so little time to analyze that information. We're making decisions and acting while dancing under a fire hose of data.

    The second is the knowledge that we're too damned slow. In our clients' eyes, we don't react fast enough to their needs. Why can't we be more nimble, more Internet-y? Agencies take too long and need too many people touching campaigns before they ever see the light of day. After all, are your clients in love with your process? Didn't think so. And this isn't just about agencies, since clients don't seem to be happy with the speed of their own internal processes, either.

    Too fast. Not fast enough. What do we do?

    Well, a bonus nagging feeling I have is that these two forces are two facets of the same issue – our general lack of focus. (Again, that's the royal "our.") The only way to survive is to use what time we have to decide on the right purpose, on a focused strategy that drives business objectives, then dive in and make it happen as fast as possible. And no matter what, no matter how eager we are to please and expand scope or react to changing circumstances, we have to stay on purpose. In a world where we're bombarded by cool tactics every day, strategy is more urgent than ever. 

    Whenever I'm feeling all Roy Scheider-y about being pulled in opposite directions, I know I have to stop, look in the proverbial mirror and focus. And yes, sometimes that entails telling myself, "It's showtime."


    believing is seeing

    Just came back from spending a week away, with little to do but splash in water, dig in the sand, and read – all things I was eager to do. So with no issues or distractions, other than the question of how many towers a sandcastle should have, I was able to finish two books.

    One, Ian Kershaw's The End, a look at the final year of the Nazi regime and how it was able to hold out for so long against such overwhelming external forces, is typically fascinating and detailed, with a clear argument. My only problem with it is that it clearly needed another round of copy editing; within the first three pages I found several errors or confusing usages that seemed obtuse, and there are oddities throughout. (For instance, it would never occur to me to say that a Nazi leader had "skedaddled" unless I were, say, writing an episode of Hogan's Heroes.)

    The other book I was able to finish was Charles Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. It offers repeated lessons on the reality that what we see is in large part determined by what we choose to see. 

    Mann's goal is to cut through all the "noble savage" crap our society is so eager to believe and perpetrate, and actually try to see how natives of the Americas (or, as he calls them, "Indians," based on the persuasive argument that virtually all North American native groups call themselves that) interacted with their environments and each other. The answers are unexpected – from the Great Lakes to the Andes, he demonstrates that Indians had an enormous impact on their physical surroundings, harnessing their landscapes for sustainable food production. Even a sizeable chunk of the Amazon rain forests, full of fruit trees that were bred for production, is likely the result of human efforts from before Columbus. Far from being "hands off" people living at the mercy of nature, they literally created the vast landscapes that the Europeans found at the beginning of the sixteenth century – landscapes that, thanks to diseases like smallpox, were in the years following 1492 quickly emptied of the people who had created them.

    The book makes a strong case, and at the same time, it's a powerful indictment of centuries of white blindness to Indian realities. He shows how biological and geographic features are explained away through increasingly bizarre excuses, and archeological finds go unexamined or only half explained for decades; resistance to accepting Indians as being fully human, with the same kinds of motivations and aspirations as Europeans, is systemic and yet deeply inculcated, even when unintentional on an individual level.  

    Oddly enough, Errol Morris has just come out with a book about photography that shares the title of this post, and has a lot to do with this very topic.

    With the Occupy movement seemingly winding down, and political goofiness of all sorts continuing its upswing, it seems an apt time to think about preconceptions, how we see only what we want to see, and how we choose symbols to talk and fight about those things we think everybody sees. 


    just ask this marketing scientician

    This study out of the University of Oregon, about information recall rates between online and print readers, got a lot of attention over the past week. And rightly so. We need to know more about how and why people interact with advertising. (I mean, I want to know how all communications work, but since an ad agency supports my mortgage and food habits, I feel a particular dedication to knowing more about ads.)

    I encourage you to read the PDF. (Ahem, print it out if you must, like me.) One of the nuggets is that online readers are more like to read headlines alone (and, after I changed my mindyou know how I feel about that) while paper readers are more likely to read body copy and recall it. While I'm sure that's not the final answer and I'd love to see a bigger survey sample, this work is trying to do something important – get at the reality of how we communicate.

    We need to know what works under what circumstances. That knowledge could vastly improve media decisions, let alone creative decisions. And we already bring a lot of discipline to direct media, burrowing into all kinds of metrics and spitting out all kinds of analysis. Our media team's efforts and thinking on the results of, say, this campaign were considerable and impressive.

    So what to make of the collision of science (or at least observation) and creative? Most creatives (and a still surprising number of clients) assume that the idea trumps all. Package your concept up into whatever media you've bought and, bam, there's your campaign. Which is heartwarming and hopeful, and may have once been true, but it's becoming less true and less useful. People in our business can hear about the Oregon study, or similar work, and still not absorb it or understand it, thanks to the fact that we humans are surprisingly bad listeners. (That's thanks to the invention of writing, but that's a whole other story.)

    Direct marketing, for all its limitations, begins with the idea that marketing is measurable. And we have a toolkit of attitudes and techniques with which we approach our work. But it's all based on knowledge derived from response – what's worked? – and not on knowledge of the rest of the interaction. Right now we get back a yes/no, but not why or how. And that would be really valuable knowledge.

    Think of it as the complete takeover of the world by direct marketing if you must, but applying some sort of scientific or at least measurable discipline to consumer interaction with marketing is essential. 

    We need to get better.


    the joy

    As someone who gets sucked into a lot of meetings, it's easy to forget the simple joy of a good brainstorm. I carved out a couple of hours last week to sit with a team and just play and, damn, it was fun. It's a challenging category, but this is an opportunity to show the client not only that we get it, but that we can knock it out of the proverbial.

    Seeing the way forward was hard; the team and I frankly had a block, not being able to see past what everyone else in the category is doing. (And, um, that's not a compliment to the category.)

    But we just kept at it, saying bad things, goofy things, anything. We had to trust each other, not judge each other's goofiness. Suddenly, what seemed like a bad idea was revealed as something interesting, something that no one else in the category has done. And slowly, other possibilities opened up, too. 

    Sure, it's work to keep pushing when there's no clear answer, when everything you say is wrong. But that's how new things happen.

    And there's nothing more fun than that, "Holy crap, what about this?" moment.

    It's why we do what we do.

    (Well, me anyway.)


    concentrated evil

    As a creative, you have to know what you need. You have to be sure about how you work. And you have to be ready to call bullshit on those who do not respect that process.

    The most basic of those needs is the brief. However, this need is not always recognized.

    I was once in a somewhat charged meeting with an account director, debating perceived flaws in some work.

    I asserted that good work didn't happen without a good brief. This account director disagreed loudly, saying pretty much literally that "you don't need a good brief to do good work." There were, um, some heated words on my part, because that was the dumbest thing I'd ever heard.

    Her attitude manifested itself in every job on her account. Projects would get briefed in, concepted, then presented internally, where it turned out that the creative was all wrong, because the brief was all wrong. And the brief was all wrong because none of the information in her head had been communicated to her team, and she hadn't really looked at the brief before allowing her team to present it to the creatives.

    Oddly enough, we were told that the clients were frustrated with the work. But it wasn't the work the clients were having trouble with.

    Needless to say, her and I didn't work together that well. Frankly, I can't name a single creative who has worked with her that well.

    And I don't know many clients who have, either.


    "but I had that idea *years* ago!"

    I said this to myself tonight, watching some TV and seeing yet another advertiser pick up a direction that I'd proposed for one of my clients several years ago – and had ignored.

    In fact, virtually the entire category with the exception of this company has moved in this direction.

    And part of me feels vindicated, oh so superior. I was out front of the curve, both with the idea and the execution: not just an advertising positioning, but also a multi-year content plan across digital media.

    But mostly I feel that I need to be a better salesman. If it was such a good idea, why the hell didn't they buy it? What didn't I communicate? How could I have been more persuasive?

    The philosophical part of me thinks that, apart from the personal lesson, there's no value in this kind of looking back. There's only value in continuing to offer clients innovative thinking, taking them new places, trying to anticipate not where their customers are, but where they're going to be.

    Besides, the only thing more boring than old ad people boasting about their great campaigns is old ad people boasting about their great campaigns that never saw the light of day.

    These are the people to avoid when you're sitting at the Pilot.