search my site:

 

 

 

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.

 

 

This form does not yet contain any fields.

     

     

     

    "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

     

    Thursday
    Jul212011

    we have something to fear, and that's fear itself

    We agency weasels pretty regularly forget what the stakes are.

    Some recent conversations have reminded of the fact that most of our clients are running scared. Even the successful ones, the market leaders, are for the most part acting out of fear. Fear of not meeting their numbers, fear of getting crap from their bosses, fear of losing market share, fear of losing their jobs, fear of ruining their companies. This is just how business is. And if you don't think that the folks at Apple act out of fear – scared of their own success, scared about what they do next to sustain their market valuation, scared of Steve Jobs – you don't understand business.

    A lot us agency types wonder why our clients can't just *see* why every funky innovation we put in front of them is better than what they're doing now. We get frustrated, we call our clients stupid, we stop bringing them interesting ideas. Hell, I'm guilty of this.

    What we forget is that our clients don't just decide that they feel like doing things. They don't need reasons, they don't need to know what's cool or what's a surefire bet to become the FWA's site of the day.

    If they're going to rationally overcome that inevitable corporate fear, they need business reasons. They need numbers. They need proof.

    My colleague Dave Stubbs has an interesting take on this. He advocates starting small, prototyping things quickly and putting them into market in a small way; it's testing and proof of concept at the same time. If it works, great, it works; if it doesn't, you haven't risked much and you have something valuable: actual hard knowledge about your consumer. You haven't guessed wrong, or relied on the opinions of the eleven most vocal people in your department, or done nothing.

    That's a great way to help your clients decide to do what they need to do. Because it's our job to put our clients in a position to succeed. We have to give them the tools to make the right decisions. We have to help them overcome that fear.

    And you know, we ad weasels should be cultivating a little of that fear ourselves. But that's another post.

    Monday
    Jul182011

    ignore what I said – read the damn body copy

    Far too long ago I wrote about the fact that no one reads body copy in advertising. And I still think it's excellent advice for us working ad weasels to remember as we toil away in our underground sugar caves of persuasion. If you can suck someone in your target audience down to paragraph seven, you're doing a pretty damned good job.

    That said, it doesn't happen. As our old friend Howard Gossage said, "People don't read ads. They read what interests them. And sometimes, it's an ad." Something that, with that quote now being more relevant than the day it was uttered, far too many of us continue to forget.

    So, people don't read body copy. But you know what?

    They should.

    Okay, I don't mean marketing body copy. (Although, if you do, I'd really appreciate it.) I'm talking about news and information.

    This spring has brought an abundance of events that required understanding: Fukushima, our recent federal election, and our city's current budget crisis, the Vancouver riots... Most TV and radio news turned it all into mere headlines. Harper wins! Ignatieff's a stiff! Ford builds subways! City's labour costs 4X too high! Then they move on to another brief, meaningless headline, or celebrity news – gosh, too bad about JLo and Marc Anthony! – and they never get actually get to what's interesting about the story: the why. And as much as I love Twitter, it has probably exacerbated this trend – instant knowledge, instant reaction. (Ever notice that, when a name or topic is trending, the bulk of the tweets about it are of the "OMG, why is this trending?" variety?)

    Increasingly I feel that it's our duty as citizens of this city, this country and this planet to go deeper than the headline or the tweet. It's our duty to read the body copy, to click on the link and read the article, to seek out the complexities and try to understand them. Body copy is where the facts are, where the nuance is. When you understand that any event has multiple causes and can be seen many different ways, you may be confused, but you're also getting closer to how things really are. By relying on headlines, you're just being fed someone else's version of the story.

    Is this unrealistic? Elitist? Just plain goofy? Of course it's all of the above. But continued attention to the facts buried in the body copy is how the Guardian kept the phone hacking scandal alive in the U.K., and why one of the world's most powerful men is now acting a little like King Lear.

    Without that understanding, it's hard to run a democracy.

    Friday
    Jun032011

    I can think of one thing that's not useful

    Journalism about marketing is at best an oxymoron; for some strange reason it's hard to get honest "behind the scenes" facts or real analysis out of marketers who are extremely good at telling a smooth single story that they totally control.

    So if I read industry mags at all, I'm skimming to find anything I might think is relevant. And I tend not to bother with mainstream press reportage, unless I want to become all hot and bothered, because their lack of basic knowledge makes their writing by and large useless. (This isn't a trait that's limited to their analysis of marketing; Salon's Patrick Smith, a working pilot, regularly talks about just how awful press coverage is of almost any given airline story.)

    But as I cruised this morning's Globe, I got sucked into an article, Simon Houpt's Adhocracy column, about the new Toronto Trending site. I thought the site itself had some interesting ideas, but maybe wasn't all it could be. But toward the end of his story, Simon Houpt talks about a new "wave" of marketing that focused on being useful to consumers, and he mentions some current examples.

    Lovely. Only a few years late.

    Utility is a paradigm we've been working at our shop with for three or four years, and one which we've already evolved internally a couple of times. We didn't invent the idea, either. And I really think that Simon Houpt should know that utility has been around for a while in this business that he writes about regularly.

    For some quaint reason, I expect a journalist who's writing a column about marketing to know something about it beyond the press releases he gets in his inbox.

    Monday
    Apr182011

    do you appreciate how interesting we are?

    The thing about new business pitches is that it's awfully easy to talk about yourself and your amazing processes and how many proprietary tools you've got and generally how great you are.

    Did you start shopping at Loblaws because they've got a really good inventory management system? (I have no idea if they do, just go with my hypotheticals please.) Did you buy an iPad because of Apple's great employee retention and development philosophy? Did you rent your apartment because of the special care with which the plumbing and electrical systems were installed? Do I have to ask any more rhetorical questions?

    No one gives a shit about the how. Everyone has a how. Everyone has specially insightful proprietary tools with special sauce or magic powers. Everyone has awards. Everyone has a commitment to excellence.

    People – shoppers, prospective clients – want to know how it applies to them. They've got to see that your great inventory management means that the product they want is actually there on the shelves when they want it. You have to make the connections about what your proprietary tools will do for them.

    You have to create meaning.

    Over the past few months we've become much better at creating meaning. We focus on telling stories, and drawing out the parallels for our audience. Instead of "pitching" we're having some great conversations about the folks who have approached us. And we're making some interesting connections.

    All it took was getting away from the mirror.

    Thursday
    Apr142011

    do not write like this, do not talk like this

    In the stories about Cisco closing down the Flip video line, this gem was the feature quote, as it's the only one in the official Cisco press release:

    "We are making key, targeted moves as we align operations in support of our network-centric platform strategy," said John Chambers, Cisco chairman and CEO. "As we move forward, our consumer efforts will focus on how we help our enterprise and service provider customers optimize and expand their offerings for consumers, and help ensure the network's ability to deliver on those offerings."

    If Jon Stewart were trying to parody Cisco, he couldn't have done a better job. Chambers sounds like an automaton and a buffoon. Worse, because the language could apply to pretty much any industry, any company, it makes him sound like a professional CEO who, in jumping from executive suite to executive suite, doesn't actually know that much about the products or company he's leading – the kind of CEO he doesn't actually seem to be.

    For god's sake, PR flacks, be direct. Engage the question or the situation as best you can, even if you have to tapdance a little. (Watch and learn.) Otherwise you're assuming your audience are idiots who will fall for your misdirection, or you're not-so-subtly telling them that you don't feel like you have to answer the question.

    Either way, you piss people off.

    Do not write or speak like John Chambers. Ever.

    Friday
    Apr012011

    once again, I find vague relevance to digital in my undergraduate career

    Somewhere in The Great Code, Frye tells the story of an Assyrian king who cuts up a Bible laughing at how fragile and impermanent it is – being made out of mere paper and ink – while saying his great stone palaces will last forever.

    The twist, as Frye says, is that the fragile paper and ink document has lasted three thousand years and had an immeasurable impact on human affairs, while the Assyrian palaces (and the king who built them) vanished long ago

    Thanks to email shout outs from Mr. Lieberman and reader S.M. (not me, I promise), I am once again reminded that actual humans (as opposed to Googlebots) read this little blog thing. And that these tiny pixels of thought can live on for quite some time.

    And that's just weird.

    Forgive me for rehashing what should be blindingly obvious, but it's not always apparent when you're blogging that you're writing for an audience. At the level of Atrios or Yglesias of course you know that everything you write will get dozens or hundreds of comments, with viewpoints of all varieties, and senses of humour which may not mesh with yours.

    At the lower levels there's a disassociative quality to blogging. I get a constant but small stream of traffic, and occasionally comments from co-workers. But for the most part I find myself writing for a hypothetical audience. You never know who's going to stumble upon your little abode months or years after you've written something, or what they're looking for, or why. And without the constant flow of traffic or commenting, you do feel a bit isolated.

    (Twitter is slightly different, in that most people I know are barraged by tweets and don't have time to look back, let alone keep up. So there's *slightly* less sense of permanence. But it also means if you don't get a reaction immediately, you're not getting one. Unless you're Bruce Arthur, there can be a similar sense of isolation to it.)

    Yes, I know my co-workers read this thing, and I'm aware that clients, prospective clients or competitors may read it, so I'm pretty considered in what I write. Blogging in anger or while drunk would be far worse than emailing while in either condition, and I have *always* regretted such moments with Entourage.

    But recently discovering that clients actually have read this blog gave me a quick moment of panic, and a healthy dose of paranoia. It makes me glad that, from day one, I've made an effort to be more thoughtful and considered than I am in real life.

    In spite of the fact that they're nothing more than electrons and photons, the words you write in this here Internet live on. Will they always have an impact? Maybe not. But don't ever think they that they can't.

    Monday
    Mar282011

    another reminder that David Ogilvy knew what he was doing

    Mark Phillips, of London's Bluefrog Agency, recently posted this item on SOFII about David Ogilvy's 1968 letter for the United Negro College Fund. Take a look and grab the pdf. It's a great and really instructive look at how to connect with a specific target audience, based on thinking about who they are, what they do and where they are – and actually doing something with all that.

    And it's the opposite of what far too many advertisers are doing today. Because too many people on both the client side and agency side continue to harbour the frankly goofy impression that humans as a species no longer read.

    Sure, some people don't read much. Some people never have. Thinking that social media has replaced all other forms of social interaction so that all your advertising has to be under 140 characters is a recipe for failure.

    For instance, working on DMs aimed at C-level executives over the past decade, I've had suits and clients insist that senior execs don't read – "they're far too busy" apparently – as a way of bludgeoning me into keeping the copy brief. But that meant there was nothing in what we ended up sending out that could get their interest; beyond a slick headline and picture, there was no reason for them to engage in our communication, and no way for them to be moved.

    Think about subway advertising, and how few ads there take advantage of the fact that their target audience is sitting there doing not much. Perfect opportunity to hold their attention with long copy. By, say, telling a story. But I digress.

    What Ogilvy did was simple – exploit everything he knew about the audience (even, it has to be said, fears and racial unrest that don't read so well today) in order to make a connection with them and move them to action.

    Keep that in mind next time you write a brief. Or approve a brief. Or work with one.

    Friday
    Mar252011

    David Letterman is not Tim Berners-Lee, or even Al Gore

    I know.

    You actually read all those top ten or top seven or top five lists. I do. Everyone does.

    Not surprisingly, people have a weird prediliction for the easily digestible. (Which explains Smartfood popcorn, which manages to contradict itself twice within its own brand name, but that's beside the point.) A top ten list of things I have to know or do or be careful of certainly sounds like it's going to tell me things I'm going to have to do or know or be careful of, which means I'm more likely to click on it. Titles like that shout, "Hey you! Busy digitally empowered middle manager! Read me because you don't have time to read! I will grant you valuable and easily actionable information that will improve your career prospects and/or your pay level!"

    And, um, teh Google certainly seems to like them.

    But people. Really. Everything that y'all are posting tells me that y'all've been taking those LinkedIn discussions and eHow tips on how to "generate content" a little too seriously.

    Not everything deserves to be crammed into the "top whatever" format. My friends, even social media has more than seven or ten things that you need to know about it, and yet every day there seems to be another link to somone pontificating about those oh so few essential things. And I'm damn sure that there are more than ten things you need to know about Moby Dick, or baking bread, or the Bible, or global climate change, or investing, or whatever, let alone The Simpsons or Family Guy.

    So remember, when it comes to that link about social media you find on Twitter, every other busy digitally empowered middle manager is reading the same shallow crap, and tweeting about it, and thinking it's going to change his/her business in some sort of vaguely differentiating way.

    David Letterman and Merrill Markoe and the gang invented the Top Ten for your amusement, not for the information superhighway, and certainly not as the primary way for you to attempt to understand the world around you.

    Besides, everyone knows that the only useful top ten list was this one – Top Ten Rasta Expressions or Baseball Chatter.

    Wednesday
    Mar232011

    and here's the pitch

    Um, I seem to have been absent from my digital home for quite some time. For this, Gentle Readers, I humbly apologize.

    It's hard to think of meaningful things to write when your work days are crammed with one thing or another, and are of unpredictable length, and spare time is at a premium. It's been a very busy and productive time, which has seen us work on several RFPs.

    New business pitches are always fun but always tough. Fun because they're the only time you get to approach each potential client's business in the way you think it should be done. It's the ideal opportunity to push things. I like to say in these presentations something to the effect of: "You're going to see things that are wrong, because obviously we haven't worked with your brand standards. But hopefully we can ignore those infractions and focus on the thinking..." For the most part, potential clients are always happy to play "what if" and see their brand and consumer through a new light. Which is good, because that's exactly how you want to work with them.

    But you have to be prepped and confident to do that, and that's what takes the late nights and weekends. Just because you're rolling the dice in a pitch doesn't mean that you're going in with wacky shit; it means that everything has to work together – consumer insight, strategy, creative, media, production. And that takes time, and meetings, and refining the work (okay, going back to square one a few times) and getting everyone's buy in.

    I'm sure there's a tidy but still somehow fresh baseball metaphor for all this that I should be using, but I can't find it at the moment. Instead, thought I'd keep it simple with an incredible image of Bob Gibson, maybe the toughest, most intimidating pitcher there's ever been. He wouldn't hesitate to knock down Don Draper.

    Tuesday
    Jan252011

    your body copy is irrelevant

    There are people who think that you can communicate things in the body copy.

    I've had some of them as clients, and some of them as co-workers.

    They'll say things like, "Change the second line in paragraph six to reflect our key message of inclusiveness," or "I put your priority point about social responsibility over here on the top of page two," and not see the problem. They have a very pretty hierarchy of priorities and messaging in their heads, or maybe sitting on the badly written brief in front of them, not realizing that your consumer is being bombarded by thousands of messages every day and that if and only if you hit them with a message that's relevant and memorable and different and singular, they might just remember it.

    A message. Singular. One.

    If you're good. And thoughtful. And you plan. And everyone on your team does all this too. And you're incredibly lucky.

    This is why writing good briefs means collapsing the message into something as compact as possible. Focus everything on one message, a selling idea or USP or whatever, and your work stands a fighting chance of working. If your message is about inclusiveness, then that's what the ad/DM/email/event/thing is about. If it's about social responsibility, then your brief is focused on that and discards everything else.

    Write a brief which doesn't compress the messaging, and you get a long list of bullet points that will need to be wedged into your work. Yes, that will be memorable indeed...

    And that's true for clients, for account people and creatives. Everyone needs to understand it – more than that, they need to feel it in their bones. They need to think like the consumers they are in their ordinary life, when they're not being paid to pretend that somehow their brand is different. Because no brand – not Apple, not Nike, not Ferrari, not Google – is different.

    No one gives a shit about body copy. No one remembers it. You're lucky if people even skim it, let alone focus enough to read it.

    Your main message is your headline, or your subject line, or your OE teaser and Johnson box. Whatever triggers their engagement is what they'll remember. If anything. I know this because I've seen too many focus groups, too many clients – hell, too many agency people – who couldn't actually absorb secondary messages when they were in the actual business of reading those messages and understanding them.

    You have to accept the fact that the body copy is just support, continuing the selling process to its hopeful conclusion. Yes, it should be brilliant. Yes, it should sell. Yes, you need to spend hours on it. And yes, somewhere in the back of your soul you should never forget that no one will read it.

    For all the greatness of the original VW "Think small" ad, do you think anyone remembers its body copy?

    Me neither. And I love writing body copy.