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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



    "Broadsword calling Danny Boy"

    For the holidays I'll be posting fluffy little nothings (if explosions and Richard Burton can be considered fluffy) about guilty pleasures.

    Chief among these may be the 1968 classic war movie, Where Eagles Dare.

    (No, not because of how similar the theme music is to the mock-heroic chunks of Monty Python and the Holy Grail; maybe Ron Goodwin was moonlighting at DeWolfe Music.)

    Richard Burton is only two years removed from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but well on his way to his "magnificent ruin" stage. Clint Eastwood is just off his Leone spaghetti westerns and has gotten no less wooden. As the good guys, they have preternaturally perfect aim of their machine guns, while the German troops, despite their large numbers and ferocious reputations (see, "Poland, invasion of"; and "Russia, invasion of") seem not to be able to work their guns very well at all.

    And yet, somehow, this schlock is every Western boy's fantasy – well, mine anyway. I guess that's because the whole movie is like playing army with your friends when you're ten. You can blow up anything, because you're carrying around enough dynamite packs with cool trip-wires to destroy Central Europe. You shoot at guys and say they're dead, and they are, while you yourself get to say "missed me!" whenever you want.

    The radio scene is perhaps the high point – Burton trying to signal for the plane to pick up the embattled survivors with full-throated stage ham voice, while Clint schmeissers a battalion of the Wehrmacht's finest without hardly looking. It's stuck with me since the first night I was allowed to stay up late and watch this idiotic wonder several decades ago.

    "Broadsword calling Danny Boy. Broadsword calling Danny Boy!"


    'tis the season for that old cliché – the one about work-life balance

    As I sit on the couch this afternoon beside a snoring, stuffed-up but hopefully no longer feverish child, it strikes me that, more than any other time of year, this is when we are most aware of the need for flexibility between the two solitudes of work and home life.

    My son's flu, while totally ordinary, has wiped out three half days each for my partner and me, led to several cancelled meetings, and will require a fair amount of evening drudgery to make up missed stuff. It's also put a crimp in our holiday prep, which when you have kids is not at all a secondary consideration; their Christmas morning deadline is far more inflexible than any client's.

    Thankfully, the folks that run MacLaren are actual human beings and very reasonable; I also like to think this is my own style of dealing with the two solitudes. I can't imagine working in an environment that didn't support this approach to its people.

    Which is fortunate because, as Susan Pinker in the Globe recently wrote, there is a real hard cost to being an asshole manager: a provable cost in employee cardiovascular health, let alone missed days, efficiency and happiness.

    So I guess I was pretty bang-on with what I wrote back in June:

    Maybe the stress of work-life imbalance is one of those contemporary afflictions that comes with life in the twenty-first century. On the other hand, giving someone flexibility, and the ability to call on that flexibility without worry for their jobs or professional status, seems to me to be a key way to alleviate some of that stress. I suppose you'd call it treating people like grown-ups.

    When you're a parent, or someone dealing with an aging parent, or frankly pretty much anyone with responsibility outside the office, you have enough anxiety that you don't need your job adding to the mix. To quote myself again:

    Family emergencies, school concerts, funerals; things that you would regret not attending should be attended without guilt.

    Anyway, on that happy note, Merry Christmas to you.


    it's not like I said that your writing shouldn't have *any* structure

    A regular reader takes umbrage with my recent post about structure. The worry was that I was setting a bad example for the young 'uns, encouraging those who are new to the word business to forsake the idea of structure.

    Nothing could be further from the truth. Seems that, despite my intentions, my basic point didn't come across as strongly as I meant. And that is: You shouldn't impose structure. You should discover it.

    So, let me be more clear about what I meant by discovering structure.

    It means you've got to edit the hell out of your work.

    You start by reading and rereading what you've done, ideally with some time to think about it. Then, with some clearer understanding of what's actually on the page in front of you, you go back to work. You cut what's pretty but useless. You move things around. You keep working the words to make them flow naturally.

    I find that the basic challenge is to spot the differences between what you thought you were typing and what you actually typed. Intentions don't count for much in copywriting. And anyway, the words on the page will usually be more interesting than the ones in your head; they also have the virtue of being on the page, ready to work with. They put you way farther ahead than the imaginary ones.

    They'll start telling you what they need, if you listen. And as you respond to them, you begin to see the architecture that the words demand. Their patterns begin to form a structure.

    That to me is the ideal way of working. You start with a purpose, but not a rigid idea of how you're going to achieve that goal. You leave yourself open to happy accidents, interesting collisions and, if you're lucky, inspiration.

    I know it's a little like starting to build a house without a blueprint, and relying on how the bricks feel to tell you how many bedrooms the place should have. Utterly ridiculous, and yet somehow true.


    understanding the substance of this post

    Unless you're a language geek, you should close this tab right now. Seriously. Go see what Roger Ebert or Bill Simmons is doing instead. I won't mind.

    Because I was reminded the other day that somewhere in The Great Code, Northrop Frye casually makes a passing remark (one of many) which in lesser hands could easily be a book on its own. (I'll try to track down the specific page number.)

    He points out the word "understand" and asks us to look at it, literally.

    Actually look at that word.

    Why would you have to stand under something in order to understand it?

    Now, if you're like me you say, hmm, that's interesting, but it's probably just some sort of charming linguistic weirdness having to do with Celts, Roman legionaries, Saxons, Vikings and arrogant Normans all washing up on the same little island off the coast of France. There's got to be some trivial reason for the word to be like that.

    But then Frye points out the fact that "substance" comes from exactly the same metaphor – the substance of something has to do with standing under that thing.

    So you say, hey, that actually is really interesting. The physical relationship between knowledge and the knower is identical in those two words. But what the hell does that mean? Where does that come from?

    No source that I (in a couple of extremely haphazard and lazy searches) or Frye (who was one of the century's great readers) have been able to find could explain it. What's the underlying thought behind the metaphor? How did the originators understand "understand"?

    • Do you have to in some way possess the foundation, base or feet of a thing in order to "get" it?
    • Does it mean that you hold it in your grasp, that you support its reality in some way through comprehending it?
    • Does it imply subservience to the thing that you are trying to comprehend? That you're a slave to its reality?

    Now, language changes, especially this mish-mash that we Englishers speak. The prefixes "under" and "sub" didn't always mean what they mean now. Think about the verb to "undertake" and the fact it has nothing to do with digging, your associations with "undertaker" aside.

    The Shorter OED and some eighteenth century examples I've found suggest that our old buddy Plato might be at work here, thanks to his idea that the tangible reality of a thing is separate from its true reality, its substance. There is an ideal bowling pin (maybe just the idea of a bowling pin) and then there are many real bowling pins, each in essence a bad photocopy of that true reality. And one of the meanings that the Shorter OED gives for "substance" is "reality." And the idea that this sludgy world we call "reality" isn't the real world, but merely a reflection of it, fits in nicely to Christian theology, where heaven and hell are the "true" worlds and our plane of existence is merely a waystation in which Satan and Christ fight over our souls.

    But still, the two words are very old, and from different origins. From what I can tell "understand" is an Old English word with Germanic roots, and "substance" is an early Latin word. It's not ridiculous to think that the latter influenced the former, but that also implies a cultural meaning, not just a purely linguistic one. It's not like some monk could simply decide that "understand" would mean "understand" without all the other monks and many other people agreeing with him.

    Maybe I'm making too much of all this. After all, the philosopher Jacques Maritain writes (careful with your clicking, there's Kant):

    ...the etymology of a word does not always give us the key to its actual meaning. In our epoch of religious liberty, a Protestant may spend his whole life without actually protesting against any religious dogma. He still calls himself and really is a Protestant.

    Sure, etymology isn't meaning, but to me this point misses the mark. I understand why Protestants are so called, even if an individual believer doesn't actually protest anything, because the etymology is the word's history: Protestantism arose from protest. The word captures a pivotal moment in European history, but it's also a roadmap to how that individual believer ended up wherever they are.

    "Understand" and "substance" don't offer us those same keys to knowledge. They're both so obscure and yet after two thousand odd years so powerfully clear that they invite us to ask more questions. Maybe they even goad us. And that's not such a bad thing either.



    Two early encounters with the Internet:

    During my half-baked sojourn in Japan in 1994, I did some freelance work for a magazine called Tokyo Timeout. (Okay, I was sleeping on the editor's couch and he was getting sick of me mooning around, so he put me to work.) Which meant I spent many late afternoons and evenings there, as the fulltime staff were finishing up, winding down, and figuring out where they were going drinking that night.

    The mag's art director was a talented designer named Kenroy (check out this blast from the past featuring him on high-tech publishing) who one evening called me over to his Quadra. Normally at this time he and the boys were playing Myst, which I'd spent a few short minutes with before trying to chat up someone else. But what he was trying to show me wasn't the next level of Myst.

    "This," he said, "is the World Wide Web."

    The old Mac SE I first had at Eaton's came with a bunch of 3.5" disks that taught you about something called HyperCard. I got into them once during some downtime, and the possibility seemed cool, but the basic problem was creating all the damn things that all those links would take you to. It seemed like a hell of a lot of work for one person.

    The stuff that Kenroy was showing me seemed to use these hyperlinks to take you different places, and there were some nice colours and the odd picture and tons of badly laid-out text, and it sure was more interesting than email and forums, but as I sat staring at the screen and clicking, I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't really see the point.

    Fast forward a year or two.

    I'm back at Eaton's and this Internet thing isn't going away, and a couple of smart people and me get told to figure out how to get Eaton's onto that very same World Wide Web. One of us got dial-up access in her office, and we'd go mess around "surfing", to use the then recently coined term. Some sites took forever to load, some didn't. (I know, probably not so much their problem, more likely ours, but still.) The amount of stalling meant that about half the sites you tried to see, you didn't.

    Anyway, the one retail site that to me had any style, offered products for sale, and seemed to load relatively consistently, was the Emporio Armani site. No, not that one – a pointillized thing with black dots illustrating clothes on a white background. That was what I thought we could aspire to, for whatever it's worth.

    We met with three Internet shops, all of which were designing and building sites. But one called Quadravision seemed to have a better sense of design, and a tighter sense of what they wanted to do. Our team reco'd them and management went forward with them.

    And at that point I washed my hands of the thing.

    We had recognized the need to have a webmaster, someone who could update copy and product and generally run the thing. And logically that would have been me, yet for some reason I still wasn't interested; I can't exactly pin down why that was. I think maybe I felt that I'd be off on my own, with no one in the company really paying attention. And around that time I began to realize that my job was not secure, and I needed to get some big attention from those On High. Someone else, another writer, was very interested, and he had a great time discovering the 21st century.

    Is the only lesson here that I'm a terrible guesser? Perhaps. But digital work then also seemed to require a strong knowledge of technology, which has never been that interesting to me, per se. Instead I went off to get a really strong grounding in direct response thinking.

    And guess what our clients are expecting the Internet to do today?


    it only took me several years to figure this out

    In my old life as an aspiring playwright, a brilliant director I was working with once said that I had a strong, innate sense of structure.

    He didn't mean it as a compliment.

    Because he was trying to get me to rethink an okay but fairly expected story in a completely different way, and my sense of "proper" storytelling was standing in the way of that. It was shocking, actually, to understand that my natural inclinations could be "correct" even as they blinded me to exploring new possibilities, and stopped me from listening to how the story wanted to be told.

    I had to teach myself how to escape from structure. I wrote a lot of crap, admittedly, and forced myself to stop worrying so soon about how it all fit together. I constantly had to fight my reflex to judge, and simply keep writing anything that worked on any level, anything that felt like it had a spark.

    And then I realized that this was a skill I had already learning in my advertising work. That's what brainstorming is all about. That's what sitting with a piece of paper and a magic marker is all about. I never sit down to write without daydreaming and doodling first.

    It was strange, applying a money-making skill to my private writing where I had all the power and the ultimate decision. But that realization was helpful and led to some interesting things.

    Structure shouldn't be imposed on the words, even by one's self, or made apparent before the words are said. Just think how many movies, shows and plays you can predict after seeing their first five minutes. There's nothing more boring than knowing what's coming an hour and a half later.

    As our old friend the drama critic Heraclitus reminds us, latent structure is the master of obvious structure.

    If you want your writing to be great, if you want to not just hold people but keep them coming back, then your structure should come out of the words themselves. It should be suggested, found, uncovered after the words are understood.

    To the audience or the reader, and even to the author, structure should be discovered.


    he's not a man, he's the marketing VP

    He hung around on the periphery until he saw his moment and got himself appointed head of the department, my boss. And I really wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt; people I admired said good things about him. But my time with him quickly said otherwise.

    He was the first person I heard use the phrase "flawless execution" and he parrotted it over and over again, never sharing any details about how we weren't already executing in such a way, or what he was going to ensure or enforce the brave new world of flawlessness. Repetition would simply lead to the thing popping into reality. For reality to act otherwise would deny the most important reality of all: that he was the boss.

    He was the first person I heard use the phrase "action plan" and he did so exactly like our friend Ratbert does in the above comic, which was the moment that I knew that Scott Adams was our Dickens.

    He would lash himself to the business jargon of the day and use it to keep him afloat not just in meetings, but worse, in a decreasing number of attempts to mimic actual human conversation. He was one of the two people I've met in this business who so desperately wanted to be a Very Important Marketer, who so focused on developing the patina of that ambition, that he'd hollowed himself completely and become a marketing exoskeleton. No human remained underneath the façade.

    He once spent several minutes critiquing some copy I'd written, at which point he said, "Now, I haven't actually read this, but –" and kept right on critiquing. There was no embarrassment, no shame, no recognition of how he had demeaned us both.

    He was Ratbert, VP of Marketing. And I worked for him. Until, mercifully, I didn't.


    a very forgettable unforgettable evening

    You'd think that I would have prepared something. Read something relevant. Thought up something clever. But no.

    Let's just say I didn't live up to the obligations of my brush with marketing greatness.

    For Wunderman's 25th anniversary in Canada, back in nineteen ninety something, there was a large soiree to which all the employees and clients were invited. It was as I recall held at the Four Seasons, but others who remember the evening with more clarity should feel free to comment or email with more accurate detail.

    The guest of honour, we were told, was Lester Wunderman. In the flesh.

    Now, not only was he the renowned creator of the magazine subscription card and the 800 number for response (for better or worse, essential direct marketing tools), he invented the Columbia House music club (who were still clients at that time) and their incredibly successful "12 CDs for a penny!" offer (you laugh, but that bastard trick worked for decades). He was the Moses of many of the Commandments of Direct Marketing, as well as also continuing to serve as chairman of the agency globally. He wasn't just a historical artifact, he was in very real way, still The Man. (The fact that he spent most of his time at his house in the south of France merely added to the legend.)

    Plus he had just released a book, Being Direct, that lots of smart people at the agency and at our clients seemed to be reading.

    The underlings were just happy to be going somewhere where the agency would be paying for drinks.

    When the day arrived, we put on our fancy shirts and jackets and such and trotted off. Who knows, there may have been a quick trip to the Pilot to dip our toes into the evening.

    At the hotel it was packed, stiflingly dull, and yet filled with undercurrents. (No, not those kind.) Clients were subtly hitting on agency people. Agency people were subtly hitting on each other. Everyone was extremely mindful of their bosses, but everyone was handy with the wine. It was weird evening the like of which I have never again experienced.

    At this point the details really break down for me, but the general twist was this. As me and a couple of other folks stood wondering about our next glass, our managing director Trish Wheaton passed with a small older gentleman in a very nice suit and big glasses. With a not-so-hidden hope that we wouldn't embarrass ourselves or anyone else, she introduced us to The Man and we managed, "Nice to meet you." Maybe one of us was creative and said, "Great to meet you."

    There were awkward smiles, and an odd silence.

    Trish quickly moved Lester on to more interesting, more prepared people.

    That was it. Destiny had not waited for long before sauntering away.

    After several more glasses of wine my evil friend and account dude extraordinaire Scott Armstrong whisked me out of there to a Leaf game (apparently they played hockey), then on to a martini bar on Church (Byzantium?), and then after that things got, well, interesting, but that's another post. (Or not.)

    Look at it this way. Despite the wine, I remember more about meeting Lester than he does about meeting me.


    knowing me, knowing you

    I once heard about a toy manufacturer who asked someone what they thought about that season's line-up of his toys. The unexpected response he got was a shrug – too many of them were designed to be "enjoyed" as a series of single events, required ongoing set-up, instead of offering what's known as "continuous play." And if you've got a kid, you know that children don't deal well with needing to set up their toys again and again and again...

    The next season, all his company's toys were designed for continuous play.

    How could a toy manufacturer be so disconnected from his customers? How do you get to a senior place in an industry and not live and breathe that basic level of knowledge? Happily for him he was disabused of his ignorance.

    Unfortunately, it's struck me over the last few days how disconnected we all are – agencies, clients, business generally – from our customers.

    I mean it's astonishing how little I actually know about the people whom I'm selling my services to, i.e., my clients. What do they actually go through every day? What do they get beaten up over by their CEO or board? What are their unspoken dreams for where they'll be five or ten years from now? I have a decent sense of some of these things; I do talk with them, after all, with a view to finding these things out. But you're always chatting in the rushed minutes between meetings, or over a lunch where you're also dealing with other seemingly more pressing issues. And a lot of clients don't want to admit that kind of stuff – hell, most people in business don't want to admit that stuff, don't want to appear weak, or visionary, or simply human.

    It's also astonishing how little a lot of clients and agencies seem to know about the people who buy their products. It's true on a macro level but more worryingly it's true on a personal level – perhaps oversimplifying, I don't think any of us spends enough physical time with the people we're selling to. Sure, we all get research done; we know what those folks look like as generalizations, as demographic waves or as psychographic snapshots. But you can't really sell to a generalization. You have to know them, see what their lives are like and gain insight into them, in order to sell something that matters to them.

    Perhaps it's an idealistic sense of what business can be, but I picture someone owning a bricks-and-mortar store as really knowing her customers. She talks with them every day. She sees what they like, and what they turn up their noses at. She has grounded insight into how her business must react as her customers and her competition change on a daily basis.

    That's the kind of knowledge that is deep, informed, and actionable. That's what we all need and what we're all after.

    The lesson of course is that I (and all us marketers) should spend a lot more time with my clients.

    And my clients, all clients, should spend a lot more time with their customers.

    But there are these things called jobs that seem to get in the way.

    It's an odd place for us all to be in.


    are you trying hard enough to brighten your smile?

    I try not to comment on campaigns currently in market. It's not fair to trash other people's work, not when I know all too well the challenges of getting good work out the door. And I've done my fair share of, let's be honest, crap.

    But the Crest 3D Whitestrips spot out there right now is absolutely horrendous. (Okay, not as horrendous as the Days of Our Lives product placement stuff pointed out to me by Chris Seguin, but still.) You know, the "Audition in two weeks, brighten your smile," spot.

    The acting is at the level of a porn movie or, more charitably, a high school play. But the editing choices are ghastly, truly awful, as evidenced most brutally by the wink to camera at the end. It plays like an SCTV parody. It feels so programmed, such a transparent execution of the brief, that I almost wonder if there was a creative team involved at all. (And I know there was, I know they're cringing, I know there's a kernel of a great concept in the spot that got watered down and focus grouped to death.)

    I just saw the second phase of the campaign, where the same woman is getting married and yet we're not supposed to notice – they've even redubbed her in an effort to cover their tracks.

    There's so little respect for the audience in this work that I almost don't consider it advertising. It's simply a statement of product features that's been shot to look like an ad. And as much as P&G is, well, kind of a successful company, it doesn't get much more depressing than that.

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