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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


    Entries in agencies (11)


    a hockey debacle offers two lessons for agency leaders

    Leafland is all agog over today’s firing of Leafs General Manager Brian Burke, who looked all but inviolate until the announcement was made. Whatever the real story turns out to be, the discussion has been fascinating, especially because it’s uncovered some similarities between the hockey word and the marketing world.

    1) When you hire, don’t hire based on perception.

    As friend of the blog mf37 wrote well before Burke was hired, when you actually looked at his track record, it was nowhere near as great as most people (including me) believed. Look at the candidates without the rose-coloured glasses. Sure, their personality matters, but it’s no substitute for their decisions and their results. You’d think this was common sense, but the continuing popularity in Toronto of Burke’s “big personality” and “energy” shows that it’s not so common. Saviours rarely turn out to actually save you.

    The situation reminded me that marketing people, like hockey people, like to rely on deciding factors like perception and “cool” when hiring, especially creatives. They have a vague idea that a candidate comes from a hot shop (like Burke from Stanley Cup-winning Anaheim) and want to grab them. Few of us have the patience to try to discover the reality of the work. It never ends well.

    2) If you’re the boss and you have to fire someone, stand up and take the crap.

    At today’s presser, the board of MLSE, the ultimate decision makers in all this, were completely absent, preferring to hide behind their CEO and new GM – neither of whom were terribly convincing. (For instance, the CEO sighed continually during the radio interviews I heard.)

    Sports franchises feed on energy and hope – the energy of the players, as well as that of the fans and media. Unanswered questions about teams tend to fester, and lead to negativity. It’s completely foreseeable that media and fan negativity about the Leafs and their ownership will only grow during the season ahead – especially if the team loses a few games early on. The board’s lack of accountability will be an ongoing story.

    Agencies also feed on energy and hope. And when the decision maker doesn’t take responsibility, doesn’t stand up and say why a move has happened, people at an agency notice and remember. Yes, unanswered questions lead to speculation and rumour. But worse than that, you’re draining the reservoir of trust you have with staff. If you stand up and take the hostility toward your decision, you show people that you respect their feelings. That way, you’ve got a fighting chance of keeping some trust, or at least being able to restore it.

    MLSE reminds me of a senior agency person many years ago who didn’t stand up and tell his staff that a firing had happened. Instead, for whatever reason, he left it to the replacement person to make the announcement. The result was a permanent weakening of the senior person’s leadership, and how staff would work for him. When he himself left a year later, there was no mourning.

    Respect for your people is a sign of how much you respect yourself. 


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    being honest is probably a good idea

    When I was in the trenches, I hated it when someone told me that my copy wasn't good enough. I really do want to please my clients and bosses, and knowing that one of them isn't happy with something I've done is a real kick in the ass. When they tell it to your face it wakes you up and makes you listen. (Or turns you right off, but that's another problem.)

    As bad as that is, though, there's worse.

    When someone says they love what you've done, then it turns out they didn't.

    They may say great, super, bang on. Or they may quietly smile and nod. Either way, the bad thing is that they don't communicate what they really think and feel about the work until later, when it comes as a shock and causes a lot more lingering ugliness than is necessary. And it's critical that the news that your work is off-track come face to face -- it has real impact that way, and there's all kinds of facial and physical nuances that get conveyed as well.

    I've heard of clients who just wanted to be nice to the creatives, who didn't want to be mean. But they ended up frustrating the teams involved, and tended not to be satisfied with the work they ended up with.

    I know of bosses who just couldn't be open, who would take the work away and fiddle themselves, thinking it was quicker. But they ended up with pissed off team who left.

    I know of a suit who wouldn't be open with creatives, but who would complain about their work to the client. But for some reason that person ended up jumping from agency to agency every 14 to 18 months...

    Client or agency, you owe it to yourself to be honest with your partners. And that's what we are. Or at least, what we can be.


    "I'll join you two ladies later... into one big lady."

    Back when radio actually mattered to pretty much everyone, and you could at least pretend that deejays were allowed to not mindlessly play the same corporate-generated list of 45s hour after hour, there was a show on CBS called WKRP in Cincinnati. And I think it ruined me for any work other than advertising.

    The show was about a bottom feeder AM station in a no-longer large market. New program director Andy Travis is hired to "turn things around." What he finds are a breathtakingly incompetent general manager whose mother owns the station, a sales manager who's a used car salesman's worst nightmare, a news director whose version of Eyewitness Weather is to look out the window and witness the weather, a shell of a morning man fired from L.A.'s hottest morning show a decade before for saying "booger" on air, and a receptionist who is the station's highest paid employee.

    Travis' first act is to change the format. In a moment, washed-up Johnny Caravella transforms himself into Dr. Johnny Fever as he grabs the mike and, feeling blood pumping through his heart for the first time in ages, plays honest to god rock and roll music over the airwaves.

    Hilarity ensues. Or rather, ensued. For four amazing years, until CBS cancelled it after playing shuffleboard with its schedule and being amazed that viewers could no longer find it. Witness these lines, signifiers of gold:

    As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly. We're the scum of the earth. This tape is where my walls would be. Ch-eye ch-eye rodrigweez. Speed kills, Del. I don't think God likes trailer parks. In the spirit of Christmas, we went out and killed a tree for you. Red wigglers, the Cadillac of worms – we're hooked! I love you and I want you to be a golf pro. Look what I'm doing with teenage boys! Herb, I was once a man. Mrs. Carlson, I think you're full of crud.

    And the title of this post, which has to be as old as vaudeville (or, I'm sure in some sort of Latin equivalent, Plautus) but still.

    Anyway, WKRP portrayed a wonderfully chaotic but subtly ordered workplace. Huge leeway was granted to the deejays, and they took it all and way, way more. Huge leeway was granted to station management, and they muddled through things in ways far worse than anyone could possibly foresee. Somehow Andy, Jennifer the receptionist (who evolved into the very opposite of a dumb blonde) and Bailey the producer kept things from falling apart, while being human and understanding. Outward forms of obedience and compliance were barely paid lipservice, and were usually viciously mocked – as was anything that impaired the deejays' or station's ability to make a unique connection with the audience. The point of everything was to communicate. Um, is my reason for this post showing?

    I loved WKRP.

    Problem was, as I discovered over the next several years, was that most workplaces don't operate on anything like those principles. Unhappy employment experiences ensue.

    So once I finally fell into an agency, you can imagine my slowly dissolving disbelief at finding a place that, although imperfect, actually shared at least some of those anarchic values. A place that understood that everyone on its payroll will not be the same. A place where making a unique connection with the audience is what really matters.


    a chicken salad sandwich, hold the chicken...

    Order Takers. Sigh.

    The bane of any agency. The reason why a lot of good work becomes, well, less good. The reason why a lot of agency-client relationships become, over time, much less good.

    You know who Order Takers are, or at least you've dealt with them. They're the people who don't think; the people who participate in this thing of our ours often with a smile, with enthusiasm, without hesitating – and without thinking. There are several key traits of the Order Taker, but you only need to possess one to become one.

    They're people who are in over their heads; without understanding or confidence, they have no choice but to parrot things they've been told to say. They're people who have no sense of perspective, and who are never going to grow one. They're people that do the minimum asked, without regard for consequences. Or, not trivially, they're people with no sense of humour.

    Emphasizing that the people I currently work with are not Order Takers (we've built an exceptionally good team) here are a few actual examples, with the names have been changed to protect the guilty.

    On the client side: We once got feedback from an assistant marketing manager that her boss, the relationship marketing director whom I'll call J, wanted the piece we'd presented to be yellow. Now, yellow wasn't a brand colour. It had no relationship to the concept, or to the consumer. We just couldn't understand it. We politely tried to dissuade the junior client during the call, then after the call we becme slightly more vocal. Tired of our swearing, our account team tried again, but there was no appeal. J was now out of town/in all-day meetings/whatever, and this Order Taker was standing firm on J's final word.

    Now, J was (and is) a smart guy. He's consistently been a champion of good creative. And as we have several friends in common, we have also become friendly outside of work. Weeks later, I was able to ask him point blank: J, what the hell was up with the yellow?

    "Oh my god," he said. "I was joking." And because he was being a good manager, giving input but letting his people run with their projects with a high degree of autonomy, he had no idea that his minion had mindlessly executed his joke. Autonomy is useful only for those who are autonomous.

    On the agency side, there's the irritating account Order Taker: The person like A, a junior suit, who emails you the client feedback as a fait accompli. There is no discussion; his tone is simply, "You will do this." Except that, for me, there's always discussion if I don't agree or see issues. Questions to A about this feedback get the response, "I don't know, I'll have to ask the client."

    Now, A should know. But he has simply taken the client's order, without asking questions, without being curious about the client's business, or even other projects within the agency.

    When you say, great, if you have to call him/her to ask, why don't I come to your office and we can chat to him/her together, it turns out that before you were able to send that email, A has already managed to call the client and gotten an answer to your question. Except it isn't actually an answer to your question, it's an answer to what he thought was your question, which actually isn't right.

    So, apart from cursing A's basic level of intelligence, you have the choice of: a) just doing the damn feedback; or b) involving A's boss and calling the client and finding out what the real situation is and what you can do about it. Unfortunately, you have to judge for yourself whether the feedback warrants this kind of intervention. You can't piss everyone off on every single one of A's projects, or suddenly A isn't the problem, you are.

    However, also agency side, there is the even more irritating creative Order Taker: A good writer, X, brought me a deck of hers that had been marked up by client with their first round of feedback. She was cranky. The client feedback was stupid. Did she really have to deal with this? Couldn't I do something about it?

    I went through the changes and, while more extensive than any creative might ideally like, found that they were actually workable. I went through them with X, telling her that I was confident in her ability to handle it. I got her attempt back 24 hours later; she had done all the changes literally, and had killed off the spirit of her concept. I gave it back to her with lots of suggestions about how to bridge the gap, as they say. At the end of that day, with the account team clamouring for the now late revision, I took a look at her second attempt. It managed, somehow, to be equally pathetic.

    With a view to the timeline, I had her send me her Word doc and quickly did what I could to keep her concept alive, and shipped it off to the account team. Inevitably, more changes came back a few days later, from more senior managers and lawyers. X continued to flail away with growing hostility. Any time I tried not to intercede, the account team found her work impossible to pass on to client, not because she couldn't keep the concept alive in her copy, but because the sentences were disjointed. Feedback was inserted as asked, without thinking if it made any sense.

    X didn't last much longer.

    As much as you'd like to say that Order Takers can still have a role in marketing (as, say, project managers, editors or accountants, because those are more detail-oriented roles), there's just no room for people who don't understand marketing or their part in it. Those detailed jobs like project management and the others all require thinking and judgement. There should be no room for people who, really, just can't do their jobs.


    pay no attention to that man behind the curtain

    In this land of marketing, so much depends on the wizard behind the curtain. Or at least, a whole lot of flying monkeys.

    Case in point: we've done a couple of big presentations recently, each of which meant several hours of writing by several senior people, then meeting for at least a couple of hours with several senior people to examine the deck and go over how it will be presented. Account, media, strategy, production and creative all have to be taken into account not because we feel like it, or because we don't have anything better to do, but because all these things impact our clients' business and as professionals we have to deal with that.

    Clients may not like the fact that all this takes time (and money), but the fact is they like things a lot less if all this time is not taken.

    And after the meeting, in the weeks after the our big important presentation, we might not like the fact that clients take so much time to mull over what we as an agency take as large, throbbingly obvious facts, but they too have multiple experts and POVs to talk to, they too have to assemble in large groups to think through what we as agency weasels have spent an equally long time generating. Turns out they too are professionals.