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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 briefs (6)


    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.


    it's strictly business

    Marketers, especially creatives, like to complain when their clients don't understand the difficulty we have in understanding and solving the marketing issues those same clients pay us to deal with.

    "Why don't clients understand that they need to offer something unique to consumers?" we wail. "Why can't they tell us what their USP is? Why can't they tell us something really meaty about their customers, something we can hang our hats on? Don't they get it?"

    And we do the best we can, and later unleash our complaints over that second pint, and maybe a third.

    It's taken a long time for me to realize that clients aren't coming to agencies with marketing problems. It would be nice if they did, so convenient for us, and probably set us up to win all kinds of awards for cool, unique and oh so creative work. But they don't, because most clients don't have marketing problems.

    They have business problems.

    They have sales that stink and need to be boosted, or new products to launch against competitors with better products, or whatever other non-ideal circumstances you can think of. (And if you're reading this blog, chances are you've got as many stories of non-ideal circumstances as I do.) Marketing is only a means to an end. The copy and layout are only ends. The concept is only an end.

    The challenge of writing a good brief is to ensure that in articulating a marketing problem, it does so in a way that addresses the underlying business problem. The creative challenge, after you've come up with a bunch of ideas that meet the brief, is to think about those concepts in the context of the business problem – and sell them that way to the client.

    I know that creatives especially can't function that way every day, as part of their internal process; they need to be focused on ideas and images and words.

    But Michael Corleone was onto something when he told Sonny that it wasn't personal. Some business awareness would leaven every creative's work, their client relationships, and their understanding of what it is they really do. Besides, it is after all what we do is all about.


    my last damn post about briefs (for at least a while)

    As much as every agency obsesses about their briefing document, there's really so much more to it than the words written on whatever Word template you're using.

    For all the intelligence, thought and labour that can go into creating the briefing document, we all have to remember that there's a human being on the other end of that doc: one who may not realize how clever you've been, or who may not understand that your efforts are supposed to inspire them to write a great brief, or who hasn't been trained in dealing with the doc, let alone the art of writing a great brief.

    Thanks to my freelance era, I've worked with many of the agencies in Toronto. I've found that most agencies have similar anxieties around the subject of their culture – we all want to be different and special, after all – and have created by and large similar processes and documents to articulate it.

    So, another way of looking at the briefing document is as a vehicle for capturing a snapshot of an advertising culture as it begins a particular job. And as much as that culture can live across an entire agency, it's much more likely, in my experience, to be embodied within an individual team. If your account director and creative director are committed to the work, they will be committed to the brief, and that's a crucial starting point. But similarly throughout the team, everyone has to understand the commitment – that great creative starts only with a brief that inspires that process to happen.

    What matters is the vision of the person writing the brief.

    What matters is the advice, patience and discipline of the people approving the brief.

    What matters is the questioning of it – and subsequent faithfulness to it – by the team you're briefing.

    What matters is the dedication of everyone to the idea that the brief is foundation upon which everything is built, the roadmap for the journey you're about to embark on. If it changes, everything which follows is open for change.

    Which I guess is the long-winded way of saying, again, that people matter most.


    in shorter

    Continuing my soapbox declarations from earlier this week, I uncovered the item below from a list of great agency sites that someone quite smart sent me today; it was originally posted on Digital Kitchen's blog.

    It's a letter from Mick Jagger to Andy Warhol, about the cover of what would be Sticky Fingers. Apart from being an amazing artifact of a really interesting time, it's an amazing creative brief:

    Simple, strong, direct. This is every creative's fantasy brief: here's the assignment, here's a bunch of stuff you can use in any way you see fit, try not to make it too complicated... but what the hell, do whatever you want. And please tell us how much money you'd like.

    Short of getting a letter from Pope Julius II saying he needs a ceiling painted, this is as good as it gets.

    A creative can dream.


    in short

    By way of the alternately hemisphered Mr. Gillespie and his new Tumblr extravaganza, I pass along this presentation by a smart chap named Nick Emmel about writing the second most important thing that we do inside agencies: the brief.

    It's hard to face an empty brief template and think about it as a manifesto with which you will charge up the creative and production teams (and yourself!) and get them excited about the possibilities of the project.

    It's hard to not fill out the blank boxes, or cut and paste the client's words into them, or leave generic template information behind. (I know it's hard because I've seen it happen for as long as I've been working at agencies.)

    It's hard to carve out the time in your stupidly busy schedule to actually think about what you need to write, because you know you can't just slap down any old thing if you're trying to inspire people, or yourself.

    It's hard to give the process enough time to write it, struggle with it, and get input from an account director or creative director – especially when you're the one who's "responsible" for writing it.

    It's hard to have people nitpick at something you've written for weeks after you've done the first draft, telling you what you did wrong, and "advising" you how it could be written better.

    But that's what it takes. Because you don't get great creative without a great brief. It's really that simple. 

    NOTE: My aim is NOT to belittle account people here. Whenever I'm asked to help out on briefs, I rediscover how brutally hard they are to write, even for someone who thinks he knows what they should say. But it is essential to understand how critical, how urgent, that little piece of paper is to the entire process.


    my postcard copy struck a gravitic mine

    I went into the client presentation today, on a small job that I'd done the writing for, thinking that I'd nailed it, but also knowing it was the kind of project that gets... well, complicated.

    It's a new program for which the messaging is still getting worked out. Even as I was approving the brief, I could feel the thinking get, not muddy, but nuanced. Which is my fault of course; with those thoughts in mind it's dumb of me to approve to a brief. And yet time was short; only a few days until final files are required. If I'd pushed back on the brief I would have eaten up all the time for actually doing the work, and the client would likely have taken the work in house.

    Now, I'm pretty passionate about good briefs. I'll yammer on about them repeatedly in this blog. But I'm also, I'd like to think, somewhat practical. I've seen too many creatives, even good ones, stand on principle for entirely sound but utterly futile reasons; job-ending reasons, client-switching-agencies reasons. 

    So I consciously entered into this job, knowing that part of the first presentation of the work would be to talk about the target audience's needs, the messaging, and the real benefit that the client was offering. It had to happen eventually, but under the circumstances today the creative was a necessary part of the client understanding the implications of their choices.

    Yes, the copy got sacrificed. But I knew it would. I wasn't defensive about, and we had a really good discussion with the clients about the real messaging. We'll make our final file date.

    To me, principle only takes you so far because reality never aligns with it. I don't know that it's a test of character exactly, but at some point a Kobayashi Maru blunders into your client's neutral zone and it reveals your character. Because you simply deal with it.