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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 clients (23)


    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."


    "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.


    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.


    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.


    a demi-thought about social media and marketing

    A rambling post tonight, in lieu of real thoughts...

    Belatedly it's occurring to me that social media hasn't replaced any other form of marketing – it's created a whole new category of marketing, a hybrid of engagement and awareness. Awgagement? Engageness?

    The Old Spice videos took off because people liked them and thought they were funny. They watched, they talked about them, they passed them along and my understanding is that they also bought product. So that's great. Old Spice built over several weeks based on consumers themselves.

    That amazing potential that Awgagement has is also its severe limitation. It relies on the fact that you're far more likely to engage with things (messages, recommendations, links, video, articles) that you get through friends than those things you receive through more traditional means. It relies on viral marketing. Which, as we're all aware, isn't a strategy or medium at all; it's an outcome. There is very little that marketers can do to rely on predictable marketing through Facebook or Twitter. They can't control how people will react to their messages or content. They can't force people to pass their stuff along or like it.

    The Old Spice folks invested a lot of dough and took a chance. It paid off.

    Taken to its logical conclusion, will advertisers now just create content and deliver straight to consumers via YouTube, desperately trying to incorporate brand messages in a way that actually entertains?

    I doubt it. It's a very high risk strategy, too much so for most clients too much of the time. I can't see them or their agencies shoving all their chips onto the "social media" square on the roulette wheel and letting it ride. As much as everyone talks about trusting and listening to consumers, there's too much money involved for businesses to become passive dependents on consumers. I know that every guru on the planet is talking about empowering consumers, but no one gives up power that easily.

    Besides, people aren't actively searching out content all the time. Sometimes they really need passive interaction, for instance, sitting back and watching whatever's on TV after a long day at work, or listening to the radio in the car. Sometimes, people don't want to have to engage, or like, or pass along. Sometimes they just want to enjoy.


    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.


    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.


    what's *really* on your client's mind these days?

    John Keats was the "live fast, die young" poet of the early nineteenth century.

    Okay, that's a lie – Byron and Shelley are far more qualified for that title. But he was a brilliant and unique voice who evolved quickly in the very few years he spent on the planet. And one of the things that enabled him to bloom in this way was what he called "negative capability" – the ability to put himself inside someone else, feel what they were feeling, and see the world as they saw it.

    It's a profound idea, one that has always stuck with me. And even though it's a bastardization of what Keats was up to, I think that trying to feel what someone else is feeling is a pretty valuable ability in marketing.

    I've been noodling what marketing entails for clients these days, from their point of view. And it's not pretty, but not because of the transition from a mass message culture to truly individual communications.

    It's ugly because there hasn't been a transition of marketing cultures – there's been a massive expansion of marketing cultures.

    Mass TV, radio and print advertising haven't gone away. Mass may not be the culturally sexy beast it was in the 1970s, but there continues to be a market and need for mass awareness messages. Same with direct marketing; I wouldn't be surprised if there's just as much DRTV on air now as 10 years ago. There's not as much direct mail, granted, but there continues to be a solid need for being in someone's mailbox with relevant and actionable messages. Out of home and point of sale? Still absolutely necessary. And promotions haven't gone away either; quite the opposite in fact, since digital has enabled not just contest entry but cool interaction and engagement.

    It took most clients I know five to ten years to wrap their heads around the Internet – how to do emails and banners that consumers would actually engage with, how to build sites they'd come to, and how they all related to each other.

    And then social media and mobile fucked it all up. No longer did you simply worry about driving traffic to your site, you had to be concerned with engaging people on whatever platform they were on, wherever they were, and being part of their community: MySpace, Blackberries, Facebook, iPhones, Twitter, LinkedIn, Android...

    Screenwriter William Goldman has a great quote, almost a rule, about Hollywood:

    "Nobody knows anything."

    And that's how marketing feels these days. Everyone has to be concerned with what's new and coming next, because Twitter and Facebook come almost out of nowhere for a lot of marketers, and then suddenly they were behind. But at the same time, all the old methods are still necessary too, and more than that, actually viable. (Remember, for all its new media buzz, most of Obama's fundraising in 2008 came through old school DM and emails.) Marketing teams have had to get bigger, or at least add a pantload of expertise, or simply do more in an economic environment that's been very resistant to new hiring. This while boards of directors and CEOs were all constantly talking about "getting out there" on social media, while still insisting on driving numbers.

    And no client's confident that they've got a good strategic overview of all those efforts, because even if you find a mix that works, with the pace of change being what it is, there's a good chance it won't work a year from now.

    Goldman has another great line about other folks who are in a very similar situation:

    “Studio executives are intelligent, brutally overworked men and women who share one thing in common with baseball managers: they wake up every morning of the world with the knowledge that sooner or later they're going to get fired.”

    Live fast and die young? Not quite. But add marketers to that last quote, and you have some sense of what's going on behind the scenes at your next client meeting. That's really what's on your client's mind.


    so how would it be if we gave consumers something they *don't* want?

    You'd think that the proposition of giving consumers things they want, and communicating with them in ways they prefer, wouldn't be problematic in this thing of ours, this marketing circus we all work in. It's so straightforward as to be unarguable. Talk to a small business owner who's been around more than a couple of years, or a juggler busking on the street or, hell, even a fisherman, and you'll get general agreement on the principle that if you're trying to get something, you need to go where that thing is in order to get it.


    In our business, it seems to happen. Marketers will do completely illogical things in order to lure consumers to them, like look for them in the wrong place, or bait their hooks with socks instead of worms.

    I'm not sure why.

    One marketer I pitched for did a whole bunch of focus groups about his target consumer, which happened to be 13-year-old kids. Needless to say, the focus groups all indicated that this audience was very into social media; it was their primary source of information and communication and entertainment. Other stuff on the web was fine, too, as long as it offered content that they enjoyed and used. One thing that they did not do is watch TV.

    Okay, we thought. Let's run with that. We presented some really strategic digital campaigns – they used Facebook as their core, but also branched out into other social media sites, as well as guerilla outdoor. Everything we did was tightly tied into the target audience, what they wanted and how they lived. It was one of the better presentations we've ever done, and the initial reaction was extremely positive – we talked about all the possibilities of the work for another half hour past the scheduled end of the meeting.

    This was followed by weeks of unnerving silence.

    Turns out another agency went in with a 30 second TV spot.

    Guess who won?

    Now, their TV campaign didn't fail, exactly. Sales didn't drop; they actually grew some. But to me it was a huge wasted opportunity, and basically inexplicable.

    Or there's the marketer I know of who insisted on doing a mobile campaign, even though his target audience was over 50, and was quite likely to have no idea what texting or SMS was. Mobile was so cool, so topical, that to him it was still worth doing.

    (If we'd been living in Europe, Japan or Korea, it would've made sense. But for mobile, we're still years behind Europe, and even farther behind Japan and Korea.)

    Maybe all this new technology has people screwed up. They can't trust logic, they can't trust what's worked in the past, and everything that's new seems cool – but it's scary as hell. There are no formulas any more, and no one has any answers. But based purely on looking at the respective target audiences, I definitely know two things.

    To the first marketer I say, just because it's scary and cool, doesn't mean it's wrong.

    To the second marketer I say, just because it's scary and cool, doesn't mean it's right.