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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 communication (8)


    when putting tape where your walls *would* be just isn't enough

    I really like the 37 signals folks. They're smart, practical and entrepreneurial, and they passionately believe in both utility and good design.

    But as much as I want to climb on board with this interview with co-founder Jason Fried, and as much as the situation he describes is recognizable, I can't help but think that his solution doesn't apply quite as broadly as he seems to think:

    What happens is, is that you show up at work and you sit down and you don’t just immediately begin working, like you have to roll into work. You have to sort of get into a zone, just like you don’t just go to sleep, like you lay down and you go to sleep. You go to work too. But then you know, 45 minutes in, there’s a meeting. And so, now you don’t have a work day anymore, you have like this work moment that was only 45 minutes. And it’s not really 45 minutes, it’s more like 20 minutes, because it takes some time to get into it and then you’ve got to get out of it and you’ve got to go to a meeting.

    Then when the meeting’s over, you’re probably pissed off anyway because it was a waste of time and then the meeting’s over and you don’t just go right back to work again, you got to kind of slowly get back into work. And then there’s a conference call, and then someone calls your name, “Hey, come a check this out. Come over here.” And like before you know it, it’s 4:00 and you’ve got nothing done today. And this is what’s happening all over corporate America right now.

    They believe that passive communciation (via for example Campfire) allows users to opt in to interruption when they're ready to be interrupted. And since their philosophy is that there are no real emergencies in business, waiting a couple of hours for an answer is okay. And I can buy that...

    Except at an ad agency.

    Because deadlines are tight and the brief (which in itself never gets as much attention as it deserves) is late and client meetings come way too fast and if you have to wait all afternoon for that brief or image or whatever to come in you're going to be pulling an all-nighter to get the job done for tomorrow morning and there's never enough time to really polish what you're doing anyway.

    That's an average day.

    If you wait respectfully to get what you need it's not going to get done, meaning a pissed-off client, meaning you're out of a job. You have to speak up, remind, be noisy – in other words, interrupt. There isn't a creative I know who's any good who doesn't think that the work they're doing at this moment is more important than everyone else's work. Even in a very collaborative shop like ours, you've got to take ownership of your work like this, and push for the resources and timing you want.

    I just can't see his vision working at an agency, or in any industry where people don't work relatively independently most of their days. (37 signals also has many employees that work remotely full time.)

    Look, I end up doing a lot of my work after five, either in the office or at home, and I'm well aware that I'm not the only one; I also have an anarchist streak that likes their "don't manage me" attitude. I wish Fried's philosophy would work across the board. But as many of the commenters on the video say, like it or not there are just some real essentials that come out of human contact. (Scroll down to John Nolt's comment about a third the way down the page for a good perspective.)

    Besides, my reluctance to look or act like Les Nessman outweighs any danger of improving my efficiency.


    just for a minute, let's confuse the words "consumer" and "citizen"

    We forget that the vast majority of consumers don't know much about the products we're selling. They haven't read the brief, haven't done the competitive research, and often haven't even done our work the courtesy of paying attention to it. Unless they're in the market for what we're peddling, it's really hard to get their attention, let alone communicate any kind of message.

    If any of you ad weasels reading this would like to get a sense of what this is like for consumers, ask yourself this: which Toronto mayoralty candidate's policies do you most support?


    [SFX: wind rustling leaves.]

    [A TUMBLEWEED enters STAGE LEFT, rolls across stage slowly and exits STAGE RIGHT.]

    None of the candidates' campaign promises or thoughts have penetrated the fog of media that surrounds us all. There have been loads of articles and interviews, but none of the candidates has differentiated themselves. None of them seems to stand for anything other than rooting out waste at City Hall, and they all go on about that. (Really, is anyone stupid enough to think that there's a billion dollars in waste in this city, other than the editors at the Sun?)

    This is exactly the situation that most consumers find themselves in when it comes to all the stuff we throw at them. Apathy, uninformed opinions and suspicion greet us as marketers whenever we try to start a conversation. "Throw the bums out" is becoming a kneejerk response to a lot of things, like the financial crisis, the health care crisis, the Gulf oil spill, let alone the chronically sick, wilfully misdiagnosed and negligently tended political life of Toronto.

    Personally, all the candidates elicit a collective "meh" from me, including the presumptive messiah of the Centre-Right, John Tory. I know some very smart people who are working for Rocco Rossi, but I'm unable to distinguish much what he says from the uninformed belligerence of talk radio. And I'm not an apolitical person; I vote, I read a lot, and I care about this city. If none of the candidates can connect with me, our political culture has a serious category problem.

    I think we marketers all face a hell of a challenge in the years to come, too.

    Now, let's go back to being crystal clear that "consumer" and "citizen" are not synonyms.


    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.


    PPT doesn't kill people, people using PPT kill people

    Another shot fired in the PowerPoint war, this time from Slate. It's a balanced view of the application's weaknesses and strengths, and spends a lot of time – as it should – not blaming the app but the people using it.

    Unlike masters of presentation like Jobs and Gore who simplify their slides, and use them to illustrate their thinking, most people get caught in the snare of templates. They cut down on the number of slides (too many looks like too much work) by packing maximum information into each slide, using bullets, sub-bullets and sub-sub-bullets. Each topic gets its own page, because that seems neat and clean. And if the slides seem too busy, then the presenter will often use builds, fly-ins, music and cute animations to make the thing more, um, entertaining.

    (The worst, as of course you know, is when the only path open to the presenter, when sitting in a room full of people staring at these unreadable slides, seems to be to read them verbatim to the audience – boring them more deeply in multiple media. But that's not the point of this post.)

    As a some-time participant is such affairs, it worries me when important information or a key point is getting missed for the sake of the template. I'll always suggest busting the template, or a single big headline on a single slide to ensure a point gets across, and sometimes I'm even listened to.

    But writing in PPT is impossible for me. I have to write in Word, and actually have a flow and logical thinking, because I feel like PPT discourages that. And the Slate article points to a great example of exactly that, one I'd heard of but hadn't read before – this description of the way that NASA and Boeing engineers and managers used PowerPoint to elide the real risks that the space shuttle Columbia faced after its heat shield was damaged. It's a frightening look at some of the actual slides with a detailed critique. You look at them and can't help but think that, if someone wanted to hide the actual risks, they couldn't have done a better job.

    As Edward Tufte says, when each issue conveniently takes up an equal single page, can it really be that they are all of equal concern? What is being deleted, missed or ignored in the serious issues? And how can you even differentiate the serious issues from anything else? Someone who is on autopilot while cranking out a PPT isn't going to be thinking about stuff like that.

    What is incumbent on the presenter is to actually think about what you're trying to communicate, and ensure that your presentation and you combine to say what you want. Make sure you know what your big-ass fundamental point is before worrying about your sub-bullets. And remember that you get to choose the damn template you start with, and get to change it at will.

    So, in the end I know it's not PowerPoint's fault... but the more I think about, writing presentations in Word (with full control over layout and fonts) then saving them as PDFs makes more and more sense.


    good times

    One of the rewards of this job now and again is to get the opportunity to sit in a room of smart, experienced, passionate people and watch them do what they do best, without any territory marking or argument. That doesn't mean there wasn't disagreement and discussion, but it wasn't freighted with political baggage. It was fun but more than that it was cool – this is how it's supposed to work. Yes JJ, it was good times.

    It doesn't happen often enough. Maybe it can't, with all that's usually going on for people at that level, too much stress, too many deadlines, too much managing to do.

    But before the start of this big project it's so thrilling and comforting to know that before the creative team ever sits down in our frozen glass-walled brainstorming room, there are some real insights into our consumer and our business, there's a good read on our competition, there's a strategy that's inspired, and there's technical backing for what we might want to do.

    One person leaned over to me and whispered, this is what I love, and she gestured to the assembled team. I knew exactly what she meant.


    so you walk into the client call and...

    Admit it, you spoiled creative ass. You hate feedback. You dread it. You loathe it. You know that even the least talented hack in the saggiest creative department in the city thinks that feedback is beneath him, and you don't think he's wrong. 

    Maybe that's why most of you overreact to it. Even for relatively minor changes, creatives whip themselves into incensed states during the meeting. They vibrate with outrage. They become unable to speak coherently. They find their disgust smothered by account people before it squirts out like an exploding zit. They get back to their desks and throw paper in disgust, or staplers in anger. And when major revisions are required – well, if you remember the Old Testament story about the chained Samson bringing down the temple on his tormetors, you have some sense of the vibe.

    All of which is stupid because it makes your work worse.

    The impulse you feel (trust me, I've lived all of this) is spite. You'll give them exactly what they say they want. You'll take your brilliant concept and amazing writing down to the level they demand, and they deserve all the crap you're about to do for them... Except you really shouldn't. It's not good for your work, or your client, or your agency, or you.

    I had... well, let's call him an opinionated client a couple of years ago. He started his job halfway through a major project we were doing, and he was rumoured to be a bear. Just before one of the first calls we had with him, which was to approve music tracks for the job, his underlings warned us that he considered himself to be something of a music expert. He knew everything about it. Gulp. And as he remained silent through all our reco'd tracks, our panic grew. Somehow, in spite of all our lurking despair, the subject of the '80s band Juluka came up. (I honestly couldn't tell you if it was mentioned by him or me.) It was slightly obscure, as no one else in the room was old enough to remember them, and it allowed us to start talking. We arrived at some common ground and we were able to rationally discuss what he wanted. Without (too much) rage.

    As the weeks and projects went along, I found that talking directly to this key client was the only way to: a) get him to understand what I was after, and save much more of the spirit of our concepts; b) discuss things with the real decision maker, not minions; and c) feel much less rage. Email was useless, and calls with only the minions didn't help either.

    You've got to engage, creatives. You can't be sulky or defensive. You can't fight. And you can't expect to keep absolutely everything intact. But you can simply talk about things and maybe keep the spirit of what you created alive. You'll have a better relationship with your clients. You might even stop thinking of them as being beneath you.


    "let's just have some fun"

    I never watched Conan, at 12:30 or 11:30, until the last show. And I have to say that I was impressed with the energy and the feeling of it; it reminded me of Letterman in the old days. Obviously this loose, fun tone was driven by the situation, and the fact that he had nothing to lose.

    Having that responsibility lifted from your shoulders can be an amazing creative enabler. I once got into theatre school at York after doing a kickass audition piece as Lenny from Pinter's Homecoming. The problem was, it was only kickass because about five minutes before going before the judges, I had decided that I didn't want to spend the next four years with a bunch of hams-in-training. I literally had to be sitting outside that room to figure out that in my heart I knew I wasn't an actor. That freedom was only one reason that I was decent enough (that one and only time) to get accepted, and it was absolutely impossible to replicate that.

    I guess the question for us regular employment-type agency folk is, how do you keep that lightness, that fun, in your work over the long term? There are a whole bunch of MBA-ese qualities that help set that stage, like respect, good communication, and other noble corporate virtues.

    More than anything, I think it's about tone. Of course you take the job and the client's business seriously, but you don't take yourself or The Advertising Business too seriously. I'm not standing around pontificating or pushing marketing ideology, and neither is anyone else here. Being part of the reality-based community means that you value the time and experience of the people around you. In other words, you listen. And our team is loose enough that when someone (for example, me) fucks up, no one is afraid to say so.

    Having a tendency to self-deprecation is also a real plus, in my eyes. Most of the best people I've ever worked with tend to play down their abilities on a day-to-day basis. They love their work and their craft, but they don't boast about their skills or victories.

    Because you probably don't want to spend your days at work with someone who's looking to, as another Conan said, "crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women."

    Slightly unthematic but related follow-up: In baseball, apparently, other players will say of a really good player, "He can play a little." That feels right.


    email is the devil's work

    We had a moment today when there was a lot of back and forth with a client, a lot of typing of obvious frustration on both sides which was growing round after round of terse emails, and I finally went old school and said to the head suit, "Let's call the client."

    The phone. Wow. How innovative. Why not send a telegram?

    And yet, it was all taken care of in 45 seconds. Everyone was happy. You could hear it in the client's' voice, and ours. The attitude in our room was so much lighter. And it made us all think, crap, why didn't we do this sooner?

    Email is great, but it's impersonal and bloodless. It allows you to follow the weird and savage logic of your own head, you know, the logic that suddenly finds you disrespecting people and saying things that you will regret.

    The phone isn't quite face to face, but it's a hell of a lot better than being one of the hundred emails we all get every day. There's still something a little analog about the phone, something a little bit human, that lets us connect.