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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 creative (35)


    "it's all in your head"

    There's no better way to describe what we do in this business, this thing of ours: "it's all in your head."

    We do everything we can to conjure up a story, a meaning in the heads of our audience. It's the heads of our agency partners and clients that we need to see nodding. It's in our heads where strategies and ideas are sparked and nurtured.

    So it's almost inevitable that it's our heads that are also our worst enemies. 

    I don't have any proof that our business is more likely than any other industry (like say ER nurse or soldier) to trigger mental health issues. But my humble half-baked insight would be that advertising is probably up there as not being great for mental health. 

    On a daily basis it forces you to expose something of yourself. As a creative, you have to be passionate about the ideas you're working on and then presenting; you have to believe in them, you have to put everything you have into them, otherwise they just won't be very good. I can confirm that the same thing is true in strategy, and I've come to understand that it's also true in different ways for account and media people. You're going to do a lot of work and spend a lot of time with your clients; you simply can't be on autopilot and be successful.

    And in opening yourself up, your work – and by extension, you – becomes vulnerable. Most of it will be rejected; that's inevitable when we present three concepts for every project. You will likely feel rejected in an extremely personal way when two of those three concepts get killed. It'll be worse when they all get rejected and you have to go back to do three more. You will spend a lot of time sucking it up, pretending that it doesn't affect you, and doing exposing yourself all over again. Day in. Day out.

    Perhaps it's the cumulative impact of all that emotional exposure, but many of us begin to doubt our ability, clouding our judgement, which leads to second guessing. The work suffers. And gets rejected. And we double down on insecurity.

    Of course, even brilliantly successful ad weasels like Don Draper and Darrin Stevens gleefully self medicate. In my early days as a somewhat less successful ad weasel, the self medication meant four nights a week at the Pilot. It was a way of temporarily forgetting the rejection, and the need to do it all over again the next day.

    So your sense of self worth, any kind of healthy mental equilibrium, is weak at best. Add in a relatively normal life event like relationship or money problems, or illness, and not even Stella Artois can help. Your brain betrays you, tells you you're worthless, tells you not to bother.

    Of course I'm not saying that's the progression for everyone – it's been mine, roughly, a couple of times. But it's a common story in our business. And depression and anxiety are common in our business. If 1 in 4 Canadians generally will suffer from a mental health issue, the number in advertising is somewhere north of that.

    And I'm not sure what to do about that. As I said at the start of this post, it's all in our heads – and we more or less know it. We tell ourselves some version of, "fake it until you make it." We tell ourselves to act normal and we will be normal, eventually. And we're terrified of revealing any weakness in what after all is a giant headgame. 

    The hardest thing to remember is that the doubt, the anxiety, the terror and the feelings of lack of worth are not reality – they're quite literally just in our heads.

    But that's a tough sell to folks who believe that's where reality is.


    can your voice be better? you sure as hell better try

    A long, long time ago, playing with a cassette tape player in my friend Mike's suburban basement, I figured out that I can't stand the sound of my own voice. 

    I think we were recording ourselves doing half-remembered Monty Python sketches (I remember the Spanish Inquisition as a particular favourite), and needless to say as we recorded we assumed we were breathtakingly funny. We were strange teenagers, after all, and we understood these strange and weird bits so well. How could it not be amazing?

    Well, I won't debate the comedic worth of what we did. (Mercifully, that magnetic tape has no hope of being found in listenable condition.) What really hit me, as we played the tape back, was the fact that my voice was so unexpectedly nasal and awful. I couldn't stop thinking about it, analyzing it, trying to hear the sound in my own head the way it had come out of the tape player so I could stop it sounding that way.

    That's exactly how you should feel about your past work.

    Especially the work in your book.

    I'm not talking about excuses – blaming various imperfections on client, account or production interference, budgetary woes, or the failure of the satellite to deploy. (Yes, my partner and I had a great idea killed because a telecommunications satellite didn't reach orbit and crashed.) Anything that's been so dreadfully affected by such things probably shouldn't be in your book anyway. 

    I'm talking about the work that you've put in the front of your book thinking it was the best thing you'd ever done. The work that got you jobs. The work that got you awards.

    How could you have made that work better?

    If you're any good at this creative thing we do, and sure as hell if you want to get better, you have to face that question. 

    Me? I cringe at almost everything I've done – stuff that's been at the front of my book, done really well for clients, even won awards. I can't look at it without thinking about what I'd change, what if I'd tried harder at that headline, how could I have looked at it from a different point of view. And I try like hell to apply those lessons to what I'm doing today. That's the only way I know for my work to get better.

    Yes, as that great creative director Crash Davis once said, you have to play this game with fear and arrogance. That's just as true when standing in front of the client or your account team, as it is in front of a nasty fastball pitcher who likes to throw inside. That's for the show. 

    Inside your head, as you stand in the batting cage or hunched over your keyboard, you think about all the people who can do it better, and you analyze and try different things and make tons of mistakes and, slowly but surely, you learn.

    You get better.


    just ask this marketing scientician

    This study out of the University of Oregon, about information recall rates between online and print readers, got a lot of attention over the past week. And rightly so. We need to know more about how and why people interact with advertising. (I mean, I want to know how all communications work, but since an ad agency supports my mortgage and food habits, I feel a particular dedication to knowing more about ads.)

    I encourage you to read the PDF. (Ahem, print it out if you must, like me.) One of the nuggets is that online readers are more like to read headlines alone (and, after I changed my mindyou know how I feel about that) while paper readers are more likely to read body copy and recall it. While I'm sure that's not the final answer and I'd love to see a bigger survey sample, this work is trying to do something important – get at the reality of how we communicate.

    We need to know what works under what circumstances. That knowledge could vastly improve media decisions, let alone creative decisions. And we already bring a lot of discipline to direct media, burrowing into all kinds of metrics and spitting out all kinds of analysis. Our media team's efforts and thinking on the results of, say, this campaign were considerable and impressive.

    So what to make of the collision of science (or at least observation) and creative? Most creatives (and a still surprising number of clients) assume that the idea trumps all. Package your concept up into whatever media you've bought and, bam, there's your campaign. Which is heartwarming and hopeful, and may have once been true, but it's becoming less true and less useful. People in our business can hear about the Oregon study, or similar work, and still not absorb it or understand it, thanks to the fact that we humans are surprisingly bad listeners. (That's thanks to the invention of writing, but that's a whole other story.)

    Direct marketing, for all its limitations, begins with the idea that marketing is measurable. And we have a toolkit of attitudes and techniques with which we approach our work. But it's all based on knowledge derived from response – what's worked? – and not on knowledge of the rest of the interaction. Right now we get back a yes/no, but not why or how. And that would be really valuable knowledge.

    Think of it as the complete takeover of the world by direct marketing if you must, but applying some sort of scientific or at least measurable discipline to consumer interaction with marketing is essential. 

    We need to get better.


    the joy

    As someone who gets sucked into a lot of meetings, it's easy to forget the simple joy of a good brainstorm. I carved out a couple of hours last week to sit with a team and just play and, damn, it was fun. It's a challenging category, but this is an opportunity to show the client not only that we get it, but that we can knock it out of the proverbial.

    Seeing the way forward was hard; the team and I frankly had a block, not being able to see past what everyone else in the category is doing. (And, um, that's not a compliment to the category.)

    But we just kept at it, saying bad things, goofy things, anything. We had to trust each other, not judge each other's goofiness. Suddenly, what seemed like a bad idea was revealed as something interesting, something that no one else in the category has done. And slowly, other possibilities opened up, too. 

    Sure, it's work to keep pushing when there's no clear answer, when everything you say is wrong. But that's how new things happen.

    And there's nothing more fun than that, "Holy crap, what about this?" moment.

    It's why we do what we do.

    (Well, me anyway.)


    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.


    "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.


    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 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.


    and don't tug on *that* either

    A long time ago I wrote about the fact that writing is like composing; change one word and you can change everything. Even if most people can't articulate why the words feel like they mean something different, even if they can't actually see that there is a difference, it's enough that I know and feel that there's a difference, and I'm going to try my damnedest to articulate that change so you understand it.

    I forget sometimes that the same is true visually. When it comes to the web (as everything else) there are rules of design and alignments and cues that actually matter; it sounds goofy to say, but those details are the difference between creating something that users know is trustworthy, and something that just doesn't feel quite right. And that's not a feeling you ever want users to have.

    When those details are working right, you actually don't notice them; you're simply using and enjoying the site as you want. You're focusing on what you want to do.

    When they're not right, when they haven't been considered, or have been forgotten in the clench of compressed timelines and budgets, you become conscious of the process of using the site, and vaguely critical of it. You've been taken out of yourself and what you want to do.

    And you unravel everything that you've been trying to do.



    a very short post about failure to communicate

    Damn, it nags.

    Our whole job as creatives is to make work that will solve the client's business problem – smart work, great work, yes, but work that will work. I look at every brief confident that my team and I can not just solve the problem but knock it out of the park. But the work doesn't sell itself when you try to push it across the table at the client; you have to find the key to selling it, thinking about the people whom you are selling it to and their needs. How do you set it up? What theme do you keep coming back to?

    Both the work and the selling are essential. Not even Don Draper can sell shit. (Okay, haven't seen every episode; maybe there's one where he is in fact the superhuman creative director.)

    And when you apparently can't unlock the key to the brief after repeated attempts, or can't sell what seems to be a great idea or two, then I suppose you re-evaluate, and you learn something, but you make yourself because that's the only way to deal with the fact that you've failed.