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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 digital (24)


    building muscular copy

    Direct writing is in a bad way these days. Most of the emails and packages I get are mere lists of product features, usually bulleted, with some vague sense that it will benefit me as a human – and not much more personal than that.

    Why is this happening? The canard about people not reading any more is one reason, a trusim that clients and agency types are both guilty of repeating all too often when judging letter or email copy. Our audience doesn't have a lot of time, they say, so cut all this stuff about them and focus on the product. Bullets would make it really easy to scan. (Yes, they'll say "scan" instead of "skim.") And why is it two pages? Make it single sided.

    And this, my friends, is how we get lovely looking things that allegedly want our attention but which actually contain little or no reason to engage. 

    But it doesn't have to be this way. While the classic formats may be having a hard time, the endeavour of engaging an audience to get them to respond – the purpose of direct marketing – is alive and well in other forms. For instance, take a look at this page selling a book called Anabolic Cooking. The art direction seems to be a mess, it seems to be several feet long, and it wouldn't pass muster at any agency internal. And yet the writing is classic. It's actually persuasive, with the writer going through misconceptions and issues and knocking them down so you have no reason to say "no" – like any great salesperson. That's strong (if formulaic) writing.

    I've recently seen a bunch of examples of this kind of site, and it seems to be where direct is heading for product-focused sales. It is a formula, and it's easy to see how people would be turned off by the high pressure. But, being classic DM folk, these marketers don't care about the fact that their page may turn some people off, and that it's not the coolest advertising ever done, or that it takes time to engage with it.

    It sells to people who are interested. And it works. 

    As creatives, I think we laugh and ignore this as "garbage" at our peril. There's always something to be learned from something that works, something we can apply no matter what we're writing.


    once again, I find vague relevance to digital in my undergraduate career

    Somewhere in The Great Code, Frye tells the story of an Assyrian king who cuts up a Bible laughing at how fragile and impermanent it is – being made out of mere paper and ink – while saying his great stone palaces will last forever.

    The twist, as Frye says, is that the fragile paper and ink document has lasted three thousand years and had an immeasurable impact on human affairs, while the Assyrian palaces (and the king who built them) vanished long ago

    Thanks to email shout outs from Mr. Lieberman and reader S.M. (not me, I promise), I am once again reminded that actual humans (as opposed to Googlebots) read this little blog thing. And that these tiny pixels of thought can live on for quite some time.

    And that's just weird.

    Forgive me for rehashing what should be blindingly obvious, but it's not always apparent when you're blogging that you're writing for an audience. At the level of Atrios or Yglesias of course you know that everything you write will get dozens or hundreds of comments, with viewpoints of all varieties, and senses of humour which may not mesh with yours.

    At the lower levels there's a disassociative quality to blogging. I get a constant but small stream of traffic, and occasionally comments from co-workers. But for the most part I find myself writing for a hypothetical audience. You never know who's going to stumble upon your little abode months or years after you've written something, or what they're looking for, or why. And without the constant flow of traffic or commenting, you do feel a bit isolated.

    (Twitter is slightly different, in that most people I know are barraged by tweets and don't have time to look back, let alone keep up. So there's *slightly* less sense of permanence. But it also means if you don't get a reaction immediately, you're not getting one. Unless you're Bruce Arthur, there can be a similar sense of isolation to it.)

    Yes, I know my co-workers read this thing, and I'm aware that clients, prospective clients or competitors may read it, so I'm pretty considered in what I write. Blogging in anger or while drunk would be far worse than emailing while in either condition, and I have *always* regretted such moments with Entourage.

    But recently discovering that clients actually have read this blog gave me a quick moment of panic, and a healthy dose of paranoia. It makes me glad that, from day one, I've made an effort to be more thoughtful and considered than I am in real life.

    In spite of the fact that they're nothing more than electrons and photons, the words you write in this here Internet live on. Will they always have an impact? Maybe not. But don't ever think they that they can't.



    Two early encounters with the Internet:

    During my half-baked sojourn in Japan in 1994, I did some freelance work for a magazine called Tokyo Timeout. (Okay, I was sleeping on the editor's couch and he was getting sick of me mooning around, so he put me to work.) Which meant I spent many late afternoons and evenings there, as the fulltime staff were finishing up, winding down, and figuring out where they were going drinking that night.

    The mag's art director was a talented designer named Kenroy (check out this blast from the past featuring him on high-tech publishing) who one evening called me over to his Quadra. Normally at this time he and the boys were playing Myst, which I'd spent a few short minutes with before trying to chat up someone else. But what he was trying to show me wasn't the next level of Myst.

    "This," he said, "is the World Wide Web."

    The old Mac SE I first had at Eaton's came with a bunch of 3.5" disks that taught you about something called HyperCard. I got into them once during some downtime, and the possibility seemed cool, but the basic problem was creating all the damn things that all those links would take you to. It seemed like a hell of a lot of work for one person.

    The stuff that Kenroy was showing me seemed to use these hyperlinks to take you different places, and there were some nice colours and the odd picture and tons of badly laid-out text, and it sure was more interesting than email and forums, but as I sat staring at the screen and clicking, I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't really see the point.

    Fast forward a year or two.

    I'm back at Eaton's and this Internet thing isn't going away, and a couple of smart people and me get told to figure out how to get Eaton's onto that very same World Wide Web. One of us got dial-up access in her office, and we'd go mess around "surfing", to use the then recently coined term. Some sites took forever to load, some didn't. (I know, probably not so much their problem, more likely ours, but still.) The amount of stalling meant that about half the sites you tried to see, you didn't.

    Anyway, the one retail site that to me had any style, offered products for sale, and seemed to load relatively consistently, was the Emporio Armani site. No, not that one – a pointillized thing with black dots illustrating clothes on a white background. That was what I thought we could aspire to, for whatever it's worth.

    We met with three Internet shops, all of which were designing and building sites. But one called Quadravision seemed to have a better sense of design, and a tighter sense of what they wanted to do. Our team reco'd them and management went forward with them.

    And at that point I washed my hands of the thing.

    We had recognized the need to have a webmaster, someone who could update copy and product and generally run the thing. And logically that would have been me, yet for some reason I still wasn't interested; I can't exactly pin down why that was. I think maybe I felt that I'd be off on my own, with no one in the company really paying attention. And around that time I began to realize that my job was not secure, and I needed to get some big attention from those On High. Someone else, another writer, was very interested, and he had a great time discovering the 21st century.

    Is the only lesson here that I'm a terrible guesser? Perhaps. But digital work then also seemed to require a strong knowledge of technology, which has never been that interesting to me, per se. Instead I went off to get a really strong grounding in direct response thinking.

    And guess what our clients are expecting the Internet to do today?


    what does Twitter actually mean to you?

    Like so many of the cognoscenti, I've spent the last year or so grappling with Twitter. Yes, simply to understand what it does (and I'm still learning what you can accomplish with it) but more importantly to understand how I could usefully engage with it.

    In other words, what the hell did Twitter mean to me?

    In the interests of full disclosure, I set up an RSS feed a couple of years ago, and shut it down that same morning. I watched content I'd identified as being interesting to me pile up in the reader, link after link after link, and the sense of obligation I felt was so overwhelming that it caused me serious anxiety. I already have an inbox; I don't need another one. Yes, I know there is no actual obligation, but lists aren't something I like to have hanging over me. And that's what RSS felt like.

    So I know that I have a certain way of apprehending information, a way that I need to engage with it. That's not going to change, no matter what the application is called.

    Anyway, getting involved with Twitter I dutifully followed people who were interesting, especially lots of marketing people whose wisdom I needed to, um, learn from. Except I didn't expect the explosion in my feed – I couldn't keep up. After a few weeks I purged the people whose only tweets were retweets or links to their blog content (if I was interested, I'd bookmark the damn blog) or who tweeted so insanely often that I began to doubt that they were actually professionally employed (sorry, Jeff Blair) not so much because of their content but because they were drowning out the tweeting of other voices I wanted to hear.

    Twitter started feeling like a big-ass RSS feed.

    Another thing I noticed was that a lot of marketing people seem to go to the same conferences and naturally be excited about the same interesting things at the same time.

    This is understandable and hey, it is after all about something interesting. But when you see five or six people tweet or retweet something within minutes of each other, for me the impression of a herd mentality is so strong that I balk. If everyone's excited, my natural tendency is to be skeptical.

    So, for those reasons I felt compelled to edit many of people I was following, and many marketing folks. I've discovered that I need a breadth of voices of Twitter, even within this marketing thing of ours, so that I'm consistently being exposed to as much as possible.

    Ebert is a machine, as is Bruce Arthur, but they don't drown out Douma, Nick Kristof, Lousie Clements, Ann Handley, Steveoftheweb or Jinnean Barnard.

    Following fewer voices with more interesting perspectives, as opposed to following everyone I've ever clicked on, has been very useful for me.


    we were a little arrogant about social media... once

    Let's jump in the tardis and punch the destination buttons for, say, 2006, shall we?

    Let's navigate through the mists of that year to one of the first few meetings in which we ever talked with clients about social media.

    Now let's get in close... no, closer... okay, now take a good hard look at our faces during that discussion. What would you call that look on our faces, in one word?


    Yes, it was yet another moment where the agency weasels were oh so way ahead of the curve, bringing our backward clients into the new millennium.

    Now, let's zoom in further and look at the Powerpoint deck we're showing off. What's that logo on the first page? It's a funny looking word... MySpace?

    Yeah, considering we had no idea how social media were going to evolve, we were pretty arrogant. (How much time did you spend pushing kooky Facebook apps in 2007? Yeah, me too.) We were asking clients to spend money with no sense of what they were actually going to get out of it. And clients for a long time have put up with the idea that our vague references to "awareness" and "engagement" were good enough to open up their wallets.

    Now, let's rev up that tardis again and return to 2010. Let's zoom in to a meeting room and take a good look at the faces of the agency weasels doing a social media presentation. How would you sum up the look on their face?


    Clients are demanding to know how their investment in social media is actually going to pay off. And getting flustered and continuing to say "um, engagement" while we turn red and start sweating is no longer enough to keep them at bay.

    Agencies actually have to be able to predict what the ROI on a social media spend is going to be, in much the way that they have to make a business case for their direct response or promotions campaigns. It's a huge challenge, and not many people seem to be sharing details about what works and what doesn't.

    Four years after our initial arrogance, clients are now the ones herding us into the new millennium, sometimes peaceably, sometimes not. But they're undeniably in charge. And if your agency doesn't come up with real business reasons for your clients to be doing social media marketing, the Daleks are sure to be just around the corner.


    I'm not dead yet

    Based on a recent post, my site traffic should now be rivalling Facebook's, thanks to my recent prolonged absence. (Apologies for that. You know, work.) For some reason, however, that seems not to be the case, so my faith in regular posting has been restored.

    Besides, I prefer to have some semblance of a coherent thought before I sit down to peck away at this thing; otherwise, I'd be on Twitter more. (Okay, not quite fair – but it's not like Twitter allows you to wedge more than half a thought into that damn field.)

    So, this is more of a quick housekeeping post to declare my return to the long-form digital life. And in honour of the recommencement of the hubbub, a sign of rebirth:


    um, a question for my interweb friends

    Why is it that my site traffic drops in the 24 hours immediately following my posts, and increases as the gap between posts increases?

    I'm starting to get a complex...


    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.


    why direct mail still works; or, because you just get your screen dirty when you touch your Facebook messages

    Now that Top Gear seems to be blinking in and out of regular weekday airing on BBC Canada, I find myself with a little more time to do things in the evening like, well, think. 

    And one of the things I've been grappling with is the survival of direct mail in the age of social media. How can this strange 19th century habit of writing people letters and having them delivered by a government monopoly as an advertising medium continue to survive through a second century of dizzying technological change?

    Since its inception, generations have grown up having ready access to a startlingly interactive technology called telephony. Radio, TV, comic books, PowerPoint and Facebook have all in turn destroyed the minds and reading skills of our culture's young people.

    And yet, people still open, read and respond to direct mail.

    They still see their name at the top of that piece of paper and are drawn in. They still feel as if some one person has actually sat down and composed a piece of correspondence to them.

    Personal revelation: I find myself having this personal, one-to-one feeling sometimes even when I myself have written the client letter I'm looking at. It makes no sense, but's happened. And I know other writers who have also had this experience.

    The letter format is damned powerful.

    Now, I'm not claiming that DM letters will beat down the Internet in popularity any time soon. But done well, with a relevant message and an emotional conenction, direct mail does something that I think is actually quite difficult to do digitally – allow a brand to make a personal connection with someone for at least a few seconds. The recipient actually holds your message in their hands as they make a decision to open your envelope, or not.

    Direct mails offers a physical experience of a brand and a moment of focus on it that is increasingly rare: PVR increasingly makes TV ads a hit and miss proposition; the proliferation of outdoor makes any single message weaker (as Howard Gossage feared); if you're like me you never even open most emails, seeing them only in the preview pane; and the only things anyone trusts on Facebook come from your friends, not brands. (Or they have to be really cool, gross or funny.)

    I know that digital already dominates the continuum of marketing. It's where and how consumers speak to each other, and speak with brands or experiences that they like. And I think that's a good thing; the immediacy and empowerment that the Internet has brought to millions of people are tremendous benefits that can't ever be changed.

    But as I've said before, that doesn't mean that direct mail is dead. When done well it is working, still, even with young audiences you might not expect. Simply parroting the expression that "no one reads any more" is not sufficient reason for killing off something that is working. 

    Let's acknowledge that direct mail will live on as a unique way of reaching people. It will never be as prevalent as it once was, but neither is radio, and radio continues to exist as a powerful marketing tool. The Internet will not kill TV, but it is changing it and will continue to do so.

    Unlike old soldiers, old technologies don't die or fade away. They simply find smaller, more profitable niches.


    a lesson on usability courtesy of the Boston Red Sox

    Sitting in the stands near Pesky's Pole on Friday night as the Blue Jays were cruising to an extremely pleasant 16-2 throttling of the Red Sox, I was actually a lot more interested in watching Red Sox fans than the game itself.

    One reason? American sports fans are different than Canadian fans; more knowledgeable, more passionate, more vocal, and more likely to be female. (Completely anecdotally, I saw far more women not with men but with other women or on their own at Fenway than I have ever seen at any professional sporting event in Toronto.)

    One of the more interesting groups was a gaggle of jock-ular ex-frat boys in front of us. They were betting each other on the action of every half-inning, talking trash to Jose Bautista and fetching each other beer in an almost continuous stream of motion. The fetching meant that every couple of minutes, one of them would come back from the beverage taps with a couple of cups of beer and manage to jump some seat backs while not spilling a drop of liquid.

    The fact that they could almost always get back into their seats without having their neighbours stand up or move got me thinking about the layout of the seating in that section, as opposed to say the seating at Skydome (sorry, Rogers Centre) or ACC.

    For instance, we were sitting in a row with extra leg room, half again the typical width of a row. This meant that people could easily get by us, and us by other people. And the reason this made a difference to our entire section, and not just our row, was that instead of a few super-wide aisles spaced very far apart (think Skydome) our section was criss-crossed with lots of narrow aisles (maybe less than the width of a seat) about every 10 seats. So it was always fairly easy to get in and out of your seat; beer runs and the subsequent washroom runs (um, let's say "trips" instead) did not involve having 15 people gather up their belongings while you were forced to rub your body parts on theirs as you inched by, praying that they wouldn't spill anything on you because you stepped on their foot. Again, if you've been to a Blue Jays game anytime since 1989, you know what I'm talking about.

    (And given the Red Sox current payroll, I can't imagine that this seating design has a serious impact on revenue, via a loss of seating.)

    I don't know if this is an original feature of Fenway, or a result of the renovations earlier this decade, but it's so simple and so smart that it's breathtaking. It's like the person who thought this up had actually been to a baseball game and realized that people actually do drink and piss during the game.

    It wasn't the apex of the experience or anything, but the seating design was something that allowed us and everyone else to focus on the game and have fun and not resent every idiot who no longer forced us to stand up and try not to spill and block the view of everyone behind us. Which is not true of, say, a game at Skydome.

    Reality should be a basic principle of design, digital, experiential or otherwise. Don't design to what you think people will do, or think they might do.

    Design for what people actually do.