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Scott McKay is a Toronto strategist, writer, creative director, patient manager, half-baked photographer and forcibly retired playwright.

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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 Eaton's (4)



    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?


    welcome to copywriting – may I see your passport, please?

    The first time I wrote an ad reminds me of the first time I went to Japan.

    Let me explain.

    After an 8-month stint in Eaton's photography sample room (which was better than being laid off from my previous proofreading gig), I didn't have much with me when I arrived at my cubicle into the writers' area. There was a Mac SE and a phone on the desk, and some spent pens and paperclips in the drawers, and some push pins in the orange fabric walls.

    At some point that first morning, I think, I got a docket – literally a large manila-type envelope which contained everything about the job from start to finish. At each stage of the work the job docket went around the floor from department to department: creative, proofreading, typesetting, assembly, media.

    Inside was the "brief," which was more of an order form. There was space for the buyer or assistant buyer to list all the features and benefits of the product, as well as info about the size of the ad and what papers it was running in. There was nothing about demographics or psychographics, or a selling idea, or strategy. It was, after all, retail.

    I remember pulling out all this info (I wish I could remember what product it was actually for, but no such luck) and mulling it for a while, then turning to the screen with an open writing template and placing my fingers over the keyboard and...

    Being completely and utterly terrified at how baffled I was. I had no idea what to do next. Sure, I'd proofread hundreds of these copydecks, and I'd messed around with some spec ads in order to get the job, but this was different. I actually had to write the copy first. I had to fill up that big blank space with words, and Lord knows, maybe even an idea, and I didn't have a clue how to start.

    The only thing I can compare it to was landing at Narita airport for the first time and realizing that not only could I not understand what people were saying (I didn't expect the Japanese to be talking English) but that none of the signs were in familiar letters, so I couldn't decipher anything around me. It's overwhelming to have that kind of disconnection from your surroundings. I couldn't get any bearings. I literally didn't know which direction my next step should be.

    In Japan, I very quickly got good at finding any signs written in Latin characters, to give me some sort of basis for guessing what was going on and where I needed to go. And if I still needed help, I could ask questions in my mangled 10-word Japanese vocabulary and usually get an answer I could understand – even if it was only pointing.

    In my cubicle, trying to write that first ad, I took a deep breath and decided that the first thing I wrote didn't have to be perfect. I could write anything and if I didn't like it, I could just hit "delete."

    It might not seem like a big thing, but that realization was pretty powerful. I discovered that I didn't have to have the concept "solved" before I started working. That my work started when I started to play.

    And it's been my first principle ever since, even as I've moved to paper as my first step, instead of electrons. No matter how little inspiration I have, no matter how little I understand about where an ad should go, getting anything down on paper is the essential first step in understanding where I can go.


    another olde tyme post on the earlie education of a nascent copywriter

    As avid readers of this blog (and there seem to be at least couple who don't share an IP address with me) may remember, my first adventure in this glamourous endeavour we call Marketing was as a proofreader in the in-house advertising department of the unsinkable luxury liner of Canadian retail, Eaton's. (Or, chez Québec, Eaton.)

    Now, this in-house operation was serious. It was several times larger than some agencies I have subsequently worked at. It pumped out multiple newspaper ads every day, for dailies all across the country, as well as national flyers, DM inserts, credit card statements, in-store signage for over 100 stores, and retail radio spots. They had even just installed computers throughout the department, and set up their own studio using the biggest, fastest Macs being made – the Mac IIcx, I think. In retrospect, for 1989, it was pretty advanced.

    I was slightly awed. (Keep in mind, I finished university in one of the last years it was possible to be an undergrad without a computer.) There were some really good people there, folks I learned a lot from. There was a whole new and very precise way of looking at language, something I hadn't really bothered to cultivate at university. And there was a pantload of material to proofread, with most flyers having several versions, based on both pricing and language variations. But in spite of my awe, there was one thing that deeply bothered me.

    The tagline. Eaton's tagline throughout the late '80s made no sense to me.

    We are. Canada's department store

    The necessity to declare your own existence seemed a trifle desperate. (With good reason as it turned out.) But worse for me was the lack of a final period. How can you introduce the idea of a period halfway through a sentence, placing it with a good deal of arbitrariness, then abolish it three words later? Seeing as how they'd hired me as a proofreader, I began to obsess about this. How could mistakes like this happen? No one I worked with seem to know, or at least didn't want to share with some half-bright rookie asking stupid questions.

    About a month after I got hired, the Advertising Department held its annual Christmas party.

    I was pretty reserved; I didn't know a lot of people, and I was still figuring out who was who, let alone what my job entailed. But for the dinner, I found myself sitting at the same table as the VP of Marketing. (Let me assure you, this isn't a tale of drunken embarrassment.) He was courtly, and solicited people's thoughts, and actual dialogue seemed to occur. Lord knows it was probably painful work for him, but he didn't make it seem that way.

    Anyway, at one these junctures of actual dialogue, I somehow found the nerve to ask about the missing period. And he didn't tell me to piss off. He gave me a response filled with what turned out to be the first nuance and insight I encountered in this business.

    He said that when they first came up with the line, they had tried it the logical way, with a single period at the end, and that it had seemed a little flat. Then they came up with the two sentence structure, with two periods, but somehow that seemed off, too flat a declaration. Then someone had had the flash of insight to erase the final period, and the declaration "We are" got balanced by the openness of whatever followed, usually "Canada's department store." (It was a little like today's Nissan Shift campaign, with multiple phrases getting dropped in.) Suddenly the damn thing worked.

    I had never thought of this before. I'd just assumed that applying the rules to the language would make it correct, and therefore right. As soon as I started thinking about what the line would look like properly punctuated, I saw exactly what he meant.

    It was the first time I understood in a working sense that advertising language didn't have to be prose; that it could, if not be poetry, at least use some of the techniques and freedoms of poetry. 

    It was the first demonstration I had that what works is much more important than what is correct.

    And no, I didn't get fired. I don't think he remembered my name or my impertinence the next day. A nice secondary lesson that it never hurts to ask.


    when the great terror lizards ruled the marketplace

    Although this post will feel more like archaeology than up-to-the-minute marketing insight, there is in fact a valuable lesson to be learned from it...

    Sometime in The Dark Ages, i.e., the early '90s, the (once) great department store known as Eaton's decided that it knew better than consumers.

    Now, Eaton's had been around since 1869. In many ways it had invented the Canadian retail experience, what with its ground-breaking money back guarantee, its one price for everyone (no haggling, something of an innovation in 1870s Toronto), its catalogue ("right, Monsieur Eaton?"), and the Santa Claus parade. In fact, I remember a stat (which I could very well be remembering wrong) saying that, as late as 1950, Eaton's sold 50% of all retail goods in this country. That's pretty astounding. It was the Microsoft or eBay of its time.

    By the time I worked there, however, it was like being a deckhand on the Titanic. Every January, like clockwork, there were layoffs. Sales numbers were never good, and neither was the attitude of management. (Or, um, employees.) Not only were we losing share against the Bay and Sears, not only was WalMart coming to Canada, but the consumer share of department stores as a whole was evaporating month by month, year after year.

    Eaton's senior management (including various inheritors of Timothy Eaton's by now watered-down genes) decided that the real problem was Canadian consumers. Because consumers loved sales, and that was bad. Every other retailer seemed to have better sales. So Eaton's did away with sales.

    Instead, Eaton's offered Everyday Value Pricing, or EVP. Why wait for sales? (Replacing the question mark with a company-directed exclamation mark, this is a line I typed hundreds of times.) You could come to Eaton's any old time to get a price that was only marginally higher than the sale price you could get somewhere else. The only problem with this pricing strategy is that there was always a sale somewhere else. Consumers loved (and still love) sales. Having a sale means you have low prices. Eaton's wasn't alone – every retailer hates their dependence on sales. 

    So you might say that Eaton's took a bold step to educate consumers. Only they didn't actually educate consumers. They just thought they could pump out ads and flyers with "Why Wait for Sales!" at the top and rely on their logo at the bottom of the ads to change consumer's habits.

    The result? Do I have to spell it out? Have you shopped at an Eaton's lately?

    After two years of EVP, they quickly relented to reality and had sales all the time. But their market share had dropped even faster than before. By the time they changed tack, WalMart had landed in Canada and was stripping away shoppers. Eaton's was stuck with stores in malls that no one shopped in, stores they couldn't close fast enough, workers they couldn't lay off fast enough.

    The dinosaurs were the first large animals to roam the earth, and they did so for a very long time. But when they couldn't adapt, they went away.

    You can't change consumers because you want them to change. You can help their experience, add value to it, make it faster, and benefit as a company. But without a real sense of who the consumer is and what they want, you are doomed.