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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 fear (3)


    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.


    we have nothing to fear but part 2 of the post about fear

    Continuing my last post about the wonderful subject of fear...

    I said that you can't just suffer through it, you actually have to use it to your advantage. Let me explain with a personal example.

    Follow me back to the late 80s, to some theatres around the University of Toronto, for some student productions in which I did not play leading roles. We're talking the Marshal in the Crucible, and the Provost in the Measure for Measure – you know, boring, law-abiding and law-enforcing characters with not a lot of complexity, nuance or words to say.

    Yet I couldn't eat for hours before going on stage. Although I knew my lines, I was obsessed with the idea that I would get out in front of the audience and blank on the first word I was supposed to say. I would walk around in a trance backstage, brain and nerves totally seized up, before jumping into the abyss when it was my cue. That was fear. And it wasn't good.

    My next experience in theatre happened to be in advertising, in my first couple of presentations at my first agency. They were nowhere near as bad as my undergrad thespianism, but not dissimilar. I'd obsess for hours; it wasn't healthy. But at least I'd figured out the key, which is that presentation is theatre.

    And with every presentation, I naturally got more relaxed. I calmed down, and began to lose the obsession, and be able to eat before meetings. Once I even lost the fear entirely.

    And that presentation without fear sucked bigtime.

    Although we're conditioned to think about fear as a negative, whenever I haven't felt fear going into a presentation, that presentation has sucked. And belated I have learned from this.

    Fear is what gives you energy. Fear is what makes you aware. Fear is what makes you listen, and makes you think about what your first line is going to be.

    Cultivate your fear. If Laurence fucking Olivier could be scared shitless every time he stepped on stage, you owe it to your work and your client and yourself to be conscious of the fact that you're performing in every presentation, and that your performance better be good.


    we have nothing to fear but... hmm

    I first read Dune in high school, near the end of my science fiction phase, and while I didn't love it, there was something about it that interested me. Yes, it was maybe the first time that a popular novel dealt with the idea of ecological process, that one change in an environment could affect so much else around it, and that was cool. And the long view of history that the novel laid out was also appealing to someone who loved the Foundation trilogy and the stories from Heinlein's Future History.

    But not a lot really stuck with me, in spite of the fact that I've re-read it a couple of times since. It's ponderous and overblown and the characters are as two-dimensional as Flatland. (It doesn't help that the film version is awful; I think David Lynch intentionally tanked it simply to get Blue Velvet made.) With hundreds of untouched books in my house, Dune isn't on my list to reread again.

    But goofily, one flat and unremarkable sentence from the thing has actually stayed in my mind over the years. It occurs when Paul Atreides is duelling or fighting or something (it's just not worth my time to look up) and he starts to panic, only to remember the Bene Gesserit language his mother has taught him:

    "Fear is the mind killer."

    I know it's not a compelling thought; and as a sentence it just lays there. But, when you're starting to panic, about to, say, go into a client meeting that could easily go very badly, it's been for me a very handy thing to remember. Retaining your ability to think when you're presenting (or being chastised or negotiating) is absolutely vital, especially when you're someone like me who has from day one had to fight an innate desire to simply push the work across the table, say "like it?" then run like hell.

    The fear never goes away; not for me, not when I'm about to present. But you have to be able to function in spite of it, maybe even with it, and maybe even use the fear to your advantage.

    More on this next time maybe...