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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 Japan (3)



    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.


    a healthy smack upside the head

    Back in the '90s I spent a couple of months in Japan (for reasons I may blog about, eventually) and it was as you'd expect a mind-opening experience. When you're trying to get to a job interview and you can't read any of the signs around you in a subway station, or when you have to rely on badly-lit photographs of "dishes" to understand what you're about to order in a restaurant, you look at the world in a different way.

    I was forced to bulldoze through my natural reticence and actually engage people in order to get any answers, people with whom I usually shared about ten words of Japanese. (Limited of course by my understanding of and ability to speak only ten words of Japanese.) It's actually fun, and you'd be amazed at how much you can communicate with so few words, and some gestures.

    (Proof of this comes from the fact that, even with a dozen angry non-English-speaking Japanese police, I was able to explain my way out of an, um, "incident" in front of one of the Imperial palaces in Tokyo. But as I said, that's another post.)

    Another thing it did for me was give me a brutally honest perspective on my place in the world up until then. As a Canadian you naturally grow up bathed in the culture of America, aware that the favour is not reciprocated but still insistent on the centrality of North America. But what I found in Japan was more shocking, more complete.

    I discovered a world that was able to function quite nicely without any awareness of hockey, Bob Rae or Mike Harris, the music scene on Queen West, the Globe and Mail, the Kids in the Hall, the New York Times, Seinfeld, SCTV or the Simpsons. What's more, they didn't want to know. They had their own culture and lives, thank you very much, and didn't have a lot of interest in the quaint practices of a few snow-bound barbarians.

    The perspective was breathtaking. Everything I knew in the world made up only an extremely tiny part of Japanese consciousness. (I happened to be back in Tokyo when Pierre Trudeau died; that made the news. I'm sure the G8/G20 summit will too, but there won't be a lot about the people holding it.)

    Contrary to the cliché, the world is a big place. And while there are of course a lot of human realities that we all share, a lot of stuff doesn't travel with you when you get off the plane. Language is an obvious one; culture is another that's not so obvious. Know what jokes, books, movies, music and social issues to talk about in rural Mali? Me neither.

    This kind of culture shock is a real slap in the face, but it's healthy for you. You stop asserting things that you discover are only true back in that tiny part of the world you came from.

    Instead, you find yourself asking a lot of questions, and listening more. And that is always good.