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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 marketing (14)


    do you appreciate how interesting we are?

    The thing about new business pitches is that it's awfully easy to talk about yourself and your amazing processes and how many proprietary tools you've got and generally how great you are.

    Did you start shopping at Loblaws because they've got a really good inventory management system? (I have no idea if they do, just go with my hypotheticals please.) Did you buy an iPad because of Apple's great employee retention and development philosophy? Did you rent your apartment because of the special care with which the plumbing and electrical systems were installed? Do I have to ask any more rhetorical questions?

    No one gives a shit about the how. Everyone has a how. Everyone has specially insightful proprietary tools with special sauce or magic powers. Everyone has awards. Everyone has a commitment to excellence.

    People – shoppers, prospective clients – want to know how it applies to them. They've got to see that your great inventory management means that the product they want is actually there on the shelves when they want it. You have to make the connections about what your proprietary tools will do for them.

    You have to create meaning.

    Over the past few months we've become much better at creating meaning. We focus on telling stories, and drawing out the parallels for our audience. Instead of "pitching" we're having some great conversations about the folks who have approached us. And we're making some interesting connections.

    All it took was getting away from the mirror.


    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.


    he's not a man, he's the marketing VP

    He hung around on the periphery until he saw his moment and got himself appointed head of the department, my boss. And I really wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt; people I admired said good things about him. But my time with him quickly said otherwise.

    He was the first person I heard use the phrase "flawless execution" and he parrotted it over and over again, never sharing any details about how we weren't already executing in such a way, or what he was going to ensure or enforce the brave new world of flawlessness. Repetition would simply lead to the thing popping into reality. For reality to act otherwise would deny the most important reality of all: that he was the boss.

    He was the first person I heard use the phrase "action plan" and he did so exactly like our friend Ratbert does in the above comic, which was the moment that I knew that Scott Adams was our Dickens.

    He would lash himself to the business jargon of the day and use it to keep him afloat not just in meetings, but worse, in a decreasing number of attempts to mimic actual human conversation. He was one of the two people I've met in this business who so desperately wanted to be a Very Important Marketer, who so focused on developing the patina of that ambition, that he'd hollowed himself completely and become a marketing exoskeleton. No human remained underneath the façade.

    He once spent several minutes critiquing some copy I'd written, at which point he said, "Now, I haven't actually read this, but –" and kept right on critiquing. There was no embarrassment, no shame, no recognition of how he had demeaned us both.

    He was Ratbert, VP of Marketing. And I worked for him. Until, mercifully, I didn't.


    knowing me, knowing you

    I once heard about a toy manufacturer who asked someone what they thought about that season's line-up of his toys. The unexpected response he got was a shrug – too many of them were designed to be "enjoyed" as a series of single events, required ongoing set-up, instead of offering what's known as "continuous play." And if you've got a kid, you know that children don't deal well with needing to set up their toys again and again and again...

    The next season, all his company's toys were designed for continuous play.

    How could a toy manufacturer be so disconnected from his customers? How do you get to a senior place in an industry and not live and breathe that basic level of knowledge? Happily for him he was disabused of his ignorance.

    Unfortunately, it's struck me over the last few days how disconnected we all are – agencies, clients, business generally – from our customers.

    I mean it's astonishing how little I actually know about the people whom I'm selling my services to, i.e., my clients. What do they actually go through every day? What do they get beaten up over by their CEO or board? What are their unspoken dreams for where they'll be five or ten years from now? I have a decent sense of some of these things; I do talk with them, after all, with a view to finding these things out. But you're always chatting in the rushed minutes between meetings, or over a lunch where you're also dealing with other seemingly more pressing issues. And a lot of clients don't want to admit that kind of stuff – hell, most people in business don't want to admit that stuff, don't want to appear weak, or visionary, or simply human.

    It's also astonishing how little a lot of clients and agencies seem to know about the people who buy their products. It's true on a macro level but more worryingly it's true on a personal level – perhaps oversimplifying, I don't think any of us spends enough physical time with the people we're selling to. Sure, we all get research done; we know what those folks look like as generalizations, as demographic waves or as psychographic snapshots. But you can't really sell to a generalization. You have to know them, see what their lives are like and gain insight into them, in order to sell something that matters to them.

    Perhaps it's an idealistic sense of what business can be, but I picture someone owning a bricks-and-mortar store as really knowing her customers. She talks with them every day. She sees what they like, and what they turn up their noses at. She has grounded insight into how her business must react as her customers and her competition change on a daily basis.

    That's the kind of knowledge that is deep, informed, and actionable. That's what we all need and what we're all after.

    The lesson of course is that I (and all us marketers) should spend a lot more time with my clients.

    And my clients, all clients, should spend a lot more time with their customers.

    But there are these things called jobs that seem to get in the way.

    It's an odd place for us all to be in.


    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.


    it's strictly business

    Marketers, especially creatives, like to complain when their clients don't understand the difficulty we have in understanding and solving the marketing issues those same clients pay us to deal with.

    "Why don't clients understand that they need to offer something unique to consumers?" we wail. "Why can't they tell us what their USP is? Why can't they tell us something really meaty about their customers, something we can hang our hats on? Don't they get it?"

    And we do the best we can, and later unleash our complaints over that second pint, and maybe a third.

    It's taken a long time for me to realize that clients aren't coming to agencies with marketing problems. It would be nice if they did, so convenient for us, and probably set us up to win all kinds of awards for cool, unique and oh so creative work. But they don't, because most clients don't have marketing problems.

    They have business problems.

    They have sales that stink and need to be boosted, or new products to launch against competitors with better products, or whatever other non-ideal circumstances you can think of. (And if you're reading this blog, chances are you've got as many stories of non-ideal circumstances as I do.) Marketing is only a means to an end. The copy and layout are only ends. The concept is only an end.

    The challenge of writing a good brief is to ensure that in articulating a marketing problem, it does so in a way that addresses the underlying business problem. The creative challenge, after you've come up with a bunch of ideas that meet the brief, is to think about those concepts in the context of the business problem – and sell them that way to the client.

    I know that creatives especially can't function that way every day, as part of their internal process; they need to be focused on ideas and images and words.

    But Michael Corleone was onto something when he told Sonny that it wasn't personal. Some business awareness would leaven every creative's work, their client relationships, and their understanding of what it is they really do. Besides, it is after all what we do is all about.


    "we've arrived and to prove it we're here"

    My grandfather (click on the link and scroll down to the picture, fifth row, far left) was a math teacher, headmaster, and serious polymath geek, if you'd call anyone who was born in 1899 a geek. He was just someone who was interested in math, in science, in history... in why. And someone who had a very academic sense of humour.

    Whenever we drove somewhere and parked the car, invariably the first line out of his mouth was the above line. It's a mathematician's joke, a goofy assertion and a goofy proof. It's dumb, but I love it. It's a silly way of focusing me on the here and now.

    Because really, where else are you?

    In the marketing world, another metaphor that's to the point is "the grass is always greener." After two or three years, people begin to think about moving on. They hate their client, or their boss, or their co-workers, or whatever, and they start to look around and they go...

    And the inevitable lunch-bag let down happens. They discover the exact same issues, the same hatreds, the same problems, in the new place, only much more quickly this time. 

    And maybe they move again. And slowly, at least some of folks begin to discover that everywhere they go, they face the same issues and people and problems. And they realize that the only thing that matters is how they deal with those things.

    As a manager, it sounds self-serving and condescending and faux philosophical for me to say, but damn it, it's true.

    Your presence, your attention and your attitude is what makes the difference. No matter where you are, it's up to you to make something happen.

    "We've arrived and to prove it we're here." As my grandfather said, it's all about presence in the here and now.

    Or, to put it even better, in the immortal words of everyone's favourite philosopher-physicist-rockstar, "Wherever you go, there you are."


    what's *really* on your client's mind these days?

    John Keats was the "live fast, die young" poet of the early nineteenth century.

    Okay, that's a lie – Byron and Shelley are far more qualified for that title. But he was a brilliant and unique voice who evolved quickly in the very few years he spent on the planet. And one of the things that enabled him to bloom in this way was what he called "negative capability" – the ability to put himself inside someone else, feel what they were feeling, and see the world as they saw it.

    It's a profound idea, one that has always stuck with me. And even though it's a bastardization of what Keats was up to, I think that trying to feel what someone else is feeling is a pretty valuable ability in marketing.

    I've been noodling what marketing entails for clients these days, from their point of view. And it's not pretty, but not because of the transition from a mass message culture to truly individual communications.

    It's ugly because there hasn't been a transition of marketing cultures – there's been a massive expansion of marketing cultures.

    Mass TV, radio and print advertising haven't gone away. Mass may not be the culturally sexy beast it was in the 1970s, but there continues to be a market and need for mass awareness messages. Same with direct marketing; I wouldn't be surprised if there's just as much DRTV on air now as 10 years ago. There's not as much direct mail, granted, but there continues to be a solid need for being in someone's mailbox with relevant and actionable messages. Out of home and point of sale? Still absolutely necessary. And promotions haven't gone away either; quite the opposite in fact, since digital has enabled not just contest entry but cool interaction and engagement.

    It took most clients I know five to ten years to wrap their heads around the Internet – how to do emails and banners that consumers would actually engage with, how to build sites they'd come to, and how they all related to each other.

    And then social media and mobile fucked it all up. No longer did you simply worry about driving traffic to your site, you had to be concerned with engaging people on whatever platform they were on, wherever they were, and being part of their community: MySpace, Blackberries, Facebook, iPhones, Twitter, LinkedIn, Android...

    Screenwriter William Goldman has a great quote, almost a rule, about Hollywood:

    "Nobody knows anything."

    And that's how marketing feels these days. Everyone has to be concerned with what's new and coming next, because Twitter and Facebook come almost out of nowhere for a lot of marketers, and then suddenly they were behind. But at the same time, all the old methods are still necessary too, and more than that, actually viable. (Remember, for all its new media buzz, most of Obama's fundraising in 2008 came through old school DM and emails.) Marketing teams have had to get bigger, or at least add a pantload of expertise, or simply do more in an economic environment that's been very resistant to new hiring. This while boards of directors and CEOs were all constantly talking about "getting out there" on social media, while still insisting on driving numbers.

    And no client's confident that they've got a good strategic overview of all those efforts, because even if you find a mix that works, with the pace of change being what it is, there's a good chance it won't work a year from now.

    Goldman has another great line about other folks who are in a very similar situation:

    “Studio executives are intelligent, brutally overworked men and women who share one thing in common with baseball managers: they wake up every morning of the world with the knowledge that sooner or later they're going to get fired.”

    Live fast and die young? Not quite. But add marketers to that last quote, and you have some sense of what's going on behind the scenes at your next client meeting. That's really what's on your client's mind.


    why Facebook makes this marketer a little queasy 

    Over at the Twist Image blog Six Pixels of Separation, they've been having an interesting debate about Facebook and consumer expectations of privacy. It's worth a read.

    As a marketer, it is of course obvious that Facebook will find ways to monetize the insane amounts of dedicated, even obsessive usage they get. It's not a public service after all; it's a business, and it costs money to handle that traffic.

    One of the main ways they're monetizing is to sell advertising, or to put it another way, to sell advertisers information about the people who use Facebook. This is after all how newspapers, magazines, radio stations and TV networks have been making money for decades.

    I also know that Facebook didn't start out with a clear business model, and is still (last I can find) "moving toward profitability." So I get that they're being aggressive in looking for new revenue streams and evolving their business model, as they say.

    Yeah, but...

    After the recent hubbub regarding changes to Facebook, like several of the people in the Six Pixels debate I was pretty sanguine about the changes. I vaguely remembered a message from them late last year about privacy settings, and like a lot of people I'd accepted their recommendation without a lot of thought. It's a social media site, and social means public. Nothing you put up there is private.

    But I had restricted pictures of my family and some other info to be viewed by friends only. Only as I now went back through my privacy settings (which I explored pretty fully when I first posted the shots) I realized that the new reco had included a host of new options and settings, and the default to all of them was not just that everybody on Facebook could see them, but that everybody (and Google) could see them. WTF?

    I quickly changed all the settings I could find, looking hard for new, unexpected or hidden permissions and options.

    Needless to say, I wasn't pleased that I had to go searching for all this; Facebook is noted for making account management painfully difficult.

    Now, I'm late to the game on this. And as several commenters note, I have no expectation of privacy on Facebook or anywhere else on the web. But Facebook themselves have given me reason to believe that I am in control of who on Facebook I share things with. And they have led me to believe that the only person who can change those settings is me.

    Covenant might be a strong word, but I would call it an unwritten contract. And they broke that contract by misleading me about the changes they made to my privacy settings. This kind of "don't bother reading the fine print" attitude wouldn't survive examination by any consumer protection watchdog.

    And I know what Facebook's vision is, of a personalized web where Facebook and your FB friends go with you everywhere you go; shopping, reading, watching, everyone linking to and feeding everyone else all the time. As a marketer, I know it's a boon for marketing.

    What's galling is that, while I'm not a web monkey or early adopter, I'm reasonably clued in to technology thanks to my job. And I'm at least a little curious about how things work. But as I recently wrote, there are lots of people who aren't clued in or curious. They've never stood in line to buy an iPhone or iPad, let alone changed the default settings on their email app. They type URLs into search bars. They probably don't know which browsers they're using.

    They just use technology, they don't think about it, or obsess over it, or write about it. They have better things to do.

    People like this, i.e., most Canadians, have absolutely no idea about the degree to which Facebook is using their "private" information to monetize their business, or that they are integrating it all with the wider web. And Facebook needs to think about them, talk to them, be responsible to them – not to those of us who are mired in marketing deep enough to have this debate.

    If Facebook doesn't start being a lot more transparent about this vision and what it really means for the average user, the recent uprising may only be the beginning of some very bad times for them.