search my site:




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.



This form does not yet contain any fields.




    "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 Northrop Frye (3)


    understanding the substance of this post

    Unless you're a language geek, you should close this tab right now. Seriously. Go see what Roger Ebert or Bill Simmons is doing instead. I won't mind.

    Because I was reminded the other day that somewhere in The Great Code, Northrop Frye casually makes a passing remark (one of many) which in lesser hands could easily be a book on its own. (I'll try to track down the specific page number.)

    He points out the word "understand" and asks us to look at it, literally.

    Actually look at that word.

    Why would you have to stand under something in order to understand it?

    Now, if you're like me you say, hmm, that's interesting, but it's probably just some sort of charming linguistic weirdness having to do with Celts, Roman legionaries, Saxons, Vikings and arrogant Normans all washing up on the same little island off the coast of France. There's got to be some trivial reason for the word to be like that.

    But then Frye points out the fact that "substance" comes from exactly the same metaphor – the substance of something has to do with standing under that thing.

    So you say, hey, that actually is really interesting. The physical relationship between knowledge and the knower is identical in those two words. But what the hell does that mean? Where does that come from?

    No source that I (in a couple of extremely haphazard and lazy searches) or Frye (who was one of the century's great readers) have been able to find could explain it. What's the underlying thought behind the metaphor? How did the originators understand "understand"?

    • Do you have to in some way possess the foundation, base or feet of a thing in order to "get" it?
    • Does it mean that you hold it in your grasp, that you support its reality in some way through comprehending it?
    • Does it imply subservience to the thing that you are trying to comprehend? That you're a slave to its reality?

    Now, language changes, especially this mish-mash that we Englishers speak. The prefixes "under" and "sub" didn't always mean what they mean now. Think about the verb to "undertake" and the fact it has nothing to do with digging, your associations with "undertaker" aside.

    The Shorter OED and some eighteenth century examples I've found suggest that our old buddy Plato might be at work here, thanks to his idea that the tangible reality of a thing is separate from its true reality, its substance. There is an ideal bowling pin (maybe just the idea of a bowling pin) and then there are many real bowling pins, each in essence a bad photocopy of that true reality. And one of the meanings that the Shorter OED gives for "substance" is "reality." And the idea that this sludgy world we call "reality" isn't the real world, but merely a reflection of it, fits in nicely to Christian theology, where heaven and hell are the "true" worlds and our plane of existence is merely a waystation in which Satan and Christ fight over our souls.

    But still, the two words are very old, and from different origins. From what I can tell "understand" is an Old English word with Germanic roots, and "substance" is an early Latin word. It's not ridiculous to think that the latter influenced the former, but that also implies a cultural meaning, not just a purely linguistic one. It's not like some monk could simply decide that "understand" would mean "understand" without all the other monks and many other people agreeing with him.

    Maybe I'm making too much of all this. After all, the philosopher Jacques Maritain writes (careful with your clicking, there's Kant):

    ...the etymology of a word does not always give us the key to its actual meaning. In our epoch of religious liberty, a Protestant may spend his whole life without actually protesting against any religious dogma. He still calls himself and really is a Protestant.

    Sure, etymology isn't meaning, but to me this point misses the mark. I understand why Protestants are so called, even if an individual believer doesn't actually protest anything, because the etymology is the word's history: Protestantism arose from protest. The word captures a pivotal moment in European history, but it's also a roadmap to how that individual believer ended up wherever they are.

    "Understand" and "substance" don't offer us those same keys to knowledge. They're both so obscure and yet after two thousand odd years so powerfully clear that they invite us to ask more questions. Maybe they even goad us. And that's not such a bad thing either.


    managing badly to manage better

    I've been reflecting on the fact that my August post about bad management is still one of the most popular entries on this here little endeavour. And my very first post on the subject is also still getting hits. Funny how some topics are perennial favourites...

    And so, in the spirit of giving people what they want, let's go drop another bucket in the very deep well of managerial ineptitude.

    There was the senior manager who hovered by his door every day at about five to five, scoping anyone who dared to stop working and start chatting, let alone leave, before his or her full complement of hours was entered into the corporate ledger.

    Naturally, he was also a hawk around 8:30. His judgement was, "If you come late, you're stealing from the company." Now, I think he actually said those exact words out loud in front of people. I may be wrong, I may have contorted my memory based on my feelings about him, but there's also a reason we thought it.

    He got out of people exactly what he asked. A workforce that appeared at 8:30, and which vanished at 5:01. A workforce which stretched out work to fit whatever time was left in the day. A workforce which complained incessantly – about everything: lack of change, change, bosses, each other – but which enjoyed complaining, which literally had no other discourse about work.

    A workplace which was essentially Dickensian in its philosophy, its attitudes and its outputs.

    It's just so obvious that the more tightly you manage, the more the people working for you think, "What's the point?" and surrender mental responsibility to you. Okay, I do. The worst jobs I've had have been the ones with the least amount of responsibility; not necessarily the least interesting or manual, but which involved the least amount of trust.

    On the flip side there was the creative director who actually assumed that I would learn and grow by doing the work. She would give direction and feedback, sometimes loosely, sometimes very loosely, but she always worked under the assumption that I would do the work – that I would think about, push it, try new things, and get to the place where the work needed to be.

    The process was painful. Being intensely busy, she had limited time, meaning that you were always waiting for her, sometimes well into the evening. And I wrote and rewrote and rerewrote a lot. Sometimes I wished she'd just tell me what the answer was. Maddeningly, she never did, and I laboured for far more hours than I'd care to remember.

    There were times when I absolutely fucking hated it.

    But it was one of the best times of my life.

    The assumption that I could do the work, that I could make it better, that I myself could be better, gave me a bedrock of confidence upon which I've built a career.

    As a CD, I find myself pretty rarely giving people that much trust. I try, but inevitably there's a tight deadline or twitchy client, and I tend to become more prescriptive after a couple of rounds of feedback. Now, the folks who've worked for me are probably shaking their heads at this paragraph, or pounding their keyboards, or tweeting about what an ass I am, but I do grapple with this and I'm not always happy with my reactions.

    Somewhere in my notes from a Northrop Frye class on the Bible and literature I remember jotting down this pearl of wisdom from the great man: to answer a question is to consolidate the mental level on which the question is asked.

    Maybe I need to stop having answers.


    I don't remember seeing Northrop Frye's session at the 2010 DMA

    (image: FryeBlog)Well, at least bronze is shiny.

    And as much as other shiny colours might have been nicer to receive on Tuesday night, really, you don't get into response marketing if you want to win awards. You're dedicated to getting a response out of people, to motivating them to act; there are techniques and processes that you have to use to help that happen. And if an outstanding response rate happens to lead to an award, that's gravy...

    I know that'll sound like post-facto rationalization, but I really am fascinated by the process of direct response. The most interesting session I went to at this year's DMA was by Bryan Eisenberg on "21 Secrets of Top-Converting Websites." Yes, it's a goofy direct response tactic, that title, but so what? The room was full; it worked. While so much direct response seems to focus on execution, on the tactics of making things happen, those tactics are actually a reflection of the psychology of the process of affecting someone's behaviour.

    You can't worry so much about the words as words, as language, or in some kind of faux literary way (i.e., the jokey headline). You have to think about the way the words can go together to have the most effect in the human world, the greatest emotional impact.

    Northrop Frye's last book was a follow-up to The Great Code, called Words With Power. I'm not putting DM on the same plane as the Bible; that would be ridiculous. But it is at least slightly amusing that they both force you to think about the way that words can in fact have power.