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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 strategy (10)


    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.


    content is a bad word

    This post at SVN got a lot of feedback, some positive, some startingly negative.

    If I understand David's intent, I wholeheartedly agree with him – there are a lot of people talking about content as a solution, a strategy or a job in digital. Marketers are especially prone to this habit; we'll just get some content onto our site or Facebook page or Twitter feed, they say, and people will click on it like horny rabbits. Problem solved, now let's collect our cheques and awards, okay?

    As commenter Robert Moss says:

    Many publishers treat content as a supply chain management issue instead of an act of creativity. They figure more content (good, bad, ugly or indifferent) plus more links equals more people on their sites.

    No matter how strategic-sounding the title of the person, it's a very executional attitude toward the word; like a bad art director or developer building a page on his/her own and expecting someone else to make up some "content" for him/her to drop in.

    Beyond being a mere generic description of the stuff that consumers actually interact with and care about and return to, what's worse for me, as you can figure out, is that it's disconnected from the real purpose of what you're doing. Using the word content like this means that you've washed your hands of icky details, like thinking about the consumer.

    A word like "content" has technical utility – when you're trying to find a category descriptor for the text, images, video and sound that live on a page. But that's about it.

    Please – don't use it to describe your purpose or strategy, or worse, in the guise of "content producer," your job; be a storyteller, create experiences, engage people.

    Anyone who describes themselves as a "content producer" is, I suspect, creating just that. Generic filler that takes up space and makes you feel like you're "on the web" but which in fact repels real consumers, real reader, real people.

    The folks I work with understand that. Make sure the folks you work with understand that, too.


    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.



    Came upon this TED video from last year of Simon Sinek talking about great leaders, both individually and corporately. His angle is that most of us focus on the what and the how, and maybe we get around to the why of any action or campaign at some point.

    To Sinek, great leaders start with the why – they start by communicating a belief, which may include elements of how and what within it. This kind of authentic leadership starts with an emotional connection to galvanize action in others.

    Being able to share a purpose; being able to gather groups of people together to do something which holds meaning for them; this is leadership.

    Something to keep in mind.


    pay no attention to that man behind the curtain

    In this land of marketing, so much depends on the wizard behind the curtain. Or at least, a whole lot of flying monkeys.

    Case in point: we've done a couple of big presentations recently, each of which meant several hours of writing by several senior people, then meeting for at least a couple of hours with several senior people to examine the deck and go over how it will be presented. Account, media, strategy, production and creative all have to be taken into account not because we feel like it, or because we don't have anything better to do, but because all these things impact our clients' business and as professionals we have to deal with that.

    Clients may not like the fact that all this takes time (and money), but the fact is they like things a lot less if all this time is not taken.

    And after the meeting, in the weeks after the our big important presentation, we might not like the fact that clients take so much time to mull over what we as an agency take as large, throbbingly obvious facts, but they too have multiple experts and POVs to talk to, they too have to assemble in large groups to think through what we as agency weasels have spent an equally long time generating. Turns out they too are professionals.


    virtually anything you can do...

    Found this link ages ago about the strategy of the Iraq war, but I can't remember who from:

    In October 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asked his chief military and civilian subordinates for an assessment of the “Global War on Terrorism,” noting that “we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing” and asking numerous broad yet focused questions, all of which came down to the question of strategy. It took several years and still the Joint Chiefs of Staff required help from contractors—contractors—to come up with a system to measure what is clearly the most pressing security threat facing the United States in a generation. 

    A profession that surrenders jurisdiction over its most basic areas of expertise, no matter what the reason, risks its own destruction.

    Digging it up, it seems extremely relevant in light of the recent spate of virtual agencies that are starting up around Toronto.

    I've been freelance, and I work with several freelancers now. It's not easy for freelancers to do their best work. Not because of their own abilities or intentions, but I think because there are inherent problems caused by the open-ended nature of the relationship with the agency. When your contract is ending in a matter of days or weeks, and you don't know whether it will be extended, how do you keep pushing your work? How do you build relationships with other creatives or clients?

    Creatives are the obvious crux of the issue, just because so many of them work on a freelance basis, but there's also account management and production – and they're far more difficult to find and retain while freelancing. They're key to basic agency processes (so are creatives of course) but unlike creatives, these two groups are also responsible for how the agency makes money.

    It's not to say that a virtual agency can't work, or do great work. But I'll be very interested in knowing how they're going to build relationships over the long term between clients and more than a few senior agency people.

    My best work has come from being deeply involved with clients. And that's far harder to do when you're being brought in by the hour, and being encouraged to piss off once your defined and specific business is done.

    Commitment to clients isn't virtual. It's actual. And that's any agency's most basic area of expertise.


    "damn it, Smithers, this isn't rocket science – it's brain surgery!"

    It's not difficult, what we do. Not in the way that, say, getting the Apollo 13 astronauts back to Earth alive was hard. And certainly not in the way that saving an entire Antarctic expedition from certain death was hard. But that doesn't mean it's easy.

    Case in point. I was in a meeting with several senior people (account, creative, strategy and media) today and we were trying to agree on an overall strategic approach for a certain proposal. There was some raising of voices (not in anger but just to be heard) because there was much interruption, and much more back and forth.

    All of which was okay – more than okay, it's actually good. People with different backgrounds, experiences and thought processes shouldn't agree right out of the gate. The noise meant that people were talking with passion, saying what they meant, and not out of concern for the niceties of not hurting anyone's feelings. We were finally getting real feeling and thinking without the too-common political considerations.

    And the thing is, no one in the room was wrong. It wasn't about anyone's point of view winning out over the others. It was about hashing through all the possibilities. It helped us consider all the angles. It allowed us to bring up comparables from other clients. And then we talked, seemingly in circles but not – maybe it's more accurate to say that we talked in a whirlpool, round and round until we could all come together in some common point.  

    And it was more than the inevitable dynamics of group decision making – it was also about language. It took some time to figure out that several people were in actually agreement once they agreed on definitions. Definitions that different clients also have different perceptions of.

    So, yes, in some ways it was maddening and frustrating, but it was a vital exercise. All the questioning strengthened our thinking, clarified our language, streamlined our purpose. (I know that sounds like I'm selling you, but it's actually true. And how many meetings that does that actually happen in?)

    If that ain't brain surgery I don't know what is.


    "the committee seems impressed"

    For those of us on the inside, this article in today's Toronto Star about creating a public service ad won't hold that much interest. (Except of course the natural narcissistic interest in reading about ourselves.). But it does show a pretty common situation in the process of creating and producing advertising – the client seeing the work, liking it and almost approving it, but then realizing that it's contrary to some of their larger interests.

    While I feel for the creatives involved and have been in the same boat many times, I think we on the agency side tend to focus narrowly on the task we're briefed on – we have to in order to get the best work possible. We forget that most of our clients have a wide range of businesses with lots of potential for conflict, and senior approvers who see the work for the first time from totally different perspectives.

    Banks are a typical example; I've tried a couple of times pitching concepts for savings accounts that one way or the other implied that credit was bad, forgetting that credit cards are called that for a reason, and are of course a fairly profitable bank product typically run by another division of the bank. Someone on your team has to go through that to know.

    On the client side, they tend not to realize that we will run with the brief and strategy wherever it takes us; it's an open-ended process. They don't usually know to think ahead to the needs of senior approvers, because they don't realize that we will almost inevitably transgress into those territories. We'll push things to a black-and-white statement that actually says something about the product, because that's our job – to make the strongest possible statement of our client's offering. That tends to worry committees.

    So that first creative presentation can a real eye-opener for everyone involved. That's when the reality of the product and the project becomes apparent.


    good times

    One of the rewards of this job now and again is to get the opportunity to sit in a room of smart, experienced, passionate people and watch them do what they do best, without any territory marking or argument. That doesn't mean there wasn't disagreement and discussion, but it wasn't freighted with political baggage. It was fun but more than that it was cool – this is how it's supposed to work. Yes JJ, it was good times.

    It doesn't happen often enough. Maybe it can't, with all that's usually going on for people at that level, too much stress, too many deadlines, too much managing to do.

    But before the start of this big project it's so thrilling and comforting to know that before the creative team ever sits down in our frozen glass-walled brainstorming room, there are some real insights into our consumer and our business, there's a good read on our competition, there's a strategy that's inspired, and there's technical backing for what we might want to do.

    One person leaned over to me and whispered, this is what I love, and she gestured to the assembled team. I knew exactly what she meant.


    if you're a creative, you might not want to read this

    You're a client who has employed an ad agency to build your business. (There's really no other reason to employ one, after all.) You want more sales.

    Now, there are many ways that you and your agency can go about that. You can generate more awareness of your products, which is the traditional "mass" method. You can generate more engagement with your brand, which is what digital can do so well. You can try to acquire more prospects, or retain the loyalty of your existing customers, both of which are direct marketing strengths.

    But what you're not looking for is someone to tell you that your microsite needs to be in flash simply because it's cool, or your TV spot needs to be funny simply because the creative team wants to win awards, or your DM piece needs to have an awesome and complicated format simply, well, because. And unfortunately, too many creatives walk into client presentations believing exactly those kinds of things as their basic reason for being in this business.

    They're wrapped up in their own craft – the words and the pictures. Each is a craft that isn't easy to do well and each requires real focus. Somehow, in all that focus and intensity and passion, it's easy for creatives to get isolated from the client's real purpose. (And come to think of it, from the consumer's reality.)

    Too many creatives don't fundamentally believe it's their job to help you sell your product. Too few think that they will have failed if your sales don't increase.

    Creatives need to understand that they're in business. Your business.

    What can you do as a client to ensure that you're working with folks like that? Before you hire an agency, talk to the creative director and team you'll be working with about your business. They're not going to be experts at what you do, not yet. But are they at least interested in it? Do they ask questions about it? Do they listen to what you're saying and get excited by it?

    And find out about how they work. Will you be seeing the creatives at every concept presentation? (Some agencies tend not to let the creatives out in public, which fosters that isolation.) Do the creatives have input on the strategy? (Some places hand creative teams a brief and expect compliance. Other places give the creatives equal responsibility in the development of strategy, and expect questioning.)

    The more that the creatives are at the table with you, talking about your needs, showing your their work, hearing what you have to say about it in person, and accepting responsibility for the results, the more they'll know your business, and the more you'll be sure you're working with creatives who truly want to build your business.

    I can't imagine a better partnership than that.