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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 writing (19)


    can your voice be better? you sure as hell better try

    A long, long time ago, playing with a cassette tape player in my friend Mike's suburban basement, I figured out that I can't stand the sound of my own voice. 

    I think we were recording ourselves doing half-remembered Monty Python sketches (I remember the Spanish Inquisition as a particular favourite), and needless to say as we recorded we assumed we were breathtakingly funny. We were strange teenagers, after all, and we understood these strange and weird bits so well. How could it not be amazing?

    Well, I won't debate the comedic worth of what we did. (Mercifully, that magnetic tape has no hope of being found in listenable condition.) What really hit me, as we played the tape back, was the fact that my voice was so unexpectedly nasal and awful. I couldn't stop thinking about it, analyzing it, trying to hear the sound in my own head the way it had come out of the tape player so I could stop it sounding that way.

    That's exactly how you should feel about your past work.

    Especially the work in your book.

    I'm not talking about excuses – blaming various imperfections on client, account or production interference, budgetary woes, or the failure of the satellite to deploy. (Yes, my partner and I had a great idea killed because a telecommunications satellite didn't reach orbit and crashed.) Anything that's been so dreadfully affected by such things probably shouldn't be in your book anyway. 

    I'm talking about the work that you've put in the front of your book thinking it was the best thing you'd ever done. The work that got you jobs. The work that got you awards.

    How could you have made that work better?

    If you're any good at this creative thing we do, and sure as hell if you want to get better, you have to face that question. 

    Me? I cringe at almost everything I've done – stuff that's been at the front of my book, done really well for clients, even won awards. I can't look at it without thinking about what I'd change, what if I'd tried harder at that headline, how could I have looked at it from a different point of view. And I try like hell to apply those lessons to what I'm doing today. That's the only way I know for my work to get better.

    Yes, as that great creative director Crash Davis once said, you have to play this game with fear and arrogance. That's just as true when standing in front of the client or your account team, as it is in front of a nasty fastball pitcher who likes to throw inside. That's for the show. 

    Inside your head, as you stand in the batting cage or hunched over your keyboard, you think about all the people who can do it better, and you analyze and try different things and make tons of mistakes and, slowly but surely, you learn.

    You get better.


    do not write like this, do not talk like this

    In the stories about Cisco closing down the Flip video line, this gem was the feature quote, as it's the only one in the official Cisco press release:

    "We are making key, targeted moves as we align operations in support of our network-centric platform strategy," said John Chambers, Cisco chairman and CEO. "As we move forward, our consumer efforts will focus on how we help our enterprise and service provider customers optimize and expand their offerings for consumers, and help ensure the network's ability to deliver on those offerings."

    If Jon Stewart were trying to parody Cisco, he couldn't have done a better job. Chambers sounds like an automaton and a buffoon. Worse, because the language could apply to pretty much any industry, any company, it makes him sound like a professional CEO who, in jumping from executive suite to executive suite, doesn't actually know that much about the products or company he's leading – the kind of CEO he doesn't actually seem to be.

    For god's sake, PR flacks, be direct. Engage the question or the situation as best you can, even if you have to tapdance a little. (Watch and learn.) Otherwise you're assuming your audience are idiots who will fall for your misdirection, or you're not-so-subtly telling them that you don't feel like you have to answer the question.

    Either way, you piss people off.

    Do not write or speak like John Chambers. Ever.


    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.


    it's not like I said that your writing shouldn't have *any* structure

    A regular reader takes umbrage with my recent post about structure. The worry was that I was setting a bad example for the young 'uns, encouraging those who are new to the word business to forsake the idea of structure.

    Nothing could be further from the truth. Seems that, despite my intentions, my basic point didn't come across as strongly as I meant. And that is: You shouldn't impose structure. You should discover it.

    So, let me be more clear about what I meant by discovering structure.

    It means you've got to edit the hell out of your work.

    You start by reading and rereading what you've done, ideally with some time to think about it. Then, with some clearer understanding of what's actually on the page in front of you, you go back to work. You cut what's pretty but useless. You move things around. You keep working the words to make them flow naturally.

    I find that the basic challenge is to spot the differences between what you thought you were typing and what you actually typed. Intentions don't count for much in copywriting. And anyway, the words on the page will usually be more interesting than the ones in your head; they also have the virtue of being on the page, ready to work with. They put you way farther ahead than the imaginary ones.

    They'll start telling you what they need, if you listen. And as you respond to them, you begin to see the architecture that the words demand. Their patterns begin to form a structure.

    That to me is the ideal way of working. You start with a purpose, but not a rigid idea of how you're going to achieve that goal. You leave yourself open to happy accidents, interesting collisions and, if you're lucky, inspiration.

    I know it's a little like starting to build a house without a blueprint, and relying on how the bricks feel to tell you how many bedrooms the place should have. Utterly ridiculous, and yet somehow true.


    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.


    it only took me several years to figure this out

    In my old life as an aspiring playwright, a brilliant director I was working with once said that I had a strong, innate sense of structure.

    He didn't mean it as a compliment.

    Because he was trying to get me to rethink an okay but fairly expected story in a completely different way, and my sense of "proper" storytelling was standing in the way of that. It was shocking, actually, to understand that my natural inclinations could be "correct" even as they blinded me to exploring new possibilities, and stopped me from listening to how the story wanted to be told.

    I had to teach myself how to escape from structure. I wrote a lot of crap, admittedly, and forced myself to stop worrying so soon about how it all fit together. I constantly had to fight my reflex to judge, and simply keep writing anything that worked on any level, anything that felt like it had a spark.

    And then I realized that this was a skill I had already learning in my advertising work. That's what brainstorming is all about. That's what sitting with a piece of paper and a magic marker is all about. I never sit down to write without daydreaming and doodling first.

    It was strange, applying a money-making skill to my private writing where I had all the power and the ultimate decision. But that realization was helpful and led to some interesting things.

    Structure shouldn't be imposed on the words, even by one's self, or made apparent before the words are said. Just think how many movies, shows and plays you can predict after seeing their first five minutes. There's nothing more boring than knowing what's coming an hour and a half later.

    As our old friend the drama critic Heraclitus reminds us, latent structure is the master of obvious structure.

    If you want your writing to be great, if you want to not just hold people but keep them coming back, then your structure should come out of the words themselves. It should be suggested, found, uncovered after the words are understood.

    To the audience or the reader, and even to the author, structure should be discovered.


    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.


    a habit I have not been able to kick

    When I was a lad of a junior copywriter, I found myself chained to a cubicle in an open concept office with my back to an intersection of two aisles, and over the wall in front of me, a table at which every buyer in the company would approve or, more vocally, disapprove of the work we were doing.

    Now, this situation occured before the Internet (as if such a thing is possible) so I didn't have to worry about my boss seeing my Facebook page or anything. But it drove me nuts to attempt any work in that position. For some reason, I can't stand people seeing my work before I'm ready for them to see it. I don't want to share the process of how I get to wherever I'm going. Okay, honestly, I don't want to jinx the thing.

    (It was actually easier to write on a bench in the middle of the Eaton Centre. Which I did occasionally.)

    On top of that, all the sound that comes from sitting in the middle of a floor of a hundred people simply didn't help me get consistently in the creative groove.

    Thus I turned to headphones and a Walkman.

    With CFNY (or 102.1, or The Edge, or whatever they're called) blaring the alternative hits of the early and mid '90s, I was able to create a space in which I could focus. I could hear the music without actually listening to it; it provided welcome drive and energy, and handily blocked out external distractions.

    This weird totally illusory space in my head turned out to be the perfect place in which to get things done.

    And if I got startled by people standing behind me, amusing themselves for minutes on end, or tapping me on the shoulder and watching me jump, so be it. It was the price that had to be paid.

    Later, when I got an office at Wunderman, I thought I could at least unplug, close the door and crank the tunes a bit. But after a few hours of being unable to get down to work, I realized that I physically needed the headphones in order to get the necessary focus. (Which might be why the headphone-free writing portion of this video is so bad.) I had trained my brain to need the enclosure. I was hooked.

    Still am. No matter where I am, no matter how much privacy I have, I still need to be wearing headphones and be listening to poppy nonsense music – ideally that of the '80s and '90s – in order to get anything done.


    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.


    because text isn't just something that fills up a web page

    Continuing my extremely irregular series of posts about non-marketing things that inspire me, I thought I'd write about a book I haven't touched in a couple of years, but which I've been itching to return to.

    The Crying of Lot 49 is the most verbally intense and engaging novel I know. It's not very long, but it's a very deep rabbit hole.

    It's about (hell, how do you even try to describe it?) Oedipa Maas, a woman in southern California whose former boyfriend has died and left her as co-executor of his estate. She is sucked into a world of secret meanings and signals and societies and purposes that may or may not all be an elaborate joke by her (dead?) ex-boyfriend. I can't even begin describe the invention and amazing flow of character names and incidents that befall Oedipa: Metzger, a lawyer who is her co-executor who is also a former child movie star; a young band called the Paranoids; secretive aerospace engineers working for Yoyodyne Corporation; her husband Mucho, of course, who is a depressed radio DJ; and her LSD-pushing shrink, Dr. Hilarius, who it turns out worked Buchenwald on a program to drive Jews insane because, as he explains, "Liberal SS circles felt it would be more humane."

    It also contains an extended look at a Jacobian revenge play called The Courier's Tragedy, which is a brilliant parody of Jacobian drama at the same time that it is also a dead-accurate take on that genre, and I often get its details confused with plays like Duchess of Malfi or The Revenger's Tragedy; The Courier's Tragedy feels that real.

    Sadly, I don't seem to be able to handle Pynchon over long distances; I got lost about halfway through Gravity's Rainbow and didn't pick it up again, stumbled to the end of Vineland, and have been ignoring my untouched copy of Mason & Dixon for a few years now.

    But the couple of hundred pages of The Crying of Lot 49 will remind you what is possible with language.