Real life Mad Men

13 11 2010

Last night I caught a documentary on PBS that took a fascinating look at the advertising industry.

My instinct would be to never put the words fascinating and advertising in the same sentence, because, as Art & Copy director Doug Pray puts it, “98 percent of it is bad.” But Pray focuses on the other 2 percent, and specifically, the artists and writers who’ve been the most successful at combining art, communication and commerce.

Pray interviews a handful of the greatest advertising minds of the last 50 years, and their insights on what people respond to and how they come up with their ideas is enthralling. The film makes advertising — when done well — seem like the coolest job in the world.

On the one hand, you have the bold, artful style of a George Lois, who once paired avant-garde guru Andy Warhol and tough guy boxer Sonny Liston in an ad for Braniff Airlines. The odd-couple commercial turned out to be a huge hit for Braniff.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the folksy approach of a Hal Riney, whose “Morning In America” TV spot for Ronald Reagan in 1984 is considered by many the most effective political campaign ad ever made.

Some common themes emerge among the various ad icons regarding effective and persuasive communication: human interest; shared experiences; simplicity.

In a piece he wrote as a reflection on the film, Pray tells a story that breaks advertising down to its essence:

“It crystallized for me in the jungle in French Guiana last summer. We’d gone there to film the launch of a commercial satellite to make the documentary less talking-heads and more visually exciting. I figured that if satellites bring us television, and television is paid for by ads, then… ads launch satellites. It was a way to marvel at the lengths we go to deliver dog food commercials.”

But there in the forest, a short distance from the Arianespace rocket launch site, was a small outcrop of boulders with a dozen ancient petroglyphs carved into them (the ones seen at the start of the film). The drawings told stories about what once happened to some prehistoric person, and what they did or didn’t want their lives to be. They had something to say, and they used communication tools to say it. Art and copy. Same thing… different format.

Image credit:


Ad whiz: Keep it simple

24 09 2010

My last post was about how brilliant advertising brought Apple from the brink of bankruptcy to the head of the tech industry.

What I didn’t mention is that maybe the single most important figure in the creative effort that saved the company is a guy by the name of Ken Segall. Segall worked for Apple’s ad agency, TBWA/Chiat/Day. He came up with the “i” in iMac and iPhone. He also wrote the “Think Different” campaign, which won just about every honor in the business, including the first Emmy ever awarded to a commercial.

Given his track record, Segall clearly knows how to reach an audience. And in his view, the key is simplicity.

From his website:

“Simplicity works wonders. It’s satisfying, motivating and seductive. Every company talks about it, but few achieve it. Most failed branding projects actually don’t miss the mark — they shoot way beyond the mark. The farther a project strays from simplicity, the more risky it gets.”

An audience — be they readers or TV viewers — shouldn’t have to work to get your drift. Your job as a writer is to hook them (as Segall says, seductive), keep them interested (satisfying), and inspire them to act (motivating).

Segall’s philosophy applies to many areas: whether you are crafting a company’s core message or simply writing a headline on your website, less is more.

Segall continues:

“We get used to names like Mac, MacBook, iPod and iPhone. But for the sake of comparison, I refer you to Time Magazine’s Top 10 Gadgets of the Year 2009. Forgetting iPhone for the moment (#4), other products on this list include the Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, the FinePix Real 3D W1 and the charmingly named Casio G-Shock GW7900B-1. One can only scratch his/her head and ask “Why?” Logic says that naming has to be this way because manufacturers and retailers have to deal with product pipelines, warehousing, retailing and related real-world issues. Silly model numbers are a necessary evil. (Never mind that Apple encounters the same issues and somehow manages to get around them.) We may be simple-minded, but most of us would prefer talking about an iPod than a ZipMaster XLZ-500CSS MP3 Player.”

It’s a comforting idea that you don’t have to conjure a miracle to create compelling, impactful content. Just remember that your audience is people, and people respond to simple, clever ideas.

While “keeping it simple” doesn’t guarantee you an Emmy, it is a powerful lesson that just about any communications professional can learn from.

How advertising saved Apple

17 09 2010

There’s no denying that Apple is the brand in the tech world.

A company that in 1997 was on the brink of bankruptcy is now at the forefront of the industry. Innovative. Hip. Iconic. Apple inspires loyalty in customers that is often downright fanatical (see people camping out to be first in line for the new iPad).

As amazing as Apple’s turnaround is, what’s even more amazing is how they did it.

Their engineers make great products, but it’s not as if they are light years ahead of the competition. Many would even argue that competitors such as Google outdo Apple in some instances.

Where Apple separates itself is advertising. The company, or in most cases, the creative talent it hires, has done a brilliant job of connecting with consumers, and they’ve done it primarily through a series of memorable and inspired commercials.

The majority of these commercials have two major characteristics:

1.Rather than talk about gigabytes and CPU cycles, they show you how technology can make your life better. They focus on people. The human element.

In an ad for a feature called FaceTime, which allows you to see the person you are talking to on the phone, a soldier sits on the edge of his bunk, holding out his iPhone, video-chatting with his wife/girlfriend at the hospital back home as she’s getting an ultrasound. His eyes well up as he sees his son for the first time.

I learned in the newspaper business that the story is always about people. That also holds true in marketing and advertising.

2. The ads also capture what is cool and current. Many of Apple’s best-known spots feature music by of-the-moment, cutting-edge artists, or what is known today as “indie” artists. Guess what type of music Apple’s target market overwhelmingly listens to? Indie music. Combine that with fresh, artful imagery, and these ads have made the iPod and iPhone symbols of good taste in many people’s eyes.

Apple’s story is a testament to the power and importance of communication. The writers and other creative professionals who have “framed” Apple’s products so beautifully literally saved the company and have completely turned around its fortunes. Kudos to Steve Jobs for hiring the best.

By being better at communicating with consumers than its competitors are, Apple has passed them up.

Now if I could just get better reception on this iPhone…

Image credit: