One brief. Two approaches.

I recently attended a talk given by James Hutchin on the subject of funding new innovations and start-ups. He was assisted by a guest panel of Venture Investment and Private Equity specialists.
While it was a great talk, the subject of this article is in reference to a slide Jim put up during the lecture (see below).
It’s a simple chart illustrating the different approach of how academics usually digest information, compared to how investors absorb it .

So what’s this got to do with advertising? Well, I think it also clearly illustrates how different disciplines and departments within an ad agency approach a brief.

A creative briefing is an interesting thing to observe in an ad agency.
The account management people and/or planners will sit down with the creative team. They’ll have the intention of following a particular order: perhaps a little background of the business, the business challenge or opportunity, then the proposition (main point), followed by some support points, deliverables, mandatories, timings and budget. (This closely resembles the left side of Jim’s chart)
However, watch the creative team if they’re handed the brief to read (sometimes the account person or planner will withhold it until the end because they know how it usually plays out).
The creative team will go straight to the proposition, then the proof points, then the other stuff (i.e. the right side of Jim’s chart)

Why do they do this? Well, that’s because the creative team is digesting it in the same way a customer would (the customer can be thought of as an ‘investor’ because we’re going to be asking them to invest money or time, or both).
When a customer sees an ad,  they quickly assess:
What are you telling me ? (main point / proposition)
Why should I care? (details / support points)

It seems obvious, but when writing a brief or planning any sort of brand communications, sometimes we need to be reminded of this.
If our ads resemble the left-hand side of the chart, we end up talking to ourselves rather than our customers, or we have to spend so much time getting to the point, we’ve lost them before we get there.



The clients you would never work for

Moral-compass-appIn the advertising film Art & Copy, there’s the following comment from an advertising great: “I always thought advertising was the most whore-ish business a person could get into”.
And in some ways that’s true. After all, an ad agency will help shape an argument/story/perception around almost any organisation’s offering. And to create that perception they tell the story from a particular perspective – a bit like a lawyer defending her client. Or put another way, we act in a similar fashion to mercenaries.

As advertisers, we take the time to understand our clients’ background and see things from a certain point of view. We’re able to step outside of ourselves, adapt and walk in the shoes of the prospective target market in order to find a way to appeal to them.
Throughout my career I’ve seen vegetarians create great ads for the meat and livestock industry. I’ve seen people create successful campaigns for a political party they didn’t vote for. And I’ve witnessed people make particular banks into powerful brands even though, personally, they’d never do business with them.

However, on a personal (and sometimes agency) level, most of us have our limits on the types of businesses, products and organisations we’ll help represent.
Many years ago, I knew a junior copywriter who resigned when asked to work on a tobacco account. And more recently, I read an article about one MD who declared his agency would never work on a gambling client.

For me, I’d be really uncomfortable working for an online gambling business. Not sure why, as I haven’t had firsthand experience of somebody with a serious gambling problem. Maybe online gambling just feels a little too accessible and therefore easy to escalate out of control?

So what about you? Which client would you refuse to work on? A fast-food? A company with a bad environmental record? Alcohol?

Advertising, without the bullsh*t

bullshit-meter-2We’ve all sat in those meetings when people pull out the latest buzzwords and newfound formulas for success. It reminds me of an old saying: ‘If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit’.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for keeping up with trends, innovation, opportunities and measuring things. I’m just not for the bullshit that many people put with it. Big words, sentences that don’t mean anything, and stuff like this gem below, that crossed my desk last year:

Jargon proposition

It’s jargon. It’s waffle. It’s saying something, without saying anything.
As a piece of communication, it’s severely lacking. It’s one of those things that looks good in a document or presentation slide, but everyone asks in a more private setting, after the meeting, ‘what does that really mean?’

Years ago, the founding partner of an agency I was working at gave a great reason for why people do this. In his career of 30+ years, he realised a pattern. It’s illustrated in the diagram below. Essentially, he said junior people  in the industry wanted to sound more senior, like they knew what they were talking about. As a way of doing this, they use a lot of jargon and industry buzzwords. Then, he said, as people become more confident in their ability and experience, they usually parked these bullshit terms, and tended to speak like people again.

Bullshit graph

Look, we’ve all talked a bit of bullshit at one time or another. I guess the trick is trying to limit or eradicate it from your work.
Or put another way, try and  be an island of reality in a sea of bullshit.

A successful formula for advertising: realising that there is no successful formula for advertising

Well, it’s the start of a new year. A time when we usually step back and take a look at where things are at. Our fitness. Our finances. Our job. Our relationships. Around this time of year, there’s not much that doesn’t get reassessed. Sometimes we take action, sometimes we don’t.
Unfortunately, it’s also that time of year when the ‘predictions’ lists come out. You know the ones – things like ’10 apps you will need to survive 2014′, ’10 ways big data will reinvent marketing in 2014′, ’10 ways TV will be dead by December’. Many marketers are looking for a formula for success. The problem is that advertising isn’t all science. It’s half art, and art is unpredictable. (Actually, even science is unpredictable if you recall the film Jurassic Park).
Art that is loved by an audience at one point in time might not be so well received at another point in time. Fashion is art. Architecture is art. Music and film is art. And, a large part of marketing is art.
While science can be applied to marketing, there’s certainly no 100% foolproof formula for success (not even the one featured in the video below, explained by David Droga).

To write, read listen

dialogueI have a confession to make: I don’t read a lot of books.
That’s not to say that I don’t read a lot. It just seems that a lot of what a read tends to be the stuff that comes in smaller, bite-sized chunks. Things like blog articles, news stories, magazine articles, ads, Facebook posts, etc.
I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because I have a short attention span, or because I’m a slow reader. That said, there are plenty of book that are on my ‘To Read’ list.

I once worked at an agency where an older writer  found it very strange that, as a copywriter, I wasn’t one of those people who knocked over 500-page novels every week. And that got me thinking. Do you have to read, in order to write?

While I do think reading is a great way to broaden your horizons and look at other styles, I reckon the act of listening is just as, if not more, important. And I hold this belief due to a few reasons.

First, there’s the simple notion that in the history of humans, language was audible before it became visual. Or put another way, words were spoken a long time before they were ever written. Just look at your children – they all learn to speak before learning to read. Written language is simply a way to record information in order to take it to a wider audience or keep it for the sake of posterity.

Second, the spoken word communicates much more than a written word ever will. A written word can be more easily taken out of context, or the intended tone can be lost or mistaken. Less so with a spoken word. Even a dog can understand a spoken word, due to the tone used to deliver it.
Plus, spoken words are loaded with subtext. They communicate so much more than simply the meaning inherent in the words themselves.

Cultural Differences
Many years ago, when I was a university student, a voice specialist delivered a talk to the entire class studying Communications. It was mainly aimed at the students majoring in Theatre/Media (aka ‘acting’) but as an Advertising student, I got a lot out of it as well.

The speaker (forgive me – I can’t recall his name) spoke about accents and how they’re achieved by delivering the word from different parts of the mouth. North Americans get that louder, rolling sound because they actually ‘say’ the word further back inside their mouth. Us Australians, we ‘say’ a word when it’s almost out of our mouth – sort of just mumbling them as they exit.

But accents can easily miscommunicate if you don’t know how to listen to them.
Take a South African accent, for example. After a recent meeting, a colleague and I were discussing the feedback given by a South African client. My colleague thought the feedback sounded harsh. That’s because, to an Australian ear, a South African accent can sound quite stern. It has little inflexion, so it can come across as unfriendly and terse. The Saffas also tend to use the word ‘must’ more liberally than Australians do. In Australia, the word ‘must’ is very authoritative and doesn’t really fit with the culture.

The other thing Australians tend to do is have an inflexion at the end of each sentence or statement. By ‘going up’, it softens a statement, almost making it a question, and makes it more friendly.
The English also tend to do this by putting a ‘yeah?’ on the end of a statement.

So I don’t read a lot of books. But I do listen to the way people speak and the words they choose – whether it happens to be a movie scene with great dialogue or  two people simply talking on the train.
That’s what a good ad should sound like – someone talking, rather than a faceless corporation.

Mark Twain was wrong. Shorter isn’t always better.

A famous Mark Twain quote goes like this: ‘I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead’.
Plus, almost every advertising book ever written also extols the virtues of crafting copy so it’s short, sharp, and punchy. After all, less is more.

And while I agree, I’ll also say that it’s important to know when to bend the rules a little. Sometimes you’ll run into a client who has also read those same advertising books. They then go to work trimming back words with little regard to the overall effect on the tone of the ad. As a result, sometimes you find it’s definitely shorter but it’s also lost something. So, while ‘shorter’ is one way of making copy better, it’s  not synonymous with  making copy better.

To illustrate this point, I’ve taken the script of one of my favourite ads (1997′s ‘Crazy Ones’ for Apple, by TBWA\Chiat\Day). I’ve then applied the ‘word economy’ rule and cut out the tautologies and other words someone might deem to be ‘superflous’.
Sure, you end up with shorter copy, but I wouldn’t say it’s better.
If you know the rules, you should also know when to break them (or, perhaps more relevant here, when to ‘think different’).

crazy ran

crazy strikethrough

crazy bastardised

5 thoughts on voice over artists

Microphone and cansI recently finished a job that required using a few voice over artists. I remember when I first started working in advertising how cool it must be to actually say that you’re a voice over artist. Imagine dropping that at a dinner party when people ask what you do. Or a world, in my mind at least, where girls suddenly listen harder to what you say when they find out you’re a VO (after all, if  other people pay money just to hear you speak, that voice must be nice to listen to, right?).

Not a lot is ever said about voice over artists. Usually, casting isn’t given enough time and/or consideration.  But I think it’s important. If you don’t agree, simply listen to the great Miller campaign directed by Errol Morris. First, listen to this ad. Then listen to this one, or this one, or this one. In my opinion, the second voice adds so much more to the spots. It helps create a great tone and personality for the brand.

So, here are 5 thoughts on voice overs:

1. Voice over artists should never sound like voice over artists.
Unless you’re doing an ad that takes the piss out of voice over artists, or a trailer for this Summer’s film blockbuster, your VO should never sound like the guy in the video below.

Honestly, in the real world, who talks like that? Except this guy.
Yet, casting for VO talent is hard. Usually, the only useful part on their demo reel is the bit at the start where they say, ‘Hi, my name is ……, and this is my demo reel’. After that, they launch into ‘the big voice’, so it can be hard to get a good grasp on what they really sound like. For that reason, I find actors are generally better than pure VO artists. Actors understand the character or role they’re playing and tend to speak rather than project their voices.

2. Talk the talent through your idea.
Don’t just hand them a script and ask them to step into the booth. Before that, talk them through your idea or script. Give them a bit of context so they can get a feel for the type of read you’re looking for.

3. You can tell early.
I reckon you can tell in the first 4 reads if you’ve cast the right person or not. People either get it or they don’t. Sometimes this isn’t the case and people can get it with a little more time but, generally speaking, they’ll be reasonably close to the mark early on. And that brings me to my next point.

4. Don’t burn the talent out.
Usually, when a voice over is freshest, you’ll get the best from them. The writer knows the way they want it read (the tone, where the emphasis and inclinations lie, the type of character etc). Get that down first. Then feel free to try some other stuff – good talent sometimes add things that can really improve your script.

5. Have a great sound engineer.
A great sound engineer brings so much to the table. They know their stuff, can make useful suggestions and, like good VO talent, make 30 seconds seem much longer when you need it to be.

What about you? What other tips would you offer regarding the use of a voice over artist?

Is your big idea a one-off?

$27 car rentalHere’s a picture of a shop near my office. Three weeks ago it was a Lamborghini dealership. Now it’s a place that rents small cars for $27 a day. I reckon that might be a pretty good reflection of where things are at. It seems most successful business models now drive profit through volume rather than margin. And I’m relatively sure there are more people looking to rent a car for $27 a day rather than buy one for a lazy half million dollars.
Look at the businesses making all the money – supermarkets, Google, telcos, the list goes on. They all sell lots of product for a small margin rather than fewer products at a large margin (perhaps with the exception of Apple, who seem to be doing both margin and volume).

And that brings me to advertising agencies. Most advertising agencies deliver a very bespoke product. It’s an idea or advertising campaign designed to suit a particular client’s needs. Even if it can be used to carry another client’s message, it’s contractually obligated not to do so. This means all the work  you do in delivering a product (campaign or idea) amounts to one sale.
So rather than make one product and sell it thousands, perhaps millions, of times  we make one product and sell it once. (Actually, it’s lower than once when you consider the ideas and campaigns we work on that the client doesn’t buy.)

Then on top of this, you have other forces working against the ‘way it used to be’. The internet has conditioned us not to pay for stuff anymore. It’s given rise to the Fremium model, and things like Fiverr.
Sure, in most cases, you get what you pay for. But it seems people don’t like paying for the art of a Lamborghini when they think they can do the same with a car for $27.
So what about you and that big idea you’re working so hard on? Are you only going to sell it once?

Are you getting in to advertising, or getting out?

Years ago, I was asked to give a talk to advertising students at a university.
Now, it seemed that every intern or grad primarily wants to know the answer to two questions: 1) How did you get your job?; and 2) What advice would you give to others?

So in preparation for my talk, I took the opportunity to ask a few colleagues around the department and filmed their responses. That way, the students at the lecture could hear other stories as well as mine.
This video is below (please excuse the transitions – it was 2006. I was young. iLife was in its infancy).

I once heard the story of a young creative being told, ‘You’ll be underpaid in the first half of your career, and overpaid in the second half of it’. Well, I’m not sure the back half of that sentence still applies in today’s world. The profit margins simply aren’t there anymore.

But recently I came across another video, below. It’s not about getting in to advertising. Instead, it’s about using advertising as a stepping stone towards something else. Spending time in the advertising industry provides you with some great skills – you get to think outside the box, you get to challenge conventions, you see behind the curtain of lots of different industries.

One of the best books I’ve read over the past few years is Seth Godin’s Linchpin: Are You IndispensibleIt really opened my eyes to the way industries have historically worked, and how all that is now changing.
For me, that book was a bit like opting to take the red pill.
So what about you? Are you getting in, or getting out?

Meanwhile, while you’re busy writing ads…

hurricane-carter-1999-03-gRemember the 1999 movie, The Hurricane? It’s the story of Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, a champion boxer wrongly convicted for a triple homicide (Bob Dylan also drew attention to the story)

In the movie, there’s a scene where a teenage boy, Lesra, is told ‘sometimes we don’t pick the books we read, they pick us’.
I think there’s a truth to that. Sometimes, ‘our antenna’ on a subject is raised and we seem to be more receptive of stories on a certain topic or issue.

And that brings me to two different pieces of communication that found their way into my day.
The first was a story about R/GA:

Then, a couple of hours later, this video from Cannes:

I’ll let you make the connection.