several things on which I’ve thought

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you say you want a revolution

For some reason, on some job, at some time in the past I needed a quote about revolution. Now my standard approach in a situation like as I've described I pretty much grab a Beatles lyric. (see above) But in this situation I needed something different. Which led me to this – “A revolution is a struggle to the death between the past and the future.” Fidel Castro.

This quote worked for that project, whatever it was. And though why I needed it faded from my memory, the quote stuck with me.

The quote resurfaced in my head just the other day. I was in the midst of a business/social gathering. Swirling around me were the usual phrases advertising veterans exchange these days - “Everything’s changed” “Advertising is a dying art.” “It used to be about the big idea.” And “Those late-night, post-shoot, chocolate milkshakes at Shutters were pretty fucking good, weren’t they?”

With my grey beard, reading glasses and fond memories of clouds of spray mount wafting through the studio, I am an old man in what’s always seemed to be a young person’s racket. And as a descendent of fine Irish stock I do love to lament the fading glow of a once golden time. But not this night. Instead it was the sage words of El Comandante. And a desire to talk about something else.

The past is the past. And the past always loses to today, to the future. And while there were some really great things – weeks of nothing but concepting, ordering sushi angry, chair massages, lunching at Balthazar, etc. I think, if I were honest, the thing I miss the most is not really working so hard.

Back then, occasionally, there were truly prodigious outflows of effort. But today, I work hard, a lot, on numerous different things, almost all of the time. In the car, in the shower, in the checkout line - thinking, thinking, thinking. Discovering this, understanding that, learning another thing about some other thing.

I’m just now realizing about all the work is how much better a creative it has made all of us. I knew how to deliver a killer spot or create a great campaign. Today I know how to deliver killer sales numbers or create a movement. Just think about how much more powerful we actually are today compared to those yesterdays when we were convinced we truly were the most important people in just about any room.

Were the good old days better? In some ways, undoubtedly, yes.

But given a choice I’ll take being better over better days. The tools we have, the means we can deploy. The unfolding understanding of human nature. The growing belief in the age-old power of narrative in our work. All of it makes our work, our effectiveness and ourselves better.

Today I am. Tomorrow I will be.

And it’s going to be all right.

narrative. all the way down.

I came of age as a creative director during my years working at Arnold in Boston. It was there I learned, amongst other things, that there was more to our end of the business than just a great idea. That clients bought as much into the people as the idea they were presenting. And that even a perfectly self-evident brilliant idea still needed a story behind it to sell.

Another way of thinking about it would be that in addition to the “what” of the big idea one had to sell the “who” the people whose idea it was and the “why” reason it is a good idea in order to really get people to buy in.

I mention my time at Arnold because I was there in the heyday of their great and powerful ‘brand essence’ movement. Lead by Fran Kelly, embodied in the VW work, and central to just about every new business pitch, strategy doc or even elevator conversation we were the agency of BRAND ESSENCE. And it worked. It was wildly successful.

At the heart of it all was the idea that brands have a rational meaning and an emotional meaning in the lives of consumers. Like in VW it was rational – affordable German engineering – and emotional – ‘drivers wanted’ with a very psychologically loaded definition of what who and what a driver is.

Brand Essence was the Kool-Aid they were serving and I drank deeply of it. But in the back of my mind I always had an unspoken, and probably heretical, idea about the rational/emotional framework. At some point, I realized that the rational part of the equation was there to sell the client on the idea and the emotional was truly the means of connection our work provided between our clients and their consumers.

I believe that the current focus on story and narrative are an affirmation of my earlier thinking. No one I’ve ever known has found a braggart convincing, appealing or even tolerable.

Furthermore, people are irrational. They don’t live their lives based on facts. Our feelings and emotions are at the heart of our decisions. Looking at your own life can probably prove this true to you but if not there are numerous books to turn to. Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow and most recently Robert McKee and Tom Gerace’s Stroynomics.

People like to like the things that are in their lives. Stories help them do that. Facts, not so much. Facts can help us rationalize why we like something but they’re not great at making people actually feel anything.

Back when TV ruled and commercials could interrupt people’s lives, stuffing communications with facts brought some effect. But even then, commercials that actually told stories were the ones that really made a difference.

And today with endless channels of communication, ad blocking, social sharing and all that, most marketers don’t even have the means to force feed a bunch of facts to anyone.

Story is the way. Emotional connection is the means. And although the state of things today have made understanding this imperative, it has always, always been the truth. 

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in closing

Yes, the world has changed.
The old model is dead. Agency of record, gone. 
TV spend has been surpassed by mobile.
And social. And content. And change, change, change.

But my job, our job, remains what it has always been -
generate meaning, tell stories, provide context,
and above all, create connections.