Thursday, December 8, 2011

What I keep saying, only not in my words.

Isn't it funny how the better you develop your skills to master one form, the better you're able to master others? Or to put it another way, when you get to be a black belt in kung fu, you're a pretty even match for someone with a black belt in tae kwan do.

Or to put it yet another way, if Mothra and Spider man got into a fight, who would win?

Okay, enough.

I came across this article by a venture capitalist named Josh Linker, and look at that. Take away the stuff about funding and VCs and it could be a blog about making advertising. By me. 

Which makes sense, really. After all, a pitch is a pitch.

Here's what he wrote. Verbatim. 

Five Disaster Moves To Botch Your Pitch
Josh Linkner
Not me. Josh.

Most of us have something to pitch. You may be pitching your startup to a VC to secure funding. Or perhaps you’re pitching your product or service to potential customers. Whether you are pitching your case to a jury, your hypothesis for a research grant, yourself for a new job, or your best friend for a date with that cute guy, a simple rule applies: the better the pitch, the better the results.

As a venture capitalist, I hear pitches every day. In this highly competitive environment, a strong pitch can be the difference-maker between securing millions in funding and completely missing the mark.

There are many obvious cliché moves: give a firm handshake, communicate with passion, make strong eye-contact, and try to relate with your audience. Yet there are approaches I see constantly that sabotage an otherwise good pitch. To significantly improve your batting average, avoid these disaster moves when pitching just about anything:

1) THE RUN-ON SENTENCE: One of my pet peeves is listening to someone drone on for a 45-minute monologue. In your big moment, your instinct is to communicate everything you know, the entire history of your idea, and endless amusing anecdotes. Avoid this urge! Your pitch will be 100 times more powerful if you can make it concise. Make every word count.

2) THE FACT LEAP: Anyone who is being pitched has turned on their highly-developed BS-detector to full tilt. We are questioning everything you say and trying to poke holes in your story. So the minute you exaggerate a stat, make an outrageous claim, or state a fact that can be challenged, your credibility crumbles.

3) THE OVERSELL: If you make a strong point once, it resonates. If you feel the need to make the same point several times you end up diluting the power of the message. If you keep pushing a point, you transform before our eyes from a passionate world-changer to a used-car-salesperson or infomercial pitchman. If what you are pitching it that special, you don’t need to oversell it.

4) THE S.A.T.: When responding to a question, just answer it directly. If you tell a four-minute story that includes 73 data points, the listener feels like they are taking an S.A.T. exam in which they need to sift through all the irrelevant stuff in order to get the answer. This does not help you shine or get your message heard.

5) THE GREAT GATSBY: Grandiose braggers may entertain at cocktail parties, but they rarely win the battle of the pitch. Keep it authentic and real. Your startup with 11 beta customers isn’t a billion-dollar company just yet. Think big, but stay humble. After hearing a pitch where the daring hero outperforms Groupon and Apple in their second year with trillions of revenue and six billion customers, I’m ready for a shower instead of a closing dinner.

Hone your pitch to stand out from the hapless masses that continue to fall into the same traps. In turn, you’ll land the job, get the girl, win the capital, and seize your full potential.

Friday, November 4, 2011

I had my cake and ate it, too, or something.

Mine's better

When I was a kid –– around seven –– I decided to learn how to cook. And what does a seven-year-old learn how to cook? Right. Devil's food cake.

My mom gave me her recipe and impetuous youth that I was, I immediately set out to improve it.

Which I did.

I'm not going to lie to you. I didn't spend my entire childhood perfecting cakes, but I did make enough of them to get pretty good.

I like devil's food cake. A lot. And that created a problem. I had the limited patience of a seven-year-old. So as soon as a cake had barely cooled, I'd flip it over and pick a little piece out of the bottom. Just to make sure it came out alright.

And nobody would notice.

Before long, I was taking bigger and bigger samples. Until one day, I ate the entire inside. I couldn't help myself.

That night, at dessert, my mom cut into... a shell. Seriously. There was nothing to it but about a half inch of the outside, left perfectly intact, just barely enough to support itself without collapsing. Christopher Wren would have been proud.

There's a point. And the point is about over promise.

Everybody sitting around the table that night expeceted a cake. Not just a cake, but one of my pretty amazing devil's food cakes. 

What they got was not-cake. They weren't happy about the crust they did get, even though the tiny bit that was left was super good. They were disappointed because they didn't get as much as they thought they were going to.

And this is what happens over and over, every day, in our lives. Movie advertising that tells us to see "The movie of the decade." Book jackets that exclaim "The best novel you'll ever read." Packages that scream "New and Improved." Both. Like something can be both new and improved.

Hollywood is continually stunned when a little independent film makes a ton of money at the box office. But if you think about it, what's happening is that that little independent film might actually be no better than just okay, but simply can't afford to buy favorable reviews and a huge marketing campaign. Without any hype, there's no expectation. When there's no expectation, there's no disappointment. People who see the film tell their friends. And suddenly, word of mouth is accomplishing what a $200 million ad budget can't.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "But Brian, you have to get people into the theater in the first place. How do you do that without making an over promise of some kind?"

There is a way. Back when I was learning how to be a copywriter, we called it creativity.

Or, to come full circle, don't just follow the recipe. Figure out how to improve it.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Already.

I just made a phone call and heard a Christmas carol while I was on hold. 
On November 1st. 
Remember when we used to complain because the Christmas music would start on Thanksgiving?

Back when I was your age, it was different. Sure, people got into the holiday spirit a month before Christmas. And it was annoying as all hell. But where it came from was giddy anticipatoin. 

But it’s not holiday spirit. Not anymore. Now it’s about sales. Our consumption-obsessed society is addicted to a certain level of commerce, and like a junkie who needs a fix, we’ll lie to ourselves if we think it’ll help us get it. 
That means for the next 55 days, expect to be bombarded by Christmas carols, Christmas sales, Christmas promotions, Christmas decorations, Christmas everything –– coming at us relentlessly from every direction in a desperate attempt to turn another shitty year around.

It's not going to work. I know, the recession officially ended in June of 2009, but I’m willing to go out on a limb here and predict that the holiday shopping season isn’t going to break any records. 
And you know what that means.
Starting December 26th, the Valentine’s Day frenzy begins. 

Monday, October 24, 2011

I couldn't have said it better myself. But that's not going to stop me from trying.

My friend Rich Siegel –– one of the funniest guys in advertising –– writes a blog called Round 17. A couple of weeks ago, he did a post about an issue people in advertising face constantly, but rarely manage successfully: Idiotic requirements that solve the wrong problem.

I'm going to quote his entire post here because it's about not being treated like a professional and for me to edit, paraphrase, or sum up what he wrote would make me guilty of exactly what he decries. 

Rich? Take it away.

Last week I ran into my old partner at temple. I didn't recognize him at first because I didn't know he was a member of my congregation and also because there are business colleagues I only associate with business. It's a matter of context.

In any case, he's now some bigwig with one of the holding companies. No need for names because, well, I don't need to give anyone a reason to blacklist my name for any future assignments. I'm sure I'm persona non-grata in plenty of places, thank you very much.

Years ago I was working on a freelance assignment at this unnamed agency. The art director and I presented a bunch of concepts to the previous Creative Director. He liked many of them but selected three for further development. Then he told us that the agency had been very successful beta-testing a new software program called Alpha One which tested creative ideas for efficiency and message resonance.

"Really?" I said.

"Really." He replied.

So, he added, can you go back and rewrite these ideas and mention the client's name within the first 7 seconds of the commercial?

"You're shitting me, right? I said.

"Not shitting you." He replied.

Adding, it would be better if you could mention the client name in the first 5 seconds.

It's funny how little we have learned from Steve Jobs, the greatest marketing visionary to ever wear a client hat. Imagine if the "1984" spot had been put to the Alpha One test. We wouldn't be talking about it. Same thing for the Apple's 1998 "Think Different" campaign. In fact, the same applies to every commercial that has ever made its way into your memory vault.

Had I a set of balls and not a looming mortgage/car/tuition/insurance payment due I would have simply followed the Creative Director's logic to its logical conclusion and brought him back an
Alpha One-friendly script like:

Open on art card of (Client's name).

Cut to a man and woman talking at a restaurant.

MAN: Client's name client's name client's name?

WOMAN: Client's name!

MAN: Client's name client's name client's name Client's name client's name client's name Client's name client's name client's name.

WOMAN: Client's name.

SUPER: Client's name.

Cut to plane dragging a banner across the sky.

BANNER: Client's name.

WOMAN: Oh client's name.

TAG: We're not just (insert industry type), we're Client's name.

Friday, October 21, 2011

On borrowed interest, mashed potatoes, and flowers

When I was in fifth grade, I rode my bike to school. The route I took went past a bottle brush tree –– at least that's what we called it. It had soft bark that came off in sheets like thick construction paper and white flowers that looked like, well, a bottle brush.

When the tree was in bloom, it smelled like –– and no, I'm not making this up –– the mashed potatoes at the school cafeteria.

We didn't have mashed potatoes every day, but the tree was in bloom constantly, for weeks. Maybe months. And eventually, I came to think that the mashed potatoes smelled like the tree.

What does this have to do with communication, you ask?

Well, I'll tell you.

One of the easiest ways to get consumers to infer certain characteristics with a brand is to associate your brand with another entity that already possesses those characteristics. A classic example is Grey Poupon. In order to be perceived as a luxury mustard, the advertising consistently put it in the hands of rich people.

If a guy with a snooty accent driving a Rolls Royce ate Grey Poupon, the unspoken logic argued, then Grey Poupon would be perceived as equally as luxurious as the snooty accent and the car.

But as much as a Rolls Royce can bestow attributes to Grey Poupon up, the inverse is true as well. Grey Poupon will inevitably bestow attributes to Rolls Royce.

So now let's talk about Timberland.

Timberland used to be all about chopping through the woods, living in a tent, wearing flannel. Then in the 90s, the brand was discovered in the inner city. Urban youth –– maybe being ironic, I don't know –– took it on as kind of a status symbol. And even though Timberland continued to associate itself with woodsy, northwest imagery in its advertising, Timberland increasingly got associated with rap-listening, bling-wearing images in real life.

Ultimately, consumers saw more Timberland products in real life than in advertising, and the brand became disassociated with what it tried so hard to cultivate.

This is the hazard of creating an aspirational brand. SUVs appeal to soccer moms for their rugged safety, but when you see an SUV on the road, do you expect the driver to be an independent, rugged individual? Nope. She's in her mid to late 30s and on her way to Chuck E Cheese's.

Nike keeps hyping its association with elite athletes, but when you see a huge swoosh on a T-shirt, is your first thought, "Hey, here comes a pro tennis player?" Nope. It's usually a fat person carrying a 32-ounce soda.

What marketers so often fail to realize is that advertising is only a piece –– and a very small piece –– of the message consumers get about a brand. Advertising is the part you can control. But you can't ignore the other stuff. The other stuff is more often than not what really defines a brand's perception.

Ignore the other stuff and you run the risk of having your flower turn into mashed potatoes.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Something to think about.

We live in an age when CEOs are fairly universally reviled, and yet so many of us are mourning –– deeply –– the death of not just a CEO, but a billionaire CEO who had a reputation for ruthless perfectionism and outsourced what? 100% of his company's manufacturing jobs overseas? 

Are we hypocrites? Or is the Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field so powerful that it transcends even death?

I posted this on my Facebook page and got some thoughtful responses. I'm posting it here because I'd like to hear more. 

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Jesse Blanchard knows more about 3-D than you do.

'Shine', Jesse Blanchard's 2-minute, 49-second masterpiece
When I spoke to my buddy Jesse Blanchard about a year ago, he was all excited to build a 3-D rig he'd dreamed up. A couple of nights ago, he invited me over to see the result: a short film that lasts less than three minutes. (If you want to see it, click here.)

It's been a busy year for Jesse. He didn't just build a 3-D rig and shoot a film with it. He built one, tested it, refined the design, built another, tested it, refined the design, built another...

All in all, I saw five 3-D rigs at Jesse's place. I have no idea how many prototypes he went through before the first, or how many tweaks he made to each of the designs once he built it.

What I do know is that through this process, Jesse went from knowing about as much as you or I do about 3-D to knowing pretty much everything there is to know about 3-D. 

My version of Jesse's story is that rig I built last year to do that one effect: with a continuously moving camera, create the impression of going forward in time, backward in time, and then forward in time again. Like Jesse, it took me a year to build a working prototype. Like Jesse, I went through lots of designs. And like Jesse, at the end of the process, I knew more about messing with time than most people outside of quantum mechanics will ever know. 

My result is even shorter than Jesse's: A 60-second commercial, which tells a wonderful little story, but to be honest, the best part isn't the wacky messing-with-time shot. It's fine. It does the job. But a couple of other elements get more smiles and nods of approval.

Will Jesse or I ever recoup the money we invested? Will we ever be compensated for the time and energy we put into these projects? Will we ever get a phone call from Steven Spielberg, begging us to accept a huge amount of money for the opportunity to use what we came up with?

I can't tell you.

But I can tell you this. It's one thing to have an idea, quite another thing to do the hard work of making your idea come to life. 

Jesse may never get an opportunity to shoot another project in 3-D. And I may never have a job that calls for a continuously moving camera that moves through time forward, backward, then forward again. But both of us are a lot better directors now than we were a year ago.

Friday, August 19, 2011

A really nice commercial. Then I actually saw it.

Last night, this spot was on one of the TVs at the gym. I saw about 45% of it with no sound, from across the room, while I was trying to use the eliptical machine. But that was enough.

Enough to know that the line was going to be "Wash your day away."


I was intrigued enough with the spot that when I got home, I went onto YouTube to see the whole thing, top to bottom, with sound and no distraction.

You know what? It's worse.

I was right about the line, by the way. But 'Car Wash'? That's the music they chose? And paid to license? I would have lost that bet.

It's not just the music, though, that makes this spot a disappointment. It's the fact that there's a really unique (although in my mind, of questionable value) point of difference to the product being advertised, and yet the message is generic enough to have been used for any shower head. It's as if somebody had come up with this spot for the new business pitch, before they actually got into the tactical messaging, and trotted it out for this assignment. Which happens, by the way, more often than people will admit.

This whole episode reminds me of a moment I had when I first moved to New York years ago. I was shopping for a house plant and heard a girl's voice from the other side of a row of ficuses. She said, presumably to a friend, "That's my kind of plant."

Five words, but there was something about her voice, both the quality and the inflection, that touched me. The way she said that one sentence made me think that this was somebody I'd want to meet. Maybe even marry. But by the time I rushed around to see where the voice had come from, whoever she was had vanished.

For years, every girl I dated or even liked was unintentionally (and unfairly) compared to the hypothetical ideal that that voice created, until I ultimately ended up marrying someone whose other strengths compensated for a voice that –– next to Mystery Plant Girl's –– was brash and a bit nasal.

As I look back, I'm glad I never met the girl who said those words.

I wish I never saw the entire Delta Faucet spot.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

More proof I have no clue what I'm talking about.

Not long ago I judged the Student Academy Awards. Which is a pretty prestigious honor, by the way, but not the point here.

One film in particular captivated me. I don't think I'm supposed to reveal which one because the awards haven't been announced.

The thing was, it didn't captivate most of the other judges.

One of the other judges liked it as much as I did, but she had to leave before we were finished, so it was up to me to fight for the film. Which I did. I managed to get it a second shot, to have it screened in front of the entire judging panel at the finals.

Where it went down to defeat.

The films that were selected weren't bad, but frankly, they didn't have something that this one did. They all had heart, story, and craft, but this one also had something extra. It broke ground. The filmmaker understood the potential of the medium and told her story (I think I'm allowed to reveal that she was a her) in a way that could only have been told on film.

Unfortunately, at the finals, I couldn't make that case. All we could do was vote.

So what's my point?

It's not that I don't know what I'm talking about. And it's not that the other judges were idiots. It's that my opinion is just that. My opinion.

This is a tough lesson to learn, especially when you're starting out. But most people you show your work to aren't going to get it. Those that do will never –– and by never I mean really, really rarely –– like it as much as you do.

I wish I could talk to the filmmaker of that film that isn't going to win a Student Academy Award. I'd tell her that she's a prodigy. That her audience, in spite of being a prestigious panel of filmmakers, wasn't sophisticated enough to understand what she accomplished.

And I'd tell her to keep working. Because the only way she'll ever find an audience is to create stuff and put it out there.

Monday, August 15, 2011

I'm back.

To all the people who send emails and messages, wondering why I hadn't posted in a while and asking if I were okay, thank you.

I'm okay.

Life has been pretty nutty and writing blog posts hasn't been much of a priority. But things are settling down. And the time away from posting has given me some clarity.

So I'm going to get back into imposing my opinions on anybody who cares to read them. Again.

Thanks for sticking around. I hope I make the wait worthwhile.