Category Archives: Advertising Watch

How to make a good ad

There are two DNA ads running at the moment. They illuminate the art of advertising today.

The first is called Testimonial: Livie and it’s for This is perfect serviceable. And that’s a problem.

This gives us a woman, Livie, living a safe, tidy life. Her DNA results come as a revelation. It turns out she is, as she puts it, “everything.” She now checks “other.”

An entire world opens up, and, and, and Livie checks a new box. Good lord.

This is identity as ornament. This is that girl who cornered you at a party in college to say she is 1/32 Choctaw. This is identity as a cocktail chatter, a party favor, a way of showing how absolutely fascinating you are.

And never mind the hair raising assumptions being made about the difference genetic origins make to who we are. (We love to think they do, but the science is of course stubbornly unromantic on this score. We are made by our upbringing and the culture in place. That “Choctaw difference” makes no identity difference.)

Ok, now have a look at %100 Nicole.

The music! So splendidly wrong and antique and odd. Perfect. This is how we make some of the best culture now. We run things together that don’t go together…until they do…sort of, but not quite.  These culture meanings deliberately act as what Weinberger might call, to borrow the title of his book, “small pieces loosely joined.”

The sunglasses and helmet of the second scene. So completely “what?” Here too the ad maker (in this case Diego Contreras of [or for] Venables Bell and Partners LA) is asking us to pay attention. This is not culture served up according to genre. This is culture flushed out of its conventional categories. We are driven up out of our couch potato stupor to ask the ancient’s immortal question “huh?”

In the place of Livie’s perfect sitting room, we have Nicole plunged into the world, seizing her DNA connections has an occasion to engage with the world. (Here too, sitting in the background there are troubling assumptions. We hope we are not being asked to assume that Nicole has some essential connection to East Asia or West Africa. Right?) In a more perfect world, we would all travel often and with Nicole’s joy to countries and cultures to which we have no DNA “connection.” Right?

So many details are arresting. The joy of that dance. The shock of that fiord. The delicacy of soccer. The animation of this actress.

Livie ticks boxes. Nicole embraces life. Livie looks for identity in the old fashioned way, by adding badges to her sleeve. Nicole finds it by taking the world by storm.

Hat’s off to the agency in question:

23 and Me
Venables Bell and Partners
Los Angeles
Diego Contreras
Martin Leroy


New media fundamentalists, how will they react to the revolution in TV?

Maurice_Levy_2008I read with interest  remarks by Maurice Levy (pictured) on how he thinks about life after the failure of the Omnicom -Publicis merger.

“We have a strategy, and we will accelerate that strategy. It calls for strengthening our digital operations to reach 50% of our revenue [from 40% currently], and investing in big data and accelerating the capabilities we have in integration.”

Levy knows much more about the industry and about Publicis than I ever will and I defer to his greater knowledge.  But I have to say these remarks sent a chill through me.

There’s no question that the digital revolution continues and that it will change everything we know about marketing, advertising and communications.

It is also true, as I have been laboring to show the last couple of days, that there is a revolution taking place in old media as well.  TV is changing at light speed.  (See posts here, here, and here.)

It looks as if Levy is concentrating more on the digital revolution than the TV revolution.  To be sure, this is a bias that has swept through the advertising business.  A new generation came up, insisting that it was now going to be all digital advertising all the time, that the 30 second spot was done for, and that TV was now just another victim of the technological revolution. New media fundamentalists scorn old media and especially TV.

(Just to be clear, I am no old media apologist.  My book Culturematic assumes new media.  No culturematic is possible without new media as a means and an end.)

The trouble with new media fundamentalism is that it misses what is perhaps the single biggest story concerning popular culture in the last 10 years.  Against the odds, and in the teeth of the hostility of the chattering classes, TV got better.

And this revolution means several things.  That consumers as viewers are getting steadily smarter.  That they are now accustomed to and expectant of a new order of story telling.  I think it’s far to say that old media is still better at telling stories than new media.  This is another way of saying that old media (both TV and advertising) may have been trailing new media…but that they suddenly caught up.

I know some readers are going to take this as the voice of reaction, an attempt to return the old order to former glory.  So just to be clear.  I’m NOT saying that old media is better than new media.  What I am saying is that those who now diminish old media because of the rise and great success of new media are missing something.  And just to be really clear: as cultural creatives, as content creators, whether they like it or not, new media fundamentalists can’t afford to make this error.  They are after all in the business of NOT MISSING THINGS, ESPECIALLY THINGS AS BIG AS THIS.  Sorry for shouting, but there is a new media orthodoxy in place and shouting is sometimes called for.

And no, this is not an argument that says advertising was perfect just the way it was.  There is work to be done in the world of old media, lots of work.  Remember when the ads on a show were often better than the show? These days have mostly passed.  Now the ad surrounded a show looks shouty, simple minded and a little clueless. Like it doesn’t know what is going on around it.  Like a revolution took place and the brand and the advertiser didn’t notice.  Oh, if there is something that is NOT ALLOWED in the branding and advertising business, it’s not noticing.  

So it’s not as if anyone wants us to go back to old media circa Mad Men and the 1950s.  Old media must now evolute as ferociously as new media.  To catch up.  To keep up.  That revolution on TV tells us that our culture is changing in ways no one anticipated at speeds no one thought possible.  And anyone in the communications game (using old media or new media) is going to have evolve in something like real time.

Our culture is becoming a hot house.  Those who want to contribute will have to flourish to do so.  It makes me think of that Wieden and Kennedy moment after a recent SuperBowl.  W+K had floated that Old Spice ad and as they looked at the tidal wave of online content they have provoked, they thought, “Damn.  Better get on this.”

A group of them retired to a building somewhere and just started turning stuff out.  Call and response.  Call and response.  Real time marketing.

This may be where we are headed.  There are so many things in play, and they are moving at such speed, concatenating in ways we can’t anticipated, this is perhaps not the time to up your digital bet, Mr. Levy.  In this very dynamic world, we want to use all our media all the time.

Making ads speak

DSC00079 Yesterday, I talked about the reinvention of the photograph.  A couple of days ago, I found myself reading a charming essay on how we might reinvent the Google ad.  

Hal Roberts points out in the early days of advertising, it was customary to include jingles in printed copy.  As Roberts puts it, 

"The idea of advertising as poetry seems quaint today, but actually more possible in the age of the text only AdWords format. It’s striking that AdWords today consists only of straightforward sells."

Striking indeed and a little depressing.  Anthropologically, the interesting thing about ads is that they are constantly inhaling and exhaling culture meanings.  Good ads are simple acts of Aristotelian metaphor.  They take meaning from the world and invest it in the product, brand or service.  Clearly, this "respiration" doesn't happen at all when the copy writer is restricted to copy.  

Naturally some people will say that cutting advertising off at the knees as Adsense does is a good thing.  After all, advertising is a bad thing.  So speaks Barber, Ewen, Galbraith, Klein and Riesman.  But in fact I think advertising has been a very interesting way for our culture to rehearse its option, canvass its possibilities, and rebuild and various buff and polish as it seeks to stay in touch with its own dynamism.  So speak Brantlinger, Cowen, Docker, Dickstein, Pells and Susman. 

What to do about Google ads?  Roberts charming idea is that we should resusitate jingles. Splendid.  How about some images while we're ad it.  I am not saying 4 color, 2 page layouts or anything.  Just a little something more than a handful of words..  I'm saying let's open up the door to meaning that it might flourish even here.  


Roberts, Hal.  2008.  Watching Technology from the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. November 12, 2008here.    

Barber, Benjamin R. 1995. Jihad Vs. McWorld.New York: Time Books/Random House.  

Brantlinger, Patrick. 1983. Bread and Circuses: Theories of Mass Culture as Social Decay.Ithaca:Cornell University Press.  

Cowen,Tyler  1998.  In Praise of Commercial Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.  

Docker, John. 1994. Postmodernism and popular culture: a cultural historyNew York: Cambridge University Press. 

Dickstein, Morris. 1999. Leopards in the Temple: The transformation of American Fiction, 1945-1970. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.  

Ewen, Stuart. 1976. Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer CultureNew York: McGraw-Hill.  

Galbraith, John Kenneth. 1958. The Affluent SocietyBoston : Houghton Mifflin.  

Klein, Naomi. 2000. No logo: no space, no choice, no jobs taking aim at the brand bullies. Toronto : A.A. Knopf .  

Pells, Richard H. 1989. The liberal mind in a conservative age: American intellectuals in the 1940s and 1950sMiddletown : Wesleyan University Press.  

Riesman, David. 1964. Abundance for what?  Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday.  

Susman, Warren I. 1984. Introduction: Toward a history of the culture of abundance: some hypotheses.  Culture as History: The transformation of American society in the Twentieth century. Pp. xix-xxx. New York: Pantheon Books.

Post script:

My apologies for the mixing of typefaces.  Google's chrome and Typepad continue to play together only under supervision and even then too often it ends in tears.  

Agencies and intellectual capital: enough of the Flava Flav routine

Flava_flav I have three questions:

1. when do clients require agencies to be genuinely full service?

2. when do agencies begin to leverage, and, gasp, brand their intellectual capital?

3.  when does the advertising world take a leaf from the world of management consulting?

I had lunch with Mark X last week.  We were talking about how noisy is the intellectual air space of the agency world. 

You would think that the big ideas of the ad world would be clearer.  At the very least, it should be possible to reverse engineer the great ads of the last 100 years and reach some simple, lasting, potent conclusions. 

But no.  The ad world is filled with a million quirks and inclinations.  It churns with notice of exciting trends.  It buzzes with the titles of the latest books from the business press (good to great!, made to stick!).  What is missing is a calm sense of the verities of the biz, the things we know for certain. 

Now, of course, advertising creative is often an unpredictable, largely inscrutable thing.  Inspiration descends from the heavens.  Agencies compete for the people most likely to be struck  by this lightning.  Creative directors are conduits of great value, and we should probably worship them.  But this doesn’t mean we will ever get a clear rendering of how they do what they do.  This will forever remain a matter of a "I don’t know, it just came to me" mystery.

But research and strategy, that should be another matter altogether.    Surely, these people should have a very good idea of what advertising is, and how it creates value for a client and their brands.  Surely, they should be able to roll out simple propositions of great power.  And surely we should judge them by what these propositions are.

Too often what we get is snake oil enthusiasm and not much else.  In fact, listening to certain people with strategic pretensions is like listening to someone afflicted with a spontaneous, naturally occurring affliction of buzzword bingo.  They just string all the current lingo together often with scant regard for the syntax. 

It’s kinda like they are wearing a great big Flava Flav button that reads "talk."  Clients have a question?  Push the Talk button!  And bang, out it comes: creative synergy, brand DNA, authentic this and networked that.  It’s like someone sold them a BFI R Us franchise and this is what they think they are supposed to do.  Hurl lingo bingo at the problem until no one can quite remember what the question was.

I am not speaking out against lingo.  I treasure these compact terms for their ability to telegraph complicated ideas in tiny bursts of speech.  But when all we are doing is broadcasting the buzz words, then the client is not served.  The world of discourse that is strategy ends up being an intellectual ghetto, a place where stupid people have a place to hide and talent cannot rise. And there is lots of talent out there. 

You would think that the marketplace would impose its famous discipline.  You would think that clients would say, "I’m sorry, that was almost completely incoherent," and keep saying this until agency raises their ability to offer clear, clean statements of how the agency creates value for the brand, and, more specifically, how it is earns the princely sums it demands from the client.

This brings us to the first question:

1. when do clients require agencies to be genuinely full service?

Clients are paying for good, clear ideas.  When do they start demanding them?   When do they begin to scorn the "pressure of speech" lingo bingo approach to explanation, and demand something very simple and very clear. Less Flava.  More nutrition. 

2.  when do agencies begin to leverage, and, gasp, brand their intellectual capital? 

Whether or not clients make new demands, we might expect that some agencies would step up and make intellectual power and clarity their strategic difference.  There are lots of smart people in the agency and consulting world.  But I am not sure the agency ever leads with them.  The agency might trumpet the fact that it possesses God’s new gift to creativity.  But the strategic people not so much.  I guess this will start to happen in a big way the moment a P&G says, "well, we decided to go with Agency x because, frankly, they have got the intellectual firepower.  Our existing agency, we began to feel they couldn’t think their way out of a wet paper bag.   I mean have you heard those guys talk?"

3.  when does the advertising world take a leaf from the world of management consulting?

This approach has been going on in the world of management consulting for a very long time.  McKinsey, Bain, Boston Consulting, Accenture, these firms justify their existence and their fees on the grounds that they hire smart people and they treasure and reward these people for the intellectual capital they create for the firm and its clients.  I am thinking here of people like Thomas Davenport, Philip Evans, Thomas Wurster, John Beck, Stanley Davis, Richard Forster, and Sarah Kaplan.

It’s time for things to change.

Straight out of Aristotle

Img_0082 Metro North is not the same as True North, or even Magnetic North. Metro North veers quite distinctly to the east and it is marked by a railroad track that runs from NYC to New Haven and beyond.

There are stations and the stations have ads and that ads are, well, a little amateurish and darn good fun for this anthropologist and all the other marketing types who use this track to get to and from Madison Ave. Indeed, Metro North is to marketing what Australia is to evolution: the place were weird stuff happens…and that’s ok. 

Take the ad I have photographed here.  Accountant as super hero.  Really?  I mean, really?  If there is a creature in the universe less like a super hero, it’s an accountant.  Or so the stereotypes tell us.  Totally unfair, of course. And for all we know some accountants live lives of real adventure. Enron accountants, do you think?

So it’s wrong to generalize this way, but it is also probably wrong to advertise…this way.  Part of the problem is that this ad is trying too hard. A good ad is an act of metaphor. It transfer meaning from a world we know to a world we don’t.  In this case, it invites us to transfer what we know about superheroes to what we know about accountants.  (This is straight out of Aristotle.)  But some acts of transfer are more possible than others.

But perhaps I am missing the "premise."  In the strange world that is Metro North, a new physics may apply.  In this world, superheros are just little less heroic.  Accountants a lot more grand. And the two are close enough, transfer is possible. 

I am on the West coast and running out of time.  So this investigation of the cultural properties of alternate realities are going to have to wait for another occasion.

Celebrity gridlock

Russell_simmons "The Magic of Macy’s" features celebrities decorating for the holidays.  We see Usher, Jessica Simpson, Donald Trump, Martha Stewart, P Diddy, Tommy Hilfiger, Kenneth Cole, and Russell Simmons (pictured).

This is the "stack and rack ’em" approach to celebrity endorsement.  If one star is good, eight is better.  It gives coverage.  Chances are, someone in this gang of eight will speak to the consumer.

So it’s good for Macy’s, perhaps.  What about the celebrities?  What does it mean for Usher to be seen with Hilfiger?  What about Donald Trump and P Diddy? 

Without research, we can’t know for certain.  On balance, it’s probably good for Martha Stewart.  It takes her out of that sui generis bubble into the world.  On balance, it’s bad for Kenneth Cole.  Here’s a guy who helped pioneer social marketing and now he shares the screen with that monster of self-regard, Donald Trump. 

The agency must answer for giving us Jessica Simpson as an airhead. Could they not have cast her against type?  The "ditzy blonde" used to charm us.  Now she is an embarrassment, an actual "retard."  Jessica Simpson may wish to dismantle the women’s movement.  Macy’s shouldn’t help. 

And why does Tommy Hilfiger say "Santa, you’re really working that red velvet thing."  I mean, really.  It sounds like he’s flirting with Santa.  This just seems wrong.  Surely what happens at Macy’s stays at Macy’s. 

On balance, it feels like everyone looses.  Even Macy’s.  It is interesting to "crash" stars together in this way.  This sort of thing can be good for a brand.  But these celebrities in this treatment end up something less than the sum of their parts.  It’s as if we have stumbled into a dystopia where stars gather for a close up only to discover that they must share the camera with some one else. 


See the ad for Macy’s on YouTube here

Sir John Boots It Badly

Hegarty There is a video of Sir John Hegarty on line that shows the master commit himself to misapprehensions so unpardonable that it is clear he should be relieved of his knighthood and sent to the tower for an indeterminate period of time and at least till he comes to his senses.

Sir John on good creative, marketing and taste.  Click here.

Sir John tells us that, finally, creative decisions come down to taste.  Do we like the  creative in question, or do we not? Advertising, he says, is about creating desire.  We must make people want the product.  In the old days, we did this be insisting on a point of difference, a special ingredient.  Now, it’s the way we communicate with the consumer.  And that’s about taste.  We are increasingly living in a fashion world.  We are dominated by it.  Taste is important and you can’t teach it. 

There are several things wrong with this argument, but I want to point out the most obvious: that one of the most powerful people in the world of British advertising has just declared intellectual bankruptcy. 

All the world is persuaded that there is something wrong with advertising.  The New Media people claim that TV ads are dead.  Clients have always nurtured their suspicions and now they are in full out revolt.  The academics cannot figure out what makes this bumble bee capable of flight.  The "critical" theories have no such difficulty, and routinely find advertising to be the chief culprit in the creation of false consciousness, consumer manipulation and every ill that ails us.  The consumer is happily TIVOing ads out of existence.  The agency world is in disarray.  The world of marketing is the throes of crisis.

This might have been the moment from something oracular.  As one of the senior members of the profession, Sir John might have stepped forward and poured oil upon the water.  He might have recited verities to reassure us.  Or he might have broken new ground and issued a new model for understanding what advertising is. 

Not a chance.  No, Sir John choose this moment to tell us that advertising is effectively mysterious, inscrutable and unteachable. Bravo, sir.  That’s leadership! 

With this declaration, we are back in the black box that advertising created after World War II.  Advertising, agencies told the client, was a thoroughly creative process.  Only the agency could do it.  Only the agency could evaluate it.  Only the agency could be trusted to invent it.  The client was obliged to keep her distance…and pay the bills.  The quid pro quo was clear.  We, the agency, give you ads.  You, the client, pay us hard-stopping amounts of money.  Oh, and one more thing: go away.

In the old days, this black box approach to advertising was not a bad idea.  It kept the least talented cooks out of the creative kitchen. It left the agency free to do its best work.  But now that clients have got smarter, now that the agency world is in crisis, now that advertising is effectively being taken away from the agency world, this might not be the best time to retreat into a naive obscurantism, and the pretense that advertising is, well, imponderable. 

Unless, shudder, it’s true.  Could it be that one of the most powerful men in British advertising has no idea how advertising works?  Could he really believe that it’s just taste?  That it’s all about fashion. That there is no meaning manufacture here to be understood, refined, build upon, taken forward.  No bold new thinking that shows how the challenge of new media can be turned to advantage?

Don’t tell me this is the best you can do, Sir John.  You spent a life time managing the creative process, and your epiphany is that it’s all about taste and fashion?  Maybe the world of advertising is beyond all hope.  Perhaps we should read this declaration of intellectual bankruptcy as a requiem for the field.   


McCracken, Grant.  2005.  Minstrel Marketing and the Hegarty Trade-off.  This Blog Sits At the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  June 24, 2005. here.
(For a kinder view of Sir John’s significance)


With thanks to the following for bringing the video to our attention:

Serendipity Book here.

PSFK here.