There’s no debate: there are lots of advertising strategies that work

I once had a gig teaching debate and classical rhetoric to high school students. The neat thing about policy debate is that you have to see and present both sides of every issue. Not just grasp both sides: see both sides, believe both sides.

You can’t debate effectively if you’re just a cynical mouthpiece for something you don’t believe in. Winning requires adopting the framework, the paradigm, and articulating its strengths: the impacts of its methodologies, the power of its logic. In policy debate, you don’t have the luxury of deciding you are right, and then always claiming the high ground on the basis of correctness. You have to learn to invoke reason and internal logic, not authority. You also have to develop enough emotional strength — poise — to admit the weaknesses of your own favorite arguments, and to honor the strengths of your opponent’s substantiated claims.

Even when you continue to disagree, there is no authenticity in your own perspective if you lack the breadth of mind to see and admire much of your opponent’s point of view. It’s hard for kids, and after watching the bias of lots of parents while judging these debates, I began to conclude it’s nearly impossible for adults to learn these skills. But for the kids, it’s really cool to watch as, through this unnatural process, they morph into maturity. Not all debaters get it, but it’s really awesome to see young people awake to the ways in which an approach they want to hate might be superior to their preferred position.

This morning was a good reprise of that way of thinking, as I introduced myself to several different flavors of advertising agency. In the past, many of the agenices I’ve worked with seemed to prefer control of the ideas they espouse to authenticity and true persuasive clout. They wanted to put words into people’s mouths, rather than let them speak their mind and heart. But agencies are maturing with the rest of our culture, and I see a number of winning strategies working.

Whenever artists or creatives get together, they love to espouse the theories of their art. Every creative firm — or university, political party or musical genre for that matter — has its own ethos, paradigm, worldview. So as creative guns looking for an army, it’s important to realize there are lots of different ways we could be used in battle.

At one agency, I stated how impressed I am with their focus on marketing metrics. For them, communication is a scientific challenge, not an artistic adventure. In this view, it’s irresponsible to throw money at a communications problem without knowing precisely how the effort is changing perceptions and behavior. They are the Einstein who says “God does not roll dice” to the Niels Bohr-like creative innovators. [Bohr theorized, based on the work of Heisenberg, that you can’t look at an electron without losing track of its energy level and direction. Time proved Bohr right and Einstein wrong]. For this agency, to be professional means to decide ahead of time where our audience is, what will move them, and then introduce the persuasion vectors needed to effect that precise change. It strikes some of us as mechanistic, but the fact is a lot of valid results can be achieved in this way. And I love the precision of numbers, even if I sometimes doubt their accuracy.

At another agency, I commented on how refreshing it is to see a shop that lives or dies on the strength of its creative product. For this group, metrics aren’t in place to drive the campaign car… they’re just the GPS.  The creative team does the driving, as far off the roadmap as the clients will let them stray, and they use more intuition and artistry than science to evaluate the messages they create.

There is strength and power in each approach, and I can argue for or work on a team with either strategy.

And both teams can win. Both approaches are capable of recognizing the character basis of an authentic brand. Both approaches can move opinion, can improve sales or attract new customers. Both approaches can tell stories, deliver great creative, and frankly both approaches can completely miss the mark through any number of purely human foibles.

For me, the ideal approach involves a synthesis of both traditional camps, and that’s a balance that’s mighty tough to achieve. No one person can hit that balance. Only an eclectic team that brings multiple personality types to the process … and listens carefully before acting.

If the balance is struck, it won’t just be that creative and research learned to play nice together. From the top down, such an organization would have to make the toughest quantum leap of all: down to a lower orbit, from speaker to listener, from driver to passenger. In that climate, everything is tougher: writing, teaching, parenting, governing. Thomas Friedman is right: the world is flatter than ever….

Still, there are lots of winning strategies, so as long as we can either focus on great creative, or put the destination ahead of the fun along the way, those of us who create in the world of ideas will be able to find a niche.


Good question

My immediate answer: keep pedaling like mad up this hill.

Sent from my iPhone

Papaw rocks with Fox in Socks

Today I uploaded a video of me reading my favorite children’s book to my grandsons or anyone who likes Dr. Seuss.


I miss you, Dave

Today is a good day to remember my best friend from junior high and high school, Dave Gregorek. He died 40 years ago in May, and today is the 40th anniversary of the last model rocketry contest he competed in, NARAM 11. After he died his dad gathered up his rockets, put the finishing touches on a few that he had not quite completed, and headed off to Colorado. There he entered Dave’s rockets posthumously. 

Dave was strong in many of the competition categories… he did well with payloads, often winning egg loft and “space guppy” contests. He was a terrific craftsman, and so did really well in the scale model competitions. But his best event, year in and year out, was parachute duration, which occurred today near Johnstown Pennsylvania… in a farm field just a few miles from where Flight 93 went down. 

The trick with parachute duration is to build a rocket that is very light, that will go very high, but will remain directly above the launch area until the chute deploys so that it can be tracked reliably. The parachute must open fully, be highly visible … and to avoid disqualification the entire rocket including parachute, body, and nose cone must be recovered. The time from launch to touchdown is measured, and the longest time wins.

I’ve thought about the Naram 11 event often, because in my mind’s eye it represents the last scene of a movie screenplay I hope to write about Dave some day. Forty years ago, Dr. Gregorek, Pat Daulton, and George Pantalos were there, hoping that Dave’s last effort would set a new world record in parachute duration. Three attempts are allowed in the event, and on their final attempt, my friends watched exultantly as Dave’s silk-bodied rocket rose straight and true … and the chute deployed perfectly. They followed it with binocs, and set off on foot, trying to keep up as they crossed fields and roads beneath the floating rocket. Pat was a cross country runner, and George played tennis, so they were both in excellent shape to keep up. Unfortunately, on this particular day a thermal caught the chute, and they watched helplessly as the wind took Dave’s bird higher and higher. Dr. G told me the three of them finally just stopped and saluted, as Dave’s rocket kept rising, and disappeared into a cloud.

Today at Naram 51, no doubt a new generation of model rocket builders are trying to learn the same skills Dave mastered before his untimely death. I hope some of them, or their fathers, take a moment to remember my best friend, and all that he contributed to those of us who knew him.

I’m still standing there, looking at the sky, and saluting you, Dave. I miss you.

The Three M’s of Motivation – part 1: Cross the Moat

ICAA_2009_Huge.010As part of my ICAA presentation on “Using Video: When it’s powerful, when it’s not”, I first talked about how we think and what motivates us. To set it up I used a clip of a little boy who I had interviewed. I asked him, “If you could change the world, what would you change?” His reply melts your heart: “I would change my bad behaviors. Because I want to get out of here quick”.

For each of us, the world is experienced through the self, and even global concerns are felt through our personal pain and experience. So my point was that all we can ever expect from any audience is to view what we present through the prism of their personal experience, values, and pain.

Therefore when we approach any audience we wish to motivate, the first point we must realize is that there is a moat between us — a major chasm in most cases. To communicate effectively, we must cross that moat, and we cannot do that by asking the audience to build the bridge, to see our viewpoint. We must cross the divide ourselves. As an example I showed this short clip from a Cedarville admissions video I did a few years ago:

For prospective students to a conservative Christian college, it was important to show empathy toward those who may be getting family pressure to attend… and who are wondering whether they’ll learn to love a school that might not be their first choice. This sort of honest doubt is not often seen in college videos, where the conventional wisdom seems to say, “always put your best foot forward.”

Here’s another example from a video we produced for Limited Brands. In this case, a worker slips up a bit when he says he doesn’t care how much they take out of his pay for the United Way. Well, he doesn’t care as long as it’s not too much, right? This humorous slip, including his embarrassed question as to whether it will be edited out, adds a refreshing degree of candor and helps break the ice that is always in the back of our listener’s minds: what can I afford to give? Where does giving become unfair to my own family?

Again, we’re building a bridge to the audience’s side of the moat by acknowledging that we understand their concerns. We’re giving them permission to worry about their own needs, instead of adopting a tone that attempts to shame them into giving. Just before this point in the video, the Chairman, Les Wexner, has very congenially asked for “their fair share”, and promised that he and the leadership of the business are doing that. But it would be easy for an audience member to discount the example of a wealthy boss. It’s not so easy to discount the sacrifice of a fellow worker… which is why these kinds of bridge-building statements are so important to authenticity, and therefore to successful motivation.

Kickback kick-in-the-pants

I’m a joker. But jokes in print are not the same as jokes told in person, eyeball to eyeball. I have learned how to wink in video, but have had mixed results trying to wink in print. (I wish I could bottle some of the lightning of Mark Twain, Garrison Keillor, or Penelope Trunk!)

A few years back I did something I’ve almost never done … submitted a bid to do a state government project. It was a small awards presentation for companies who hired workers through a state job-training program. Wonder of wonders, we won the bid, and they loved the business theatre evening we produced, thanks in large part to the terrific creative photography of Mary Lou Uttermohlen… so the next year we were able to get the contract again without quite as many formalities.

After I got the call awarding us the new project, I wrote a friendly thank-you letter to our client, who acted as a sort of executive producer on the project, and who I had gotten to know quite well. I said something like, “Next time you’re in town, I’ll award you a kickback in the form of lunch at Rigsby’s!”
Next thing I knew I got a very stiff letter from this erstwhile client/friend, canceling the contract and scolding me for my careless and unethical language. A few days later I got a phone call from a reporter at the Toledo Blade, 200 miles to the north… saying he heard I had been fired from a state government contract for offering kickbacks… He wrote one of those “dumbest guy in the world” articles about me. What was I thinking?!!!

Oops... too late to take it back

Oops... too late to take it back

It was a great lesson. Obviously, I thought, the kickback line had been a joke. But some jokes aren’t funny, especially when they’re in print. From time to time I’ve had similar misunderstandings in email… though none that cost me a $10,000 contract (or a $50,000 lawsuit as happened recently after someone’s Twitter post.)

How does it relate to authenticity? I still maintain that whenever I am representing a client’s brand, they are best served by an informality and self-effacing humor that at times will make them vulnerable. It’s often best to verbalize the questions and doubts in their audience’s mind. Authenticity pretty much demands that we swallow the old PR control-mindset and let negative comments be included in their public feedback loops. And evolved companies tend to poke fun at themselves, not their competition.

Whenever message-mogols are allowed to filter every word for negative nuance or exaggeration, the audience immediately senses that this is hype, not reality.

Yes, we all need to redline egregious misstatements like the one I just described — which use nasty words, demean groups of people, or hint at impropriety. And not just in public, but in private correspondence as well  … because we can assume all private words will one day become public.

Still, we also need to find a way for humor to survive, and humor always lives at the edge. When you’re hoping to sell cornflakes, you’ve got to let your messages be a little corny and a little flaky.

How about you? Any stories of foot-in-mouth disease?

“And the wind died…”

Note: this post was originally written some time back with the name of the client, but at his request I removed it to protect his privacy.
From time to time I share some of the deeply personal stories that have enriched me as I ply my trade as a storyteller. This one dates back almost twelve years, and involves a client I wish to leave unnamed, and his brush with Dodi Fayed and Princess Di. My conversation occurred in the fall of 1997, as we were working on the intro to a video I was shooting in his office that day.

My client was in an unusually reflective mood, and while my crew was adjusting lights he seemed to enjoy the opportunity to ruminate. He said, “You know, it’s amazing how the smallest of events can produce the largest consequences.” I nodded, not sure where he was going as he spoke to me and the agency producer. “We just got back from spending a few weeks in the French Riviera, and for several days  we became aware that Dodi and I were on their yacht in the same port where we were vacationing. We could see them on their sailboat. It was a beautiful time for them to be enjoying the Mediterranean sea.”

“And then the wind died.” My client repeated it again, “That’s all it was. The wind just died.” He went on, as if underlining each word for emphasis: “And so Friday morning we saw the helicopter leave their yacht. They flew to Paris for dinner.”

That evening, of course, they ate dinner and then died en route to their quarters for the night. They had planned to leave for London in the morning.

“All of us are so vulnerable,” my client reflected: “We imagine that we are in control; we set our minds to do what we choose, when we want; but the reality is we can be thwarted simply because the wind changes….”

All of us were overcome by this reverie. The recent tragedy was still on our minds, but this was a new perspective: the whole final chapter of one of the world’s most celebrated people was just a lark, a sudden impulsive choice much like any of us might make to drop in on a friend or catch a movie on the spur of the moment. And it all came about because the weather changed, and the original plan of sailing throughout the weekend triggered another chain of options.

Here’s the Wikipedia account of her death, which corroborates several of the details I recollected from my client’s story.

Do any of you have stories about insignificant events that grow large in their ultimate impact?