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“It’s not the strongest creative content that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

Charles Darwin may very well be the most quoted person of the past 150 years. So, what’s the big deal? More important to us, how does he apply to creativity? At the heart of Darwin’s theory was the idea that each species adapts to its environment. From this process of change, new species arise. This theory has relevance to agencies and marketers seeking to spread their message in a changing marketplace; let’s call this the marketing evolution.

While on a journey aboard the HMS Beagle (now that would be a cool name for an ad agency), Darwin observed that every island of the Galapagos had its own type of finch. While these birds were closely familiar, they differed in subtle, but significant ways. This holds truth when a marketer attempts to distribute their message across various platforms.

Darwin theorized that organisms best suited to their environment had a greater chance of survival and reproduction. They passed along their key survival characteristics to their offspring

Today’s agencies and marketers that distribute brand messages through multiple platforms are prone to Darwin’s theory. Competing for attention in each channel, key “survival traits” are necessary for optimal success. While “content is king,” both context and relevance matter — if neglected, the message can disappear and the brand faces extinction.

Here are 5 theories Darwn outlined in On the Origin of Species, and how they apply to brand content marketing evolution:

1.  Evolution “While species come and go through time, they change during their existence” – Branding and marketing isn’t new. Brands have always relied content to survive. But, content has evolved over time. It started as stories told around the campfire to teach and entertain family and friends. Make sure your brand’s content can evolve with the times. The best way to accomplish this is to use stories about your business. Storybuilding (I don’t like the cliché “storytelling”) is how people will remember your brand.

2.  Common Descent “While organisms descend from one or more common ancestors, they diversify from the original stock” —  Diversify your content! Use various techniques – text, photos, infographics, videos, etc.. Don’t be a one trick pony.

3.  Species Multiply “Diversification involves the population of one species changing until they become two distinct species” – Allow your brand message to multiply. Create subsequent content around your core brand and products. Your brand will take on exponential lives.

4.  Gradualism “New species don’t occur suddenly. Rather evolutionary alterations happen with small incremental changes inside populations” —  Content distribution is not effective simply by getting it out there (except maybe here at mikepalma.com). Adapt it powerfully for each platform and channel. Drip it.

5.  Natural Selection “Evolution occurs due to differences between individual species’ therefore some variations provide improved chances for survival” —  Just as natural selection affects species competition, each piece of marketing content struggles for attention. Success is not about mass volume attention but about the most relevant content to the most relevant consumer. Create content that ensures that. Successful messages survive.

By J.D. Salinger (written in 2009)

JD_SalingerWhile sauntering aimlessly up Madison Avenue one tepid autumnal afternoon, I could not help but think of my favorite protagonist and what he might think of the advertising industry. Holden Caulfield, the thinly veiled autobiographical character I created for “Catcher in the Rye” would have made a terrific copywriter. If you want to know the truth, he also would have made a great brand marketer, and I’m not kidding. I know what I’m talking about.

While strolling amidst these phony baloney ad execs at lunchtime, you think of all the phony messages and claims brands make and have always made: “Stronger than Dirt,” “Save Money, Live Better” (the poor Simpletons that believe that…), “Open Happiness” (me and Holden never much trusted happiness)…yeah sure. What a bastion of disingenuity this advertising game is.

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s commercials. Don’t even mention them to me. The actors are phony. Holden would have written commercials that don’t rely on an actor’s talent. He would make the product and the benefit the star. He would have written honest commercials, like “We know you hate shaving, it’s a chore and time-consuming and boring. Our razor is not going to save your life, or make shaving more fun, or make you more handsome so you can have more silly girlfriends (most girls are so dumb and all)…but our razor is made right here in America and if you buy it,  you have a conscience and here’s why….” At least the company would communicate a mission and make a real emotional connection; not just an appeal to narcissism.1331226310

Holden was authentic, unlike most advertising today. It’s faked, like it’s a movie. Is there anything less authentic than this new “hidden camera” trick? However immature, Holden was true to his conscience and I know what I’m talking about.”

If you really want to hear about real creative advertising, here’s what Holden might tell you, and he’s not kidding:

  1. Be honest about your brand
  2. Be authentic
  3. Stop trying to impress everyone (know your target)
  4. Have a mission (beyond selling stuff)
  5. Communicate your mission with a humble swagger

The utter audacity to call yourself a writer! Now that takes cojones. Writers are born with an acute sensitivity to the human condition (in this way, they are “chosen”) and then they are self-made through reading, studying and, well, writing (then, rewriting). You must “invent” yourself as a writer. To think that you can play with words enough to massage them into something interesting and entertaining (and in advertising, sell something at the same time) requires a certain insouciant naiveté.  And at the same time, it requires a willful dedication to language and style as well as devout discipline to practice the craft daily.

Writers are a rare breed, like southpaw pitchers in baseball. I’ve placed more writers than any other type of talent — hundreds and hundreds of them. I don’t know why. Maybe because the good ones are so rare. I’ve noticed an alarming de-emphasis of writing in the advertising industry in the past decade. I’m not sure that’s a result of the declining literacy of today’s audiences or the slow extinction of the breed providing less written content (or both). But, it’s almost odd to see a “writer’s campaign” today. Everything is so visually driven — hinging on a “concept” (usually shock value or a slapstick gag — like the Betty White spot).

I’m not just referring to the Print medium. It’s also TV, Radio (how can radio be so poorly written and dependent on cliched sound-bite gags?) images-4online and outdoor (all you have to write is 7 words). I’m also not necessarily referring to a lot of body copy or words. Take a recent Google Super Bowl spot — it was a delightful narrative; a coming of age story allegorical to all Google users (that would be everyone with a computer and an internet connection). Not one spoken word, just three and four word “googles” [Google Super Bowl Spot]. And I’m also not referring to nostalgic Neil French/David Ogilvy exhaustive Print tomes drawing upon Noel Coward drawing-room humor. But more along the lines of the discarded Avis “The Other Car” television campaign Avis \”The Other Car\”. Brilliant. These days, a writer’s campaign sticks out like a boner in a lesbian bar.

Before I forget, just a second while I digress on radio. It’s not going away. People drive to and from work — most of America does (check out the HOV lane). Yes, the dork in the Beamer has Sirius — but most of America listens to the radio. Every day. Even with iPods and iPhones — radio images-1remains a viable medium. I can’t think of a better way for an advertising writer to prove they can write than to author an entertaining and sustainable radio campaign. Think Tom Bodett. The Folgers Coffee Couple. Molson. I know as a fact that agencies discourage radio from their clients’ media mix because they can’t fulfill the creative. I once sent a young writer to interview with Lee Clow in Venice. He turned the job down and subsequently founded a successful radio scriptwriting agency. That’s how rare the skill set is — they don’t need Chiat/Day. As an aside, I listen to 1690AM Atlanta WMLB “The Voice of the Arts.”  Stream it into your agency, set it on your laptop at work. It is guaranteed to inspire you and increase your creativity. To stream them in from anywhere: 1690wmlb.com.  Don’t trust me, trust your ears.

I’m often asked by writers for assistance in constructing their portfolio. What’s most striking about young writers’ portfolios is the absence of evidence that they can actually write. I visited the Creative Circus not too long ago and reviewed several dozen student portfolios. WHAT ARE THEY TEACHING THEM THERE? Certainly not how to write interesting or entertaining copy. I can’t tell the difference between the copywriters and the art directors. I can’t find the headline (“oh, there isn’t any headline”). The body copy (if there is any) reads as if it were written by Jeff Spicoli. No radio scripts to be found anywhere.

Here are some tips to help guide you in building a writer’s portfolio:

1. Provide examples that you can actually write. Show us you can do more than just think visually in advertising terms. That you are actually a writer, as you purport to be. See the paragraph above. Headlines that inspire, compelling body copy, radio scripts, TV scripts with dialogue. You get it.

2. Provide examples that you can sell something. I recently ran a search for an ECD at one of the Southeast’s largest and best-known agencies. We reviewed a dozen or so candidates’ portfolios. There was a lot of humor (really funny shit), pathos (Goosebump City, near Rineytown), whacked out weirdness (half the stuff we saw we didn’t understand until the 3rd or 4th view). But there was very little selling happening. I am not just referring to price/item dreck retail formulas but basic brand/product/benefit advertising that is interesting and entertaining. Sell me something, dammit.

3. If it’s not great, there’s no place for it. This especially applies to TV. One of the hazards of Digital books (web sites, microsites, links, etc..) is the temptation to over-indulge in your own work. Treat it the same as an actual hard case portfolio. It only takes one mediocre campaign to get someone to click away from your site.

4. Be interesting, but not too cute. Tell us a bit about you WITHOUT actually telling us. Hell, you’re a writer. Figure out a way to make yourself entertaining without trying too hard. Use music, film, theatrics or something topical to augment your work. Don’t overdo it, but using a snippet  from an obscure Monkees tune as intro music is a nice touch.

5. Yes, show digital, duh. Everyone shows websites, banners and promos. Very few show cool applications, videos, games and original content written for websites (beyond basic yada “Who We Are” stuff). Live links are okay but remember, they take people AWAY from your site.

6. Order your work so it tells a story. Make it a “book within the book”. Make it a narrative. Leave ‘em laughing or crying.

7. Stay away from spec unless you have nothing else. Sell an ad, man.

8. Be a headline machine. If someone puts 50 cents in, give them a case of headlines. There will always be a place in this business for a headline machine.

9. Radio. See my digression above. This can be spec if you have none produced. You can produce your  own on basic Mac apps — like Garage Band. I’m waiting for the young writer to produce a radio campaign for himself — just to show me he can do it.

10. Keep the gimmicks to a minimum. Be interesting and entertaining, not weird. We all know you’re weird — you’re a writer. Don’t rub our nose in it.

I’ll close with some of the infamous CP+B Copy Test. Devised by a writer I placed there about 15 years ago — Bill Wright, employee #28. Bill is now the Creative Director on Burger King. He noticed some of the same disconcerting trends in young writers that I  mention above. So Bill implemented a copy test as part of the hiring regimen at Crispin.

  • Give a short, persuasive argument on letting Pluto remain a planet.
  • Pen a haiku about prairie dogs.
  • Describe toast to a Martian in 50 words or less.
  • Describe the color red to a blind person
  • “Employees must wash their hands before returning to work” is such a boring sign. It’s ubiquity has rendered it useless (a sobering thought). For all humanity, please rewrite it.
  • You might be redneck if:
  • Write a really awful pun.
  • Match the airline with its hub airport:
  • What’s your favorite oxymoron?
  • What’s your favorite retronym?
  • Write 12 synonyms for the word “Go”.
  • Now write 12 antonyms for the same word.
  • Extra credit: Diagram the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution.

Creative people think they defy convention. They believe they are anomalies — each one an intricate, complex web. They remind me of dungarees — a badge of non-conformity until everyone conforms to them. Most people in the communications industry think they are creative, except for the bean-counters. Ironically, it is the Controllers that have had to be the MOST creative people at the agency these days (especially when figuring out how to monetize their Social and Digital offerings).

images1The problem however, is that true creativity is on the wane. This is not exactly a watershed era for artists, writers, poets; and not just ad men and women. Where’s the work? Where’s Mona Lisa? Who’s our Beethoven? What’s the new Great American Novel? Who’s the next Jack KerouacF. Scott Fitzgerald? Where’s the great ad tag line of this century? And what in the hell has happened to rock and roll? Does it even exist? There are all kinds of theories about how and why, nothing can be proven — but there has to be some inextricable link to technology. Does it make us use our minds (our creative minds) more or less? What will we call this creative generation? The Googlers? The “I’m Feeling Lucky” Age? Or maybe Generation WTF.

What I’ve found is that truly creative people tend to downplay their “creativity.”  And pseudo-Creatives tend to overplay it and dramatize it. But this post is not about attitudes or cerebral posturing. Intelligence is somewhat relative and subjective, anyway. Sometimes I believe that the smarter you are, the dumber you really are. Columbo always cracked the case by asking the dumb questions. This post is about habits — proactive habits. Things creative people DO, not think.

Of the many myths, the notion of “eccentricity” is most often assimilated with creativity. Creative people often have a peculiar trait or two, but images-1no more so than the average schmuck that makes your sandwich for lunch. We just pay closer attention to the creative Shaman and become smitten with their oddities. Another myth is that creative people are “deeper” — they’re heavy — more sensitive to the human condition. At least I know that I’m shallow — an inch deep and a mile wide. A dilettante. I don’t confuse my one great gift with intelligence or creativity. I’m blest. Blest with what? I forgot. Oh yeah, I was born with a great memory (but, it’s short). Fortunately, our world rewards a good, short memory.

“Curiosity” has recently emerged as one of those agency-speak buzzwords. Due to it’s current popularity in the creative vernacular, I’ve chosen to leave it off this list. Maybe one day I’ll write an entire post on curiosity and it’s link to creativity. But there seems to be enough of them out there in the blogosphere already.

Nobody asked me; but these are some of the common denominators that I’ve observed in working with highly effective creative people:

1. “Painters paint”– Writers write. Designers design. Singers sing. The great Al Jolson, in his dying days, would stop people on the street Unknownand tell them he was Al Jolson. When folks didn’t believe him — he would sing to them — right there on the street. True, today he would be diagnosed with dementia, but the illustration is that he had to sing. It was in his DNA. And when he could no longer sing, he died. Quickly. Effective creative people create. Constantly. They don’t talk about it. They do it.

2. Compulsive addiction to their craft — I’ve noticed that the most effective creative people can’t stop. They can’t walk away from the table. And if they do, they come back shortly. They either stay up ridiculously late at night, or rise ridiculously early to create — but they can’t rest easily because their active, creative mind won’t allow them. They do not think about getting better or improving. They just know that the more they do something, the better they will get. They create while on vacation. They wake up in the middle of the night and write ideas. They can’t stop learning all they can about their craft.

3. Unhurried – Truly effective creative people are able to “slow the game down.” They won’t be rushed . They love what they do too much to rush it. They savor their craft like a foodie savors a meal. We sometimes confuse this unhurriedness for slowness and we bellyache when deadlines aren’t met. But effectiveness should not be confused with timeliness. In short, effective creative people are on their own schedule. And often in their own world. This is not “eccentricity” — it’s the ability to recognize and adhere to a process. It’s actually quite opposite from “eccentricity.”

4. Purity of Heart – The best creatives I’ve been fortunate to observe are purists. They reject and abhor anything that is impure as unnatural. They possess moral turpitude and a respect for the gods of their discipline. Their craft is sacrosanct. I play golf with my dentist. He’s a great dentist, the best I’ve ever seen. When on the links, he wears two golf gloves, one on each hand. His hands are that important to him. Great creatives treat their minds the same way.

5. Minimalism – Great creatives travel lightly. They are not seduced by the treasures of this world. Their treasure is between their ears. They are other-worldly. They would do what they do for free if food, clothing and energy were gratis. They see money as a necessary evil. If they Unknown-1collect anything at all, it’s something associated with their craft. Objects almost embarrass them.

6. Don’t understand “no” – They often ask for forgiveness and rarely seek permission.The surest way to get them to do something is to tell them they can’t do it. “You can’t write a great radio commercial for a cheap hotel chain.”  Huh? Next thing you know, we get Tom Bodett. They are not belligerent about the word, “no,” nothing malicious about them. It’s just not in their nomenclature. They simply don’t understand the language of “no.”

7. Laugh, cry, get goosebumps – Until this last habit, you might be getting the impression that creatives are compulsively driven Fascists devoid of emotion. I’ve found quite the opposite to be true. Creative people are “feelers.” They laugh and cry freely and often. The world gives them goosebumps. They are eternal children. It’s how they cope with fear. It’s how they deal with success. Every day.

7 Myths to Avoid for Growth in 2014

1. “New Business is a Numbers Game” – Bah, humbug. Less is more. Pick 15 Primary Prospects and 15 backups. Out of the 15 primaries, pick 5 as your highest priorities. Treat them as if they are already clients. Bring them ideas. Recruit them. Stop spamming the world with your newsletter. Nobody cares about your blog. Let’s get over that nonsense and get back to intelligent, personalized agency outreach.

2. “Clients Want Category Specialists” – Nah. Clients want great creative built upon unexpected insights and great service. They assume you will understand their business and their category. This specialization theory that runs rampant today is not a point of differentiation… it’s a point of sameness. “We’re experts in your category” — could you be more pompous, maybe? Category specialization may get you into a pitch, but it will NEVER win you an account.

3. “Size Matters” – oh, yeah? Tell that to Barton F. Graf 9000 or Baldwin& or Made in Boulder. Creativity matters. Clients want 6 key people on their account, not 200.

4. “Social Media Creates Inbound Marketing” – Sure, it does. Tweeting out your agency propaganda brings in tire-kickers by the barrel. 999 out of 1,000 “inbound” leads are crap, admit it. And let’s get over this in 2014.

5. “Clients Seek Collaboration” – That’s what they say. But, they really want leadership that listens. Anyone can collaborate; but, few can lead. And even fewer can lead through breakthrough creative. Collaboration is table stakes. Stop selling collaboration and start leading.

6. “Agencies Are Marketing Partners” – Stop drinking your own Kool-Aid. Agencies are vendors. You earn marketing partnership after you help that client achieve business results. Stop selling your agency as a “partner.” Think about how you would feel if a candidate on a job interview claimed they would be a partner at your agency. Partnership is earned, not claimed.

7. “Price Matters” – No, it doesn’t. It never did, and it never will. If they have to ask what it costs, they can’t afford it. If they want a volume discount, send them to Costco. Do your homework up front and stop recruiting cheapskate prospects. Professional Marketing Services are costly. Great creative is expensive. Sell quality.

A Dad’s View

First off, the whole idea for a Reality Show series involving a real ad agency review — or pitch, was mine. In 2006, I collaborated on this idea with a Canadian production company responsible for the Project Runway concept. I then approached a few agency principals needing exposure/new business and they mostly responded with bemusement. I presented it to some Brand Managers, they loved it. My idea was quite different from the shallow concept that currently exists on-air. My idea was to get a major brand with a real review in the offing to depict the entire review process over the course of an entire 10-episode season. In other words, one big review, 5 big agencies vying for one big brand.

bonanza-tv-4050The biggest problem I have with the format of AMC’s The Pitch is that it’s faked, like The Ponderosa on Bonanza. The reviews aren’t real, no promise of the winning agency getting business. It also feels a bit like cooking a chicken in the microwave. It’s too fast. No review lasts one week. It just feels like each episode is rushed — the ideas are undercooked. Also reminds me of speed chess in Washington Square Park. These are not the best ideas for the brand, just the fastest for the show.img1356A

Okay, now that I got that off my chest, let me say that I’ll be watching tonight’s season premiere with great interest. Why? My son, the copywriter, is competing for an Atlanta agency close to my heart, BreenSmith (more on why in a bit). At the risk of sounding like Paul Lynde from Bye, Bye Birdie (“We’re going to be on Ed Sullivan!”), I’m not just proud of my kid, but I live the career I never had in a creative department vicariously through him. Kind of like the spastic Dad whose kid is a great athlete.

ss170040_-_photograph_of_marlon_brando_as_don_vito_corleone_al_pacino_as_michael_corleone_from_the_godfather_available_in_4_sizes_framed_or_unframed_buy_now_at_starstills__78107I’ve worked 24 years in the ad agency business so my kid wouldn’t have to.  And…now look. I mean, I sacrificed and invested heavily in a Marist high school education; sent him off to a Jesuit college (that lasted 3 days, thank you Hurricane Katrina). I did all this so he could have a chance at a better life than me. So he could be exempt from the horrors of this advertising world. “I never wanted this for him. I work my whole life – I don’t apologize – to take care of my family, and I refused to be a fool, dancing on the string held by all those bigshots. I don’t apologize – that’s my life – but I thought that when it was Mikey’s time, that he would be the one to hold the string. Senator Palma; Governor Palma.”

Did he maintain the Hope Scholarship at UGA to get stupid? Where did the trail lead? The Creative Circus, that’s where… a freaking circus. Am I nervous about how he performs on TV? Absolutely not, this is ad puffery. You know what made me nervous? The first time he lined up as an undersized defensive end across the line from a 300-lb offensive tackle on a football field. Now, that’s nerve-wracking. Watching him sit around a conference table with a bunch of ad geeks thinking up stuff? Not so much.

So speaking of ad geeks, tonight’s agency BreenSmith, is special to me because I moved both guys to Atlanta in the late-90′s to separate agencies (Smith, fromc.4924.962.13_BSA_016V2-1 BBDO/NY to the erstwhile WestWayne; and Breen From Crispin & Porter to Blue Sky Agency). That they wound up together and eventually hired my son is testament to the small world. Small indeed, yet I wouldn’t want to paint it.

Enjoy the show — may the fastest idea win.

The New Breed

I’m often asked, “Who are the up-and-coming creative shops in America?” Everyone knows Wieden+Kennedy, Martin, and Crispin (I remember a time when my answer to this question included all three, though). But, identifying the emerging creative powerhouses requires scholarship of the creative advertising industry. As always, it’s all about the work. Creative Product is the only criteria here. I have an innate  filter when studying agency websites: the more the agency talks about itself and its positioning (generally, the “About Us” stuff) — the weaker the creative usually is. Agencies that don’t show their work at all scare me. I’ve learned to just avoid reading the “About Us” stuff until the work blows me away.

Caveat: this is not a “ranking” of the following agencies. I tend to abhor attempts at quantitative agency “report cards” or a BCS-type ranking of ad agencies. This is business and the creative business is largely subjective. But these are the folks in EST you should keep your eye on to breakthrough into Promised Land of elite shops:Gerry Graf, Saatchi & Saatchi NY

  1. Barton F. Graf 9000 — I’ve been a big fan of Gerry Graf since his Snickers work with David Gray at BBDO/NY in the mid-90′s. The Notre Dame alum has his shop poised to breakthrough to the highest level. The work for Ragu, Little Caesars, Kayak and Dish is terrific. These guys might  be the best creative shop in New York RIGHT NOW. This agency is proof that doing great work is the best way to get New Business.
  2. Baldwin& David Baldwin left McKinney in 2008 and opened up his boutique in downtown Durham shortly afterwards in early 2009. In four short years, his agency has won “Best Small Agency” by Ad Age. Although the agency has moved to Raleigh, I’d look for them to emerge as a national player on the foundation of its stunning Burt’s Bees  work.
  3. 22squared — The body of work at this Atlanta hybrid is impressive across all media. Not many agencies do best-in-class imageswork from TV to Social. Their 2013 Grand Effie finalist status was a coming-out party on the national stage. I look for them to be the next great Independent. They’ve leapfrogged BBDO Atlanta as the top shop in the city and they will overtake Martin and McKinney as top Southeast agency within the next year or two. Everyone knows them for the Publix work — but they’re killing it on Baskin-Robbins, Buffalo Wild Wings and Southeast Toyota is great automotive advertising.
  4. Silver + Partners –  Would anyone in their right creative mind bet against the force of nature that is Eric Silver? Rebranding Amalgamated in his namesake was pretty smart. The work they do for Honest Tea and Ben & Jerry’s is even smarter. There’s a lot of ex-BBDO guys out there; Silver, Graf and Wakefield are among the best. If I’m a brand marketer with a need for better creative, one of my first calls goes here.CZ_CEedit-2
  5. BRIGHT RED/TBWA – Ever since TBWA acquired Chiat\Day in 1995, they have established one of the great global networks. But, this newly re-branded outpost in Florida is quietly becoming the state’s top creative shop (I consider CP+B a Colorado shop). When TBWA puts its name on something, good enough isn’t good enough — it needs to be great. I like what they’re doing in Social.
  6. The Fantastical – This is purely speculative as there is no body of work to evaluate at this fresh Boston-based upstart. But, I’m playing a hunch here on Mike Ancevic and his new crew. Recent validation provided by the hotly contested TripAdvisor pitch victory. More to come from this outfit, particularly in the travel and upscale leisure space.
  7. Neiman –This 35-year Harrisburg, PA shop took the risk on developing a Center City Philadelphia presence in 2007. Today, housed in the old Mike johnandyoko_MikeDouglasDouglas Show studio, they are on the verge of  supplanting Red Tettemer as the creative cheesesteak king. What they did for Yuengling was really cool. And watch out for ECD Rich Wakefield, he’s every bit as dangerous as his predecessor, Grey’s Jeff Odiorne. I look for them to be the big Mid-Atlantic breakthrough on the strength of the work.
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