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When did advertising get so hard?

DATE PUBLISHED: August 20, 2010
This week I spent time at the Online Market Summit in San Francisco. With all the new online channels available to our clients, from plain old search, to blogs, to the latest in social media, it seemed like a good time to check on the experts. The day was filled with talks, break-outs, keynotes and panels. And all of them included charts, graphs, breakdowns, pictures and spreadsheets.

But something funny happened during the afternoon, as I trudged from one speaker to the next. No one was smiling. No one seemed happy. In fact, it was just about the grumpiest group of marketing people I had ever seen. Even most of the speakers seem to be very low key and "just the facts ma'am" in their presentation. And this was the funny thing that I suddenly noticed. In a conference hall full of advertising folks, no one seemed to be enjoying themselves.

I was suddenly reminded of a comment from Vince Engel, the creative director at fellow SF shop Engine Company One. We were talking about our work days and suddenly Vince shook his head and uttered the following: "when did advertising get so hard?"

Standing there on the floor of the conference, those words suddenly hit me square between the eyes. Was this an advertising conference or a summit of accountants? Since when did metrics and measurements stop informing creative and instead start replacing creative? And where was the excitement, the discovery, and the joy from telling a great story? Isn't that why we all got into this business, and why we made a deal with the devil? The deal is that although we are never going to make as much money as many of our contemporaries, and will never be in social pages hanging in the Hamptons with JLo, we get to dive into a creative process that others will never understand or appreciate.

But here is the rub. Do we not appreciate it any more either? Are we getting so involved with the moving pieces of machinery that we have forgotten how to admire the car? Advertising is certainly about strategy, insight and process. But it is also about that elusive spark of creativity, of thinking outside the box, looking over the edge, and welcoming serendipity.

Serendipity in particular has saved my bacon more times than I can remember. Years back I was working with a client in the Java developer space. They had a great new product, but let's be honest, it was a developer tool. It was not sexy, it was not inspired, and at the end of the day the product was made out of zeroes and ones, not beautiful sheet metal or eye-catching packaging. We had nailed the strategy, the audience was sliced and diced into perfect little segments, and the lists we pulled together for the mailing were a vision of perfection.

However, the creative was killing us. Oh mind you, we had concepts that fit the strategy and matched our audience drivers, but nothing felt like it was the truth. Finally, in an act of complete capitulation, we grabbed as many photo stock books as we could and decamped to the nearest bar. There on the bartop we plopped down all our books, ordered a round of beers, and started just flipping pages. We were not looking for images around a certain keyword or concept. Rather, we just went through photos letting them talk to us instead of the other way around.

Suddenly I stopped a picture of a dog flopped on the floor and looking like he was about to pass out. The account executive looked at me and asked the obvious question. "Why that one?" I had no idea. Then he asked me what the headline was. I had not idea on that one either. I just knew that every developer I had ever known at some point felt like he was treated just like that dog. This wasn't in our numbers. It wasn't in our strategy. But it was the truth.

The image became known as "Java Dog." He went on to star in other campaigns, and became a favorite of our audience, to the point where Java Dog was being pinned up in developers' cubicles. The reason? The developers felt that finally someone understood them. The reality was that all the numbers, all the strategy and all the market information had not led us there. Well, in a way it did. We had digested the information enough at that point that we knew it implicitly, even though not explicitly.

So when I look around this week at the conference, I realized what was missing. It was distance. You need to embrace these numbers, channels, and mechanisms because they are important. But then you need to know when they need to be pushed aside to allow the creative process to run its course. To know that you understand enough to actually stop thinking about it and start letting it take you away. Because as many times you review a spreadsheet, you will never find a Java Do.

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