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August 21, 2002

Some friends of mine are selling their home. It's a warm, comfortable dwelling with four bedrooms, a big fenced in yard and even a Jacuzzi. Everyone who sees the place raves about it. Over the past few weeks countless people have stopped by for a tour, and most of them have said they loved it. But there's one caveat -- the house has a spiral staircase and it's freaking people out.

"We absolutely love everything about your home, but we're just not sure about the stairs," they'll say. "We'll make an offer providing you put a traditional staircase in there," others have said.

So what's the real problem with this staircase? Very simple -- it's different.

Funny, I would have never guessed so many marketing directors would take an interest in my friends' home.

To be fair, I don't mean to disparage all marketing directors. We know there are many out there who are smarter than Einstein. No, I'm referring to those who say they believe in doing things differently, but when the moment of truth arrives they embrace change as if it were a wet dog. Many use their marketing assignment as a stepping-stone to another department or perhaps to move onto another product line within their company. For these people, familiar is safe. It's a cozy blanket they can all snuggle up with. There's a certain feel to the fabric. It has a recognizable smell. If only they knew that scent came from dried drool.

In their defense, these types of clients don't know any better. Many have never worked with a smart ad agency or they came from departments that never dealt with marketing. (Which may explain the age-old practice of taking the concepts home and showing them to a spouse.) And let's not forget about those who like to fall back on textbook lessons learned from an MBA program. I describe these people as having way too much college and not enough high school.

So ultimately the cycle continues. Each year companies fork-out billions of dollars for stale, boring advertising because it's familiar. They don't want the "spiral staircase," despite the fact that it will do the job just as well and most important, it'll get noticed.

Fortunately, there is hope. You can do what we've done for years. That is, be creative about how you prepare and present your creative. For instance, start making things from scratch. That's right, stop going to the drive-thru window for non-nutritious concepts and serve up something that's new, different and fresh. It'll mean more time spent in the kitchen. It'll mean you'll have to use better ingredients. It'll mean you may have to spend more money to get some good chefs. But it'll be worth it.

You say you've tried this before, but your clients always turn into angry toddlers who demand their "McAds"? Keep in mind you won't be able to change their palate over night. You need to wean them slowly. One way to do this is to present concepts in rough form. Put those stock books away and don't typeset a thing. I'm talking stick men and hand-drawn headlines, folks, just like in the old days.

Another thing you need to do is to present lots of work. Don't show two or three tight layouts and have your client pick the least-worst. Plaster the walls with concepts. (Remember, nothing will be tight so you'll have more time for concepting.) Also, never show anything you don't love, for they are sure to buy it.

If it's possible, let the creatives present the work. If they aren't good in front of an audience, get them training. Or at least let them stand up there and sell along with your best presenter. No one can tell a story better than the one who has lived it.

Through it all be passionate about the work and make your case without being an ass. Talk to your client as if you were 16 again and asking your parents for the car keys. Give them case studies. Prove to them that fresh thinking has been known to step out of the shadows and reveal itself as a VW or FOX Sports commercial, as HBO, as an Apple Computer or an independent film. And never, ever, under any circumstances say you think your ads could win some awards. There's no greater buzz-kill in a presentation.

I know you can do this. (CUE INSPIRATIONAL MUSIC ) After all, some of you convinced your client that Jason Alexander would be the perfect spokesman for KFC. Maybe you were part of the group who encouraged daughters to ask their mothers about that "fresh feeling." Perhaps you're the person who discovered that three blades are better than one, because the first blade stretches the whisker while the next two cut for an even closer shave. Or a handful of you may have sold the concept of an ":orgasmic" shampoo. Hey, if you folks could sell your clients on these directions, surely you can get them to buy a new approach to reviewing creative.

Believe it or not, these clients can leave the dark side and are fully capable of seeing the value of strong, strategic different creative. The worst that could happen is you'll make them look so good, they'll get promoted -- and you'll have to do it all over again with somebody new. Oh well, that's advertising. At least you can take consolation in knowing that one day your former marketing director will look down from on high and realize that the corporate ladder s/he so desperately wanted to climb was a spiral staircase all the time.

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Partner and Co-Creative Director at Kohnke Hanneken, Dave Hanneken is one more reason Milwaukee is cool. More importantly, and in a city known for great brands, an agency may be sprouting that can produce great branding. Armed with big and small agency experience and a few One Show Pencils, Dave Hanneken and his agency may have what it takes to put the Brew City on the advertising map.
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