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September 1, 2011
The Game Behind the Game
Once upon a time, I heard a line about Hollywood attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald. It sort of went like this: "When people look at Hollywood, they're like an audience watching a ventriloquist act — everyone is fascinated by the dummy."

Hold that thought.

Next scene. Lunch with a creative legend — a good citizen and a fine person. Happy with the agency. Happy with the work. Then again, a problem account just left. Lunch is over and the legend goes back on the job. And that's over, too.

One of the things we talked about during that lunch was the limits of what we do. Example. Shoot a commercial with cool models, cool film, cool music, and cool editing. At the end, we super "The Gap." Cool.

Now, let's try it again. Cool models, cool film, cool everything. And at the end we super "Wards." Not so cool. And there's probably nothing we can do about it. Not in this lifetime. Because the business behind the brand doesn't have what it takes — and consumers know it. But my question is — do you?

What are you thinking about as you page through the award books, or the latest little ADWEEK/AdAge feature on some cool creative? I have my suspicions.

Well, as you might suspect, this is not yet another, "It's about the work/think the unthunk/good isn't good enough/make the world a better place" speech. Though I kinda like the "make the world a better place" part.

My advice to you is to put on some X-ray glasses and look past the dazzle of cool headlines, cool graphics, cool awards, and, of course, THE CONCEPT. Stop thinking about ads for just a minute — and start thinking about the business behind the ads. Please.

Insert story here.

Once upon another time, I was down in Atlanta teaching for a week. The class is showing me their work for Jack Daniels Charcoal. Cool headlines, concepts, etc. I look at the stuff. I gasp. My brain reels. I realize that these bright kids don't have clue one about the charcoal business, which is this high tonnage/low margin business driven by trade deals and end aisle displays at a mall near you.

Hey, a nice four color ad in Southern Living — I guess it wouldn't hurt, but if you don't have the distribution and the dealer loader and the promotional event, forget it, even if someone did put the ad up on the refrigerator — or in an award book.

So we talk about the business for a bit, and I see that once these bright young men and women actually understand the business, there are cool posters for parking lot barbecue contests, and cool coupons (with cool ad attached) that encouraged customers to buy more expensive cuts of meat in the back of the store, so the supermarket might want to stack that charcoal in the front of the store. All of those student ads showed something that most advertising doesn't — an understanding of the business.

Wait a minute, you say. I'm in the real world and I'm doing ads for consumers, not supermarket managers, and doesn't the creative brief at the agency do that? Well, maybe yes and maybe no. Because the next piece of not-so-good news is most agency folks are still looking at that cute ventriloquist act, thinking the next cool concept in the next clever ad will be the one that makes the difference. Until they come back from work one day and find out they were worrying about the wrong thing.

I think I better repeat this. Too many of those good-looking guys and gals smiling at you from those photos as they pick up their awards are playing the wrong game.

And the speeches. I swear some agency people seem to think that if they just say the word "brand" often enough, clients will quiver in delight and all problems will be solved. Shut up. And stop looking at the dummy.

Instead, do these three things:

Career Tip #1. Ask about the business. Clients are sick and tired of agency people who are more interested in the advertising than in the business that pays the bills. Ask the client about the business — not the ads. For practice, ask the account execs. Show that you care about their business — not your advertising. You will immediately differentiate yourself from virtually every other creative that client has ever met. And, along the way, some may become friends. This is a good thing.

Career Tip #2. Work on businesses that work — even if some of them ain't all that glamorous. If the One-Show Wannabee part of you isn't satisfied, dig up a little pro bono. There's still lots of Elmer's Minnows* swimming around out there. Just don't confuse 'em with the big fish. Once you see how it works when people do it right, it will be very clarifying for you for the rest of your career, which I hope is a long one.

Career Tip #3. Make at least one business-oriented magazine part of your reading list. Wired, for starters, Business Week, Fortune, the Marketplace page in Wall Street Journal. Whatever you can stand. Read something by Peter Drucker. Stop paging through the award books. Get the story behind the story. Or, get ready for a nasty surprise after lunch someday — instead of dessert, I guess.

Finally, as a reward for reading this far, here's a bonus tip. If your fate is working on one of those don't-quite-have-what-it-takes-brands, tell yourself that you're in luck. First, you get a chance to find out first hand what makes businesses not work, which will make you even more appreciative of the ones that do. And maybe — just maybe —y ou'll be the one who figures out how to take a dead-in-the-water business and give it new life. It can happen. But trust me, it will take more than a ventriloquist's trick. Or a One-Show Pencil.

So good luck. And start paying attention to some of the folks who aren't moving their lips.

*Elmer's Minnows was a little bait shop in Minnesota. Tom McEligott wrote award-winning ads for them — and turned Elmer's into a little bait shop with award-winning ads. These ads also helped establish Tom's talent, also a useful business objective.

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For many advertising professionals, an advertising education began with Bruce Bendinger's books. Bruce is the author of "The Copy Workshop Workbook," and several other notable books on advertising. Before he became an ad educator, Bruce was a copywriter at Leo Burnett and FCB. 
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