Sometimes, you just need new stories to tell

As marketing folk, we're always urging our clients to step out of their comfort zones. We're striving for ideas that make them sweat. And we're critical when they don't take those risks. So it's only fair we live our own advice. (Method marketing?)

To that end, I'm abandoning a life I know well and adore here in Chicago, and joining the crew at Energy BBDO Shanghai, starting next week.

Professionally, I'm thrilled – geeked even – to join a great team I've worked with from afar over the last 18 months, and move to one of the most vibrant cities on the planet. (See below for a comparison photo of Shanghai, circa 1990 and 2010.)

Personally, it's a well-needed and long-desired change for my family and I. Not to mention the fact that my 13-year-old daughter seems to have acquired a boyfriend here in Chicago. This should teach her.


Introducing Mister Imagine's

Imagine a toy store that has every toy you can ever imagine.

Wait, let's back up.

Imagine you're an ad agency that had this idea to open a toy store for 9 days. Yes, that's a better starting point. We've teamed with Chicago Children's Museum to promote their new exhibit, Unboxed: Adventures in Cardboard. Unboxed invites kids to rediscover the joy of play. True, pure, unprogrammed, no-game-controller-required play.

It's a rich creative assignment, even if all you turn out are a couple print ads. It became richer when the idea you sell is to open a full-scale "toy store" that only sells cardboard boxes.

Mister Imagine's Toy Store opened on Saturday at 1371 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Chicago, to a huge crowd of excited, initially confused kids. To say it's been a labor of love for the staffs of both the agency and Chicago Children's Museum would be a severe understatement. When I visited the store on Friday, one of my coworkers said, "I don't want to go back to my real job..."

But that's the thing: This IS our real job. (At least, when we're doing our jobs right...) All we're doing is creating a great brand experience. It just so happens to come in the shape of a store.

I'm proud of my coworkers and our museum partners for tackling so many things they've never done before – from finding a landlord who can donate a store space to designing a store experience (and staffing it!) to creating a working photo booth and augmented reality experience kids love.

Lots of people will visit the store this week. Even more will tweet, post, hear, and see coverage – from community to local press to TV news. And videos will be released over the next few months, meaning the Unboxed promotion will last long after the store closes.

I hope you can visit Mister Imagine's Toy Store before it closes next Sunday. Even more, I hope you're inspired to see what a little imagination can do.


Sometimes, I see an ad and can't help but wonder what the brief said.


Watching Word of Mouth

A couple years ago, one of our writers had an interesting idea: Let's release a piece of content online and visualize how it's spreading. Which social network would be most influential? Would the people who are most responsible for the spread have the highest Klout scores? What time of day or week would it be most likely to be shared? Oh, so much to learn.

But each time it was discussed, the idea always had one big hole: We never had the right content.

This month, the idea resurfaced in someone else's brain, and shows just how cool the idea is. British band The xx released their sophomore effort, Coexist, to just one person in the world. Then they invited that person to pass it along, and they visualized the spread as it happened. The idea has so very many things I love. Music, participation, and playing off strong psychological trigger of wanting to be the first to share something new, to name a few.

 The project involved Aaron Koblin, which is not surprising. Aaron was also involved in the Arcade Fire's The Wilderness Downtown, the customizable video for Radiohead's House of Cards, and the crowdsourced video for the Johnny Cash Project.

 Best of all, the new CD serves as some nice ear candy. Enjoy.


The Benefits of Specificity

When we first look at ideas for new campaigns, we look at them in simple statement form. No scripts (even if TVCs are a big part of the media mix), no layouts, no prototypes, and certainly no "here's a little something a production company and I threw together."  Just a description.

And one of the things we look for in those descriptions is specificity. Something that's ownable. (We define it as, "It's not ownable unless it's Google-able.")

A perfect example: Axe's Susan Glenn campaign.

The TVC was wonderfully done and broke months ago.

But by having specificity to the idea – by giving a name to that girl you could never have the cajones to approach – the idea became truly ownable. 

Using the name Susan Glenn gave the campaign a rallying cry ("fear no Susan Glenn"). But it also created a meme about a subject people are often talking about – as shown in tweets, gifsblogs, etc.

As for Axe, it has the usual Facebook-powered customizable microsite. And it's recently refreshed the campaign with a mini-series on YouTube.

Of course, being specific also has its downside. Especially if you're Susan Glenn, the grant and proposal writer from Huntsville, Alabama who's now getting the kind of attention once reserved for people with the phone number 867-5309. According to Real Susan's resume, she works independently, is self-motivated, and has "the ability to understand complex materials."

All impressive qualities, to be sure. But they're no pyrotechnics coming out of her back.


Factual Marketing

I'm a huge fan of Droga5's latest effort for Puma. It's a "white paper" exploring the question of whether guys love their football team more than their spouses. It's a lovely, blasphemous idea of course. But I particularly liked the extent to which they tried to prove it. They worked with the University of Bristol to conduct a proper academic study, including physiological monitoring and an entertaining voodoo doll exercise. I won't ruin the conclusion for you, but it's well worth watching the 9-minute video.

We've taken a similar approach lately, tying marketing efforts not just with consumer insights and marketing assumptions, but also to statistically significant evidence.

To wit, we did a global launch for PaperMate's new pen, Inkjoy. The campaign used the highly relatable insight that people are naturally prone to stealing pens; thus, Inkjoy was marketed as soon to be "The World's Most Stolen Pen." To launch the campaign, we hired researchers to conduct a survey of pen theft among coworkers. The study found that out of 1,000 office workers, exactly 1,000 admitted to stealing a pen.

The study generated great PR reach and blog-friendly infographics. That, along with a TVC, Facebook app, blogger outreach, trade show events and sales force communications, helped Inkjoy became the brand's most successful launch ever.

It's amazing what marketing can do when it sticks to facts.


Making Neutrality Interesting

Some days, we marketers spend as much time trying to avoid controversy as we do actually marketing things. Which is why I was so intrigued by a recent project some friends and I did.

The project is a website called Chick-Fil-A Confessional, and it's in reaction to the anti-gay marriage statements made by Dan Cathy, the Chick-Fil-A CEO. (I'd link to his comments, but I'm pretty sure both you readers have seen them by now.) But instead of choosing sides, Chick-Fil-A Confessional is aimed at people who support gays, and also support the lightly breaded goodness of a Chick-Fil-A sandwich.

Because of this, the site has done something the entire country of Switzerland has not: Made neutrality seem interesting.

The site was featured on Fast Company, Good Magazine, and Creativity, among others. And the originator of the idea, Natalie Taylor, wrote a charming behind-the-scenes story on Huffington Post.

In addition to finding out neutrality can be interesting, we also discovered neutrality can be fast. Between the time Natalie first texted the idea and the time the site launched, 7 days passed. Nice work, all.


The "My Trusty Co-Pilot" blog

If you drive anywhere with my wife, chances are she'll fall asleep. I don't just mean long road trips. I also mean driving to the grocery store a mile away.

Years ago, I started a private blog, My Trusty Co-Pilot, to document these events. As Q101's Eric & Kathy show noticed this morning, the blog is now available for public consumption and amusement.

Please note, 1) if there were blogs when we first started dating, I'd have at least a thousand more pictures and 2) my wife doesn't think this is nearly as funny as I do.


Attending Barely Understandable Sporting Events

Yesterday marked the finale of this year's Tour de France. I had the opportunity to see one of the Tour's stages in person this year, in the charming medieval town of Rouen, France. The atmosphere was exciting, but since I'm not an avid bike race fan, I missed the subtleties that would make the sport more interesting. So for me, it was like attending the Indy 500 if the cars were silent and only went around the track once. Here's the proof:

Of course, that event was downright riveting compared to another sporting event I attended recently.

I was in Melbourne, Australia and Victoria was playing its rival state, New South Wales, in a cricket test at the famous Melbourne Cricket Ground. I scrambled to arrive a half hour after the event had started, but I needn't have rushed. Here's what I, and a dozen or so others, saw:
The upside to attending this test, of course, is that it made the Tour de France seem magnificent.  Congrats to the Tour's feisty winner, Bradley Wiggins.


The Unfortunate Ad Placement of the Week Award goes to...

Acura. At last week's Pitchfork Festival in Chicago, Acura's branded tent capped an intimidating row of port-a-potties. I don't think any damage was done to the brand, however. It's doubtful there were too many Acura buyers in the audience to begin with.



I just returned from a long stint away from Chicago. Upon my return today, one of my cohorts sent this link. I enjoyed it. Hope you do as well. (And thankfully, they didn't go with the hugging idea.)


On Agency Collaborations

Collaborating with other agency partners is something I'm particularly well-versed at. (At which I'm well-versed? Damn you, proper English.) So it was pretty easy to write an opinion piece for Campaign Asia this week, titled How Agencies Can Collaborate Better (No Seriously).

For subscribers, you can enjoy leisurely. For non-subscribers, it's live for 72 hours; 12 of which have already passed. (Damn you, time difference.) So read quickly, won't you?


The Art of Pointing

In case neither of you knew, I'm a big fan of side projects. They foster a learning culture, they attract attention, and they're fun.

These three benefits are apparent in Pointer Pointer, a side project from Amsterdam's Moniker design studio. Basically, you move your curser, and the site loads a picture of a person pointing at your curser. Simple, stupid, addicting.

Note the slight delay in results, which not only adds to the tension and experience, it also covers up the fact that sometimes, the same pictures are just resized and repositioned to fulfill different curser locations.

You could easily see how Moniker can make this a lot more participatory by allowing people to upload their own pics to be included, then bragging to their social media minions when their picture is chosen (like the old Human Clock site, which started out anonymously but later added credits for whomever added their pictures). But alas, there's often a diminishing return on side project improvements.

Fun stuff, Moniker.


Quotes, advices, and whatnot

I have a nagging feeling that Pinterest will eventually be viewed as the Quora of 2012: A service whose hype exceeds its usefulness.

Suspending my doubts for a moment, I recently created a Pinterest board I think both of you readers will like. It's called 15 Ideas' Worth of Advice, and it's a collection of observations, advice, and quotes about the marketing business. Hope you enjoy.


More internet trends from Mary Meeker

Mary Meeker's latest deck on internet trends is insightful as always – particularly the slides showing the disruption of various industries. It's the most substantial section of the deck, yet it only touches on the disruption of industries that affect and define our personal lives – how we connect and with whom, the depth and maintenance of our relationships, and how those relationships influence our actions and opinions.

Being a charts-and-graphs kind of fellow, I found this chart particularly interesting. It shows time spent with various media vs. the advertising spend. Mary's deck highlights the considerable opportunity in digital, and particularly mobile.

I'd point out the glaring misalignment in print ( which takes up 25% of our ad dollars and only 7% of our time). Much as we marketers are driven by numbers-based decisions, I wonder if the tangibility of print isn't still influencing thinking. Like digital, print is sharable, but it's a different kind of share – a more personal, face-to-face share. Print is viewed as longer-lasting because it can be copied or framed in the halls of companies and offices. For a more traditional generation of marketers, a full-page print ad still carries an importance that a YouTube home page take-over doesn't, eyeballs be damned. That said, I don't think tangibility and nostalgia makes up for an 18% discrepancy.


Being judgemental

This past week, I served as guest judge for the misleadingly named Best Ads on TV. The work consisted of TV, print, outdoor, and interactive. If you're so inclined, you can read the review here. While there were some nice pieces in each category, the one I keep coming back to, surprisingly, is print. Good old fashioned print. There were two examples that showed just how simple communications can be.

Check that, how simple communications have to be. Hope you like them as well.


Life after 140 characters

I like information coming by way of news tickers and tweets, to the point where I'd rather see the infographic than read the study. Perhaps to balance out the shallowness, I've recently developed an addiction to Longreads, and I'd highly recommend you do so as well.

Longreads is a curated collection of long-form articles and short stories (typically 1,500 words or more) from dozens of sources around the world. The substantive length is refreshing. But it's the diversity of subjects I truly adore. Recent articles I read include:

If you want to try it out, sign up for their "best of the week" emails. (5-6 stories, usually terrific.) If you want to dive in fully, download Pocket (formerly Read It Later) and fill your tablet with more articles than you can possibly get to in a week. But keep in mind: It really is addicting.


I had the opportunity to write an article for Campaign Asia on how to avoid placebo marketing. For the time being, you can give it a read here. For both my regular readers, these words will likely come as no surprise, as much of it has been mentioned here. Except the part where I say some of my best friends are strategic planners. That, I don't think I've admitted publicly before. Hope you enjoy it.


Brand Cars

I was at a party recently, talking to a girl who used to drive the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile (shown here on the New Jersey Turnpike which always makes things look cooler).

Obviously, it was a very fancy party.

After discussing the surprisingly little amount of training required to drive the Wienermobile, we debated which branded vehicle would be the all-time coolest to drive. Here are our top 3:

3) Oscar Meyer Wienermobile. As cool as the job sounds, one must deal with a barrage of innuendo. Plus, it's hard to make a u-turn, as one of their drivers (known as Hotdoggers – seriously) discovered.

2) Goodyear Blimp (not actually shown). If you're going to be an attention whore – and why else would you drive a branded vehicle – why settle for ground level? And if you happen to have an accident driving the Goodyear Blimp, it's not a fender bender. It's likely an international incident.


Before we get to number one, let me just clarify 1) we overlooked the Popemobile; 2) Major League Baseball bullpen carts (which transported relief pitchers from the dugout all the way to the mound) were ruled ineligible because they're no longer in service. If they were eligible, the Seattle Mariners' tugboat obviously would've won. 

1) The Argentinean Bomb Truck I recently saw. All black. Metal bars for windows. And foreign language on the side which, like the New Jersey Turnpike, automatically makes things look cooler. The Argentinean Bomb Truck would down the Goodyear Blimp and crush the Wienermobile. I'm pretty sure it could execute a surgical strike against the Popemobile, all while leave the Pope unharmed. The battle against the relief pitcher-carrying tugboat would be storied, but again, the boat's ineligible. Congratulations, people of Argentina, on this coveted honor.


Sonya and the high bar

Tomorrow night, our agency is hosting the Chicago edition of this year's Portfolio Night. Portfolio Night is a worldwide event that matches aspiring creatives with local creative directors, created by our friends at IHAVEANIDEA.

To promote the event, I was asked to answer a few questions and give advice. One of the pieces of advice I mentioned was, "Your portfolio isn't good enough until someone physically rips it out of your hands during an interview and refuses to let you go until they find a job for you RIGHT NOW." 

That might seem like an unrealistic reaction, but I've had the good fortune of seeing a half dozen such books, and have acted accordingly every time. Almost. 

The very first time I reacted that way, I had seen the portfolio of a young art director who had just arrived in Chicago from New Delhi. Her name was Sonya Grewal, and she was gifted. Her design sophisticated, her concepts strong, and her personality cheerful. A rare combination, really.

Much as we tried, the agency where I worked couldn't make a job happen for her. So she joined Ogilvy, then later headed to Y&R where she rose to CD before leaving last year to be a GCD at DDB New York. 

I turned in my Portfolio Night answers last Monday morning. Later that day, I heard the sad news that Sonya had passed away. I never did get the chance to work with her. She became known to me as "that damn girl who refused to accept the multiple job offers I gave her." So I had to settle for knowing her casually and admiring her work from afar. 

I'm looking forward to seeing portfolios tomorrow night. But a fair warning to all attendees: Sonya set the bar pretty high.


And you balked at putting a disclaimer in the footer

All marketers have legal restrictions. Imagine if you were marketing the video game "Big Buck" which, according to the full-screen disclaimer, can cause epileptic seizures. Suddenly, a "See dealer for details" super doesn't seem so bad, does it?


Finding new in the old

We marketing folk spend an inordinate amount of time trying to come up with things that haven't been done before. With good reason, of course, especially considering the ever-increasing array of technology at our disposal.

But there's also continued value in using tools that already exist. Discovering new contexts to those tools or finding new interpretation of existing data, to create meaningful new ideas.

A nice example is the world's first Twitter commercial, by some cohorts in Argentina. It's for Smart Car, so the restrictive size of Twitter's 140 characters makes perfect sense. As the copy says in the spot, "It can go anywhere. Even in 140 characters."

They didn't invent Twitter. They just found a new way to use it.

Buen trabajo, amigos.


Getting outflanked

I was recently in Key West and before you ask, yes I did lose a shaker of salt.

Key West, as all the tourist brochures remind you, is the southernmost point in the United States. And on the southernmost point of the island sits the Southernmost house, and the Southernmost Hotel which features the Southernmost restaurant and the Southernmost beach.

The only problem is, there's a lot of land just south of those properties, where a private home resides. The plaque on the front of the house, shown here, reads "The Southernmost Southernmost House."

It's a helpful reminder for marketers: Make sure the position your brand establishes is on terra firma it can maintain.


Some words about visualization

Of all the things I heard at SXSW a few weeks ago, the one I've repeated most is, "visuals make a story 30% more likely to be picked up by media outlets and social media mavens."

It's the kind of fact that's unprovable, since there are many factors that determine if a story or campaign will be covered. But it was a good reminder nonetheless.

And it reminded me of the first time one of our stories greatly benefitted from including visuals. I was working at a fun Chicago agency (Hadrian's Wall) and the Chicago Bears, our local NFL team, were in the playoffs against the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers were based in Charlotte, home of another fun agency (Boone Oakley). So we called them up and issued a bet: The winner of that weekend's game gets to take over the losing agency's website for a week. If the Bears beat the Panthers, the Boone Oakley website would state their agency is far inferior to Hadrian's Wall, and would redirect all web traffic to our site. If the Panthers won, our Hadrian's Wall site would praise and link to Boone Oakley's.

It was a goofy story, but it was picked up by both industry and mainstream press and established record amounts of web traffic for both agencies. And much of the coverage was centered around the logos we created (customized versions of the well-known NFL logos of each team).

As it turns out, the Panthers won. But the NFL never sued us for defacing their logos, so I figure in a way, we won too. Not to mention, we learned a great lesson on visualization.


Linds Redding's Lesson on Perspective

I quite love what I do. And while I'm properly accused of being a work junkie, I feel like I have a decent perspective on our business. Or at least, I thought I did.

Recently, I came across Linds Redding's blog. Linds is an art director-turned post production house owner-turned cancer patient down in New Zealand. His blog, which he started after being diagnosed with esophagus cancer, is incredibly well-written and absolutely heart-wrenching. One of Linds' latest posts is about our business. I've found it to be very inspirational. I hope you do too.

A Short Lesson on Perspective

Thank you for writing it, Linds.


Serendipity, Part 2

It seems like just 2 posts ago that we were talking about the theme of Serendipity at this year's SXSW. That theme carried into the conference's off-hours as well. My favorite example:

It was Sunday night, and 15 of my colleagues and I were at a bar well past last call. In spite of what had already been a long evening, we were still raring to go. We'd rented a couple houses for SXSW (there were about 40 of us). But thanks to a late gathering the night before, I knew our houses were drained of all proper refreshments, so we couldn't go there. As we spilled out of the bar, we spotted a bus with what was clearly a party going on inside. It was just pulling away when we ran up and pounded on the door.

"Yeah?" asked the driver.

"Hi, we're supposed to be on this bus."

He believed us.

All of us quickly hopped on board, slapped high fives with our newfound friends, and proceeded to indulge in whatever the bus had to offer. (Mostly whiskey and reisling.) (Hey, it wasn't our bus.) We had no idea where the bus was going, or even who's party we had just crashed. And for all we know, we could've been stuck miles away from Austin at 4 in the morning.

The unknown is precisely what made the ride so great.

EPILOGUE: As it turned out, the bus driver tired of us singing loudly and crawling inside their luggage racks. So he dropped us off in front of a food truck that was selling fried chicken sandwiches served on Krispy Kreme donuts. Stop your cringing. It was delicious.


More On Team Structures

A few months back, we did a post on the obsolescence of traditional art director/copywriter teams. But it's not just marketing that requires more specialists these days.

This morning, the Navy Pier governing board will recommend the team they've selected to redesign the public spaces around Chicago's Navy Pier tourist area. Take a look at the firms who comprise the winning team:

As team lead, you have James Corner Field Operations, a landscape architect and urban design firm that did the cool High Line park on the elevated train tracks in New York.

There's nArchitects, an architecture firm (as opposed to the aforementioned landscape architecture firm).

You have a really gifted lighting artist, Leo Villareal, who's not to be confused with the lighting designers and consultants, L'Observatoire International. There's the horticulturalist and garden designer, John Greenlee & Associates, who clearly does their best work near the ground because the team also includes a vertical garden designer, Patrick Blanc.

The list goes on and on. Surely, each partner brings a unique skillset, and the list really does illustrate how marketing isn't the only field that requires bigger teams.

Though considering the visitor experience of Navy Pier, I was really hoping to see a firm that specializes in Tackiness Minimalization.


The Rise of the Serendipitous

At SXSW in 2011, the recurring theme of the conference was Gamification (or as I call it, Toddlerization - the act of motivating adult behavior by using the same methods you'd use on a toddler).

Prompting behavior through psychological triggers that are regularly employed in games isn't new. (How many of us added recommendations to our LinkedIn profiles after being told "you're 80% complete"?) But our digital habits have made gamification an increasingly important mindset to have - particularly if you're a brand looking for a deeper interaction with your audience.

I bring up 2011 because I think the recurring theme of SXSW 2012 was in direct reaction to 2011. Gamification makes sense, but it's also limiting. There are only so many game mechanics you can employ. And as soon as every brand is doing "the right thing" it is no longer right. Gamification lacks surprise. It lacks interactions that are remarkable.

It lacks Serendipity.

At SXSW 2012, the theme of Serendipity was inescapable. (The word even appeared on hotel keys.) Why?

Once upon a time, the web was truly exploratory. Sites would have a Links section, sending us off to wonderful destinations we'd have never found otherwise. And those destinations had links to even more far-flung destinations.

Today, we use the web far more purposefully. We carefully curate our news sources and social media feeds to fit our worldviews. We count on artificial intelligence engines to recommend our music, clothing, and friends. Our Google searches are more detailed because we want to find EXACTLY what we're looking for.

In short, we've vastly reduced the chance for serendipity.

Today, we're surrounded by (and guilty of creating) marketing efforts that are perfectly logical. We know our audiences better, we know what they're doing, who they're doing it with, and why they're behaving as they are.

But marketing that's perfectly logical is dangerous. It's Placebo Marketing - the kind of marketing clients and agencies think is helping a brand, when in fact it's not.

People don't remember the logical. We remember the surprising. We notice things that are out of the ordinary. We appreciate experiences or information that gives us something to talk about or tweet about or what have you.

We're only going to become more predictive. Our knowledge of audiences will increase. Our ability to duplicate who's doing it well will increase.

What that means is, the value of a serendipitous experience will also increase.

I don't know about you, but I'm buying stock in Serendipity.



I've always considered we marketing folk to be "kings of the wading pool." That is, we know a little information about a lot of topics. Enough to fill a website or brochure, but not enough to write a book unless we used large type and included a bunch of pictures.

But that description is no longer specific to people in marketing. "Information snacking" is now common behavior, and we gather that information through tweets, infographics, headline tickers, and memes. Basically, the intellectual version of Twinkies.

Which is why I was so impressed with local start-up Dabble. Dabble lets you, well, dabble. They offer one-time courses on topics you might want to know a little about, but not enough to commit to an 8-week class. Upcoming topics include wine pairings, photography, composting in apartments, public speaking, and making mosaics.

It's one of the more timely, relevant start-ups I've seen in a while, and I've committed to teaching a class sometime soon. If you have suggestions on topics, let me know. And if you've taken a Dabble class, I'd love to hear how it went.


Tinkerers welcome

Years ago, I was speaking to a guy at We Like Small (a great design and dev team if you ever need one). The guy I called answered the phone in an agitated voice and said, "What?" I laughed and asked if everything was ok, and he said frustratedly, "We're trying to get Twitter to talk to this toaster and it's NOT WORKING."

Ever since then, we've been staffing up with more people who make Twitter talk to toasters.

These days, it's not unusual to walk into our lobby and see yourself on a monitor with various things projected onto your face or over your shoulder. Today, the lobby features KickCam, an arduino experiment that's documenting the shoes people are wearing and uploading the snaps to Tumblr.

Some of these projects are dead ends. Others quickly work their way into client presentations. All of it reminds me of how fun it is to be in marketing these days.

Tinkerers, we're glad you're here.