Being funny without telling a joke.

I once did a freelance stint in a German office of JWT and the CEO there was quite the cliche ‘American’ ad-man, not a German.
An ex-creative director himself, he had a good sense of the process and was no fool.

But we differed on some points, one of which was that he thought the whole ‘don’t tell me you’re funny make me laugh’ thing was in his words ‘horseshit’.

Just tell me you are funny and do it several times, loudly.

It’s an approach that can work if you have enough budget and the audacity.

Remind you of anyone?

If you look at the orange-groper-elect himself, he has had a platform where he can tell everyone he is brilliant, day in day out without any real evidence to support him.

People believed him and his ‘winner’ positioning, even when, despite his obvious personal wealth, the evidence of his many failures is everywhere. Atlantic City Casinos, Trump University. Trump Mortgages et al.

His repeated claim to be awesome and the answer to America’s prayers is largely based on his claim to be the awesome and the answer to America’s prayers.

Maybe we have all been wrong about the whole funny comedian thing.

It can be done, if nobody stops you from claiming it. And that’s the one thing nobody realises about political advertising, you can say whatever bollocks you like and there is no organisation who can stop you or pull you up on it.

But in Pharmaland (or indeed consumer advertising if its something like alcohol) we can’t make claims to be funny or amazing if we ain’t.

All we can do is be funny or amazing.

How many times have you had a client ask you to ‘imply’ superiority?

So how does a brand claim something without claiming it?

The best way to find out is to study how some brands have managed it.

One of my favourite campaigns of all time was the UK campaign for Stella Artois which ran from 1982 t0 2007 created by CDP and imported to the then Lowe Howard Spink by Frank Lowe when he left to set up his own agency.

‘Reassuringly expensive’ reinforced what we all secretly think. That the more expensive something is, the better the quality.

But did it actually say it was superior quality?

Not so much.

I use this example knowing full well that this type of advertising is now almost extinct.

But what we have in it’s place are the type of ideas that use the same device, saying things without saying them. A personal favourite is The gun shop by Grey New York for States United to prevent gun violence that puports to be selling perfectly innocent second hand guns until you realise all the guns on sale have been used to kill someone either in a mass killing or in a tragic accident, like the five year old that shot his nine month baby sister.

Needless to say people left the shop without buying a gun.

Because the concept lets you draw your own conclusions.

And that is the secret to a really powerful connection with your consumer.

That’s what changes behaviour.

I’ve always believed that anyone can tell you they’re funny but the ones we remember are the people who actually make us laugh.

It’s still the best policy if you’re not allowed to make claims you can’t support.

Unless of course you’re running for President, obviously.

 

 

 

 

 

Eggs in the airing cupboard

In consumer adland we often get the chance to experience the products we peddle.

If we’re lucky enough to work on a car account we get to do a driving day for a new model, if the latest beer is being launched we can down a few pints and really get a feel for the…ahem…taste. The consumer world is full of easily accessible products from Tampons to Tanning products, from condoms to Coca Cola for us to sample and improve our understanding of the ‘user experience’.

But in Pharmaland the very thing we often have to promote is so far removed from our daily lives as to make it almost impossible to truly know the wretchedness of the people whose lives we attempt to affect.

We have to put ourselves in the place of a diabetic, we must project ourselves in the psyche of an Oncologist or Endocrynologist without ever truly experiencing their position or decision making process.

There are no tasting sessions in this game.

On that rare occasion the two streams cross, the career path of a creative and a debilitating disease, it can either be deeply inspiring or like some giant emotional mangle. Sometimes both.

This recently happened to me.

My mother, a sprightly eighty three this year, has for some years now been suffering from Alzheimer’s.

And last month we pitched for an Alzheimer’s drug.

I thought this would be a breeze at the outset, after all we had lived with her forgetfulness, her muddles, her loss of vocabulary and her familiar coping mechanisms for some time now. It had almost become routine, sometimes even funny.

Despite the sad awfulness of this cruel disease, and as in poor taste as it might seem, there can be some humorous moments. The bleakness of the future can be forgotten in the bitter sweet surreality of discovering eggs in the airing cupboard.

Like many families, you watch one of the most important figures in your family go from a sparkling, glamorous, larger than life character to a diminished old lady who sometimes doesn’t make sense any more and sits in tha backseat on car journeys pointing out trees.

However I was unprepared for the impact of that thing we so easily call an ‘insight’.

One of our creative teams hit upon this idea that stopped me in my tracks and appealed to me as a creative for its simplicity and insight but also as a family member of a sufferer. Everyone involved agreed it was a great idea and we duly put it in to the pitch deck.

A couple of other good ideas joined it, tackling other aspects of the disease or carer perspective but we mostly agreed that the winning idea was that first idea.

At this point I was the Creative Director and oddly dispassionate. Get the copy right, get the type looking nice. Select the right shots, create the best images.

And then came the pitch rehearsals.

At our agency we place great value in these, get it well rehearsed and with a simple message and well…… let’s not give too much away.

Anyway, as I started to describe the thinking behind the concept I became rather overwhelmed.

For the first time and in what seemed a ludicrously random moment I began to sob.

Like most adult men, with years of conditioning that big boys don’t cry, it was mostly a case of going silent. Trying to control the wobble in my throat.

(I’d like to be able to say that I am mostly hard as nails, but frankly I cry at quite a lot these days. Mostly happy things, pride in my kids that sort of thing, quite the wimp.)

I wiped my cheek with a forearm and suddenly got a grip.

No need to apologise.

Well, that’s that done with.

Yet at the pitch, my big worry was that I would be overcome with emotion once more.

Cut to the big day.

There were fifteen potential clients looking on, waiting for some pearls of wisdom to sprout from my mouth about the ideas projected on the screen. Then there was this tightening in the throat, a moment slightly longer than a pause, slightly shorter than an intermission.

I could sense Phil ready to jump up and take over, apologising for me as he swept me to my chair like a feeble old fool, a towel over my head as he mouthed a silent apology.

You don’t experience that kind of emotion when pitching for a consumer brand.

You’ll be glad to learn I managed to pull it back and carry on.

The rest of the team exhaled.

The thing about Alzheimer’s is that the slow diminishing of what makes the patient them –  is almost imperceptible.

It starts with an oddly normal remark. “You never told me that” when you know you did.

“You never showed me that” when you just did. Those easily dismissable events, the kind of thing that can be put down to old age or a ‘bad day’ will progress to not being able to put the kettle on or remember grandchildren’s names.

And beyond.

I write this, recognising fully I am not alone in this acute experience. We all have close family and friends who have battled cancer, who have lived with chronic disease, some who have survived, some not so fortunate.

But if you are thinking of making that change from consumer to pharmaland I can say this.

I worked in consumer adland for over twenty five years, I loved every minute. But I have never had an experience like this pitch and it somehow makes me realise, if I hadn’t already, that what we get to do on this side of the advertising channel is about a real life, a rawness, that adland can only dream of.

The ad contrarian himself, the legendary Bob Hoffman, talks about how little people really care about brands. Yes, if Coke went bust tomorrow people would get over it by the next day and start drinking Pepsi. Whatever we like to think of pharma’s marketing and it’s traditionally conservative creative campaigns, what we do has authenticity.

A car can never compete, a supermarket can only dream of the raw impact of a pharma brand on a patient’s quality of life.

We are lucky to be a part of this sector.

And the pitch?

Inspite of, or possibly because of this unique experience, (and of course not forgetting the whole team’s contribution) we did in fact win.

And for my part, I have my Mum to thank for that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What the hell happened to pitches?

Based on a (several) true story.

“So we’d like you to pitch for our global business!” said the Multi-National, Multi-Million-Pound Advertising Client in to her mobile phone.

“That’s great news we’d be delighted to,” replied the rather over excited MD, silently fist-punching the air. ‘Wait till I tell the guys that we made the pitch list,’ he thought; ‘bring it on!’

“Just one thing” the Multi-National, Multi-Million-Pound Advertising Client added “We will want a 97 day payment term”.

“Oh.”

Crap, thought the MD, we are a fraction of the size of this client and they want us to bank roll them for a financial quarter?

“Yes, we’re a little strapped at the moment… so if you could tide us over till the next quarter…”

“Well, I suppose..”

“Excellent!… and by the way, the successful agency won’t be responsible for production; we’re de-coupling that from the process”.

“De-coupling?” asked the MD, his fist slightly clenching. Juan Pablo, our CD, is going to de-couple me.

“And the winning bid will be in the form of an e-auction.”

‘Did she just call it an auction?’ thought the MD. ‘Is what we do now? Are we just providing nuts and bolts now? But wait, calm down… this is a big sexy client and this will transform our business. Take deep breaths.

“Sure, we can do that” the MD said. “No problem”

But the client was just getting started.

“The pitch is in a week and a half, but we also want to see creative work by next Tuesday, so that we can review it before the pitch and see if it’s worth the bother of you coming all the way over. Just send us a PDF”

“Next Tuesday?… Well I guess we could pull something together quickly”

“But of course we’ll be co-creating with you- going forward”

“Co-creating?”

“Yes, our CEO is super-creative… for an accountant”

“Even better… um… is there any chance of a quick chat beforehand… to ask a few questions?”

“Absolutely! we’re all about collaboration!”

“Great!” Okay, so it wasn’t all bad he thought, consoling himself.

“There will be a session with some agreed questions compiled from all the agencies which we will answer for the benefit of everyone.”

“So everyone can get the benefit of hearing the answer to our insightful questions?”

“Correct”

There was a short silence before the MD spoke again.

“Well… I suppose…”

“Incidentally,” interrupted the excited Multi-National, Multi-Million-Pound Advertising Client “all the ideas and work that you send us…we will own”

“So you want us to give you the ideas for free?”

“It is a pitch!”

The MD shook his head and managed to mumble the words “that’s not really how it works…”

“Well, if we like your ideas but not you then we want to be able to give them to someone we do like.”

“No.. that really isn’t….” said the MD limply, almost defeated.

“One more thing,” said the client as she looked up and saw her flight was boarding.

“The pitch will take the form of a two-day workshop”

“What the f…?”

“You’ve seen The Apprentice?”

“Of course”

“Well, we want you to send over the team that you will be proposing to work on the account to Guadalup for a day session where we will set them tasks and they will be tested on how they perform. And make sure there’s no one senior… we want the actual people who will be working on the business!”

“Really?… If I may be so bold…”

“Be bold, be bold! We are all about the honesty!”

“Why don’t you just hire your own people and have an in-house agency?”

“interesting idea… hmm” she replied, but really she was thinking ‘Because no decent ad people would ever come and work for us!! What kind of a dumb-ass question was that?’

Not missing a beat and deftly ignoring the question, she continued.

“…then we will choose the people we like best and they will work on the business… the ones who aren’t successful will be told to go home.”

‘Great account… great account… think of the money…’ the MD kept telling himself as the vein on his forehead began to pulse uncontrollably.

“I see… and how many other agencies, if I may ask, are involved?”

“Well, we have managed to whittle it down to seven”

The MD removed his fist from the newly punched hole in his office’s partition wall.

He turned and looked out of his large glass window across the city. He was imagining the headlines ‘Agency wins large famous multi-national account’ on the front page of Campaign. He kept trying to hold on to that image but it was getting fainter and fainter.

He let out an exhausted sigh which he managed to disguise in to a cough at the last minute.

“Seven?”

“Yes, but the good news is six have pulled out… so it’s yours to lose!”

This perked the MD up somewhat. Maybe this was salvageable.

“You mean we’re the only agency pitching?”

“Yes! And if you get past the first round, we look forward to being a really cohesive team… because we believe in partnerships”

The MD let the first round comment go.

Whatever happened to pitching and winning or losing? Now it’s like the X Factor six seat challenge and he wasn’t sure he even wanted to be invited to the judges houses any more.

“Actually,” said the MD, “having given it some thought, I am afraid we may have to decline your kind offer”

The client was shocked.

“Oh… well we’re obviously disappointed… maybe you don’t see yourself as worthy of our account”

“Yes, yes..that’s it. We’re not worthy”

“That’s fine” she said and hung up.

“Agencies…they are such primadonnas!” she said to no one in particular as she googled some more names.

Fortune favours the safe.

I was recently in a pre-pitch meeting and somebody quoted the old line ‘nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM’

It suddenly occurred to me that she was using it in a positive sense. Because she had always thought of it that way.

The safe choice is the wise choice.

Now I don’t know about you but I had always seen it as a negative statement.

Even if it doesn’t work no one will question your choice.

I suppose in some ways we were both right. It depends on your perspective.

Of course most people are happy with not getting fired. Why wouldn’t they be?

But where there is no risk, dull advertising is never too far away. Without risk we are liable to wallow in familiarity, those endless shots of cars on winding mountain roads make everyone feel safe and cosy, but you know…does anybody care?

I think, as creatives, we have to accept the inconvenient truth that a mediocre idea…with enough budget behind it to drill in to our consciousness, and a half-decent product can do a half-decent job. The problem is that everyone has begun to accept ‘half-decent’ as high achieving.

That’s not to say that a lot of effort and heartache goes in to producing mediocre work, and people get just as protective of it.

Check out the letters section of Campaign. It’s always sprinkled with clients and agencies who claim that their campaign, despite universal scorn or worse – indifference – has seen an upturn in sales and everyone at TheBigCarCompany is delighted with the launch of the New BoringHatchback’s ‘Winding mountain road’ campaign thank you very much.

But there are couple of advertising’s equivalent to Viagra (and Pharmaland’s latest attempt for the ladies flibanserin) when everything gets a bit hot under the collar.

In the run up to Christmas marketeers suddenly behave like teenagers on prom night.

Suddenly water-cooler discussions are back, everyone starts talking about ads, it’s like the 80’s again. Have you seen the new John Lewis ad? The new Sainsbury’s ad? Harvey Nichols? What about that new Duran Duran album?

Yes, I know that retail’s busiest time is seasonal and therefore it makes sense, but take the infamous Superbowl ad breaks.

When you get that Superbowl brief (I imagine) you know the stakes are high. Everyone is expecting something that will give all concerned fame and glory and you’re up against the best of the best. Clients who previously may have been ultra-conservative suddenly loosen their girdles and want their agency to dazzle them.

Except..er…that’s what every day should be like shouldn’t it? It’s the same audience out there every day, why not wow them at every opportunity?

But hey, I know as much as anyone it’s easier said than done. (I speak as an expert in producing mediocre campaigns)

Clients can see the benefit of a big Christmas or Superbowl campaign because they can see the benefit their competitors get from it and they want a piece of the action.

Well, if EVERYBODY is being creative I guess we should too…

Then it’s back to every day comfort zones.

When everyone does more or less as well as each other there is no pressure to be extraordinary.

The bar is a nice comfy height that we can all leap over.

The question is, how much of a Dick Frosby are you?

 

 

 

 

 

Pitching it wrong.

Try to fully understand the reason you lost a pitch, even with a detailed client explanation, and you enter a murky pond of misplaced diplomacy, political machinations, regrets and confusion. In the end, you never really know anything other than you came a close second.

Nevertheless, the question about what creative work you went with, even if they say they loved the work, is usually one of the first to raise its poisonous head.

If you win it’s always the creative what did it, lose and it was that bloody creative work you insisted upon presenting.

So do you go with the work you think is right and risk losing in a blaze of glory? or do you pitch with the work you think they will like and settle for a dull one-nil win?

Phil, our fearless leader, and I were discussing the benefits of pitching with work you know they will like. “The problem is” he said “it’s like going on a first date and saying that you really like Justin Beiber – because she does. Then you spend the rest of your life going to Justin Beiber concerts”

“Put that it in one of your blogs” he added.

Of course, when I say ‘present work you know they will like’, what I mean is that of course they should like the work. Just, I dunno…not the kind of work that you know they will like.

Oh you know what I mean.

Over the years I have learned a bit about pitches, none of which seems to be of any use for the subsequent one, because each invitation to pitch brings with it it’s own set of variables and political highwire act.

Sometimes though it’s just a question of the cap did not fit.

(Beware of creatives with large heads.)

Anyway, so as not to disappoint, here in no particular order, are a few things I have begun to feel are reasonable snippets of advice – please only take them on board at your own risk.

1. Never go in with just one concept. Not because pharma clients like choices (they do) – but because choices mean you’ve done lots of work and lots of work looks good.

2. If you go in with more than three concepts it looks like you have no idea what you are doing and are just throwing mud at a wall to see what sticks. ( and if they don’t like any of the routes it just accentuates the mismatch)

3. If you hear the words “It’s yours to lose” it’s the kiss of death.

4. Never put your agency recommendation out there until the room has spoken, then nod along with their favourite. The purpose of the meeting is to get out of the room without disagreeing with a client you don’t have yet.

5. Never say ‘well we could change it all if you don’t like it’  before they’ve asked if you could change it all because they don’t like it.

6. Too many tactical examples of your campaign rarely work well in a pitch. I know…I know…but…it slows the pace down and you get bogged down in the weeds. Keep them to a minimum. It’s the idea they are buying, and your scientific understanding of their brand, they know you can do a leave piece.

7. Coding anything is a complete waste of time and energy. Animate it to demonstrate is far better, because pressing a button on an iPad is now (given it’s 2015 not 2008) singularly underwhelming and clients have no appreciation for the lost-weekend-coding-fucking-nightmare it took to achieve it.

8. Remember to always keep an eye on the person who should be in the meeting but isn’t.

On one occasion we pitched one of the best pitches I had ever been in. The client had tears in her eyes as she shook our hands with a silently mouthed ‘thank you’. Never have I discussed work in such detail and at length, never had I had clients ask passers by to come in and see the work.

We found out the next day we didn’t get it.

Apparently even though they ‘loved the work and us’ they felt their boss in his office in California would hate it.

9. If the main client suddenly can’t make it, don’t have the meeting.

On another occasion we pitched to a client in Zurich (who were launching a new patient website for Dementia ) who’s wife had gone in to labour that precise morning. So as not to let us down, he sent his trusty partner, the doctor who knew nothing of the careful strategy we had pieced together with his marketing half over the last month or so – or indeed the first thing about marketing.

He proceeded to tell us what he would do, which, needless to say, did not match anything we had in the presentation.

So that was that.

10. If the client is worried about something that you can’t fix, like you don’t have an office in Cairo, that will eventually be the reason you lose.

11. When they say we want to be ‘creatively challenged’ they probably mean they’re open to some new colours in the brand guidelines.

But pitching itself is not a perfect process for finding your ideal partner anyway.

As Ben Davies, European CEO of HAVAS Health asks in the current Directory “Is walking in to a party seeing the most beautiful-looking girl the best way to choose your wife?”

Well, it worked for me but I take his point.

Organic growth works because clients have time to get to know the agency, and vice versa. So chemistry meetings and workshops are incredibly important if you are going to get anywhere, great work or not.

For all the good it will do you, I guess my advice to anyone is to pitch with what you’d like to see run and what you think is right. With all the possible variations of country, personalities, politics, subjective taste, uneducated assessments and internal wrangling you stand as good a chance with or without work that you think they will ‘like.’

So you might as well like it too.