Ours is often a pretty ridiculous business.

Ad agency people obsessively talk about creating “great work.”

Marketers delude themselves that their audiences are eager and hungry for their messages.

Hell, some marketers even think people want to be their “friends” and engage in “conversations.”

Boy howdy–– who doesn’t want to know what a corporate entity believes and thinks? It’s why we get out of bed in the morning.

We’re kooks to believe such thoughts, but sometimes our magical thinking works.

Sometimes people do care about what we say.

And they do think our work is “great.”

Some folks believe us, follow us, and we say what Sally Fields said: “You like me, right now, you like me!”

It’s rare, but it does happen. Not as rare as a unicorn sighting, but… sometimes.

Which brings me to the cliched concept of “great work”–– two words I hate married.

I cringe when I hear someone say, “we’re going to create some great work” or “we create great work.”

Says who?

The problem with “great work” is it’s completely subjective. Your idea of great may not be mine.

It’s like going to an art museum with someone, and you admire a canvas. You love the work; it speaks to you on a profound level… and your companion comes by, views the piece and says, “Ew, what a total turd!”

You’re in for a long day at the museum.

Yet, agencies throw around the term “great work” like it’s confetti.

I’ve never met a creative person who said, “My work is marginal, at best. In fact, I’ve been very lucky to cash paychecks for my mediocrity.”

Never happens.

All creatives have “great work,” and if we don’t, well, it’s because others didn’t want “great work” or sabotaged us in our Herculean efforts in producing “great work.”

Look, Michaelangelo, the work is the work is the work. Your audience will determine its worth.

If your yardstick for measuring “great work” is the awards it wins, fine. Say so, but realize that others still may not like the work as much as the award show judges.

You can say the effectiveness of your work is what makes it “great.” Okay. But again, others may think it’s shite.

I love some infomercials, but most seasoned creative pros couldn’t imagine a more heinous category of work.

Look, Ron Popeil is a god, believe it! But wait, there’s more…

Let your work stand on its own. Tell the story of why you did what you did. Context is everything. Discuss what happened after the work debuted. Give results, KPIs, whatever was your objective in producing the work.

Then let your audience decide if the work is bad, good, great, or, epic!

Your audience is always the judge and jury–– be it a client, a new business prospect, or a consumer.

Forget about creating “great work” and simply do your best keeping it empathetic to its audience, engaging, truthful, and interesting.

That’s plenty hard enough.

Although marketing is a grueling and often delusional business, sometimes unicorns do appear.

And when one does, saddle up and enjoy the ride.

As long as there has been marketing, there has been a philosophical debate raging.

Is marketing an art or a science?

Consider art to be one extreme, science the other, and the practice of marketing as a pendulum swinging back and forth.

Visionaries in the creative revolution of the 1960’s were in the art camp and created the legendary VW ads, the Avis “We Try Harder” campaign, and the Benson & Hedges “A Silly Millimeter Longer” work.

They divined their magic and forged human connections based on empathy, understanding and creative expression.

The science team believed in proven techniques–– developing a unique selling proposition, repetition-repetition-repetition, asking for the order, sweetening the deal (“but wait, there’s more!”), and so on.

The art side loved humor. The science team was all about rationality and reason. Marketing’s pendulum has swung back and forth between the two poles over the last 50-years.

We’ve had times when it was all about entertainment. Executions where one wasn’t sure what the message was about, but it was funny and entertaining. When the advertiser’s logo popped up, it was as if to say, “This fun time brought to you by _________.”

We thought if people liked our work, they’d like our products and buy them.

And there have been times when there was an over-reliance on putting the entire focus on the product. Corporate chest-thumping with little room for humanity, only hyperbole, and bluster. Rationality would beat our audience into submission.

Great shops have managed to serve both masters, finding engaging ways to persuade using a balance of emotional titillation with rational grounding.

So, where are we today as an industry? Has the pendulum swung toward art or science?

Is that your final answer?

We’re in the science realm. Deep into science.

Today, most companies are focused on making their quarterly numbers. We’ve become slaves to the balance sheet, so naturally, numbers rule.

Thus, digital and social gobble marketing’s attention and dollars because those media have metrics and analytics to show. The CMO can produce charts (CYA) when the CEO or CFO asks for the ROI on marketing spending.

There’s security in that alphabet soup.

Big data and artificial intelligence give marketers scientific tools they’ve never had before, and the marketing industry is all-in on science and technological wonders.

But is that good?

What do you think about the overall quality of marketing today? Do any campaigns or messages stand out to you?

Yes, we have untold channels to consumers, but we’re usually flooding these channels with tactical crap.

No wonder ad blockers are growing in popularity, and avoiding commercials is a popular sport. We all hate to be cyber-stalked because we showed interest in a product or subject, and as a result, we’ll be served pop-ups and banner ads for the next six years.

But brands are not built on incremental gains. Great brands result from bold ideas that engage humans and compel interest.

Science has enabled us to pester people like never before, but let’s never forget that at the receiving end of our messages is a human being, not a bot.

Although, a bot may be the one clicking on our messages.

Please, don’t allow the pendulum swing toward technology do so to the exclusion of humanity.

I’ll be brief here (for obvious reasons).

A 2015 Microsoft study found human attention spans are now almost a second shorter than that of goldfish.

Our attention spans have shrunk from 12-seconds in 2000, to 8.25-seconds in 2015.

Why? Smartphones, information overload, a constant barrage of 360-degree messaging, the ever-increasing pace of modern life, obsessive behaviors–– the average office worker checked his email 30-times an hour, and so on.

Goldfish don’t have smartphones, deadlines, or Gmail. A big event for them is food or a new diver toy in the bowl.

No wonder their attention spans kick humanity’s ass.

Our attention spans are going to continue shrinking, which means one thing for marketers–– if you’re vying for attention you’be better have something special to say.

Messages that are empathetic, interesting, and enriching.

Otherwise, you’re just creating noise. And you’re not nearly as riveting as goldfish food.

The United States is no longer Prozac nation; now we’re Xanax Nation. Anxiety is the new depression, baby!

Sad, but true.

Today, 40 million Americans are afflicted with anxiety disorders. And according to the National Institute of Mental Health, 38% of girls ages 13 through 17, and 26% of boys, have an anxiety disorder.

The numbers are alarming, and, unfortunately, growing.

Many studies have linked online culture and anxiety. The more time spent online, the more likely one is to be anxious.

Studies have also shown that the more time a person spends on social media, the more likely he or she is to feel lonely and disappointed. Our lives seem inferior compared to our Facebook friends who curate posts of their idyllic, joy-filled lives––
“Jeff got a fabulous promotion, but we’re going to be paying so much more in taxes now that his salary was tripled.”
“Amanda is torn between majoring in nuclear physics or neurosurgery. So much pressure for an eight-year-old. She’s has begun studying for her SATs! We’re so proud.”
“My eternal love for my wonderfully terrific family has won a humanitarian award from the Mother Theresa Society. Sure, it’s a great honor, but it’s also one more darn trophy to dust. Jeesh!”
(INSERT HUMBLE BRAG HERE.)

The bottom line: they’re winning!

And you? You’re a mess. A lonely, anxious, hot mess.

People cannot live fulfilled lives connected virtually. As the great philosopher, Barbara Streisand said, “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” And we all do much better with human interaction.

In fact, studies have shown rich personal relationships enhance our happiness, our health, and increase our longevity.

Not social media. Social-social.

So, what’s this have to do with marketing in the Twenty-First Century? Everything.

If people are stressed and anxious and crave human interaction, what are you as a marketer doing to help them? Are you empathetic to the people you’re trying to talk with?

Are your messages adding to their anxiety, or are they offering relief from the pressures of life?

Are you giving people an emotional reward, or trying to pack their bags for a guilt trip, or, insulting their intelligence?

You may say society’s ills are not your responsibility. Maybe so, but by working to improve their health, you may find many more customers and loyal fans, improving your brand’s health.

You also may find yourself feeling better about your work.

And much less anxious.

The Beatles are the greatest rock band of all time. You can debate that, but you’d be wrong.

Check their stats:
1.6 billion singles sold in U.S.
600 million albums sold worldwide
1,278 weeks Beatles music was on Billboard charts
19 #1 albums in U.S…

I could go on, but I’d sound like an actuary, which I do 26.76421% of the time.

Now, you could make the case popularity does not equate to greatness, and you would have a valid point, but in this case, unfortunately, you’d be wrong again. Sorry.

The Beatles are the greatest of all time, and they achieved their success before the age of 30. I don’t know about you, but that makes me feel like a loser.

Here are some thoughts about what attributed to their phenomenal success.

1. They were passionate. Loving what you do is critical to making it in any field. People can tell when you’re faking it, and as a wise one once said, “All you need is love, love is all you need.” True, that.

2. They immersed themselves in the subject. The Beatles, like Bob Dylan, were artistic sponges. They were open to many musical styles, analyzed them, digested and allowed their insatiable grazing to influence their creative process. No great work happens in a vacuum.

3. They worked their asses off. First and foremost, The Beatles were a great band because they were great musicians. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his bestseller Outliers, the magic number for greatness appears to be 10,000 hours. If The Beatles had never gigged incessantly in Hamburg and Liverpool, they never would have become The Beatles.

4. They got help. What you know is important, but knowing what you don’t know may be more important. At some point, you should check your ego and seek assistance from others. A different viewpoint from an expert is essential. When the band signed with manager Brian Epstein, he had worked his ass off making NEMS music stores a success in Northern England. He had a feel for the industry, and when he discovered The Beatles, Epstein sensed there was something there. He watched the band play live, talked with them and signed them. They were impressed with his professionalism and knowledge he was impressed with their talent, humor, and charm. A respectful relationship began, and the band was open to his suggestions.

5. They built a brand. Over time, Epstein would persuade the boys to wear suits instead of jeans and leather jackets, and not smoke, eat, or drink booze while they performed. Their suits matched, the haircuts were similar, and the band even bowed after performing. It was quite a transformation from the rowdy teddy boys style of their early days. They had a specific font for their name, it became their logo. Their logo appeared on Ringo’s bass drum head. Branding, babe. Branding.

6. They changed to get better. The band’s original drummer was Pete Best. When legendary producer George Martin heard the band, he thought Best was the weak link. He suggested a session player, but the band preferred a drummer they knew and admired––Ringo Starr. They made a switch to improve.

7. They persevered. Being a visionary is never easy. Epstein had a difficult time securing The Beatles a recording contract. The band was rejected time and time again; industry leaders didn’t hear greatness, they heard a flop in the making. However, Epstein persisted.

8. They formed partnerships. George Martin was responsible for making the band sound great on vinyl, and he was critical to their success. He patiently worked with Lennon and McCartney and experimented to find the sound they were after, always striving for something new. In 1966, Geoff Emerick joined the team as recording engineer, and The Beatles changed the sound of rock ‘n roll forever.

9. They were never satisfied. The Beatles evolved because they wanted to. While many bands find a sound and stick to it, this one didn’t. Their songs were empathetic to being human and the fragilities of emotion. Musically they took chances and challenged themselves, and their fans went along for the ride. The band’s album releases were always an event because they were real artists, always exploring and evolving.

10. They enjoyed the ride. When The Beatles finally disbanded, their fans felt like they’d lived through a testy divorce. They were that invested in the relationship. But while it lasted, the band were friends who looked out for each another and enjoyed the success and fame mortals rarely achieve. The Beatles were young men who matured and learned hard life lessons in the harsh glare of the limelight, but they left behind the soundtrack for millions of lives worldwide, and a legacy of artistic achievement for the ages.

The lesson here–– when art meets marketing, the world changes.

Maybe you’ve heard consumers are in control these days.

Now there’s a new study published by some brainiacs at the University of Central Florida that proclaims consumers dislike assertive ads.

It’s not too surprising, no one likes being told what to do.

The interesting part of the study is consumers especially dislike assertive selling from brands they like and are loyal to.

Guess it’s like finding out your friend is a creep.

I have always despised the “So…” wrap up in ads, where the writer presents a logical, lawyerly case of why a product or service is terrific. (Copywriter’s secret: the case is usually all the bullet points from the creative brief, gussied up in full sentences and then strung together like pearls on a necklace.)

Then, the lazy writer rests his/her case–– the last paragraph has the “So…” close.

“So, hurry down to Zeke’s CarsZensation, and grab a great deal on your dream car!”
“So, next time you’re at the grocery store, pick up some nutritiously delicious Smelbar’s Melba Toast! The toast that’s toasty-tasty.”
“So, drink Bedster Bourbon. A really good drink!”

It’s as if the writer is tired of writing, now it’s up to readers to do their jobs–– BUY!

Assumptive/assertive selling is obnoxious. And surprise, people don’t like it.

One of the study’s leaders, Dr. Zemack-Ruger, reports assertive ads affect spending decisions, too. The pushier the ad, the less likely people are to purchase the product.

The best ads in the study were those that were “informative and hint at action.”

There’s an inverse relationship between pushiness and effectiveness. It appears people like freedom of choice.

Dr. Zemack-Ruger writes that little tweaks can make a big difference. “Buy now”–– not good. “Now is a good time to buy”– much better.

Howard Luck Gossage, my advertising hero (I have his ’63 trading card), used to say, “When baiting the trap, don’t forget to leave room for the mouse.”

In other words, let the audience be a part of the process, and make up its own damn mind.

So, there!

You’re working on a strategy or creative execution, and you’re crushing it!

You’ve clearly created a brilliant battle plan that will succeed in achieving your business objectives. You know exactly what you want people to do after they’ve been exposed to your genius.

On paper, you’ve solved the problem. In discussions, you’ve won the war.

It’s all over but planting a flag and leading an army of dedicated loyalists and new customers.

Bam! Victory–– glorious victory!

Not so fast.

I used to work with a client who at these planning moments would sound a bullhorn of reality with one simple statement: “I think we’re smelling our own breath here.”

That was his way of saying we were too close to it. We were talking to ourselves, getting ‘too insider’ and blowing smoke.

Why do so many marketers spend so much time, energy and money talking to themselves?

Because it’s easy.

Marketers have a clear vision of the results we want, but we don’t have an honest assessment of what people are really thinking, feeling, believing, doing.

We know what we want, but do we have any idea of what they want?

Are we giving them a compelling and believable enticement for believing us?

If we don’t gut check ourselves, we’ll talk to ourselves and waste marketing dollars.

Wah-wah.

Don’t be afraid to call “bullshit” when you’re discussing strategies, creative briefs, and action plans. Embrace vigorous and honest debates.

Ask for substantiation and research that illuminates consumer beliefs and behaviors. If you don’t have it, why not?

Isn’t what your audience thinks kind of important?

Also, know that people are unpredictable and that the stimulus we create may or may not entice the behavior we want.

That, my friend, is why marketing is more art than science.

Be brave, be empathetic, be human.

And always remember it’s not about us, it’s about them–– and if we leave them out of the process, we’ll only be talking to ourselves.

When that happens, we don’t usually have minty fresh breath.

Taking pleasure in the misfortune of others (schadenfreude) is not the noblest emotion, but sometimes it’s justified. But being raised a good Catholic boy, I have some guilty feelings about it.

So, bless me, Father, for I have sinned–– I feel schadenfreude for Pepsi’s colossal fail with the Kendall Jenner video and spot.

Why? Because the company did it to itself.

Pepsi made a big deal when it announced it was launching Creators League, an internal creative services company. And this same think tank brought us the idea that made a huge splash in the Pepsi punchbowl.

Two years ago, the marketing head of Pepsi lambasted the agency world in dramatic fashion.

Fast forward to this catastrophe.

As Plato or someone smart once said, “Kharma is a bitch.”

I know, different religion.

So, yes, I confess I am a petty agency person who takes delight in seeing a client shoot itself in the foot because I’ve spent a career protecting ideas from clients who had “concerns” and “issues” when they played “devil’s advocate” in protecting the public.

I have sat behind two-way mirrors and witnessed the artificial environment of consumer focus groups as they reviewed creative work and improved the hell out of ideas by making them more like other ideas they have seen.

I have seen fresh ideas bludgeoned, bastardized, sanitized and transformed into lesser ideas by clients wishing to protect the innocent public.

Somehow, Pepsi created this Kendall Jenner atrocity all by itself. Didn’t they ask any consumers about this concept? Or, did they strategize a creative brief that made business sense–– “associate the Pepsi brand with the diverse Millennial audiences and fuel their intrinsic passions while satisfying their extrinsic refreshment needs”… then, create this phony pile of crap?

I suspect they created it in their artificial bubble. A prime example of marketers smelling their own breath.

Pepsi deserves to suffer for this work. It was a child playing with matches, and it got burned.

And in an ironic twist, when the outrage flooded all media, Pepsi withdrew the work and issued an apology to the public and Kendall Jenner! The company’s primary concern seemed to be protecting its relationship with its celebrity endorser.

I know the client-agency relationship is at an all-time low in trust. Over 60% of national advertisers in a recent Roper poll said they’d be conducting agency reviews.

And frankly, our sins are many and deserved. But I will still walk through fire to work with a good client.

I’ve believed it has always been the job of a good ad agency to act as a conduit to consumers. To be empathetic and understanding to their needs and create a message that would interest and satisfy them.

To make truth resonate.

Maybe I’m a dinosaur and our industry is dead.

No one knows where the marketing business is going, but one thing is for sure–– consumers can still detect bullshit in an instant. And they don’t like it.

Now, Father, how many Hail Marys and Our Fathers do I get sentenced?

Marketers have told themselves that social media gives them a great opportunity to engage consumers in conversations.

Yes, it does. But sometimes, you should keep your damn mouth shut.

Witness the recent on-line video boner and spot by Pepsi.

The work was created and produced in-house (thank God, I’d hate to blame an ad agency for this). The work features model Kendall Jenner and a cast of hundreds. Oh, the drama!

It opens with an Asian cellist atop a skyscraper working out some jams.

Next, we see a Muslim Woman Wearing Hijab photographer struggling with her artistry — she’s not satisfied, she crumples contact sheets and throws them away like flu season Kleenex.

Then we see sexy model Kendall Jenner in a glam get-up and make up. She’s being styled and photographed for a fashion shoot.

Kendall makes loves to the lens, but we can tell she’s just not that into it.

All this artistic conflict is playing out and intercut with a major march happening in the streets. A multi-ethnic crowd is protesting (there is even diversity in headwear!). The crowd is attractive and carries art directed signs!

Now, the cellist is back in his apartment. He opens an ice cold Pepsi and sips the elixir. This magical moment ignites something in him!

The photographer notices the marchers going by and grabs her camera, inspired by an artistic spark!

The cellist is marching, too, but wait–– now he’s playing on the street with other musicians.

Holy crap… now some hip dudes are breaking it down! There is dancing in the streets.

Kendall takes the march in with her big puppy dog browns. She senses she’s missing out on something big! Hey, there’s the Asian cellist walking by and he gives Kendall a knowing nod as if to say, “Come join the hijinks of our orderly ethnically-diverse social disorder.”

Lickety-split, Kendall rips off her hair (fortunately, it was a wig). She wipes off her lipstick (it was really red). Next thing, she’s out of the glittery silver dress and has slipped into some skin tight jeans, a tight white top, and designer denim jacket.

Whoa–– who knew she could kick it old school?!

AND NOW, now there is a tub of Pepsi products on ice (DUH– everyone knows protesters like to hydrate with carbonated beverages while they support their various causes). Kendall grabs a can of Pepsi and she carries it through the crowd.

The people are loving this. She’s making it real!

Kendall walks to the front of the line where some boys in blue (it’s the fuzz, man) are lined up to keep those protesters in order.

The hip music track comes to a crescendo and breaks.

The shutterbug raises her camera.

Kendall hands her Pepsi can to a cop.

The photographer snaps the shot.

(Fortunately, no one shouts, “Shots fired”.)

The cops drinks.

The music starts again. Kendall and crowd raise their fists in air and cheer.

There is joy in the streets as we see the cop nod approvingly to his fellow officers. His nod seems to say, “This Pepsi quenches the thirst I have for Millennial protests of whatever’s getting under their diverse skin tones.”

Cut to the crowd marching on as bold titles proudly proclaims:
“LIVE BOLDER.
LIVE LOUDER.
(Pepsi Logo)
LIVE FOR NOW.”

From the moment this sucker was released, it caused a storm of ridicule and protest. People saw it for what it was–– a whitewash of the emotions behind protests.

A blatant attempt for a commercial product to insert itself into genuine outrage.

There is a reason people protest, Pepsi. Emotions are high. Emotions are real. And you are not a part of that conversation.

If you can’t be empathetic, compassionate and understanding, sit down and shut up.

NOTE: Pepsi withdrew the awful ad shortly after the publication of this. Obviously, Empathetic Adman has incredible power.

There’s precious little marketing I look at with envy. We live in a world where marketers ensure messages are safe and devoid of anything that might offend anyone or they’re bombastic strategy missives lacking empathy for the audience.

We’re served chest-thumping hyperbolic diatribes of how the product will improve humanity and make our drab lives worth living… or we get borrowed interest advertising razzamatazz with little relevance to the product.

The Marcom landscape is like a bowl of lukewarm oatmeal. Expected and bland.

So when a drop of red paint appears on the gray marketing canvas, I take notice and cheer, and I’m loving the new campaign for Emerald Nuts from Barton F. Graf.

The campaign is based on an actual Amazon review the product received. “Yes Good” someone wrote.

Yes. Good. Any questions?

The smart people at the ad agency saw a bone with lots of meat on it and feasted. Two simple words that slap one upside the head with their honest sincerity.

And, go!

They created a TV spot that stands out visually and verbally for its simplicity and candor.

They also created a passel of videos inspired by other reviews. Some are too-too, but I give the creative team props.

And I cheer the anonymous writer of “Yes Good” for calling it like he/she tastes it.

This is a refreshing campaign that’s really good (hmm, too much?).

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