Block, Light, Rehearse, Shoot.

It’s happened before, technology democratizes an industry and craft suffers before it rises again. There is a rash of technique over substance. We need a conscious return to the craft of story in the creation and execution of brand ideas.

The art of the story must be paramount to the art of the production. Thanks to the internet, there exists an insatiable desire for content. And thanks to the democratization of the technologies of content creation, everyone with a camera and a zoom recorder is suddenly a producer.

Content is delegitimizing advertising.

The skill and creativity of the story teller, not necessarily the gear involved, is one of the prime ingredients in the craft. In the right hands, the appropriate gear has the potential to make a great story that much stronger in execution. In and of itself, all the gear in the world will not make a better story. Flying cameras, movement for the sake of movement, outrageous POV shots are often senseless and usually add expense. If not integral to the telling, these production hijinks are significant distractions from your brand idea. In a very real sense these distractions cost you twice. The essential skills of blocking in support of the scene, lighting supports the performance and rehearsing action that will deliver the intended emotion seem to be a lost art in the world of brand content.

All the technical expertise in the world will not make a bad story better.

Most production companies are not built like agencies; most are built for episodic engagements, not brand stewardship. Building and safeguarding your brand story takes a long-term view, it takes insight and planning and strategy and great creative ideas, smartly executed. This is the work of brand agencies.

Today there is a profusion of production companies that have technical skill because the technology has made it much easier to look and sound good.  Technical skill does not make them effective at decoding your story. A direct engagement with a production company may make your marketing budget look cheaper on paper but the long-term cost may be significant.

Insight driven strategy liberates creativity.

Really good agencies know this, and really good clients know this too. Really good production companies know this and expect to partner with brand agencies. A great commercial director wants to understand your brand and its audience and she wants to partner with your agency. This is where your brand agency insight and executional expertise will guide the production team and help them tell your brand idea in the most compelling way.

This is the work of producing content; to tell your brand idea, and it is why brand agencies employ creative directors, writers, art directors, strategists and producers, to define your brand idea.  And then in partnership with the director working to a clear idea, shot by shot, adding and building scenes, intention upon intention, the entire production is aligned with the purpose of your brand.

This is the craft of vocal pictures.

Part of my work at Skidmore College as the F. William Harder Chair Professor of Business Administration includes the recruitment and production of an annual lecture.

Each year, a speaker is recruited and asked to present to the students a topic within their areas of interest and expertise. This year, it was me.

The link to the lecture: https://vimeo.com/557756796

If you’re working in the industry, it’s important to keep in mind that the audience for this presentation are students. The age range is 18-22. Their context as young adults is a world in which they have never known anything other than digital media and social media. To draw out the importance of this context, I will point out here that as part of the boomer generation I grew up with TV. I never knew a world without TV. My parents, part of the silent generation, grew up with radio; TV for them was a transformative technology. For my generation, digital has been a transformative technology. For these students, generation Z, digital is nothing new at all. However, their challenge is gaining some perspective, not simply on the past but also about where we are today and, if I did a decent job, suggestions to motivate their own work and understanding going forward.

This is academic work and is shared here in that context for that purpose. The work used to illustrate the presentation were derived from various sources, most of it my own, some of it sourced from various on-line resources available to the public. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this lecture was delivered virtually.

I hope you find it insightful.

Ken Zane’s show  Art Buyer For Hire is about 45 minutes in length. During the show we touch on a range of topics from idea development, to execution and agency culture too. While I was chief creative officer of Palio I hired Ken in the role of art buyer-producer. It was an important moment for both of us as it signaled a new level of growth for the agency and another chapter in Ken’s amazing career.

The title of Art Buyer is a bit of a misnomer, the role is  really about identifying and collaborating with talented artists.

Even this description falls far short of the many facets of the role. Building meaningful relationships with the artists as well as the agency internal team is essential to the task. Being a good people person is a requirement, as is being a strong listener and excellent communicator. Helping both parties collaborate effectively is another key skill. The actual buying of the art, the terms and price are, in my view, secondary to the primary task of delivering a great agency product. Ken Zane has an amazing eye and is a talented photographer in his own right. With significant background in the arts, Ken is able to quickly bring visual reference for color, composition and style into alignment in support of the work.

In short, Ken elevates the work with unwavering support for the vision of the team.

I hope you enjoy it. Click here for the show.

Agency process is a balancing act. Too little process, and an agency will eventually fail to deliver and will go broke in the process. Too much process kills the creativity of the organization.

Having recently been a fly on the wall during client-led agency reviews, it is easy to spot the winners and losers. The winning agencies tend to lightly dance with their process, intermingling it with their work as evidence that the outcomes were not pure luck.

The losers spend more than half their allotted time banging on about their process, segmenting it from the outcomes and boring the client team to no end.

Good clients expect and respect strong agency process. They are not hiring agencies for their process. But if you question a client about why they are considering switching agencies, they very often cite poor process as one of the primary reasons. Of course, the other big reason is the work.

Strong process will not win you the work, but poor process will sure as hell will get you fired.

An agency that over-indexes on process in a client presentation is probably over-indexing on it back at the shop. Nothing will destroy an agency creative culture faster than legions of people armed with process hovering over the creative work.

Process is important. Properly executed, agency process infuses the creativity of the organization with insight, curiosity and a general esprit de corps that has everyone working to produce the best possible work.

If done poorly, agency process becomes a dividing line between those doing the work and those who believe it is their job to demand the work.

The highest purpose of agency process is to liberate its creativity.

Smart Brand Managers are forever scrutinizing the value they are gaining from their agencies.

The ad industry is forever trying to accurately respond to the old quip, attributed to John Wannamaker, “Half of the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

Recently, Marc Pritchard of Unilever announced their “People First” initiative. As stated in CampaignLive; “a structure in which talent from roster agencies across holding groups are brought together under one roof to service the FMCG giant’s North American fabric care business.”

This is a client doing everything he can to unlock value from these relationships for his brands. Multiple agencies, multiple brands, massive media spend, redundancy and not enough of a payoff; or at least that’s what we can infer from the directive.

I don’t know Marc Pritchard, but really appreciate his efforts not to throw the baby out with the bath water. In the article he talks about bringing all the various agency creative together as a new model effort to find value by uniting the agencies in one collaborative effort.

I’ve run huge global brand development sessions with agency partners and client brand teams from all over the world. The largest initiative included participants from 16 countries. The approach can work miracles in ideation and equally important in getting everyone on the same page. Getting everyone on the same page with a big brand idea requires great talent in the room, a hugely collaborative effort, and egos left behind.

Believe it or not, it is rarely the creatives who do not play well with others.

The minute the big idea is agreed, it’s the agency business leads who start tearing at the budget like lions on a kill. Unless a client is willing to address the budget and compensation in an equally unilateral manner, it is very tough to make the collaboration stick.

I’ve worked on both Unilever and P&G brands and these are smart people with massive resources and still they are struggling to realize the promised value in the age of “new media.”

A big culprit is the industries’ addiction to its own hype.

The ad industry did not invent Google, or Facebook or any of the other super creative things that are reshaping the world; all we do is figure out how to monetize these things to our advantage and now clients are finally asking; How do all these exciting pieces of content you create make me money and build my brand?  Clearly there is benefit; but how much return is in that investment?  Spending less on creative and eliminating this redundancy is helpful to a brand if all the collaboration works out; but this is a client-driven attempt to solve an industry problem. We need to get better; showing and proving our value in context of the media and not just the execution itself.

Possibly one of the worst things to have happened in the advertising industry is when media was cleaved off from the agencies and became independent. It is not a matter of church and state; it is a matter of execution of ideas, and ideas cannot be separated from the media that gives voice to their expression.

Brand marks  are invested with symbolism; meaning derived from perceived value, ambition and aspiration too. On this 4th of July I thought it would be interesting to start with a consideration of Uncle Sam; a representation of the U.S. Government. The creation and evolution of Uncle Sam is an interesting story about which much has been written. It’s hard to separate fact from fiction but one thing is certain, the illustration created by artist Montgomery Flagg is a hit. This rendering was used to promote the idea of being ready and prepared for war. World War I was supposed to be the war to end all wars. Sadly, there is never really an end to war and persecution and the excuses used to justify it all. Right or wrong, the symbol of Uncle Sam became a call-to-arms which found its inspiration in the 1914 Alfred Leete illustration from England used in a WW I recruitment poster.

openness, compassion

Columbia, symbol of the people of the America

Uncle Sam’s better half, known as Columbia, famously depicted by Paul Stahr ca. 1917-18, named to honor the legacy of Columbus, went on to inspire the naming of countless organizations, including Columbia University as well as Columbia pictures, which later took the lovely lady as a symbol of its own. You’ll notice a strong resemblance to Lady Liberty, the grand statue itself a gift to the people of the U.S. from the people of France. The Statue was designed by sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi and built by Gustave Eiffel and dedicated on October 28, 1886.

In the painting of Columbia, we are quite literally taken in by her open arms and compassionate and sincere expression. Columbia was said to represent the people of the Americas. The Statue of Liberty holds a tablet with the Roman inscription of July 4, 1776; testament to our declaration of independence. Broken chains lay at her feet, a beacon for all the world to see, a symbol of independence and freedom at the entrance to NY Harbor. Her torch held high, welcoming immigrants from all over the world. The statue was also inspired by the Roman Goddess, Libertas.

The fabric of America

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
— Emma Lazarus

It should not be surprising that women are used to represent openness, liberty and freedom while men are depicted as aggressive, directive and controlling. We are ourselves symbols. Check out the early illustration by Thomas Nast from Harpers Weekly of Uncle Sam having Thanksgiving dinner with immigrants from all over the world, this tells the story of America at its best. The world at its best.

At a time when the U.S. and perhaps much of the rest of the world seem on a path of isolationism, it would do us good to remember the power of symbolism.

The U.S. welcomes immigrants from all over the world

Uncle Sam, having dinner with immigrants

America’s most important export is our culture. For centuries, the promise of America has inspired countless millions to risk it all in pursuit of freedom, openness and inclusiveness. We seem to be forgetting, the meaning of America, of liberte’.

What will you export today? Perhaps you can start with a welcoming smile.

Start your day smiley

The originally smiley face, created by graphic artist Harvey Ball made legend by millions of buttons and now emoji too

Clients hire us to produce results.

The work is a means to an end and the ultimate result is measured in sales. Not awareness in and of itself, not leads, although these are steps along the path. Likes or clicks are not sales either. Actual hard-boiled sales make or break the careers of our clients.

Advertising-to-sales ratios are one measure clients use to determine how much of their advertising budget goes into each sale. Some clients, depending on the nature of their product or service, might look at lifetime value of a customer, assuming the product or service involves repeat purchase. For instance, your wireless phone service vs a dog leash.

The wireless service may spend hundreds of dollars closing you as a customer knowing with a degree of certainty that once they have you, they will have you for a good many years. The initial cost of sale is amortized over the life of your engagement. You become an annuity; a recurring monthly source of income as you continue to repurchase their services on a daily basis.

The dog leash people, on the other hand, cannot afford to spend very much at all to achieve your purchase. In most cases, it’s a one time purchase of a durable product that essentially never goes out of style.

One of your client’s biggest concerns is Return On Investment.

If you don’t understand your client’s business model, you cannot produce effective results. It’s pretty simple. If you don’t understand the perceived value in the mind of the target customer, you will not achieve effective results.

Brand value is derived from consumer need based on real insight into their emotional relationship with the brand. This emotional relationship is expressed in the brand idea. Getting it right triggers deep connections that make the cash register ring; and that is what they pay us for.

The problem with the word no is figuring out where it’s coming from.

Turning no into yes is often a cat and mouse game with the marketing team. You might have 10 clients on a single brand with a claim to input and by the time you’re done, your big idea might not be so big and your enthusiasm may certainly have waned. Your idea finally gets moved upstairs with the warm endorsement of a semi-aligned brand team. Sound familiar?

If this is a regular routine, and when you look yourself in the mirror, with absolutely no self-aggrandizing bullshit you can say, without equivocation, that this is your best work and that the big idea for the brand has been pillaged to death, you’ve enter the club of no authority. The club of no authority, wields the only axe they are authorized to carry.

Have you noticed that decision making around big ideas by marketing teams is often a chess match.

They cannot give you a yes, because yes is not in the room. When the idea finally climbs the last flight of stairs and enters the corner office, it may not get that yes because it’s been watered down. The corner office thinks and behaves differently.

The corner office is not worried about the corner office.

The corner office wants the big idea to be truly big and liberating. The corner office wants your expertise above all else.

This is your moment.

Do everything in your power to be in that room and have your original iteration of the idea at hand. If the idea starts to take a dive offer the alternative solution, one of your originals. If it achieves yes, immediately give credit to the marketing team for pushing you to no end.

If it all falls flat, accept responsibility and start asking a lot of questions, get the corner office in on the dialogue. Show your humility in the face of their expertise, work to an insight, listen intently, walk out armed, tell them you’ll be back in 48 hours, ready to deliver a yes.

All client companies have their rules of engagement and most of the time you will be bound by these rules and the culture that defines them.

Work towards a unified C suite presentation with your client team. Ask them about a plan and make it together.  Your clients will appreciate this effort more than you realize. After all, a resounding yes benefits everyone.

The past nine months have been an exercise in constraint.

Adding the role of The F. William Harder Chair Professor of Business Administration at Skidmore College to my life’s work has taken some adjustment. All positive. This work will be the subject of its own blog post because it deserves the airtime.

At Brandforming, I’ve been aggressively moving the nature and scope of our engagements to be primarily defined by strategy and idea development. We’ve dialed down tactical execution with certain exceptions. We are in essence a creative consultancy with a focus in brand idea development and film production.

We’ve enjoyed some very nice engagements. The work has resulted in perspective-shifting, business-altering ideas for our clients. This is enormously satisfying as we’ve significantly and positively impacted the business of our clients, while also changing the nature of our engagements.

On average, 75% of clients are returning to us with additional work.

Clients are returning because they do not feel the idea is being fully realized.  As we re-engage it becomes clear that the client has gotten bogged down in execution. Bogged down, often with their own internal constraints, or the client-agency relationship is a drag on the work. In two instances the client’s AOR did not fully deliver on the potential of the idea despite agreement on the strategy.  We were able to help maintain a strong strategic platform while supporting the AOR in their vision for the execution. Win-win.

We are always delighted when the phone rings again with clients seeking our council because they trust the work we’ve done together. On the other hand, we would be equally happy to see the ideas take flight without the need for us to re-engage. Our shift in scope forgives us most of the burden of execution. Still, we are upset by the sounds of frustration on the other end of the phone. And because we know that being an AOR is often a compromised existence, we do everything we can to assure the best outcome for everyone involved.

Execution is no little thing and it is often the first thing that becomes compromised. Clients need to invest in execution and the most important part of this investment is in a partner that can make things happen without a lot of wasted effort.

Big ideas don’t need to cost a fortune to execute, but they must be smartly rendered.

I took this picture of two espresso cups at one of our infamous creative rave sessions, this  time we were in Miami cooking up some big ideas for a global healthcare brand. Espresso is a hot commodity at these sessions. We often go at ideation for days on end. Our energy stores can run low while we fill the room high with ideas. An afternoon espresso or two have been known to shake loose the cob webs.

Ideas are not usually far behind. In Cafe veritas.

And my cafe of choice, if given the choice is Sant’Eustachio il Caffè 

If only every creative session could be held at 82, 00186 Roma RM, Italy

Basta