As some of you may be aware, I’m currently teaching at Skidmore College as the F. William Harder Chair Professor of Management and Business. Being a place of higher education and a fine one at that, there are weekly guest lectures given by thought leaders from both inside and outside academia.

For the most part, these are highly intellectual and interesting discussions. I prefer to think of them as discussions because the Q&A that follow is often more interesting than the lecture itself. Students and faculty engage the speaker with challenging questions. The freewheeling endings, if Skidmore students are a barometer, gives me hope for the future of our country.

A recent discussion led by an extremely well-studied thought leader, presented years of data that pointed to a significant insight in the world of business. I’m not going to try to unpack the topic, my point of writing this post is the use of data.

The data was significant and overwhelmingly clear in what it implied and what could be inferred.

During the Q&A a student asked the million-dollar question. If the data is so clear why is nothing changing…why are the trend lines continuing as they were?

The speakers answer: The data is not enough.

Bingo.

The world has become overly reliant on data as an end point. Data alone is not enough. If it was, no one would ever smoke, Hillary Clinton may have gotten elected and maybe (if this applies to you) more people would buy your brand.

Compelling ideas move people. Ideas that slap folks in the face, stun them into awareness and seep into their hearts, turn ideas into action.

This is the work of creativity. Let’s get busy.

What was true during the American Revolution is still true today and applies equally well to the media. Better together.

The hyperbolic segmentation of media is a landscape of diminishing returns. With some notable exceptions, media performance reviews leave more questions than answers.

The ideal scenario is one of ever improving ROI as refinements are made, not only in the creative, but critically in the media buy. To optimize results also means lowering costs.

Media technology companies have extraordinary ability to target and segment audiences and should generate strong results. At least that’s the goal. Conversely, too much segmentation can drive up costs, reduce ROI and add to the confusion.

Media-tech is very good but, in their ambition to drive their technology forward they have lost the thread. Media strategists and buyers have a tough challenge to untangle the gordian knot. Brands deserve optimized ROI, not more ways to spend money on media.

The right media mix is not a kitchen junk drawer of guess work. The right mix more closely resemble a well-organized silverware drawer.

Too often, media cannot explain itself and the default is to start faulting the creative work. It may indeed deserve the criticism, but it should not be the first place we look for improvement.

Here’s why, media spread sheets look like certainty but just as often, turn out to be an inexplicable hot mess. All you need do is ask a few probing questions. Don’t take my word for it.

Before the creative ever hit the media, it has been developed with audience insight and research and goes out into the world with some earned confidence.

Thanks to vast segmentation and targeting, media today needs to be considered within the discipline of direct response. Direct response methodology would employ control and test groups to refine the mix and optimize results to a final plan. Then, with incremental decisions, make adjustments with A/B splits of media and creative to achieve optimization.

This approach at first appears more costly but in the long run achieves optimization with assurance. Quarterly readouts of media performance are insufficient for the dynamic nature of media today. Monthly readouts in context of a rolling 30-day strategic plan that seeks optimization and learning offer brands increased efficiency and confidence.

If done correctly, ROI modeling utilizes segmentation as a tool and not an end in itself.

To the untrained observer, walking a tightrope seems like a high-risk activity. To the well-trained acrobatic artist, the tightrope is a platform for their creativity. The risks are well-calculated and the practice so refined, that confidence brings buoyancy to their work.

In the world of ideas, clients and agencies must come to a mutual understanding of well-calculated risk. The goal is break-through creative that challenges norms, animates the brand and motivates the audience.

For many clients, there’s also an additional objective; “not to do any worse than the past brand manager or campaign.” There’s nothing wrong with a good dose of self-preservation.

To the unprepared client, work that appears as if on a tightrope is going to incite fear of doing worse. To the agency, it’s the platform from which to demonstrate their hard-won skills and highly developed talents.

It takes a trusting client-agency relationship to explore boundaries and push the limits of creativity. The goal is to see the tightrope not as a high-risk activity, but as a well-calculated and desirable achievement that will deliver growth for their brand.

Confidence is the glue that binds us to big ideas.

The world will never be less chaotic than it is right now. That is so say, the complexity of life will continue to challenge us. In the presence of ever-expanding complexity, how do we get our story through the noise? How best to communicate our ideas?

A singularity of vision with a concise understanding of the problem solved is essential. The story must be equally comprehensible and told with economy.

The creativity is then free to become inventive. Creativity is the liberator of strategy.

Creativity has an obligation to deliver the idea fully rendered in the heart and mind of the audience. Clarity is actionable.

Complexity defeats clarity in the execution. The best creative talents understand this and labor to create clarity in their ideas and executions.

Visual clarity and written clarity combined to create conceptual clarity. The dual compliment.

Over written, over directed, over acted, over designed executions are warning signs. Perhaps the idea is weak and there is an attempt to prop it up. Or the creative team is letting their egos get in the way.

Maybe they lack the experience to know better.

Simplicity is recompense for years of effort.

Saratoga Springs NY; A vibrant cultural scene and a main street so nice that it was emulated by Disney as one of its resorts; Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa.

Disney avoided one part that’s impossible to miss. They left out the trucks. They skipped over the volcanic 18 wheelers that rattle Broadway.

The sound of trucks on Broadway becomes so deafening that it’s impossible to hear a person sitting directly across from you while alfresco dining. It’s a steady and reliable disruption often punctuated by other loud machines. Early in the season, I witnessed a concrete saw being fired up just a few feet from diners on Broadway.

As a popular destination for summer guests the world over, Saratoga Springs is a wonderful destination brand. A tourism-based economy, the envy of many.

Broadway or Route 9, as it’s also known, is a NYS truck route, so if you’re a trucker, you’re simply doing your job. My grandfather drove a truck and I harbor no ill will. We need our trucks and our truckers. That said, the disruption is a problem. Just ask anyone on Broadway, if they can hear you.

The noise pollution caused by loud machines, is at odds with the image Saratoga Springs projects to the world. It’s no fun for guests to be sitting outside trying to enjoy this beautiful town with the deafening roar. Disney skipped this part for a reason.

As a community, we go to great lengths to welcome our guests. Sports, art and music on the streets, flowers, museums, the wonders of SPAC, shuttle service…you name it. We spare no expense to curate the Saratoga brand experience. We stopped short of dealing with trucks. The noise does not support a positive brand experience for our guests.

According to the National Academies, the average decibel of a tractor trailer is 88 dBA at speeds less than 35 MPH, higher at highway speeds. Not surprisingly, the EPA, suggests this is an acceptable level. Now, exactly how loud is the noise on Broadway? How loud is a concrete saw? A leaf blower? A barely muffled motorcycle? A truck? How about all at once?

The increase in trucking is being felt all over the country and Saratoga Springs is not alone. A solution being considered in other locales is to limit center city access to smaller, quieter, more nimble box trucks. How about a fleet of electric box trucks? More jobs for more truckers. As for the 18 wheelers that are simply passing through; the Northway is also a truck route.

Managing any brand is hard work. Experience brands, such as Saratoga Springs, are different from other brands. Experience brands thrive through word of mouth and the positive shared experience of users. We must stop turning a deaf ear to the challenge. As a community of brand stewards, we should not take the noise tolerance of our guests for granted. Saratoga can do better in the curation of the downtown experience.

The sustainability of Saratoga Springs as a popular destination brand is not a guarantee, it’s an obligation.

When I put the camera on my shoulder and the brief is in my head, I’m looking for the truth. The deeper story, the stuff beyond mere words and pictures, the stuff that reaches the heart. Truth in performance; the essence of the idea to be communicated. The process starts again in editing, to polish the delivery of the idea, the emotion.

The brief is the framework, it establishes the context of creation. It impacts everything downstream; concept development, script, directing, photography, casting, location, tonality, mood, lighting, the entire production design…the works.

The brief is the springboard for ideas to take flight. A great brief is also anchored in the truth of the brand. The brief is a contract with the creative. The brief is also a contract with the truth. Not “truthiness.” The truth.

Occasionally, attempts are made to exploit “truthiness.” Savvy marketers know that great ideas communicate beyond the execution. They know the right ideas generate emotions that cannot be measured through any single ingredient that goes into execution. Truthiness can be tempting.

You can imagine the dismay when the client says, “The idea will not work because we cannot actually communicate that.” Discussion ensues.

It’s a mistake for anyone to use the brief as an opportunity to manipulate the creative work to communicate something that’s not entirely true. Creativity is a powerful tool and can certainly be made to imply things that are not the truth. Clever creative work, not anchored in truth, may achieve a temporary spike in sales but it’s a short money game. Disappointed customers, misled by “truthiness” will flee. Nothing sticks to a brand like the voices of unhappy customers. Truthiness does not build better brands.

Try making a better product.

Constraint was a formidable ingredient in the creation of a film I made in college. The film was a visually driven story of my childhood haunts on Long Island including the beaches, boats, foggy harbors, and associated sounds. From rushing winds and crashing waves, to the song of the gulls and the rocking and creaking of boats, it was poetic expression. The musical sound track I chose was an open hole flute orchestration by the legendary Sir James Galway. The breathy sound of the flute seemed the perfect voice to tell the story.

There were no actors, but I’ll suggest the camera was the character. My work with the camera exploring and observing these locations at all times of day helped me craft the story. I used an 8MM Kodak camera with a wind-up mechanical drive and no audio. It was a family camera, and all I could afford. I had enough cash for 4 rolls of color film and processing. My audio recording device was a portable cassette machine.

Hitting various locations at the best light and multiple days, I had to carefully apportion my film stock. I limited myself to 3 rolls, saving the 4th for additional shooting that might be needed.

Editing involved working at an edit table jammed under a staircase in a school hallway. I made the set-up work to my advantage. The bottom of the stairs over my head were a perfect place to hang the various pieces of film as I cut and arranged the edit. I worked out a system using the lower stairs, right over my head, for the beginning scenes and worked my way up for the final scenes on the higher stairs. In this way, I could work out the cut and remain organized.

Once I had a cut I liked, I got to work on the audio; this was particularly challenging. I worked out a system with my limited gear using multiple tape players to build the audio. It was a nightmare. For distant sounds, the player volume was lowered, and I even moved the machine doing the recording further away. In this way, I built a recording of all the atmospheric sounds in time to the cut and the music. This involved countless attempts before it all fell together. It wasn’t perfect but it worked well enough.

In the final screening, I had to hit play on the projector and the tape deck at precisely different times for the cues to hit as planned. I worked out a syncopated countdown in my head and practiced it over and over until it was second nature.

The day of the screening, miraculously, it all came together. The visuals and audio in perfect sync; more or less. In a moment of failed judgement, I left a corny end scene in place. The words “The End” written in the sand being washed away by a succession of waves. I still cringe.

Constraint is a powerful motivation in creativity and innovation. One of the purposes of a brand brief or project brief is to outline the challenge, the constraint…the problem to be solved. Constraint is our partner in creativity, not something to be bemoaned but embraced.

To quote Bob Dylan, “No one is free, even the birds are chained to the sky.”

 

The author generated the image for this post utilizing OpenAI’s large scale image generation model Dall-e 2. The words used by the author to generate the image; flying bird in a sky made of chains. The author reviewed the image before posting and agrees it reflects the input and accepts responsibility of its publication.

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.

A brand is a problem solved. It’s as simple and as vexing as that. The obstacle for the customer is the obstacle for the brand.

The vexing part comes in creating a differentiating idea that clearly positions the brand as the most appealing solution to the customer problem. In highly competitive markets, the challenge is even greater, especially if the market is a category that is already over-served, such as beverage. (Excuse the pun.)

Carving out a competitive and meaningful brand proposition for a beverage brand requires insight that resonates with the emotional needs of your audience.

All brands must satisfy an emotional thirst.

Of course, if it is a beverage, it must taste good, ideally with a singular flavor profile different from the competition. Additionally, it will benefit from some unique graphic design and packaging to help drive consumer understanding of its unique qualities. A great campaign that breaks through and tells the idea remains essential. But these aspects are table stakes in the land of brand creation and differentiation.

The consumer mindset is the single most important context in the lived experience of the brand. In meetings about branding, discussion of customer feelings often generate less attention and hand-wringing than the typography and color palette. These things are easier to talk about because they are tangible, while consumer feelings can remain an enigma.

Feelings are messy things. Often not entirely clear and variable as they are, they present an obstacle to assurity.

All clients want assurance, which is one reason we now have scads of market research. The digitization of quantitative methods has achieved unfathomable scale and mirrors the scale of robotic ad placement. Like the proverbial Gordian Knot, it’s just too much of a good thing. Offering little in the way of deep emotional insight, this data does offer assurance. Or at least the appearance of assurance.  It has always been a wonderful backstop to qualitative insight, but alone, it avoids the obstacle.

The obstacle is the path to big ideas that stick.

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.