Part of my work at Skidmore College as the F. William Harder 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 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 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.
I hope you find it insightful.
The show is about 45 minutes in length, during which we touch on a range of topics from idea development to execution and agency culture too. 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 and it 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, 50% of the time they cite poor process as one of the primary reasons…and also the work did not live up to expectations.
Process will not win you the work, but it sure as hell will get you fired.
An agency that over-indexes on process in a client presentation is more than likely also 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 work possible.
If done poorly, agency process become 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.
Are you creating killer content? Is your content engine in overdrive? A boiling, overheated, over expressed machine; choking the very channels from which you hope to win new customers and build deeper relationships.
Not all content is created equal. And not every potential consumer touch-point warrants the presence of your brand.
The buyer’s journey is almost always a process of discovery, investigation, ingestion, peer-to-peer consultation, more investigation, purchase consideration, then final decision and purchase of the winning brand.
Consumers need downtime. They need free space to think, confer with friends and thoughtful consideration of their options. They need ad free, clutter-free space. They need respect.
Robotic ad buying and over-zealous social media content stuffing can destroy brand perception.
Too much, is well… too much. And enough is enough. Brands that lack insight and deep strategy default to polluting their own channels; paid, owned and earned.
Clients are spending untold amounts of money on bad content decisions. Content strategy should be a very direct and meaningful extension of your brand idea. Your brand idea needs to express the desires of your customers. The story of your brand is the story of your customers.
Telling this story in the most meaningful and relevant and respectful way is the ultimate expression of your brand.
Killer content; thoughtful, respectful, entertaining, informative and insightful. Creative content is the stuff that turns prospects into customers.
When I first started working in the industry, I had a great experience, or I should say, set of experiences, that really enhanced my technical and artistic understanding of film and photography and storytelling in general.
I was fresh out of Parsons School of Design and met my friend Kevin O’Callaghan. Kevin is now a prominent instructor at the School of Visual Arts and an industry legend, not only for his excellence as an instructor, but also for his amazing work in 3D illustration, sculpture and art installations. Kevin is what he has always been, a creative genius.
With Kevin I began working creating props and special effects for film and TV. Together we worked on a number of projects, some in conjunction with Dale Malley, at the time one of the country’s leading independent prop makers.
We worked on television spots for Atari, making 3D live-action TV sets that played video games with each other. We crafted giant ice cubes, a giant glass and a giant can for 7Up and built colorful, moving props for BonJour Jeans. We made props for the Rodney Dangerfield film Easy Money and recreated aspects of the Oval office for a film about JF Kennedy with Martin Sheen; we made props for a Mid-Summer Night’s Sex Comedy with Woody Allen, the Flamingo Scooter for the Flamingo Kid with Matt Dillon…the list goes on.
Everything we built, no matter how fantastic, needed to fool the eye, to be real…enough. We had to be convincing in our execution of these props and effects. Some were incredibly authentic to original objects we had been asked to reproduce, others were pure fantasy writ large. This was fun, exciting and interesting work during which I learned a great deal about what the camera will see, or more specifically, what we see and what looks convincing on film. The understanding of how light interacts with various colors, surfaces and structures remain invaluable. The most important aspect of course is that all these aspects are delivering on the intention of the scene and the film as a whole.
The demand for video content and the need to tell brand stories in interesting ways requires first and foremost a great insightful story and then the ability to tell it effectively.
Photography and film is a science of both light and time, the manipulation of these fundamental elements can make or break a piece of content. It’s about what you are filming and how you film it. Where you place the camera and how you light the subject are two of the most important decisions that need to be made.
From my perspective (pun intended), not enough thought and creativity is put into this aspect of video content creation. There is a great deal of stylistic sameness; the industry repeating itself. This works against the differentiation of your brand. The execution of the story should be anchored in the uniqueness of your brand story, not in the latest trend or enabling technology. If you’ve ever watched a video and the production techniques end up being more interesting than the story, you understand the problem.
If the idea is not crystal clear and interesting, then all the slick execution in the world will not make it better.
As humans we are hard wired to see and appreciate beauty. This has been studied and proven countless times. There is nothing like a beautiful face to garner our attention; one look online or on TV or in a print publication will prove that beauty is an effective tool of advertisers.
Our fundamental appreciation of beauty has also been studied by neuroscience. As creatures, we are inclined to beauty and increasingly, that appreciation of beauty is being understood to go well beyond a pretty face.
The appreciation of beauty in everyday life, from landscapes to sunsets to kittens, puppy dogs and the astral skies, all hold common appeal. Beauty amazes us in nature and in the products and services we enjoy as well.
Manufacturers that understand the power of beauty use great design from end-to-end; from the simplicity and elegance of a well-conceived user experience to the shape and form of a physical product and how it functions, to the design of their brand mark and print materials too. This appreciation of beauty extends to all manner of content creation from the quality of the images they create to the voice, tonality and simplicity of the written and spoken word.
Nothing extraneous that will diminish the beauty of their conception is allowed. By example, think Apple, think Dyson, think Boeing, think Audi, think 3M.
Beautiful design works. Period.
Ugly, poorly designed products and services end up in the dollar store of our appreciation. Well-conceived, imaginative and well-executed design work elevates all aspects of a brand, the most important of which is consumer appreciation.
Defining this beauty means starting with insight into the desires and needs of the intended users. It also means establishing a beauty language for your brand, a unique and appealing design vernacular that informs all that you produce.
Beautiful ideas, beautifully executed. These ideas Head for The Heart.
For over a decade, I’ve been a regular guest speaker at Skidmore College in the classroom of Professor Christine Page. I’ve offered my POV on creativity, advertising, branding and marketing and have done ideation workshops with the students. I really enjoy working with Christine and her students because it’s fun and rewarding to share my years of experience. It feels good to give back, and I’ve learned a few things in the process too.
Then Skidmore scared the crap out of me.
How? They offered me the F. William Harder Chair of Business Administration. This is an endowed professorship, a great job, at a great school and an incredible honor. It made my knees shake. It’s one thing to drop in a few times a year and quite another to walk into a room full of bright young minds twice a week with the goal of imparting a kernel of knowledge.
Teaching is not easy work, and I love the work I’m doing with Brandforming; so why add this to the mix?
As Albert Einstein said, “Once you stop learning, you start dying.”
I love learning. It’s one of the things I love most about advertising; the need to keep learning to solve client marketing problems. To work alongside these students, to challenge them to dig for insight and generate ideas together will be a great experience.
Teaching is learning; and I’ll be learning right alongside these millennials, post millennials and Gen Z-Centennials. They have as much to offer me as I do them. I’ve worked with members of this generation the past few years, and I’m constantly impressed…not only by their intelligence but also by their willingness to write their own rules. This is not ambivalence on their part, it’s creation. Bingo.
So that’s why I’m now also the F. William Harder Chair of Business Administration at Skidmore College…or if you prefer, Professor.
In early April team Brandforming was on location at Carnegie Mellon filming a PSA for the Computer Science Teachers Association, we nicknamed the spot Robot Love. After months of work and insight development, derived from rounds of one-on-one interviews, we finally rolled cameras.
Special thanks here to our partners Associations Development Group for thinking of us and bringing Brandforming on as collaborators. Team Brandforming cranked out 5 different concept boards for client review. It didn’t take long for the client team to settle on the theme and spot we created, Computer Science. Cool Stuff. The goal of the PSA is to encourage more young people, especially girls, to get involved in computer science. In fact, the Fox TV show, FabLab is equally dedicated to this goal. Nearly half the high schools in the US do not offer computer science. It’s astonishing to consider since there is hardly a life today untouched by some aspect of computer science.
Filming took place at Carnegie Mellon because of their outstanding computer science program and also because of Professor Manuela Veloso. Professor Veloso is an extraordinary person, her brains, talent and determination make her a fantastic teacher, mentor and coach to all the enthusiastic students we met while filming. Thank you #ManuelaVeloso. Thank you #CMU. Thank you #Pittsburgh.
Professor Veloso is well known for her work in Robotics but computer science is about a lot more than just Robotics, as she is very quick to point out. Kids in America need more exposure to computer science and a better understanding of the many career opportunities associated with it. I hope the TV show #FabLab catches the imagination of its young audience and that our TV spot helps drive awareness of just how cool computer science really is.
It was good fun working with Robots to help tell our story. It was also great to work with Professor Veloso, her students and the producers of FabLab too. The spot was filmed by Galileo Media Arts. Robot Love, the science behind computer science.
Team Brandforming and Computer Science, now that’s Cool Stuff.
In the books Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and The Master and his Emissary by Iain McGilchrist, the authors explore the workings of the human brain. I think we can use their insights to help build #AHealthierNation, especially if we consider the workings of the Human Brain Vs. Pharma TV Spots.
Both authors point out that our brains are hot wired to detect danger before safety. We detect anger in others before joy. This extends to images and words, even those in abstract of a lived experience. For example, we can detect an angry face in a picture of a crowd of happy people faster than we can detect a happy face in a crowd of angry people. The mention of a word associated with danger, even in absence of that danger in the present lived experience, triggers lightning quick brain activity associated with a threat. This has been studied and documented with MRI data.
Kahneman points out the we live our lives as stories, collections of experiences and memories that ideally come to a happy finale, and this is what we remember. In a particularly interesting chapter, he explores the idea of duration neglect and how as humans, we will willingly endure protracted and difficult experiences if the goal, outcome and future memory would be a positive gain. One example he explains is that of amnesic vacations. An oversimplification; the duration of a vacation ideally has an effect on its quality. I think we’d all agree that 6 days are better than 3. But if the last day of the 6-day vacation is a poor experience, the overriding memory will be one of an unhappy vacation, despite the duration. This is the peak ending and most dominant lasting memory. For more on this you can watch his TED talk here.
Both of these books are fascinating and entirely different, but with many corollaries that make them both worth reading. The Master and his Emissary makes clear the right brain is dominant in the role of detecting the incongruent, new, exciting and dangerous. The left brain is dominant in breaking it down into known bits of all lived experience and cataloging it so as to help us detect the new vs the known, different or dangerous. There is a mysterious beauty to the power of this duality and the yin-yang balance that it achieves to help us detect danger and feel safe. You can watch him illustrate this in his TED talk here.
If we apply these findings of the workings of the human brain Vs. Pharma TV spots, it would suggest that ending a commercial with 30 seconds of “fair balance” that rattles off all the negative potential consequences of the therapy is not a good idea if we want people to seek out, consume and adhere to that treatment. What memory are we left with? What is the cumulative effect of these negative associations to the psychology of Americans to what is now decades of exposure to often potentially life threatening consequences of treatment? We are putting our minds on high alert and then leaving ourselves with negative memories.
The FDA lives in a paradox of endorsing the use of needed therapies that are in the majority proven very effective and safe and at the same time approving and controlling how they are promoted. The use of Fair Balance was deemed a reasonable solution to keep some checks and balances in the system. One early justification for direct-to-consumer advertising for healthcare products was that it would help make people healthier by helping them recognize health issues and solutions to what is ailing them. That said, I would argue it is not working entirely as hoped. Direct-to-consumer advertising has certainly proven to sell more drugs but is it really helping? Adherence and compliance rates remain terrible and as a nation, we are not among the healthiest, despite having the one of the best healthcare systems in the world. I can’t help but feel that there exists an unintended and negative consequence of bombarding our culture with therapy risk profiles instead of more positive educational messages about living a healthy and happy life.
I’m not suggesting that the problems of adherence and compliance have been caused by advertising, they certainly predate it. What I am suggesting is that advertising executed in this way has become just another part of the problem and it’s time to consider alternative approaches that not only make us aware of solutions but improve long-term outcomes for #AHealthierNation.
Advertising is part of the brand experience and nobody wants to experience side-effects, even in the abstract. Patients need to be educated about the potential risks of any treatment and there are other and potentially better ways to provide this learning. Awareness advertising by its very nature employs both reach and frequency to achieve its goal. The persistent drumming of risk factors in combination with how our brains are hot wired to detect risk is a perfect storm. Our abilities to detect risk and the frequency of exposure caused by this type of advertising may be creating strong negative associations with these brands specifically and perhaps more detrimentally, pharmaceutical therapies overall.
On any given night during a broadcast commercial break it is not uncommon to see 2-3 pharma spots back-to-back. This results in approximately 1.5 minutes of nausea, hives, Arrhythmia, trouble breathing, night sweats, diarrhea, dizziness, life threatening rash, allergic reactions, suicidal thoughts, dry mouth, internal bleeding, increased blood pressure, stroke, liver damage, heart attack and other potential drug-drug and dietary interactions that in rare cases have caused death. This parade of alarm bells is made no less volatile by the mostly generic visual backdrop of smiling happy people and the sometimes over-qualified claims of efficacy. Remember we’re hot wired to detect risk before all else. How’s that for a side effect? Human Brain Vs. Pharma TV could be a perfect storm of unintended consequences. June 2014 saw the beginning of OpenFDA an effort to make accessible the FDA database of side effects, drug labels, warnings, food recalls. This project is still in Beta but it holds great promise to help us better manage and understand the insights available through this repository and how insights gained across drug and device class can inform #AHealtherNation and perhaps will give us opportunity to create better, more positive and educational TV spots.
As communicators can do better to create a #AHealthierNation and support our Physicians and other healthcare workers to help us live healthier lives.
At Brandforming we’re confident that as an industry, if we put our brains together and challenge the status quo, we can build healthier brands and healthier outcomes with ideas that #HeadForTheHeart.
In March of 2015 the legendary filmmaker Albert Maysles left this earth for the great beyond. In his lifetime he and his brother David, who passed many years before, established a way of working in documentary film that elevated our ability to see life as it truly is, with as little artifice as possible. The December 27, 2015 issue of the NY Times Sunday Magazine brought Albert Maysles and the work of The Maysles Brothers back to me in the cover article, The Lives They Lived.
The seminal works of The Maysles Brothers are many and if you have not seen them, you should watch a few: http://mayslesfilms.com/films.
The Maysles Brothers work continues to have significant impact on the work of filmmakers around the world. Their approach was strongly observational and the aesthetic, sparse. Their faith in reality, as equally if not more interesting and powerful than fiction, created films of a raw, visceral quality. Occasionally in moments hard to watch, but also impossible to look away.
Albert Maysles began his career as a teacher of Psychology and, in fact, it was an interest in filming the life of patients in a mental hospital that represents his very first film, Psychiatry in Russia. This drive to represent reality unfiltered, to show things as they are, still holds incredible power and potential, especially in healthcare.
Early in my foray into Healthcare advertising, I was doing a lot of work for broadcast, and I certainly contributed my share of work to what is now the formula. That said, I was really fortunate to work with Maysles Shorts, a division of the company helmed by David McNamara. As a division of Maysles Films, it was anchored in the traditions the brothers had established. David and I did some really nice work together. I’m not sure if the Maysles hired David because he has a gifted eye, or because they saw in him a devotion to a way of working that would continue exploring opportunities to attempt to see life as it truly is. Regardless, David remains an excellent filmmaker with an approach that is all his own, but remains straightforward and honest too. You can learn more about David and what he’s up to these days at the Collective.
Given the overall market conditions in Healthcare, it is more important than ever to create work with strength and honesty. Work that will go beyond selling treatments and help patients understand the value of compliance and adhering to their therapy. It’s time to explore new ways of representing and seeing solutions in healthcare that improve on the outcomes we have achieved thus far. The work of the Maysles Brothers remains so powerful because it is work that has a Head For The Heart. It is a belief in the intimate power of life as it is – an un-glossed honesty that captures human nature with an observing, unwavering respect for humanity.