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.

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.

La Marca shoes for French Vogue, photography Guy Bourdin. This is a campaign I worked on in the early 80’s. Mr. Bourdin, projected his image onto a black and white TV, then made another image. We double up the image to create a spread. Classic black and white aesthetic, French style and clever art direction too…magnifique!

I have always enjoyed working in fashion, mostly because I love working with and making images. Fashion is challenging in unique ways, not highly conceptual in the traditional sense of advertising ideas but highly conceptual as a representation of an emotional need, the clothing, the fashion… is the idea, it is the mood, the attitude, the projection, the persona. The job of the fashion creative director, art director and photographer is to avoid over art directing the ad. We must elevate the work, that is the fashion, without competing with it for attention. It is a subtle balancing act that might best be described as restrained sophistication.

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.

Are you creating killer content?

Is your content engine in overdrive? A boiling, overheated, over expressed machine. Are you 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 the purchase of the winning brand. It’s not a linear journey.

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 engagement.

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, relevant and respectful way is the ultimate expression of your brand.

 

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. Where to place the camera is one of the most important decisions we make in the effective telling of a story. When we get it right we create vocal pictures.

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.

The Flamingo Scooter

O’Callaghan; genius at work

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.

The impact of beauty 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 proves 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 Audi, think 3M. Beautiful design works beautifully.

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’m routinely 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.

This why I’m now the F. William Harder Chair of Business Administration at Skidmore College…or if you prefer, Professor.