Looking Back While Moving Forward: Why an Historical Perspective Matters

Advertising is an industry with a short but significant history. The more we know about what happened before and how we arrived in this state of digital disruption, the more prepared we will be as individuals and as in industry to solve today’s and tomorrow’s communications challenges.

To this end, I am now preparing to deliver live workshops custom made for ad agencies (one in particular, at this time). The workshops are designed to strengthen the creative department’s muscles. During the workshops, we will run through the significant industry epochs, historical figures who worked to shape the industry that we inherited, and the legendary ads that continue to serve as guideposts for today’s ad makers. The business is now ours to mold and to remake, but to properly do this and effectively break the rules, we must first know the rules, and why and how they were put in place.

The workshop will introduce a cast of charters from the past including Mary Wells Lawrence, Howard Luck Gossage, Bill Bernbach, David Ogilvy, Leo Burnett, Helen Lansdowne Resor, Hal Riney and others who have made significant contributions to the craft. For instance, ad geeks know, but not everyone working in advertising today knows who Hal Riney is or the role he played in helping to elect Ronald Reagan as President of the United States.

It’s morning again in America.

“Morning in America” is a legendary TV ad for good reason. It features Riney’s own soothing but powerful voice, so the writer and the reader are one. That doesn’t happen every day. The spot is also one of the more optimistic political ads of all time. In a category dominated by negativity and by policy details, Riney helped Reagan reach people where it matters—in their hearts and minds.

Look Through the Lens of History

I like to explore the places where advertising industry history and American history converge. Advertising is a powerful force in modern society. The makers don’t make in isolation or in an ivory tower.

Last week, I wrote about the Helen Lansdowne Resor Scholarship that the newly named Wunderman Thompson (post-merger) grants to five creative women each year.

The scholarship’s namesake was the first woman to be inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame. Lansdowne Resor began her half-century-long career with J. Walter Thompson in 1908, and quickly became a champion for the advancement of women’s rights both inside and outside the agency.

Try for a minute to imagine what it was like to be the first woman to work as a copywriter. Try to imagine being a groundbreaker, and in possession of more talent than nine out of ten men around you.

Pink Air Is A Concept

One of the goals of the workshops is to create a greater understanding of the fundamentals of advertising. For a creative working in advertising, nothing is more fundamental than the concept.

Howard Luck Gossage, a.k.a. “The Socrates of San Francisco,” ran his agency from a converted firehouse in San Francisco. He was a fan of conceptual thinking.

A strong concept injects life into an advertising idea.

Once upon a time, Gossage asked, “What if?” What if we offer people a reason to stop for gas that’s above and beyond the mundane? What if we make up an imaginary perk for stopping at FINA, but a perk that is so imaginative that it seems real and drives traffic to the filling stations?

Gossage is the ad man who said, “Nobody reads advertising. People read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad.” In the case of his agency’s FINA ad, people read about pink air, and if they had a sense of humor and an appetite for the absurd, they breezed through the copy and concluded that FINA would be a fine place for refueling.

Bringing It All Back Home

Legions of intelligent people in the know have commented on the decline of creativity in today’s advertising outputs. When asked what is the biggest challenge for Ogilvy in the next 10 years, Roy Sutherland, Ogilvy UK’s Vice Chair, coolly replied: “Oh. I think that the whole advertising industry has totally lost the plot. It has become obsessed with that part of advertising which is a media targeting and optimization process. The creative agencies are essentially guilty of a kind of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ to the media agencies where they think it’s all about optimization of something. I would argue something completely contrary, which is that efficiency and effectiveness in much marketing activity may be inversely correlated.”

Sutherland is advocating for the playful sandbox where innovation and new ideas happen because he knows you can’t optimize your way to brand love. You have to charm people, involve people, and move people.

Practical Methods for Dreamers

The workshops will help connect the dots for creative people. We will show how today’s living advertising legends are carrying the torch for the industry’s forebearers. We will also explore big questions, like:

  • What happened to the Creative Revolution? Is it still alive today?
  • Why was the Creative Revolution necessary in the first place?
  • How has digital disruption changed the score, seemingly forever?
  • Now that we’ve been disrupted, what comes next?

During the workshops we will also focus on the practical steps to take and tools of the trade. We won’t just discuss the power of concepts and the need for “concepting,” we will practice doing it. Accordingly, one of the workshop exercises will call for making marker comps and sticking them up on the wall for evaluation by the team.

For someone like me who started my agency career in the mid-1990s, marker comps are a given. For today’s art directors and copywriters, all work (other than meetings) tends to happen at the screen. One of the reasons relying on marker comps today is more important than ever is to provide the creative person the necessary distance from the screen.

There’s a faulty notion afloat that all the answers to all the questions that anyone will ever have are found inside the machine. Google does not know all. To figure things out and to think freely, people must move around the room, go for a walk, and sketch random thoughts on a pad. During the workshops, we will do all this and more.


Client Showcase: Vote Snow for a New Nebraska

Bonehook and Wheelhouse Collective Launch “Vote Snow for A New Nebraska”

OMAHA—The 2020 elections are 16 months away. For voters, it’s still a long ways off. For candidates, the game clock is running, making their need to file, announce, hire staff, and set the tone for their campaign a priority.

Accordingly, education and labor activist, Marque Snow, 31, entered the race for a seat in the Nebraska Legislature this week. Snow turned to Omaha design firm, Wheelhouse Collective, for his campaign’s new brand identity and messaging strategy. Wheelhouse, in turn, turned to Bonehook for copywriting and brand positioning.

Wheelhouse is a social impact design studio focused on helping good people and good causes. Cathy Solarana, founder and lead designer of Wheelhouse, says, “We are thrilled to be on Team Snow. He has so much positive energy to offer our city and state. We’re also aligned with his policy ideas, which is important to us.”

Wheelhouse rolled out the candidate’s colorful new website, yard signs, buttons, t-shirts, posters, and letterhead to support the launch of Vote Snow for a New Nebraska. Over the coming months, Wheelhouse will continue to add to the campaign’s website and roll out the campaign’s blog and social media.

“Marque is a unique candidate and we need to express this uniqueness to voters in his district,” says Solarana. “So much political branding is thoughtless and just barely pasted together, which is all wrong for someone who needs to convey a powerful message in utterly clear terms.”

The tenor of the campaign is upbeat and inclusive. One of the campaign’s headlines, “We Can Get There from Here,” highlights the priority that Snow and his team places on the voters and on the community.

Snow, a Democrat, is currently the president of Omaha Public School’s board of directors, where he’s committed to expanding opportunities for students and raising pay for teachers. For Omaha voters in his district who share Snow’s passions for equal access for all, November 2020 can’t come soon enough.

About Wheelhouse Collective
Wheelhouse Collective is a social impact design studio currently working with Marque Snow for a New Nebraska, Omaha Public Library, AIGA, and more progressive clients.

About Marque Snow
Marque Snow is an education and labor activist and the current president of the OPS board of directors. Born into a military family, he graduated from Seoul American High School in South Korea, and the University of South Dakota. He is running to represent the 9th District in the Nebraska State Legislature.

Wear Your Manifesto On Your Sleeve, Or Get Rid of It

Companies that care about creating a powerful brand work hard to stand for something in the customer’s mind. It’s critical that it’s something bigger and broader than the product or service being offered. This is, after all, why brands exist—to help people differentiate between similar offerings.

There are lots of ways for a company to live its truth today, and many companies are busy doing exactly that. Earlier this week, I came across an Austin company that has well-conceived and perfectly articulated values. The company, Skills Fund, is not shy at all about laying them all out for the world to see.

Skills Fund is a team of higher ed, consumer protection, and student loan professionals, committed to revolutionizing higher education. If you want to join the company, the first thing they ask you to do is read their Skills Code and Talent Enhancement Philosophy. This is how their Skills Code begins:

Own the Truth
We confront reality head on – both the good and the brutal facts about our company and our own performance. We pay attention to our instincts and conduct disciplined, fact-based analyses to verify those instincts. We ask questions to create clarity. We speak up when we’ve earned the right to do so and marshal evidence to support our opinions. We debate with an open mind until we identify root causes and drivers.

“We ask questions to create clarity.” I’m spellbound.

As someone who has spent two decades plus asking the hard questions of clients, I can relate, and I support the need to affirm this value in print. Tough or persistent questions tend to put people on their heels. And a client on his or her heels is not a client who feels the love from the agency or consulting partner. In other words, it’s a problem in need of an instant remedy.

Ideally, the agency-client relationship is one where coordinated dance partners move gracefully across the floor. To do this dance requires everyone to be on their toes, not their heels. There’s no other way to keep time.

Manifesto Maker Reporting for Duty

Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to write two different brand manifestos—one for a political candidate and the other for the Oracle Careers brand.

The Oracle manifesto was part of a consulting engagement that came through Point B in Seattle. Therefore, I can’t share any of the deliverables, but I will share this whiteboard concept that didn’t make it into the final presentation. It’s all about the candidate’s journey and how it’s the brand’s job to assist at every touchpoint along the way.

Hat Tip to Joseph Campbell

The other brand manifesto that I wrote this spring is for Marque Snow, president of the Omaha Public School board and candidate for Nebraska State Legislature in 2020. Marque is just now rolling out his campaign materials, which I will begin to share in this space in the coming days.

Here’s a small slice of his developing “Marquifesto” for your consideration:

Send me to Lincoln and I will be accountable to you and to my own high standards for public servants. The “Good Life” that our parents and grandparents enjoyed is fast fading to memory, but we can restore this real-life dream. Help me heal the rifts, cross the divides, and make things right again. I know how to do this. Progress comes through immense and coordinated effort. Right now, I’m asking you to push hard with me so we can make real and lasting progress.

With a candidate for public office, the language can be lofty and believable at the same time. Corporate manifestos are a different beast. In both cases, the recipient or reader will likely be reticent to believe and slow to buy, unless, like Skills Fund and other manifesto-first brands, the ideas that are forwarded are truly rich in nutrients and naturally intoxicating upon discovery.

Step 1: Make Me A Believer

I let clients and prospective clients know that I need to believe in what they’re doing. It’s easy enough to convince me. All it takes is proof that the product or service is beneficial to mankind.

Once I’m a believer, then I become a powerful advocate.

As a brand advocate, my job is to enter into the heart and soul of the brand community by “walking a mile in the customer’s shoes.” In other words, I need to take my own journey of discovery on my client’s behalf. When this works as planned, I return from “the wilderness” with findings that we can all learn from and begin to work into the company’s brand communications.

For Oracle, we began to add definition and dimension to their candidate personas. For Marque Snow for A New Nebraska, Cathy Solarana and I are talking to people in the district to hear what matters most to them.

We want Marque to win and we hope to see him gain momentum for his progressive policies. We are thus invested at the right level as business partners because we believe.