Breakthrough Creative Does Not Appear Randomly In the World

Clients come to us for the creative outputs we offer them, but our work is not possible without first establishing a trust relationship with the decision-maker on the client team.

This is how it works: Our clients trust that we are the best resource for their needs, and we trust that the client sees us as the experts in what we do. If this trust goes missing for whatever reason from either direction, the game is over.

Tina Roth Eisenberg is a serial entrepreneur and designer. I have a lot of respect for her work and I love her recent take on the agency business, which she left behind to pursue her startups.

You really have to be a certain type of personality to be okay with the client-service model. I like to build something. I like to figure something out. I don’t like just to dip in and shake it up and then hand it back.

I have admitted more than once that I do not have the right personality for client service. Like Tina Roth Eisenberg, I feel a sense of “ownership” of the work. At the same time, we are clearly hired to make the work for our clients, with their money. Thus, they ALWAYS have a big say in the shaping of the work.

To me, it matters how a client provides feedback and how the agency manages this feedback. If a client routinely rewrites the copy and suggests changes to the art, a flag needs to be thrown. I understand that clients sometimes don’t realize they’re overstepping. Nevertheless, it’s our job to establish the ground rules for the engagement before any work starts.

It Always Starts Before It Begins

It’s funny, but not, how much damage to one’s business is self-inflicted. When you compromise your values and accept less from a client, financially or otherwise, you’re asking for trouble. It’s imperative for an agency to hold its ground on pricing and process. Save the wiggle room for later when it comes to the actual work because it simply can’t be there in the beginning.

I know all this sounds like a power struggle, and it is. When an agency gives its power away, the agency loses. That’s the mindset shift that has to be front-and-center for all agency staff. The client will always have the power of their pocketbook and a right to voice their convictions. That’s fine. As long as we successfully establish why we’re worth what we’re worth and what we bring to the table. Without that understanding, there is no balance to the partnership and it’s doomed to fail.

On the other hand, when a client knows precisely why they’re paying a premium, their doubts fade away.

Be Trustworthy Now

Breakthrough creative does not appear randomly in the world. The agency sets the stage for a client’s future wins, which means a lot of hard work has to be done behind the scenes to earn the trust of clients, without which the creative team will be severely hampered in their abilities to deliver.

As a creative, I still see some of this interpersonal work as a hassle, but I do not question its value. Coming up with big ideas is relatively easy. Making them come true, on time and within budget for a client, is never easy. There are always a dozen ways the work can be killed or harmed before it’s launched. When there’s a lot on the line, people get scared, nervous and dangerous. The account sage preserves the peace and moves the process forward.

I do not yet have “account sage” status, but I am steadily working my way to the mountaintop.

Why Cross-Training Is Mandatory

My responsibilities at Bonehook include managing new business, account service, agency operations, strategic planning, creative direction and copywriting.

My core skills are copywriting and creative direction, and I love to focus there. So, why do I bother with all these other roles? The answer is we rely on new business, account service, agency operations and strategic planning to open the door to better creative.

The need to wear multiple hats also extends to the client-side of the table. Clients, like agencies, are running lean. This puts the onus on staff to juggle. When a company does not have a marketing department or director, the complexity multiplies. For instance, it’s tough to discuss the value of brand with someone who can only think about a quarterly sales bump and how it will save their job.

Ultimately, cross-training strengthens both agency and client teams. People gain more skills and confidence on the job. Beyond the skills gained, cross-training promotes deeper organizational understanding and empathy. The more I can learn about a client’s pain, the more prepared I am to offer the correct solution. This means I have to listen intently with no prescribed solutions at the ready. It’s not the easiest thing to learn to do, but it’s one of the more valuable things I’m learning to do.

Dear Democrats, Please Don’t Be Eli

I recently rewatched the film There Will Be Blood starring Daniel Day-Lewis as a focused and ruthless oil man. At the end of the film, there’s a scene that’s hard to watch, but it’s worth paying attention to.

The Eli character is an ego-fueled preacher on hard times. He wants money from his former benefactor. But the benefactor has always despised the preacher’s weakness, pious blather, and his failure to face the facts of his own life. Eli refuses to see how the ground under his feet has been eroded by “the long straws” of those more eager and willing to do what it takes to win, and this flaw is his ultimate undoing.

Right now, Democrats are desperate, like Eli. Yet too many Dems want to think of themselves as better people than their Republican counterparts. They want to play fair, all the while fooling themselves that you can enter or survive a knife fight this way.

When Democrats fundamentally misread the threat, their failure puts us all in harm’s way. Why is this? No one wants to sound alarmist or crazy. It might hurt their professional reputations, or make someone they care about angry.

When Will Candidates Recognize That They’re Also A Brand?

It’s imperative to boil down a candidate’s message to one thought. Few politicians manage to do this well. One exception was President Johnson in 1964. With the help of Doyle Dane & Benrbach—the best ad agency in the country at that time—Johnson’s team was able to portray Goldwater as lethal.

When we consider Trump today, we can choose from dangerous, ill-informed, criminal, unAmerican, sexist, racist, and so on. The trick for the Dems is to choose the right pain point—the one American voters care most about—and deliver ads that relentlessly exploit his, and the GOP’s weaknesses.

Like A Winning Company, Design Your Path To Victory

I hope that candidates from coast-to-coast are studying Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s historic win in New York and asking themselves what they might learn. There are quite a few political lessons to focus on, but there’s also a communications lesson.

For starters, take a look at the sea of political signs at a polling station or in a supporter’s yard. The visual identity and approach to copy from most candidates and ballot initiatives are stale. It’s a sea of red-white-and-blue with bold lettering. A brand that stands out must veer from this framework. Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign materials are mostly purple and look nothing like what we’ve come to expect. Her showcase video also is a moving story that helps voters in her district relate to her. Most voters can’t see themselves as a candidate for Congress. Ocasio-Cortez just changed that score for good.

Make Likeability Your “X” Factor

There are thousands of candidates running for office in 2018. Only a fraction will find their voice and be unafraid and vulnerable in public. Even fewer will properly invest in their own brand identity so it pays off at the ballot box, even though elevating brand standards in political campaigns is a clear way to raise the overall discourse and help attract interest from sideline sitters.

Again, we have an opportunity to learn from Republicans. In Austin, Texas, Gerald Daugherty, a Travis County Commissioner used humor to his advantage and was re-elected.

For an audience that is used to watching King of the Hill reruns, a candidate’s talking points ought to be more like punchlines. I know our current predicament as a nation is not funny. I’m saying that fighting corruption can be. Instead of debating the points, point by point, we can find a way to make light of it, while pointing out the much better alternatives that exist in every district across our beautiful land.

What Bonehook Is Doing To Help Progressives Win

We have four months to wake people up. I know there are thousands of people like me in the ad business who want to help, and who are uniquely prepared to help. Let’s do this right and uplift the long-shots and outsiders with laser-focused messaging and brilliant design.

If you’re a staffer on a campaign and you’ve read this far, thank you. Please reach out to me ask for our support today. I started my communications career on Capitol Hill in D.C. 31 years ago. I know how to help raise money and attract voter attention for your campaign.

Bonehook will rock your campaign materials, and give you a fighting chance to win. I do realize that we’re not the same old or expected choice. Either was DDB in ’64, and either are you!

Top Performing Teams Are Forward And Fearless

Are you part of a highly functional team where everyone trusts one another and holds one another accountable for the team’s results? If yes, you’re the exception, not the rule, in today’s business environment.

Patrick Lencioni is a business writer and consultant with several important titles to his credit. His book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, is a refreshing run through of business fundamentals, and how most of us fail to practice them on a consistent basis.

The agency business, in particular, suffers under the needless weight of dysfunctional teams. Let’s examine the underlying problems in light of Lencioni’s five dysfunctions.

Absence of Trust

In order to develop trust, we must be willing to be vulnerable in front of our peers. But being open and vulnerable is totally unnatural at work. Experience has shown that vulnerability is a weakness. For instance, go ahead and admit to your boss or your client that you’re not good at something. Maybe they’re the understanding type who lavishes praise and encouragement, or maybe they will show their fangs and quickly look to replace you. In a hostile setting like this, it’s nearly impossible to make something of lasting value for customers. To do so, you need to endow the love you have for the client and their customers into the efforts. When you fail to take this high road, it shows. Painfully so.

Fear of Conflict

Conflict is the nature of things in the agency biz; nevertheless, agency people and clients shy away from conflict, just like everyone else today. People seem to believe that conflict is too hard. Conflict upsets people and feelings get hurt. Grudges form and all sorts of bad office politics descend to ruin what might have been a good thing. The key is being able to tell the difference between healthy conflict and unhealthy conflict. Unhealthy conflict is when team members bitch and moan and blame one another, instead of focusing on the problems before them. Healthy conflict is heated debate about the best path forward, that leaves everyone feeling good, heard, and respected. There’s a massive difference between the two and everyone in the room needs to know which is which.

Lack of Commitment

In the agency business, lack of commitment rears its ugly head in so many ways. We lack commitment to one another and to the campaigns we create. Both people and campaigns come and go, like the wind. Chief Marketing Officers last but a season or two before they’re dismissed. Lead agencies share their client’s brand caretaking duties with consultants and other specialist shops. No one seems committed to much of anything outside their own career trajectories and interests. Caring about the right things is what fixes this. Paying obsessive attention the needs of the customer is always the right thing to do. Even when a team lacks trust, fears conflict, and fails to commit to one another, the team can still commit to serving the customer above all else.

Avoidance of Accountability

Lack of personal and professional accountability is a problem that’s presently plaguing many parts of our culture. In business, it goes well beyond not being accountable for “making your numbers.” People have difficulty replying to an email today. It’s hard to say for sure what’s at the root of this, but it’s easy to point out how the problem negatively impacts people and the bottom line. Lack of communication is a form of being unaccountable. Because we work behind our screens for much of the day, there’s an illusion of distance and separateness. Thankfully, it’s not real. You can’t just check out and get away with it. Passive behaviors and pass-the-buck mentalities have no place on a high performing team. Members of high performing teams know the role they play and how to be effective in that role.

Inattention to Results

Measurable, repeatable steps to grow the business are in vogue for good reason. Clients spend a lot of money to reach their intended audiences, and as with any investment, they need to track the progress and evaluate the returns. To do that successfully, clients and agency both need agreement on which metrics matter most and then a plan to track them, analyze them, and act upon the findings. Creative agencies are notoriously bad at making direct links from their work to client profits. Clients are equally hampered by their desperate need for quarterly results. It’s a natural tension and one that can be used to propel the brand forward. It is possible to lift sales and grow revenue while winning hearts and minds, but it’s not easy. You’ll need to bring your best ideas to the table and run your team like a pro.

Patrick Lencioni’s book is called a “fable” for good reason. He weaves a tale that is familiar, but also somewhat unreal. For most teams, getting any one of the five dysfunctions ironed out is huge progress. Nevertheless, it’s good to see where the high bar is, and aim to clear it. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable is a helpful reminder of how things ought to work on a team, and how they do work when everyone’s pulling together towards a common goal.

Bonehook Takes Its Own “Brand Reinvention” Advice, Moves To Austin

Big news in Bonehook land…we up and moved ourselves and our company to Austin, Texas. Austin is where the sun shines, where people are warm and genuine, and where economic opportunity is abundant.


While many companies do not make it past their first few years, Bonehook’s ninth birthday is coming up in April. As a gift to ourselves, we moved to a vibrant city. This geographical pivot is more than a change of address. Place shapes culture, and for anyone working in culture-shaping industries, location is a critical factor. While it’s true that you can “bloom where you’re planted,” it’s also true that climate and culture control what kind of growth is possible.

What will this new chapter bring for us and our existing and future clients? That’s what we’re here to discover! In Portland, small is beautiful and we lived that truth. Today, it’s time to recreate ourselves and our company. Ultimately, our core responsibility is to generate business-building ideas. We do this for our clients in a variety of ways, and when it’s needed, we do it for ourselves. This is one of those times, and we’re thrilled to have this opportunity to reinvent our company and recharge our creative engines.

We started the year with a clear directive for our future. We express it in two words: Reach Higher. For us, reaching higher means holding ourselves accountable to higher standards of personal and professional conduct. It means not accepting less or leaning on excuses. Reaching higher also means we have total confidence in our marketplace value and our ability to team successfully with like-minded marketing pros.

It’s no secret that the agency business is currently reeling. There are myriad reasons for this development, including agency rates, bad attitudes, and a general cluelessness about how to conduct business. It seems that every time we start a new client relationship, we need to begin with a hard reset. We say we are sorry for what happened before, but we’re not those people and we don’t work that way.

As your trusted marketing partner, we actually care about your budget, and we care that our ideas motivate your customers and prospects to act. Our peers often care about the industry awards they win. We think industry awards are shiny objects of distraction and that winning hearts and minds is the true goal. If you share this thinking, please reach out to us. We want to be on your winning team.

Story Is Fuel; A Marketer Never Wants To Run Out of Fuel

Whatever business you’re in, it pays to define your offering in a way that brings customers in the door. We do this all day long for our clients, but sometimes we struggle to do it for ourselves.

This we do know…most business owners and/or marketing directors who are considering hiring an agency want to know what the agency’s area of specialization is, in the hope that it intersects with their own needs. They don’t want to hear a list of things the agency can do or did do. They want to hold onto one idea in their minds about the agency. Therefore every agency needs to answer this most difficult and most essential question: What’s the one thing that you do best?

What is Bonehook’s one thing? Out of all the things that we do, which one do we do best?

Answer: Copywriting.

While we regularly manage a wide variety of clients needs, at the core of our company there is the writing practice. Writing, like design, is fundamental to brand communications. The right words, distilled from strategic sessions and “walking a mile in the customer’s shoes,” turn our clients’ brand stories from esoteric things on PowerPoint slides into copy that drives people to consider, buy, and share.

Focus on the Value Exchange

Is placing writing at the core of our business a true differentiator? That’s for our client’s to answer in a definitive sense, but yes, it works for us.

What we do best is help clients figure out what needs to be communicated and how. The when and where is pretty simple. The tricky one is “why?” Why should a person give their time and attention to an ad or branded content? We believe there must be a value exchange, or there is no valid reason. Clients must provide content that matters to the audience. That’s how attention is earned, day in and day out.

Over the years, we have developed a systems approach to content delivery. We create editorial calendars for our clients, and in essence, they become subscribers to our content services, which are fashioned to the needs of the audience. The mix is typically writing, graphic design, and video for client websites and social channels.

Custom Content Packages Available

Bonehook is a marketing company that operates more like a media company. Our clients “subscribe” to content packages that we custom make for them. A base content package might contain the following:

    1) Two-three blog posts per month
    2) Weekly social media support across all channels
    3) Creation of a monthly email newsletter
    4) Writing, shooting, and editing video once a quarter
    5) Research, writing, and design of one case study per quarter

Our packages start at $2500/month and are adjusted from there, based on a client’s exact needs, which may also include the production of elements like brand advertising, direct mail, and collateral on a project basis.

Multiple Operational Points of Difference

No one factor is the deciding factor when it comes to the client/agency dance. There are many considerations, and most clients we work with look for a lot more than the obvious expert. Clients want a partner with integrity that they can trust with their trade secrets, and they also want someone they like to work with. Put that in your pipeline.

Can we say we are more likeable, or easy to work with, than the next agency? Sure, we can say it and it may even be true half the time. We can also say we run shorter meetings, get right back to people, deliver on time and on budget, and all these things will also be true every time. Our goal is to provide the work in an efficient, cost-effective manner and we do. We’re running a business here!

We Teach Our Clients To Fish

Copywriting is a highly specialized trade that people spend years, even decades, perfecting. Because we place writing at the center of the agency, we want to make the fundamentals of copywriting well understood. To this end, we offer ancillary services to our clients in the form of copy or content audits of existing materials, as well as workshops designed to build the team’s copy muscles.

The legendary Leo Burnett once said, “I have learned that you can’t have good advertising without a good client, that you can’t keep a good client without good advertising, and no client will ever buy better advertising than he understands or has an appetite for.” Burnett was an insightful man with a keen business mind. Our twist on his original thinking is that appetites change and tastes, like habits, can be cultivated.

When you concentrate on building your team’s copy muscles, you gain the distinct advantage of having people on your team trained to recognize stories inside the company that best illustrate the brand’s values. We love to find the answer to the communications riddle inside the product or service itself, as it provides the authentic connection that people seek.

Every Company Has A Story To Tell

Every company has a core brand story to tell because every company has founders, a mission, a team, customers, products and services. Sometimes clients come to the table with pre-conceived ideas about what and how to promote a new offering. It’s our job to listen intently and weigh the ideas. Bonehook’s true value-add is our proven ability to take it all in—the client’s wants and the customer’s needs—and piece together a strong communications plan that moves the needle for the client by consistently providing valuable information to the customers.

We are eager to hear from you about where you are in the brand storytelling process.

    1) Do you have an active content strategy to guide your decisions?
    2) Do you have a framework established for content production and distribution?
    3) Do you have a team of writers to run with your ideas and make them shine?

We get excited when people ask for help with this essential work. If you have a good sense of where you want to go with your company’s communications in 2018, but you’re unsure of the best path to get you there, let’s chat. We’re currently looking to work with two to three new clients in 2018.

Send a note to to open the conversation.

Client Showcase: HealthCo Information Systems

HealthCo Information Systems is a value-added reseller of GE Healthcare’s Centricity Practice Solution, an industry-leading electronic medical records software suite for ambulatory clinics.

GE Healthcare’s EMR software has traditionally been presented to prospects and customers in a binary fashion, with clinical and practice management functionality shown as two distinct spheres that when combined make a whole. The reality is a bit more complex.

With the executive team’s help, we identified nine product categories and nearly three dozen different solutions. We then designed, wrote and organized the material into a physical binder and a brochure that members of the sales team can now use to make presentations inside the clinic. We also made the assets available to the team in digital format, so they can easily send new product fact sheets before, during, or after touching base with customers.