Your Career in a Pontiac Aztek

In 2001, Pontiac introduced the Pontiac Aztek – an SUV crossover with a built-in tent that would later become one of Time‘s 50 Worst Cars of All Time. The article claims, “This car could not have been more instantly hated if it had a Swastika tattoo on its forehead.”

It continues, “The Aztek design had been fiddled with, fussed over, cost-shaved and otherwise compromised until the tough, cool-looking concept had been reduced to a bulky, plastic-clad mess. A classic case of losing the plot…The shame is, under all that ugliness, there was a useful competent crossover.”

Sound familiar?

But the fact that the original Aztek design was pecked to death by ducks isn’t the only parallel to advertising. The pits the Aztek designers fell into are still out there.

Danger 1: Accepting too many compromises

Did the Aztek’s designers fight to keep their original idea? My guess was they were so happy to actually be producing something they justified a few compromises. David Droga has said, “It’s a weird thing – sometimes you start out with something that you love, but when it does get compromised along the way, you’re so in love with it you’re blinded to how much it’s been compromised, and you just want to see it through. You have to have the courage as an agency to say, we understand your issues and we’ll take this off the table and come back with something new.”

Danger 2: Believing creativity is gravy
The fact that “under all that ugliness, there was a useful competent crossover” makes me think that Pontiac justified messing with the design because it was still a crossover and fit the parameters of what Pontiac wanted to launch. That’s like saying, “It answers the brief, so it must be a great ad.” A great campaign does more than give the client what they asked for in the briefing meeting. Great design, great art direction, great writing aren’t just artsy-fartsy bells and whistles.

Danger 3: Staying in the wrong culture
I may be going out on a limb, but I don’t think Pontiac had a culture that championed truly great, innovative ideas. Toyota? Sure. Honda? You bet. But Pontiac? And yet, they must have had some talented and ambitious designers there. Ron Mather has said, “You are more likely to come up with a great idea in a great agency than in a mediocre agency. I think it’s the atmosphere. Being around very good people in an environment that promotes great creative thinking.”

And if you realize you’re working for a Pontiac-style ad agency, have the courage to follow Ernie Schenck’s advice: “If things are working out and you’re getting your needs met, and you know what those are at this point, then great. If not, though, don’t wait to jump ship. Trust me on this inertia thing. The longer people stay in one place the harder it is for them to leave.”

Danger 4: Lowering the bar
Despite all the time and money Pontiac put into developing the Aztek, they failed to realize that people were going to hate it. My guess is they were talking to themselves. Groupthink and high standards rarely co-exist. If you lower the bar of your own creative integrity because you think it will help you get something produced, make your CD happy, enter an award show, or simply because it’s your duty and you need to be a good solider, watch out. There will be times in your career when, for various reasons, you will be required to deliver work that is below your standards. Just don’t make them too frequent. And never kid yourself that meeting such low expectations is an accomplishment to celebrate.


Showing Your Work Around

“I don’t know what’s good anymore.”

We’ve all had this experience. We work on something so much, for so long, that we completely lose perspective. We’re too close to it. We can’t tell if something’s clear, funny, stupid, or so stupid it’s funny. At times like this, it’s good to have a few go-to people.

“Hey, what do you think of this?”

You need someone who’s smart, has good taste, and will be brutally honest with you. Sometimes it’s good to have a few of those people.

“One person I showed thought that the cat kind of reminded her of aliens, because this one time she had a dream about alien cats.”

If you focus-group an ad around long enough, you will get some pretty strange feedback. We all know the chronic focus-groupers. Sometimes they’re legitimately confused, but often they’re just fishing for compliments, or searching for the one person who will tell them that their crap ad is brilliant. Don’t be that person.

Have your few trusted brains. Use them as necessary. If they all agree that the ad’s not working, take that to heart. But don’t take every piece of thinking that you ever poop out and show it around to everyone. It’s annoying and, because everyone will have a different take on it, it will just confuse you.

As much as learning how to come up with a good idea, you need to learn to evaluate a good idea. Trust your gut. And when your gut is full, trust the guts of a few smart people around you. But don’t trust the guts of everyone in the school, or everyone in the agency. That just leads to a big, gooey, gross, gutty mess.

It’s the Music, Stupid, Part III: Demo Love

Jim recently posted a great piece on music. He mentioned the trap of demo love. Here’s a quick story on how very real this molotov cocktail can be.

A couple years ago, we presented a rough cut to our client. We went to great lengths to explain how rough it was. We vigorously explained that the music (ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky”) was place-holder.
While the edit was coming together, we found an awesome piece that fit spot perfectly (“Energy” by The Apples in Stereo). The Apples song had everything going for it:
  • The lyrics, theme and feel of the music aligned with the spot. “Mr. Bluesky” sounded good, but had nothing to do with it.
  • The album “New Magnetic Wonder” was barely a fortnight old. “Mr. Bluesky” had already been used in approximately 1,732 commercials.
  • The album was getting great reviews, was a breakthrough work for the band, and the client could have ridden that wave.
  • Most astonishingly, The Apples in Stereo were asking $50,000 for unlimited licensing. Jeff Lynne of ELO wanted $250,000 to use “Mr. Bluesky” for six weeks.

So which one did the client pick? Let’s just say Mr. Lynne probably bought himself a case of new shampoo/conditioner, and we weren’t able to help fund one of my favorite band’s European tour. And yes, after the 6 weeks of ELO licensing expired, the client didn’t have enough to renew and we had to use needledrop.
Resist the siren song of demo love. It is very, very irrational. And very, very real.

Career Warehouse

Your career is a warehouse. It’s got an inventory. And you decide what comes in, and what you keep in storage. Unless, of course, you stop paying attention.
That’s when crates of 20-second legal copy start to show up in the shipping office. That’s when the forklifts bring in palates of “ACT NOW!” starbursts. You sign for these deliveries because the client or your creative director promises “just this once.” Or maybe you let them pile up because you’re “just paying your dues.”
But then the shipment for the One Show has to go out. And you look around your warehouse and realize you’re out of creative stock. There’s nothing good on the shelf. All you have are some moldy cardboard boxes marked “CONCEPT STILL IN TESTING” and “POLISHED TURDS.”
The easiest way to keep your warehouse from being cluttered is to keep an inventory. I recommend monthly. Quarterly at the very least. Figure out what you need more of and find a way to go get it. It’s the end of the month. Why not take inventory right now? It sounds like a Stephen Covey aphorism, but a little self-evaluation is better than hoping you catch a break on the next assignment.
Going a whole year without getting into the One Show isn’t so bad. Going a whole year without having anything to enter into the One Show is.

Why I Suck at Foosball

I am a horrible foosball player. I ended up sitting out all the pickup games at my last agency, because office rules held that you played for a dollar, and I got tired of always losing dollars.

I think one of the reasons I’m so bad is because I tense up. I take foosball much too seriously. Especially for someone with such poor foosball skills. Last December, when my nephew and niece were creaming me in a game, my wife made fun of me because because, in her words, I looked like I was “trying to save the world and losing.”
I used to tense up when I sat down to make ads. A blank piece of paper. And I’m the one who has to fill it. I was trying to save the world, and I was afraid of losing.
I don’t approach ads that way anymore. It’s counterproductive and counterfun. I work hard. But I know that if I whiff on an assignment, I’ve got either another round or another assignment headed my way. 
I’m a lot more successful and have a lot more fun coming up with ads than I do playing foosball. Because to me one’s a game. And the other is a competition I’m trying to win.