The Many Tellings of a Story

When you have a story to tell, you usually just tell it. But in advertising, you have to tell it multiple times—to your partner, to your team, to your client, to your director—before you finally tell it to your real audience.
If those first tellings don’t go well, that final telling will never happen. So don’t overlook those first tellings. Give a lot of thought to how you’re going to bring the story to life for your client, in particular. They should be as engaged by your telling of the story as they will be by the final execution.

Too often I see ideas that could be great fall flat in meetings because nobody gave any thought to how to present the idea. Or maybe they didn’t think the idea needed anything more than to be read from a paper. Ideas do not sell themselves. Stories sell ideas. So tell a good story, each time you tell it.


Bad Presentation Can Ruin a Great Idea

A bad presentation can ruin a great idea. This is true if you’re presenting work to a client or just in the way you present your work on your website.

Don’t spend weeks crafting every detail of a campaign and then slap it on your website with a poorly-written description you crapped out in 30 seconds. Your job is to present ideas. To communicate clearly. To tell compelling stories. How you present your ideas will be judged as much as the ideas themselves.

So make sure you think about how you present your idea. Is there a story behind it? Does there need to be? Should you create a video about it or do a couple simple sentences suffice?

In the words of the great ad man, Albert Einstein: “Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Amateur Creativity

This is a presentation I gave to the Chicago Portfolio School last month. 

I shortened the 45-minute presentation to about 12 minutes, so I had to cut out some of the showcase pieces.

I also had to rerecord my voice. I swear I sound much better live.

Please send any feedback on how I could improve this presentation to the comments section below.

The Theoretical Ad-Like Thingy

“So there’d be like two guys in a park or at the mall of somewhere talking about normal stuff. And then something crazy would happen in the background and one of the guys would be like pointing but it would be the product. And there’d be some copy at the end that says something about how it gets noticed.”

“Do you have a tagline?”

“Yeah, and there’d be a tagline.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t know yet.”

This is a reenactment of the presentation of a theoretical ad. For some reason, students present these all the time in class. It wants me to poke my eyes out or, lately, want to poke their eyes out. There is a vague concept here, but this isn’t an execution. It’s like drawing the first gesture of a circle and saying “What do you think of my portrait?” I don’t know. It’s not a portrait yet. This concept above, I don’t know. It’s not a script. It’s a vague notion about a script.

Do not present theoretical ads. Do not present vague paragraphs. Your job is not to create MadLibs.  If you don’t know whether a spot should take place in a mall or a park or the international space station, pick the one you think is best. Create a concrete idea in the mind of your creative director or client (or instructor). Talk about options and alts afterward. But first help them imagine something real and specific.

Two things can happen when you present a theoretical ad. The first is that, because you haven’t brought the idea to life, people don’t get it or don’t like it and the idea dies. The second is possibly worse. Because you have left the idea so open-ended, everyone fills in the blanks with whatever’s in their head. Instead of everyone in the room seeing the idea as you envisioned it, you now have six different versions/visions of your idea populating people’s brains. Which means that if you push your idea forward to the next stage where you do make it more specific, at least five people will think “Oh, that’s not how I was picturing it.”

Bottom line–be specific. If you’ve ever taken a creative writing course, this is something they tell you about your language: be concrete. The same is true here. If you’re presenting a spot, present a spot. For a print ad, show a print ad. Not an ad-like notion. Or, as my instructor Coz Cotzias used to say: “That’s an interesting thought. Now go do a fucking ad.”


I’ve been reading Albert Einstein’s biography, and something struck me today about him. He made these amazing leaps of imagination, but one of the things he was particularly good at was explaining incredibly complex concepts to normal, non-scientists. Today I was reading about his postulates concerning the speed of light and his special theory of relativity, and his explanation of it involved nothing more than a scene with two people, two lightning strikes and a train. This is to explain a couple of the most complex scientific theories.

A month or so ago, I was talking to a director I was working with about how much of our job is articulating our ideas. Yes, coming up with great ideas is important, but a great idea poorly communicated is dirt. Your job when you present to your client, or present to your creative director, or explain your idea to a director–heck, even when you explain it to your partner–is to articulate your idea in such a way that they can see in their head exactly what you see in your head.

This quarter, I’m teaching a scriptwriting class. The first assignment I gave was to take a commercial they like and write the script for it. Just watch the spot, then write what they see. Then I had them present the spot to us in class. After they presented it, we watched the spot and critiqued them on their presentation. Did what we saw on the screen match what we’d imagined when they presented it? If not, how was it different?

This isn’t to say than an execution won’t change from the time you think of it an the time it’s finished. You should be open to creative input from others–directors, actors, etc. The point is that your presentation, your articulation of the idea, is incredibly important. If you’re specific and clear, you shouldn’t run into a client seeing the final project and saying, “That’s not how I pictured it.” You hopefully won’t ever come to a set and look at the art direction and say, “Oh shit. This is completely wrong.” It’s not always an easy thing to do. But we’re in the business of communication. So make sure you’re communicating.

Bring the Brief

This might seem like a small point to post about, but I think it’s important. When you go to a meeting to present creative, bring the strategic brief along. Ideally, you should set up your work using the brief, but at least have it with you.

Inevitably, the creative director, or account person or the CLIENT will ask to be reminded what the net takeaway on the brief is. It’s okay to whip the brief out and read it (usually, an account person or planner will be all over this). What doesn’t look so good (and believe me, I’ve seen this happen) is if all the creatives just look at each other, hoping that someone remembers the main thing their work is supposed to communicate. This puts a bullet in the work before it’s even been presented. It says that there’s a good chance your work will be off strategy, because you don’t even know what the damn strategy is.

I tend to lose things easily, so I started making a 3/4-sized photocopy of the brief and pasting it in my sketchbook. That way I always know where I can find it quickly. Just in case.