All Six Sides of Advertising

I’ve never solved a Rubik’s Cube. I can get one side, maybe two. But I’ve never been patient enough to solve the whole thing.

But I have solved a client’s problem before. I’ve taken edits and layouts and headlines that weren’t working and figured out a way to make them shine.

And I think that’s probably what it feels like to solve a Rubik’s Cube.

Advertising is a series of problems. Not every problem will lead to a One Show Gold or even a book piece. But most of them are solvable. And the more you enjoy solving them, the more fun you’ll have in your career.

What To Do When You Hit A Wall

Every so often you’re going to hit the wall. No ideas. No hope. No motivation.

There are tons of reasons this happens.

Maybe you’ve worked for days with nothing to show for it…
Or you’ve been incredibly productive, but none of your ideas were accepted internally…
Or you’ve worked for weeks, but none of your ideas were accepted by the client…
Or you don’t believe the brief…
Or you don’t believe in the product…
Or you’re distracted by something else going on in your life.

Whatever the reason, when you hit the wall, you really have two options:

  1. Stop working.
  2. Keep working.


It’s as simple as that. And honestly, either one may be right.

If you’re not cracking it, you’re not cracking it. And sometimes it’s best to step back and let your subconscious hammer things out. Go on a walk. See a movie. Read a book. Just step away from the problem. This has worked for me a number of times.

On the other hand, Phil Dusenberry used to say that when it’s 10:00 PM, and you haven’t had any ideas all day, and you feel like you may as well go home, get some rest and start fresh tomorrow, that’s when you should keep working for just a half hour more. Because you never know. This has also worked for me a number of times.

Leave Your Creative Rut

Don’t use the same method for coming up with ideas over and over and over again. Even a good rut is still a rut.

In the habit of approaching problems visually? Try writing headlines instead. Even if the idea doesn’t require them.

Like to work directly with your partner? Try spending an hour or two on your own before coming back together to share ideas.

Do you normally write your ideas on a laptop or a notebook? Try using a stack of index cards and a Sharpie.

There are a bunch of ways you can approach a problem. And you should use all of them. Even if it means sitting in a different chair than you’re used to.

When you find a method that works really well, you should use it as a tool, not a crutch. Don’t let yourself think, “This is the way to come up with ads,” because it won’t be.

Product Benefit Exercise

In the event you’re not working off a brief (i.e., you’re a student, you’re doing pro bono work, or you’re trying to beef up your book on your own), here’s an exercise worth trying.

Take whatever it is you’re working on, and brainstorm 20 product benefits. Say you’re working on Legos. Here are 20…

  1. Fun
  2. Make you smart
  3. imaginative
  4. indestructable
  5. timeless
  6. appeal to all ages
  7. no language barrier
  8. teach kids about connections
  9. you can lose track of time
  10. they keep your kids quiet
  11. interactive
  12. so much better than watching TV or playing video games
  13. MIT has a Lego Lab
  14. colorful
  15. They’re a step-up from Duplo
  16. Variety of sets (space/medieval/town/Star Wars)
  17. Not hard to find
  18. Play that doesn’t make you dirty
  19. Always enough to share
  20. You can build with as much or as little as you like.

Once you have your list of 20 product benefits, start doing ads for each area. For this, do some ads about how Legos appeal to all ages. See how far you can go with that. Then do some ads about how you can add to the sets. Or how, unlike other toys, they’re still fun when you lose a couple pieces. Obviously, some benefits will be better than others. I’m not sure how many people ever bought Legos because they’re “colorful.” Still, do three ads per benefit, and suddenly you’ve got 60 ideas. Keep doing ads off every benefit until you realize which area is the most fertile. Then go do more ads in that direction.

You may not always have a brief. But you should always be working off a strategy. This is just one simple way of finding out what that might be.

By the way, don’t do ads for Legos. Too studenty.
(Much love to Coz Cotzias who showed me how to do this a decade ago.)

Match Wits With Professor Layton

I’ve been playing Professor Layton and the Curious Village on my Nintendo DS. It’s a very addicting puzzle game. Here’s the trailer…

There are over 100 puzzles in this game, from simple riddles to chess games to jigsaw puzzles. A famous riddle that appears in the game is this: “If A is the first letter, and B comes after, what is the last letter of the alphabet?” Of course, you immediately answer “Z,” which is incorrect. Because the question’s really about the last letter of the word “alphabet” and not the 26 letters.
I was really stuck on another one where I had to create a + on a field of pegs. Given the parameters, it seemed impossible. Until I realized that if I tipped the + on its side to make an X, the problem was workable.
What does this have to do with advertising? Almost without exception, the puzzles in this game are solved by looking at the problem from another angle. They’re deliberately phrased to make you assume one thing, but it’s not until you see past those presumptions that you’re able to crack the code.
Like approaching a new assignment, you go in with some presumptions. Like you can’t do award-winning work on packaged goods. Or the client never buys humor. Or the answer is a full-page print ad. Or any kind of an ad.
Presumptions. Scrap them. Ignore them. Pay them no mind. That’s what Professor Layton does.