First Impressions

Ads have to work fast. Almost light speed.

They have to be simultaneously clear and intriguing.

If they’re muddled, irrelevant, or boring, no one will pay attention.

This is equally true for ads in student portfolios.

Just 30 seconds before writing this post, I was looking at a student’s book online. The first four examples were case studies that looked more like brochures than ads. They weren’t ads. They were explanations of executions.

Here’s the thing: I don’t have time to sit and read paragraph after paragraph designed to help me better understand the problem, the target audience, what they currently think, what they should think. That’s a creative brief. And I don’t have time to read your creative brief.

I have time to read a few quick headlines that are thoughtful, engaging, clever, provoking, interesting, and clear.

I want to see your creative.

I don’t have time to read your explanations.

“But print is dead,” you say. “Digital solutions need more explanation. They need to be set up.”

Fine. Then set them up. Quickly. And clearly. Then get out of the way, and let the work speak for itself.

And never discount a quick, well-written headline. It’s the easiest way of showing me you can think. If you can write a great piece of copy, I’m willing to bet you can create any kind of compelling content a client needs you to.

This is what reading paragraphs of set-up copy feels like.

Performing is investing is selling

Recently, Jim was writing about audiobooks, and it got me thinking.

A few years ago, I listened to Tom Wolfe’s book, A Man in Full on tape. (Yes, cassette tape.) It was read by David Ogden Stiers. Great actor. Great book. But having him read it to me was a little dull. As Jim wrote, it kind of felt like cheating to be listening instead of reading.

Last week, I finished listening to another audiobook. This one was The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt. A cast of actors performed for about 10 different characters. The production was complete with Foley effects from background music on the radio to doors slamming. When someone was on the phone, they sounded fuzzy. When they were in the other room, they sounded distant. When they interrupted each other, you actually heard. It less of an audiobook and more of a radio play. They weren’t the best troupe of actors, but the whole experience was far superior to famous Steirs reading famous Wolfe.

The Tom Wolfe book is like the creative team that says, “This idea is so good, it speaks for itself. Feast your eyes on this brilliance.” No one’s questioning the talent or the substance. But outside of the creative team, no one’s really invested in it either.

The Goldratt production was the creative team who took a great idea, sold it, and got it produced.

(In Tom Wolfe’s defense, the jacket design for A Man in Full – and just about anything else – beats the cover of the Goldratt book.)

Language and Framing II

A while back, I wrote a post about the importance of language and framing, about how small changes in language can compel us to make larger shifts in the way we think about something.

I’ve recently gotten hooked on listening to audiobooks. I love them because they allow me to “read” while I’m driving or working in my yard. The other day, I noticed something: rather than a “Read by…” credit on the cover of the audiobook, it said “Performed by…”

I used to consider audiobooks a form of cheating. Someone was reading the book to me instead of me doing the work. It felt kind of lazy. I imagine this is one of the big hurdles for the audio book industry.

But “Performed by” frames the audiobook in a way that gets me over this hurdle. I’m not just having it read to me, I’m taking in a performance. It’s as different as a play or a film. In this case, they hired actor Michael Boatman, who reads the narration and acts out the parts, giving voices to all the characters. It’s a true performance. It changes how I think about the form and how I enjoy it.

In addition to how we frame things in the work we produce, the words we use to present it, particularly to our clients, can make a big difference.

We might think something is “cool,” but a client might be more interested in hearing that it’s “relevant to the target.” Same meaning, different language. Is an idea “weird” or is it “breakthrough?” Is a design “clean,” or does it “communicate more clearly?”

If someone had told me this when I was a student, I would have said, “Whatever. I want to sell my work on the strength of the ideas, man.” I had much to learn.

A Few Observations on Framing and Language

One of the important things you’ll have to do many times in your advertising career is craft language to frame a topic a certain way. This simply means that you control how someone looks at an idea. What perspective are they viewing it from and how are they judging it?

You obviously can’t always control how someone perceives your idea, but with the right language and the right tone, you certainly can influence it. Here are some examples:

1) Setting up your work for a client. I like to let the client know, as I set up the work we’re showing, how I judged the work and what I think it has going for it. This doesn’t always mean they’ll agree, but it lets them understand where I’m coming from before they form their own opinion. Or I’ll ask them to put their 12-year-old boy hat on (or whatever the target is) for a moment as they listen to the script.

2) Is there a completely different strategic approach? When my agency did a campaign for Brita Water Filters, which had always been about super-clean water without impurities, someone had the smart idea to re-frame the issue to be about conservation. Because a good deal of the plastic water bottles that people use end up in landfills or circling the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Here’s another example, the likes of which you’ve probably seen in hotel bathrooms.

The cynic in me sees those signs and thinks, “Yeah, right. The hotel’s just trying to save money on laundry.” Which may be true, but it is helping the environment too, and in the end I reuse my towels.

3. Word choice for the little things. Consider these possible call-to-actions in a banner ad:
Click here to visit
Discover more at
Start the journey at
They’re all asking me to do basically the same thing, but each sets my expectations for Is there a better way to say what you want?

Here’s another example that always strikes me when I see it. Rather than the typical SELL BY DATE, some drinks have the much more promising ENJOY BY date.

Framing is not about tricking anyone. It’s about asking someone to consider something from a different viewpoint. And if you have any questions as to whether it’s important, I invite you to listen to this episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Radiolab. In it, they discuss the potential effect of Obama’s election on the academic performance of African-American students, as well as how the simple act of framing a test (i.e. the language used to say what the test measures) can have a huge impact on test scores.

Sometimes it’s the Little Things

When I played basketball with my dad when I was young, he liked to post up and, when he got the ball, intentionally step on my foot before making his move. I called it dirty. He called it experience.

There are a million tiny things you can do to help sell your work. Here’s perhaps the smallest.

Before you present a campaign idea, do a little setup. Sometimes I put these paragraphs on a board, or hand them out so people can read along. Title or tagline at the top, then a few sentences that walk from the strategy to the execution (in as direct a route as possible–weed out all the tangential stuff). Maybe include a nice mood photo. This is pretty much standard. I have even played music while I read the setup.

So here’s the little trick. End the paragraph with your tagline. It’s stupid, I know, but think about when you’re reading a book, and somewhere in the prose of the book, you come across the title. It jumps out at you, and you start to think there’s something meaningful in that sentence. Like a theme. Like something deep. Like an answer, maybe. Sometimes it’s the little things.