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If I’ve read it once, I’ve read or heard it a thousand times, the four words in the headline referring to good advertising: Cut through the clutter. Talk about setting the bar low! And if you are advertising you are branding. Proponents of this kind of investment need to be taken to the woodshed.

If the main goal of communications to customers and prospects is simply to have them notice us we’re being stupid lazy. And likely ceding too much power to the ad makers.

Shouldn’t our aspiration for communications be to make people “feel something, then do something?” And shouldn’t those feelings and doings be strategic?  Based upon brand values and brand claim?  

If you ever find yourself in a room with makers and hear the words “cut through the clutter,” you are probably about to create the clutter.

Don’t do it. 



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There has always been a tension in advertising between strategy and creative.  The best creative ideas, creative people will tell you, come from coloring outside the lines. Think Different, to quote TBWA Chiat Day and Apple. The creative mind flourishes without bounds.

Strategy people like lines and organization. We love creativity, but our day job is about lines. Flexing the tension is another of our day jobs.

Both groups know there are no absolutes. I often say “Campaigns come and go, a powerful brand strategy is indelible.” That shit flies in one ear and out the other of creative people. 

The best strategy, though, is tempered by great creative.  And the best creative is infused with great strategy. The two create maximum advertising effectiveness and must coexist.

Le Bernardin, the NYC seafood restaurant, garners 4 Stars because of Maguy Le Coze (a neat and order freak) and Eric Ripert, creative chef par excellence.




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There are some fun Capital One commercials running on the NCAA Tournament this year featuring Spike Lee, Charles Barkley and Samuel L. Jackson.  There’s a racial tinge to the spots which are kind of grown up or adult.  It shows these very funny black comedic actors in various Texas locations/scenarios. In one they are shopping for cowboy clothes. In another they’ re out on the range riding horses, or in Spike’s case a donkey, singing Garth Brooks’ Friends In Low Places.  

The actors are not uncomfortable, we are uncomfortable for them. (The Final Four is in San Antonio this year, hence the Texan themes.)

Did Capital One or their ad agency expect this little cultural incongruity in the advertising design?  I think so. And I love it. It makes a statement, with a smile and is still good entertaining trade craft. It’s humorous.  It’s thoughtful. It’s youthful. And a little bit discomfiting.  

Any marketer that can take on race with humor and make us all a little embarrassed it’s still “a thing” is worth paying attention to. Capital One, putting on some big girl pants. 




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I’ve met some unusually powerful brand advocates over the years. And some not so much. Both are approvers and deniers of advertising and messaging.  One advocate, a telephone company president, killed a Wall Street Journal ad containing a visual of 10 adorable puppies because “Our customers aren’t dogs.” The bad ones approve or deny ads because they like or dislike them. When a client breaks out the like-ometer, the agency is in trouble.  

And then there are clients who kills or approve and ad because they supports generic business or messaging goals such as it generates leads, get more “likes,” or offers ad memorability.  This is better but still poor brand craft.

When a product or service has an active and strong brand strategy, all the yeses and noes are grounded. They’re all strategic. A brand strategy (one claim, three proof planks) gives form and reason to advertising. I’ve never felt bad losing an ad when the brand strategy card was played. Ever.

Brand strategy makes ad craft and brand craft scientific.




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There is a type of advertising that really rankles me. I call it “We’re Here” advertising. Effectively, it’s nothing more than a banner with a brand name and logo. We’re Here advertising conveys what is being sold and, hopefully, where to buy it. Unfortunately, We’re Here advertising is not uncommon…and it has even been known to work. The logic goes, by just showing up and reminding consumer you’re there, you’ll garner consideration. It’s such a waste.  

Real advertising contains reasons to buy. A claim or two. Logic that supports a buying decision. Back in the day when there were 3 TV channels, showing up in a tutu beneath a lyrical song may have been enough. Today, image is important, style is important ,  but reasons to buy are exquisitely important.  And above all, reasons to buy must be memorable and evidence based.

If you spend any money advertising to savvy American consumers, you need to look at your ads and make sure they’re not We’re Here ads. If they are, fix them.



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Can advertising agents get PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder)? Good question.  As someone who worked at advertising agencies and made mistakes I know what it’s like to get reamed out. I know what it’s like to make thousand dollar mistakes. I have scar tissue on my back from run-ins with creative people. Voluble creative people who belittle suggestions from non-art and copy brethren.  I’ve also been canned by clients and ad agencies. According to peripatetic wonder-planner Sean Boyle, that’s a good thing…badge of courage.  

Does all the scar tissue, mean-girl activity and failure contribute to an ad agent’s lost nerve? Do we sometimes pull back on a great idea, because we are afraid? Or do we learn from our foibles to become a better agents?

I reckon both are true.                                                   

It’s not a business for the weak hearted. And apologies for any suggestion that trauma in ad world is akin to that in the theater of war, but hey, we use metaphor here. The fact is, when you make decision to spend other people’s money there may be a cost along with a reward. Be thoughtful but be firm. No one is going to die. Learning is the best elixir for nerves. Learn faster than others and you win.



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Brand strategies are first and foremost internal documents. Ninety percent of marketers think they are external; ideas to be foisted upon the consuming public. That’s called advertising.

Brand strategy comes way before advertising. It’s an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging. It needs to be sold in at the top levels of a company and enculturated through to the lowest levels of the company. When so handled there are few things more powerful in the land of marketing.

I’ve written before that one of my regrets has been the inability to sell brand strategy throughout the client company. If the strategy is sold only on the executive floor, but doesn’t make it down the elevator, it is less likely to provide the shareholder/stakeholder/business value it needs to.

The heavy lifting of adopting a brand strategy is found in training. And internal communications. PR needs to buy in as well. Once approved, brand strategy is not a democratic pursuit. It needs to be shared, understood, operationalized, practiced and incentivized.

Great brand strategy becomes culture.






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POS stand for point of sale. It used to mean in-store displays. Today it covers a lot more. It covers ecommerce and some online advertising — certainly online ads that put a customer one click from purchase.

Not too long ago the vast majority of advertising reached customers while nowhere near shopping. TV and radio hit consumers with ads that molded opinion and attitude for a future purchase.  Then 800 numbers on TV ads allowed custies to dial-up a sale from the couch, as so did shopping networks like QVC. But the real breakthrough in POS was the web, where people actually go to shop. 

POS advertising online and POS advertising in-store are too similar for my taste. The online version should be richer. In-store you can experience the product through touch and feel — through sampling. Online all you have is video. I’m thinking virtual reality will alter this in the next couple of years and I can’t wait.  Buckle the seatbelts of your self-driving cars.

Thoughts? Peace.




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Rootable Proof.

Great journalists can write a story about a person and make you root for them. The short TV vignettes produced for the Olympics about athletes you never heard of is a great example of the craft. When a cauliflower eared, over-muscled Syrian weightlifter can be turned into a “rooted for” softy you have created the right back story. The parts of the back story that make you root for the athlete are the realities of hardship, underdog-ness, and courage. Not platitudes, proofs.    

This is a craft people in the ad biz don’t get. Ads are created using an opposite strategy. Rather than find a rootable quality for a product or service, we trot out its riches. “Best this, first that, only this.…”

At What’s The Idea? the brand strategy framework identifies “a claim and 3 proof planks” for a brand. This organizing principle — developed to build a simple array of memorable values that influence preference – focuses on rational and emotional proofs.

(Rootable proofs are often conveyed in story form. This is where the power of storytelling lies in branding and advertising.)




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Learn from a salesman.

One of the things that makes watching the Olympics on TV so compelling is the human interest piece they do on athletes before each event. Usually it revolves around a home town and a hardship conveyed by friends, family or teachers. These back-stories not only set context, but allow viewer a little emotional skin in the game.

In advertising, this is not really possible. It used to be in the early days of long copy print ads, not anymore; not in this fast twitch media world with smart phone ads the size of a pinky finger.

The ability to set the stage for selling using exposition is something great sales people do. They story tell with examples tied to the course of the conversation. And they story tell, not off the boiler plate talking points of the company, but using heart and soul of experiences (or proofs) that carry emotional “reasons to prefer” a brand. As I mentioned in my last post, that’s usually not material-based but experience-based.

This is the heart of storytelling today. And it was learned from belly-to-belly salespeople, as are most great selling schemes and techniques.

Web sites could borrow a page. Peace.


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