The Lost Lesson Plan: Stuff They Don’t Teach You In Ad School Part I

School can only prepare you for so much in advertising. Some things you just can’t teach, lessons better learned in the school of hard knocks. Since I graduated and entered the ad world, I’ve picked up on a lot of things they don’t tell you about in school, or things I wish I had known. Here are those observations.

1. The Creative Department Is Nothing Like Don Draper’s – Going into the creative side of advertising may seem like the most fun and glamorous choice. You stumble into work at 8:30 or 9 in the morning wearing jeans and a wrinkled t-shirt because you’re creative like that. Then you effortlessly spout out a few genius ideas with a Starbucks in one hand and an iPad in the other, clear a spot on your desk for your future ADDY awards, then spend the rest of the day tweeting and palling around with your fellow creatives, right?

Wrong. You come in on time, appropriately dressed, and you work hard. You have to. In fact, if you’re anything like me, you never stop working. The creative process is fickle. You can’t limit your thinking to Monday through Friday 8 to 5. And chances are you’ll have to weed through 100 ideas before finding one halfway worth presenting to your creative director. It’s a very rewarding and enjoyable career path indeed, but it’s not Mad Men.

2. Media Buying Is Totally Killer – You may be under the impression that media buying is the stuffy, quiet side of advertising, (“It’s something to do with numbers right?”), and it doesn’t offer the kind of glory that creative offers – couldn’t be farther from the truth.

First of all, elements of creativity definitely go into buying and planning. It would be hard to deliver higher GRPs on a smaller budget than the previous year without using a little creativity. Also, deciding on what mediums to place the advertising takes plenty of ingenuity.

Secondly, media buying is a HUGE part of an agency’s services. In school I didn’t realize how important it really is, not only to the agency but to the client. There is a substantial demand for media buying services too. We have 11 employees and three are media buyers.

Also, buyers get majorly brown-nosed by their media reps. I’m talking lunches, gift baskets, snacks galore (especially during the Holidays), sometimes even free vacations. Lucky for us, our media buyers share their bounty. Well, just the goodies. It’d be weird if I went to lunch with Carol and one of her media reps, chomping away as they discuss business. “(Smack Smack) Can you pass the ketchup?”

3. Your Time Card Is Always Watching – Before going into advertising I had no idea that there was this thing called a time card. It keeps track of the billable hours you spend working on projects so your agency can make money so YOU can get paid, but indirectly it’s kind of a babysitter that makes sure you’re not misbehaving.

Every single day, by minimum increments of 15 minutes, you have to record the projects you worked on (using job numbers) along with the specific task you were performing with that project (copywriting, research, etc.) known as a function code. Since I work on a lot of different projects, I am constantly updating my time card throughout the day. And in a way, this ensures that I stay on task. I’m pretty sure there’s not a function code for “Fartin’ around on YouTube.”

By no means did these revelations affect my attitude about going into advertising; in fact, they’ve probably enhanced it. But they contribute to what I think is one of the most important lessons of all, and that is that you should never have expectations or pre-conceived notions in advertising. Chances are you’ll be disappointed. If advertising is anything, it’s unpredictable, and that’s what makes it so exciting.

– Andrew

134 Minutes as Jim Mathis

Not often you can justify spending several hours on a Saturday staring listlessly at the SyFy channel watching alien movie marathons, but all that time watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers proved its worth in 134 minutes. My 134 minutes as Jim Mathis.

I headed off to the South Dakota AdFed Chili Cook Off Contest last Thursday. With my bald cap in place (I couldn’t summon the courage to Britney Spears it and just bic my hair), vogue sweater vest (several sizes too big, stolen from the bottom of my husband’s closet, but still as sartorial as Ric Santorum or Ryan Tysdal) and big bowl of chili, the pot brimming with pork perfection, I set out to be Jim’s culinary copy, his sarcastic sous chef stand-in sans several inches. And in that two and almost a quarter hours, I realized pitching Three LIttle Pigs chili should be served with the same zest you pitch a client. Not everyone likes pork, just like not every client likes the creative we may pitch. But sometimes it’s just a bad taste from a mom who over-peppered pork chops, so a nibble or new presentation, makes it palatable.

When it comes to the recipe, remember the rules but add your own spice. The chili I dished up took a twist on the traditional, not just using so much pork you needed to do some extra push ups to pull the spoon up, but putting in that little extra (and no, not love… in this case, bacon, which is probably about the same thing). When working on projects, time-tested ideas can always work, but when we remember to make it just a little different, those ideas stand out from the others.

Did we win? No, tied for second. But the biggest lesson is, in the end you just need to be you. So while I spent 134 minutes as Jim Mathis, that time quickly came to an end when I ran into the gas station, bald cap burgeoning from the top of my head, and scared a small child. Probably best to stick to being a blonde with mediocre kitchen skills.

– Jolene

The Elusive Perfect Ad

Some say it doesn’t exist. Others blindly believe. Me? I was hopeful, but just didn’t know for sure, until I had a sighting the other day.

I was driving home from work one night, ear buds plugged in and listening to one of my favorite comedy podcasts Professor Blastoff, when all of a sudden an ad came on. It was a short, quirky-funny Old Spice ad, done in a style of humor that tickled me perfectly. Majestic and awe-inspiring, I literally laughed out loud (LLOL) then listened to it again. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the spot ever since; it just stuck with me. I guess that’s the power of the elusive perfect ad.

I’ve been a long-time fan of Professor Blastoff and have never heard any actual advertisements on the show, other than the hosts occasionally endorsing things like audible.com, but never anything product-related, nor anything that’s been professionally produced by brands, so I didn’t even expect it.

In my opinion, this was a perfect ad. The message was genuinely entertaining, and it reached me in a moment of zero clutter. Plus, after visiting the production company’s website (Earwolf) and looking at the “Advertise” section, I discovered that I fit into the surprisingly narrow demographic, so it was perfectly targeted. And most importantly, the ad led to a sale. After years of using the same deodorant, I finally upgraded.

Now the only problem is, I can hardly remember the spot anymore, and I don’t know what episode it was on. I have tons of Professor Blastoff episodes on my iPod; each is at least over an hour long. I fast-forwarded through a bunch of them but to no avail. I searched online and scoured the Old Spice website, nothing. I even tweeted @OldSpice and wrote on the Professor Blastoff Facebook page, no one answered.

In our world of ever-increasing media saturation and just plain bad advertising, this perfect ad is hard to come by. But it was refreshing to see that although elusive, it is still out there, that is, if my sighting was real. I’m halfway expecting Old Spice to respond to me with, “We don’t know what you’re talking about. We never ran an ad on Professor Blastoff.” And then creepy, mysterious music will play.

Maybe one day I’ll find this perfect ad again, but it really doesn’t matter, because now, I can say that I am a believer.

– Andrew

_ _ _R _ _ _ _ _ _

_ _ _R _ _ _ _ _ _ Sep 25, 2012

The other night I was driving home on I-229, probably paying too much attention to the billboards, businesses and illuminated signs along the road. I couldn’t help but notice the number of businesses and buildings that had signs with burnt out letters. One in particular read “_ _ _R _ _   _ _ _ _” (or something like that; I just remember seeing a lonely lit “R”), on the side of a large building, probably retail of some sort.

If they just took care of their sign, I’d be able to tell you the name of their business, but instead, we’re left trying to play hangman. This is definitely one of the worst cases of sign-neglect I’ve seen.

They had one chance to tell me who they were as I zoomed by at 67 mph, and they screwed it up. And the neon red “R” sign immediately left me with all kinds of preconceptions about their company. Thoughts scrolled through my head as I continued home.

“Their merchandise is probably out-of-date and disorganized.” “Going inside would be like being in a Kmart. Eww.” “They definitely have a bunch of fax machines in there.” Then my imagination really started to run wild. “On the upside, maybe they sell fun obsolete technology that you can’t find anywhere else, like shoe phones or mini disc players, and not as a ‘retro’ gimmick, but because their building lies within a rip in space-time that has frozen them in a perpetual state of 1993.”

A consumer’s first impression of a business, whether it takes place online or on the street, is extremely important. Often-times signage is a part of that first impression. The sign can say a lot about a business, almost foreshadowing what kind of experience consumers may have if they come inside. So based on the sign “_ _ _R _ _   _ _ _ _,” what kind of shopping experience would you expect to have? It definitely would not be like a trip to the Mall of America; I can tell you that.

Letter burn-outs can also result in comical changes to the sign’s meaning. Here’s a bunch of unfortunately funny examples.

– Andrew

Catty Clients

Catty Clients May 31, 2012

Insomnia can be insidious. You eventually learn about every type of beauty balm shopped by Photoshop-friendly ex-super models, the hottest trend in pint-sized grills and of course, the latest way to convert from couch potato to a lean, mean fitness machine. But the other night, I landed on another world… more like a fur, feather and fishy universe called Animal Planet and a rerun of My Cat From Hell on Animal Planet. Intrigued by the name, it pulled me in like catnip.

I learned about Duff, this puff of peaceful white that suddenly become a demon when brought home to its new owners. And teaching Duff to not mame, bite or amputate his owners became the challenge of Jackson Galaxy, also known as the cat whisperer.

But I started to realize cats like Duff can sometimes be all too similar to clients. The relationships start off with the best of intentions. Like taking Duff home, it all seems so picture perfect. But sometimes, within just a short time, the claws come out. While we may charm and put on the perfect smile to schmooze a client to sign with us, how often do we ask ourselves if it’s the right fight? Or as clients, figure out if the decision goes beyond the best bottom line numbers to personalities that work well together. To avoid an intervention with a crazy facial-haired cat whisperer, that’s where it becomes important to take a pause (or paws) and make sure that the people work so the work can do its work.

– Jolene

Shocking Branding

Shocking Branding May 17, 2012

Consider them both shocking… people voluntarily electrocuting themselves, and brands that just get it. The first should be filed in the category of plain crazy. The second goes in the you-could-drive-yourself-crazy-trying-to-find file.

In just a matter of days, months of training (probably not enough), hours of commiserating my lack of athleticism (probably too many), and too few minutes of rational thought culminate in the challenge known as Tough Mudder in Somerset, WI. The 10-12 mile course with approximately 25 military inspired obstacles bases itself on being the toughest event on the planet.

When you consider that you run through fire, jump into ice water, climb hay bales with pitchforks and walk through electrified wires, it may be the toughest or the dumbest thing a person can do. And as I signed my death waiver in bold, bright, glittering pink pen, I realized that this brand makes even signing your life away something you smile about. It’s a brand that knows itself inside and out, reinforcing itself not just with design, style and color, but with a readily identifiable voice in all it does. It’s not just the copy on the homepage, but everything down to the to-do list for the day, which reminds you to not puke and of course, to sign that death waiver.

Either on Facebook or face-to-face, it knows its voice, bringing a mixture of irreverence, arrogance and camaraderie. Take the online quiz to see if you could muster enough to make it through a Tough Mudder; you’re asked about your workout but also the best ‘stache. This brand voice mocks marathons (boring) while remembering its mission to help raise funds for the Wounded Warrior Project. So the greater shock will be if I make it through the challenge (not a timed race, but just a matter of making it to the end). Only Saturday will tell.

– Jolene

A Bid for the Presidency

Wander through the White House or saunter around the Smithsonian, and you probably won’t see any presidential memorabilia made out of poultry (though if Ben Franklin got his way a few centuries ago, we woud be a nation of turkeys). But travel to Dakota City, Nebraska and you’ll find a frozen history lesson.

About three years ago, Rebekah Speight took her kids to McDonald’s and as she cleaned up, a familiar face looked back at her. It wasn’t from a coin purse, but from the pile of uneaten McNuggets. The McNugget looked like George Washington. So government waste no more, Speight kept the pronounced POTUS profile and tucked it into her freezer.

Here’s where the word-of-mouth world that GW knew and our world of connectivity meet to make a creative grass roots campaign. When Speight needed to raise money for a higher purpose, to send students from her church to camp, she got the calling to auction the meaty McNugget. And the lesson from history and marketing is that at times the best viral campaigns mean brushing off the freezer burn and taking a bite of creativity bigger than George Washington’s wooden dentures could take (yes history teachers, and my mom, I know that’s not quite true). It’s stepping outside the usual to create chatter about the unusual. It’s using the tools and toys we employ every day – Facebook, Ebay or Twitter – to drive awareness of those causes that matter the most to us.

For Speight, her bid for the presidency on eBay got media coverage from around the world, creativity that cost conversation and getting bids past $8,000. While Commander in Chiefs may communicate about taxes or partisan politics, when a message makes its way through all the other talk of the day, we must ask why it matters so much. For Speight, the head of state (even in a state of breaded tastiness) gave her a way to help the cause and kids she cared most about it.

– Jolene

Update: The winning bidder chickened out on the sale, but organizers say they will still work to find someone interested in bidding on this presidential piece of poultry.

Unsuspecting Student Shadows at ADwërks

This past week Stuart Augustine, a Senior Advertising Major at the University of South Dakota (USD), chose to spend his spring break job-shadowing at ADwërks. What a weirdo! But seriously, we think that’s pretty cool. It shows a lot of ambition and passion for his future career. So here’s what Stuart had to say about his experience:

When Jim Mathis said that I could shadow at ADwërks for a few days, my first thought was, “If I get to sit in on a meeting with a client, it will be worth it!” My friend thought I was crazy for spending my spring break doing something educational. But considering the amount that I learned this past week, I almost feel like I ripped off ADwërks. (Besides, I jacked like four Dr. Pepper’s on the way out. Kidding!)

My first ten minutes were filled with mixed emotions such as, “I could be sleeping,” or “What if they hate me?” I started thinking that this could get bad, fast. After getting to meet the ADwërkers and seeing the chemistry between them, I learned more in a couple of meetings and conference calls then I did during my last two semesters. Right from the start I noticed my favorite thing about advertising – the blending of ideas between the needs of clients and the agency’s vision.

To compare this experience to school, day-to-day meetings were like class time, and the rest of the day was to handle business! Although I knew there were many things that had to be done by people who knew what was going, Andrew did a tremendous job of finding tasks for me to do that still contributed value to the projects and the team. Whether it was proofing a website or helping with a radio spot, I think there was a great balance between learning and real work experience. Here are a few things I’ll take with me…

  • If you don’t own a sweater vest, you don’t own your soul.
  • You think gold’s expensive? Try buying words on a page!
  • It’s not just in commercials; companies really do have people video conferencing in from China!
  • An ADwërks branded water bottle and coffee thermos. (I’m holding Jim to that.)

To any future employee or intern that is fortunate enough to work for ADwërks – if you can’t enjoy yourself while working with these fine people, I’m afraid you are not as cool as you think you are.

Thank you to Leigh, Carol, Natalie, Elizabeth, Andrew, Mike, Kara, and of course Sara and Heather- the two ADwërkers who I was only able to meet via Skype, since they work remotely in Chicago and Shanghai. I think I’m leaving someone out… Yes! Also, special thanks to Jim Mathis for giving me the time of day after he spoke to my class, and giving me this opportunity. I simply asked to shadow at the agency, but feel I’ve gained an irreplaceable experience that I can only build upon in the future.

– Stuart Augustine

Is Your Writing All Talk?

Commitment Innovations Today

People Inspiring Discovery

Soaring Achievement Excellence

Do these phrases mean anything to you? I mean, the individual words are ok. But put together, they’re ambiguous, and pretty much meaningless.

This is something I frequently notice in advertising and business communications – words that are pretty on the outside (sometimes not even that), and empty on the inside. They’re purely cosmetic. It’s just a gag played on the audience, similar to the tricks performed by this magician.

For the sake of conversation, let’s call these meaningless ad phrases “gaglines.” (Not only is the illusion that they’re saying something of value a joke, but they make me gag.)

Gaglines defeat the purpose of your advertising. They’re just pretending to say something, but really not saying anything at all.

The purpose of your advertising is most likely to fix some kind of problem; transparent gaglines don’t fix those problems. Just because you use words like “excellence” or “inspire,” doesn’t mean you’re saying something meaningful and beneficial about the brand. Ad copy needs to be real and genuine. It should focus on the message, not the words.

Every ad you put out there is an opportunity – an opportunity to be heard, to influence consumers, to boost sales for the client… Failure to say something meaningful about the brand is a missed opportunity. So take advantage of your spotlight moment. Give your words legs to walk, and say something worth listening to.

– Andrew