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Posts Tagged ‘Creatives’

“Search all the parks in all your cities;
You’ll find no statues of committees.”
David Ogilvy, Confessions of an Advertising Man

In any creative business, the deeply personal nature of aesthetics makes judging ideas highly subjective.  Worse, typical corporate structures layered with levels of administrators each empowered with a small share of specialized brand responsibility creates a highly-contentious approval process where narrow interests, task-specific wants, and individual egos sublimate well-intentioned cooperation into contentious compromise.  And along the way, ever fragile aesthetics collapse as these forces stretch ideas into tortured, accommodation-driven forms.

“Nibbled to death by ducks,”  “Pissing on the tree”: this process raises the cynical hackles of any designer who strives for the exceptional, which explains how last week, a user interface designer named Dustin Curtis generated a dust up among creative thinkers on Twitter and online message boards that far exceeded the usual grumbling.

Mr. Curtis published and promoted this site along with an open letter to American Airlines.  Essentially, he takes extraordinary offense at their website, despising the online experience so much that he vows “never to fly your airline again.”

Dustin Curtis' AA.com Redesign

Dustin Curtis' AA.com Redesign

However, unlike other irritated consumers, Mr. Curtis took the unusual but relatively easily-realized step of taking his beef public.  With high dudgeon, he openly questions how the otherwise respectable AA could tolerate such a ‘terrible’ customer experience, taking personal aim at CEO Gerard Arpey and their board of directors for tolerating such an assault on their brand and its image.  He went so far as to spend ‘six hours’ redesigning their landing page, and his design definitely features a clean, streamlined look compared to the Nascar-esque clutter of the existing AA page.

His indignant ranting vitriol at this perceived confederacy of dunces makes wonderful vicarious reading for creative professionals, but that was not particularly fascinating.

What was incredible was that an actual user experience architect from AA.com responded to his complaint, albeit somewhat anonymously.  Even Mr. Curtis seemed amazed, more so by the fact that this designer’s portfolio featured some great work.

In his response “Mr. X” sets the blame for their underwhelming site squarely on American’s corporate structure and culture: large, far-flunged and heavily, heavily siloed.  Many people touch the site, each with their own vested interests and many with autonomous authority, which results in the eventual dog’s breakfast that is aa.com.

The AA.com Website

The AA.com Website

In the end, I bet “Mr. X” vetted his letter with his bosses, providing a response to this challenge that simultaneously sought to explain, excuse and even pre-sell coming improvements.  It was a thoroughly contemporary version of corporate mea culpa: highly-targeted, highly-specific, tolerably supplicating and forward looking.

Mr. Curtis chalks this up to the permeation of bad taste in large organizations, but that’s a bit hysterical.  The real issue is empowerment.  With notably few exceptions, CMO’s lack any real authority in serious businesses.  They may be C-level, but they sit at the child’s table; easily replaced, ignored and overruled.

But its no coincidence that some of the consistently best run marketing organizations have adapted this structure to streamline the process and limit the amount of people with license to effect creative ideas.  The irony of the short-lived CMO tenure is how one individual with the remarkably rare balance of skills that makes them both strategic, sales-focused, and artistically discerning can radically influence a company’s image and their brands’ success.  For years at PepsiCo, that job fell to the legendary Alan Pottasch, who never touched an idea he didn’t improve.  Phil Knight’s role in the creative vision of Nike stands very well documented.  And ConAgra CEO Gary Rodkin’s recent emphasis on creative champions in marketing roles signals a powerful new resurgence for his collection of exceptional brands.

In a corporation, just as in society, an individual with vision can make a difference.  Corporations that choose and empower these kinds of exceptional individuals always win.  Those that don’t, inevitably spend too much on their advertising, forced to run more of it since it is of lower quality, and spending more to produce it due to overruns in editing, keylining, and approval.

In the end, not every creative idea or site can be as brilliant as this one, but they can all be better.  And the decision to be better has always been and always will be a personal choice.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79
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One Blogging Site, One Day, 42 Million Words--and This Was Sunday    One Blogging Site, One Day, 42 Million Words–and This Was A Sunday

According to a wonderful word-nerd site called the Global Language Monitor, there are 999,353 words in the English language. This sheer head-spinning volume all but guarantees I’ll never finish the New York Times Sunday Crossword, though it’s my ignorance of the Hebrew months that usually trips me up there.  This volume of available words also eliminates any excuse for lame copywriting.  With all those adjectives and adverbs, product descriptions should far exceed the shame of tripe like “wholesome goodness,” “family fun.” and “great values.”

Granted, we toil in a largely parity world, and so the vast majority of our work demands we enhance the mundane or magnify the mediocre.  It can be a challenge to elevate this type of writing so too often, lesser talents roll over in the product section, regurgitating the pre-approved, sanitized-for-no-one’s-engagement laundry list of attributes directly from the brief.

But every now and then, some brilliant creative escapes the constraints of these assignments and creates work that soars–even in the traditional wasteland of the product section.  And that merits celebration.

Which is why a few months back, I forwarded this link to the Element 79 creative department.  This is comedian Patton Oswalt’s review of the KFC “Famous Bowl” and while his words decidedly don’t sell the product, his description speaks vividly to the palate and memorably to the imagination–most notably when he summarizes this ill-considered but mystifyingly popular caloric nightmare as “a failure pile in a sadness bowl.”  Choirs of writing angels should herald that phrase alone, and yet Patton goes on to spin a total of 1,121 words into a yarn that simultaneously informs and repels anyone with even trifling respect for their arterial health.

That's DOCTOR Abraham Verghese To You...

That's DOCTOR Abraham Verghese To You...

On a similar if decidedly higher-brow note, I’ve been reading Cutting for Stone on the recommendation of my wife Maureen.  Reading the bookflap description of the author provides a harsh reminder of the standards set by true practitioners of the writing craft.  This is Dr. Abraham Verghese’s third novel that he penned while practicing as a board-certified internal medicine specialist in pulmonary and infectious diseases as part of the Stanford University School of Medicine Faculty.  By way of comparison, I know all the lyrics to Paper Lace’s “The Night Chicago Died.”

Even though I’m not yet a third of the way through this fascinating book, Verghese’s writing has already revealed itself as superlative: filled with astute observations and achingly emotive descriptors.  One that leapt off the page centered around a flight taken by one of his main characters from Yemen to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia aboard a rattletrap DC-3.  Sitting amidst a melting pot of nationalities, she notices “…the mingled scents of the human freight.  The Arabs had the dry, musty smell of a grain cellar, the Asians contributed the ginger and garlic; and from the whites came the odor of a milk-soaked bib.

Wow.  Never before, and perhaps never again, will you read those particular words constructed in that particular way.  A worthy goal for any professional writer.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

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For the cover story of the current issue of Adweek, Janet Stillson interviewed a number of CMO’s regarding what they want most from their agency and media partners.  Anyone familiar with this type of article can guess the CMO’s broad stroke responses: a heightened call for that reliable industry workhorse, innovation, and complaints of how it seems scarce as hen’s teeth.

Frankly, that should come as no surprise, particularly given the actions taken by two CMO’s featured in the article, who were both specifically looking to spur innovation.

Laura Klauberg, VP of marketing at Unilever, told how for the 2009 upfront, she had MindShare brief their media partners on Unilever’s key branding initiatives, to clearly identify both their messages and desired consumers.  She believed this knowledge would spur better thinking, but thus far, she admits the results have been mixed.

Christine Kubisztal, media strategy manager for Walgreen’s, went the opposite way; she left her agency partners out of the game entirely and went directly to the media sellers.  Her thinking?  “It’s tougher when there’s a middleman.  I’m tired of trying to get them to go to media sellers and bring stuff forward.”

Creativity Has More Uses Than Duct Tape

Creativity Has More Uses Than Duct Tape

Interestingly—despite citing the need to have their agency partners step outside their comfort zone–neither CMO considered doing that themselves by involving their brand’s creative teams.  Instead, they approached programming or media sales organizations hoping to find big ideas, despite the fact that neither employs dedicated creative staff.  No wonder their results were ‘mixed’—how can you expect creative innovation from professionals who have honed their skills in other areas?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to bring in the people you charge with creating and extending your brand idea platform and have them collaborate with your media partners?  That way you’d start with both left brain and right brain talent and have a far greater likelihood of developing media innovation.  In fact, the more you consider the exponential changes affecting our industry, the more evident it becomes that everyone needs to ‘step outside the comfort zone.’

You want creativity?  Hire a creative.

You want creativity in any specific discipline?  Pair that creative with a specialized expert.

Creativity is not a skillset; it’s an approach to problem solving.  Yes, advertising creatives learn to develop thirty second television ads, but they could just as easily learn to imagine interesting cross promotions or engaging multi-media programs or even new media platforms altogether.

When I consider the gaming, social networking, syndicated videos and web development that we produce at Element 79, a very real truth emerges:

we are only a traditional agency to traditional clients.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

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