Gold, Frankincense…and Metal

So, how many times this season have you heard Paul McCartney’s treacly “Wonderful Christmas Time”? Did an act of congress dictate that every store’s playlist must feature an inappropriately-breathy rendition of “Santa Baby”?

If you’re struggling to find your musical merry this season, search no more. In what is the polar opposite of anything on Neil Diamond’s Christmas playlist, a metal band out of York, PA has released their own magical antidote of sorts. Small Town Titans have re-interpreted “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch” with a metal sensibility that would make Boris Karloff smile. And it gladdens my heart more than all the sugarplums on Michigan Avenue…

Wow. The Zevon-worthy lyric “YOU HAVE ALL THE TENDER SWEETNESS/OF A SEASICK CROCODILE” never felt so ominously threatening. And apparently, lots of us agree that’s a good thing.

The unsigned power trio released this cover last year but according to lead singer Phil Freeman, “we weren’t really expecting more than maybe a million views by Christmas.” To their surprise, their Facebook post of a live performance went viral. It now has over 23 million views…and it’s still climbing. That’s what happens when your post gets shared by over a half a million people.

In a lovely twist of fate, Freeman, Ben Guiles, and Jonny Ross all met as students at Lebanon Valley College; my decidedly non-metal mother and sister’s alma mater.

So yes, it is a lovely season and indeed, it may well be the most wonderful time of the year. Still, there’s definitely room for this sentiment as well. Nicely done lads.

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A Sweet Act of Creative Generosity

Most challenges modern agencies face stem from how we, as an industry, spent decades devaluing our one, singular asset: creativity. We gave it away for years since we earned our margins in media markups.

This worked fine, until it didn’t. By the time broadband and mobile fragmented the media landscape into a thousand platforms, we had trained clients not to pay for the one thing we truly own. And the results have not been pretty.

It’s a situation made worse by creative people themselves. We tend to underprice our own product, accepting lower compensation due to our sheer love of making things. That’s why a story last Saturday involving a creative team from Wong Doody LA made me smile so much. Call it “The Saved Quinceañera.”

The creative team was prepping a massive video and still shoot down in Houston with Patrick Molnar, a nationally-recognized, professional lifestyle photographer. As they worked in the museum district off Rice University, producer Amy Wise noticed a group of teenagers posing around a fountain as family members snapped photos with their phones. Being curious and outgoing (invaluable traits in an agency producer), Amy quickly learned it was Jasmine’s quinceañera–the traditional celebration of a fifteen year old girl’s transition from childhood to womanhood. Unfortunately, the large bus they had rented for their celebration hit a curb and blew a tire, setting them back a few hours. By the time they arrived at the park for their shoot, their photographer had given up and left.

And yes, the movie-of-the-week scene you are currently imagining in your head is exactly what happened next. Amy told the creative team, the creative team told Patrick, and within minutes, a major professional photographer was lining up shots of the young woman and her court, saving the day with a level of professionalism far beyond anything the family might have imagined. For no other reason other than it was fun, and it would brighten this girl’s day, transforming disappointment into delight.

The whole experience lasted less than fifteen minutes, but in that time, Patrick squeezed off bursts, insuring he’d have lots of selects to choose from, which he did later that night, retouching frames in the hotel bar.

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Unretouched photo courtesy of Patrick Molnar.

Creative people get into the business for the joy of making things. On Saturday afternoon, they didn’t make an ad or a piece of content or a digital experience; they simply made someone’s day. And in this case, that feeling was compensation enough. Well done Matt Burgess, Vanessa Witter, Callie Householder, Amy, and Patrick.

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Yes, Creativity for Creativity’s Sake Can Generate Significant Agency Value

It was nearly five years ago. Mike Fetrow and I were struggling to bring better, more interesting creative work to Olson–the kind that keeps the incredible talent we’d recruited happy and productive.

Back then, Cory McLeod worked in Olson’s studio, creating web banners and microsites and generally bringing far more creativity to his projects than they deserved. A multi-lingual Canadian/Latvian immigrant, Cory had a rich life outside of work, creating public art and collaborating with his documentarian wife, Mara Pelecis (here is the trailer to Surviving the Peace: her emotionally-shattering, powerfully personal film about the effects of PTSD on America’s veterans).

During a trip back to Latvia, Cory struck up a friendship with Rabbi Menachem Barkan, who created the Riga Ghetto Museum to commemorate this overlooked chapter of history. And that’s how a midwestern agency in a city populated by Norwegian Lutherans ended up making a website for a Jewish pro-bono client halfway around the world. We worked on this project during down hours, nights, and weekends. Brilliant people jumped all in, much to the growing concern and outright displeasure of agency management and our militant project managers.

We were scolded for wasting time, since time is money in the agency business. Upper management and our VC owners pressured us to drop it, to do the bare minimum and move on, since they were trying to sell the agency and needed to optimize our margins and billable hours.

But we weren’t and we didn’t. Our only personal payment may have been pride and trees planted in Israel in each of our names, but the Olson agency garnered international attention, earning coverage in high profile outlets like Fast Company. Which proved very valuable to the agency sale process.

In today’s margin-stressed agency world, passion projects are often the first to go, but that’s inexcusably short-sighted. Done right, they serve as compelling ads for agencies, drawing in new audiences by showcasing creative capabilities without restraint.

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I bring this old story up again because Cory’s back–this time with a magnificent VR Rockumentary about the Latvian band Perkons. It’s another Cory passion project, one that drove him to teach himself VR filmmaking. And it was only made possible through the continual support of Fallon.

Perkons had its US debut last night at the Walker Art Museum. For ten minutes, lucky people strapped on Oculus GOs and HTC Vive’s and lost themselves in a tale of Soviet repression, artistic expression, and the changing tides of history.

On the surface, Perkons is far from a project with obvious agency value. But ex-ECD Jeff Kling supported it (going so far as to provide the VO) and now Fallon has a tremendous, widely promotable example of VR storytelling that makes any agency envious. The project is beginning to gain press (some amazing outlets are already making sponsorship inquiries) in a way that will inevitably attract client interest.

Thanks to a creative thinker. With a dream about a forgotten Latvian band that changed the course of modern history. And an agency wise-enough to fund it.

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The Enduring Magic of Motion

Video drives powerful branding. On air, online, in environment: the power of moving imagery to evoke emotional responses is unparalleled. Today we have more places than ever to showcase moving imagery and attract attention.

That wasn’t the case in 1973, particularly in the gray environment of Leipzig, East Germany. Long before HD flatscreens or mobile video, and years before reunification, two graphic designers created a neon advertisement that has since become a beloved landmark: the “Löffelfamilie” or “Spoon Family.”

At 40′ wide and 23′ high, no passerby can miss the nuclear family gathered around the table to enjoy the delicious products of “VEB Feinkost Leipzig”, a catchy title translating to “People-Owned Enterprise Delicatessen of Leipzig.” The ad copy is not particularly better, translating to “fruit and vegetable preserves, table ready-made dishes, double concentrated soups” (yum!).

The illustrative style is ham-fisted and the animation is rudimentary and relentlessly repetitive. The more than 650′ of colorful twisted neon was updated to more economical LED’s seven years ago. And keeping this relic in repair requires ongoing donations. If you’re in the neighborhood, send a text to 0900-LOEFFEL, which charges you a donation of 3€ to light the sign for three minutes.

Still, the size, colors, and simple motion continue to earn our attention.

For all the enormity of changes in communication, it’s remarkable how this endures.

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#HaveHerBack: From Awareness to Initiative to Action

The #MeToo movement and its immediate, widespread adoption raised awareness of the blatant sexism and privilege in Chicago advertising. It was nauseating to learn the firsthand accounts of people forced to deal with everything from institutionalized boorishness to outright criminal behavior. So when Ron D’Innocenzo, a colleague from Element 79 and current ECD at Golin, asked me to sit on a panel to discuss the issue, I agreed. But Ron insisted I first talk to Caroline Dettman, Golin’s CCO and the creator behind this initial #HaveHerBack event.

Caroline quickly let me know I’d be the only white male on the panel and that, while no one was looking to attack me specifically, I would inevitably represent the kind of dirtbags that forced this corrective initiative. Fair enough.

I went, I learned, and I walked away inspired by so many people working to evolve actionable steps to create a better, more inclusive way forward for the industry.

My heartfelt thanks to Caroline Dettmann, Liz Traines, Jewell Donaldson, Kat Gordon, Mary Pryor, and Megan Colleen McGlynn. You make this industry, and all of the people in it, far far better.

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Creativity Will Save Advertising. Again.

I know, I know–it’s too late; advertising’s already dead. Digital/social/experiential/big data killed it…

The only problem is this constant, dire drumbeat sounds juicy, it creates alarm, but it’s mostly just opinion or self-promotion. It’s clickbait.

If you want facts, follow the money. In the most recent case, digital entertainment powerhouse Netflix bid $300m to buy Regency Outdoor Advertising.

That’s right, the disruptive, disintermediating, digital content giant wants to buy a billboard company.

Their motivation is fascinating. Netflix noticed that big outdoor imagery stokes social sharing. People posted lots of shots of their “Netflix is a joke” campaign to Instagram which promoted their comedy line-up.

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In other words, people share great creative.

These days, $300m might not sound like an earth-shattering number, but it represents the largest acquisition in Netflix history. Imagine; a leading digital giant offering to pay one third of a billion dollars on a oft-declared dying medium…a smart company wouldn’t do that unless they knew it worked.

And that’s a fact.

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This post originally appeared in Screen Magazine.

No Irish Here Today…

More than text or still imagery, video has the power to summon visceral emotion. These feelings can be inspiring and uplifting, affirmations of our better selves, or they can be base and degrading screeds, as delivered by those wedge-driving Russian trollbots.

That emotional backdrop makes this video created by Dan Margulis, an advertising Group Creative Director at Doner, very intriguing…

Dan worked with content production company Atlas Industries to shoot this video last Sunday during Detroit’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade. It anchors “No Irish Pub”: a website Dan built as part of his project, which he describes this way:  “This social experiment hopes to foster thought and dialog around immigration in America.” The Detroit Free Press wrote a nice account of peoples’ reactions during the event.

God love him. If it makes people think and talk instead of post and shout, he’ll have accomplished a grand thing. And either way, good on him for trying.

Happy St. Paddy’s all,

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Taking Marketing Beyond Advertising

Today’s unprecedented access to information, demand for transparency, and empowerment of social recommendation speed the transition from mass marketing and toward more relevant and personalized communications: in short, digital video content.

Advertising improves selling, but video content improves communication. Of all kinds. Which in turn, improves sales. That’s why it’s where marketing is moving.

Make no mistake; I love great advertising. And great advertising still builds brands. But it’s no longer the only way. Because it’s not just brands that need building; businesses and organizations of every kind need to reach audiences with compelling messages.

So there’s always another story to tell.

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A Critical Essay for These Times

Ann Bauer is an amazing author, writer, and capturer of truths. Out of her own profoundly personal pain and loss, she came to sense a larger illness in society.

Ann initially posted this to Facebook, outlining a caustic and pervasive issue of our times and neatly summing up what we must strive to do to overcome it:

“Imagine if that were the goal: baseline civility and warm expectations.”

Indeed. Thankfully, someone smart at the Washington Post read it and asked her permission to publish it for a broader audience. Read her magnificent, inspiring, unflinchingly honest essay here.

Thanks Ann. And again, I’m so sorry for the loss of Andrew. God love you and yours.

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To Activate Video Content, Stop Treating It Like Broadcast

You see it again and again on corporate YouTube channels: a random smattering of videos, often with different tones and themes, none with any significant number of views. That’s usually because their channels function as a parking lot for whatever video content they have on hand. Hey, it’s free, what’s there to lose?

Opportunity for starters. As the world’s second largest search engine with a reported three billion searches per month, YouTube may be a ridiculously crowded platform, but it’s the premiere destination for anyone looking for video-based communication. And companies should be there because people are looking…

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But companies shouldn’t be there simply with recycled broadcast spots. Digital video works 180º differently than broadcast; instead of being intentionally general to reach 500,000 people, digital video narrowcasts to reach the right 5,000 people. The point is to target an ideal audience (or audiences), customize our story messages to engage them, and communicate as specifically and singularly as we can, hoping to earn their attention by speaking directly to their wants, needs, and interests.

Audiences are selfish.

If you grew up in the broadcast era, that’s a hard pill to swallow, but it’s definitely reality. The digital environment empowers everyone to select programming they want to watch and avoid whatever they don’t. As a result, we each create our own networks around our own interests. This doesn’t mean there’s no place for corporate messages, it simply means we must adapt them to fit the environment. The more we find ways to align our corporate wants and needs with the wants and needs of a specific audience, the more our messages resonate. And the more our audience will share that content with like-minded people across their own networks, expanding our ideal audience for us. Simply put, the more we embrace narrowcast, the more success we’ll have with our digital video content.

And the less likely we’ll be to have meager view counts on our YouTube channels.

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unsplash-logoFrank Okay