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Politics in the age of Truth – by Karl Bates

05 Sep 2013
 

karl_bates_150sqpx_blogAs we hurtle towards polling day on 7 September, the expectations of the Australian voting public are mirroring the mood of voters in other countries – revealing interesting insights into the recipe for political success.

The most pertinent trend is the increasingly fraught relationship between truth and politics – two words rarely used in the same sentence any more – which has become even more complex in today’s intensive political communications environment. This insight and others emerged in a recent ‘Truth About Politics’ study conducted by McCann New York among respondents in the US, UK and India, which found that 72% of people agreed with the statement: “When it comes to politics, it is impossible to find the truth these days.”

In Australia, the emergence of fact-checking websites such as PolitiFact and the ABC’s FactCheck, and their revelation that the majority of statements made by politicians on both sides are false, is a timely reaction to the rise of political spin. This belief by the public that there is little or no truth in politics has led many voters to hold politicians in rather low regard. Asked to rank different professions in order from least to most truthful, respondents to the ‘Truth About Politics’ study placed politicians in the untruthful pile along with car salesmen, bankers and advertising executives.

It’s no different in Australia. Roy Morgan’s Image of Professions 2013 survey, which asks respondents to rate professions based on honesty and ethical standards, also ranks politicians at the bottom of the heap, just above car salesmen, ad men and real estate agents.

For the 62% of consumers in the global survey (and 67% in the US) who said politicians were less truthful today that they were 20 years ago, the top reasons for politicians’ perceived lack of truth were thought to be because ‘they think they can get away with it / there are no penalties’ and ‘they do /say anything to get elected’. Some food for thought for Australian pollies was the discovery that the more an issue is seen as fundamental to a campaign, the less consumers believe politicians are telling the truth about that issue.

In general – and this is true across the globe – there is a hunger among consumers to bring back more truth to politics. Seventy-five percent of consumers globally said they’d even give up a personal pleasure (chocolate, sex, alcohol, magazines or reality TV) for a month, if it would make the politicians in their country more honest. Yet despite this hunger for change, the ‘Truth About Politics’ study detected a sense of resignation among some consumers, almost as if getting the truth from politicians was too much to expect.

The majority of people, however, are looking to the internet for the truth they believe is lacking in politicians. In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the internet is bringing a new degree of transparency to politics and all areas of public life, with research respondents claiming online research has made it easier to discover the truth about political claims – or indeed about any marketing claims.

Interestingly, while 74% of consumers globally felt their social media feed was balanced when it came to political posts, the majority of people still turn to TV news more than any other medium for political coverage. It would seem that while social media is a popular source of breaking news, people then flip to television for more robust coverage.

In Australia, polling by Essential Research shows that 63% of voters get a lot or some of their information about politics from commercial television news and current affairs, followed by newspapers and news websites (61%). On the trust stakes, ABC and SBS news come out on top, with 67% of voters saying they have a lot or some trust in the public broadcasters.

For marketers, the lesson here is the thirst for truth. The top things people say they want from politicians – to understand the lives of ordinary people; strong values; and to always tell the truth – are the same things they want from brands.

While politicians are under intense scrutiny every three years in Australia, brands must meet this standard with consumers every day. Welcome to the age of Truth.

As we hurtle towards polling day on 7 September, the expectations of the Australian voting public are mirroring the mood of voters in other countries – revealing interesting insights into the recipe for political success. The most pertinent trend is the increasingly fraught relationship between truth and politics – two…

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Is Twitter social media’s gift to the written word? – by John Mescall

01 Sep 2013
 

John Mescall BioWhen we had to write assignments at school and university, the battle always seemed to be figuring out how to stretch a very small idea or premise into something of sufficient length to meet the mandated 1500 words.

This always felt like a kind of punishment to me; having a premise that could successfully be communicated with clarity and purpose in just a hundred or so words, yet being forced to find ways to string it out lest I be punished with the kind of poor mark that would have the teacher express how disappointed he/she was in me.

(Is there any feedback worse than disappointment? You’d rather apoplectic rage over that.)

And, for the most part it was definitely all about stringing it out. I know in theory we were being taught to expand upon our arguments, but I suspect a good percentage of those 1500 words were little more than filler. The kind of waffle you’d expect from someone with very little talent who lucked upon a gig where they are getting paid by the word.

So schools turned out successive generations of people who were trained in the art of saying less with more. That’s why I really, really, really love Twitter. I love it more than any other social medium by a long way. Because writing something passable, let alone remarkable, in fewer than 140 characters, takes some serious effort and skill.

Of course, most tweets are rubbish. Just like most of anything that isn’t filtered or edited is rubbish. But if you follow the right people, Twitter is a joy. Out there are people who use Twitter for more than just retweeting buzzfeed, or tweeting links to longer format pieces. Some people can say everything that needs to be said about an issue in just a dozen or so words.

We used to call these people advertising copywriters. The art of saying much in just a few words used to be the preserve of our industry, and it was a skill you had to learn on the job, over time (remembering that your school years left you very ill-prepared for such an endeavour).

Good (proper) writers also possess this skill, and that’s what separates the good from the hacks: the ability to say more with less. So it heartens me that Twitter is perhaps training an entire generation in the fine art of brevity. Text messaging may well have visited all kinds of linguistic horrors upon us lolz, but perhaps Twitter will be social media’s gift to the written word.

Read The Onion’s tweets: look at the way they can often capture the absurdity of a political debate in eight words. Others not so famous but still worth following manage to encapsulate the tiny joys and humiliations of the human condition in their regular 140-character observations.

It’s heartening. Maybe the next generation of advertising writers will be as good as Tim Delaney, whose headline for Timberland ‘First we stole their land, their buffalo and their women. Then we went back for their shoes’ is, in my humble opinion, the finest ever written. (I’m discounting ‘Lemon’ only because I see it more as a perfect idea perfectly expressed in a single word. That’s cheating, I know.)

Kids learning to communicate via Twitter will develop the ability to express themselves clearly and with brevity. And the best of them will add wit, charm and humour to the mix. Making them the perfect target for talent-hungry agencies. God knows, we have a shortage of talented writers.

And on that note, isn’t it great that writing is back? That the awful fad of the big visual, three-word strapline, tiny logo ad is now only to be seen when agencies are trying to scam their way to success in the ever-shrinking ‘print’ category at awards shows?

The shift from paid to earned, owned and shared has driven us towards a content model. And content generally needs to be well written. By people who can actually write; you know, write more than three words underneath a logo.

Writing is back. And it’s a wonderful thing.

When we had to write assignments at school and university, the battle always seemed to be figuring out how to stretch a very small idea or premise into something of sufficient length to meet the mandated 1500 words. This always felt like a kind of punishment to me; having a…

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The good, the bad and the weird – by John Mescall

14 Aug 2013
 

John-MescallI say this without casting aspersions on anyone I work with, or have ever worked with, but I think it helps if you’re a little mad. Maybe even more than a little mad. Maybe ‘lock up your children’ levels of unsettling oddness is what I’m talking about here.

Sure, on the surface most of us appear quite normal. But I don’t know if we’re normal at all. Because working in the creative department in an advertising agency isn’t really a job for anyone who wants a normal kind of existence.

You know those occasionally recurring nightmares you have about school or university exams? Ten, 20 years later the dread and panic of The Great Exam comes back to haunt you, it was that traumatic.

Well, imagine never really leaving those exams behind. Imagine doing them every week for the rest of your life. Because that’s what making ads is like: the blank piece of paper that must be filled with something good enough to score you a certain mark. And if you fail, undeniably terrible things will happen to you.

Answering a brief. Presenting your answer. Being judged on the quality of your answer. And without the luxury of a single multiple-choice exam in sight: everything an essay.

If that doesn’t drive you a little mad, then surely you were a little mad to begin with. I think you need a particular type of personality to cope and even thrive in that environment. And I think that personality is known as ‘weird’.

But there’s good weird and bad weird. I once (briefly) worked with a writer who used to sit underneath his desk while wearing white cotton gloves. The gloves were for his paper allergy (a writer with a paper allergy) and the under-his-desk was because his mind worked better when he felt cocooned. That’s bad weird, and you can’t be bad weird because it makes everyone feel uncomfortable about their own latent weirdness; shines a light on it. Brings it out into the open. So he had to go. And I’m not so sure that paper allergy was genuine, either.]

Good weird, on the other hand, allows us to remain functional in an environment that would likely drive the perfectly normal person to the brink. Good weird lets us take rejection and makes us stronger. Think of ideas for cat food with all the passion others might reserve for their Magnum Opus. Good weird lets us survive the exquisitely sadistic torture of focus groups.

I’m actually surprised that an agency creative (at least to the best of my knowledge) has yet to go postal on a focus group. Watching them maim your ideas is like watching someone calmly run a key across the bonnet of your brand new car. Only the person with the key is in the right, and you’re in the wrong.

Good weird drives art directors to still be at the agency long after everyone else has gone home, because they’re driven to make tiny improvements that few people will ever notice. Good weird makes for writers who will never be really happy with anything they ever do. Ever. So, naturally, the chance at fulfilment will have to come from the next thing.

Good weird means that you may never feel entirely comfortable with pre-meeting small talk, but very comfortable with the blank page at 10pm. Good weird means that, long after you’ve proven yourself, you still feel the desperate need to prove yourself. Why? Ask Freud, I’ll bet he knows.

Good weird is a good thing. No, it’s a great thing. So here’s to all the good weird people in our business. It just wouldn’t be the same without you.

I say this without casting aspersions on anyone I work with, or have ever worked with, but I think it helps if you’re a little mad. Maybe even more than a little mad. Maybe ‘lock up your children’ levels of unsettling oddness is what I’m talking about here. Sure, on…

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The big idea is dead, long live the long idea – by Bradley Moore

14 Aug 2013
 

Over the years, the ‘big idea’ has attained almost mythical status in advertising. Agencies stress its importance and clients want a piece of it. A big idea equals a big campaign and, if it’s the right big idea, a big ROI result.

But thanks to the rise of digital media, the big idea is becoming a thing of the past. At the very least, it’s time to rethink this notion of the big idea and embrace the era of the long idea.

In today’s hyper-connected world, consumers are ‘always on’ – plugged in to news, entertainment, social interactions and information online, on the go, all of the time. Brands have no choice but to follow suit and maintain a presence 24/7, 365 days a year. Switching off is not an option.

To maintain an always-on strategy, brands have to provide great content in the owned and earned media space that the public can repurpose, share and publish for themselves.

Today’s consumers are thirsty for knowledge, and everyone from time-poor mums to armchair bloggers and forum overlords is openly discussing and comparing brands on online platforms. If you’re not offering relevant information about your brand, they will look elsewhere – and they may instead find something negative or something simply wrong. It’s a case of making sure that the facts at the public’s disposal are correct and the conversation around your brand is where you’d hope.

An always-on content strategy can take a brand from simply pushing product information on unengaged consumers, to developing an earned relationship with its customers – a more effective approach in an environment where the traditional ‘push’ model of advertising is broken.

In this environment, the big idea is no longer relevant. The big idea was an appropriate concept for paid media campaigns, which unified the mass media channels of TV, print, outdoor and radio for limited bursts of activity.

For owned and earned media, which have an always-on schedule, the long idea is a more appropriate notion. So how is that different from the big idea?

The long idea is not built around traditional ad campaigns. It is powered by several bursts of short stories – small pieces of content, not just ads – that sustain the always-on strategy throughout the year. Think of these as the chapters of your long story. And think of brands as storytellers.

To be effective, these small pieces of content must be differentiated, relevant to what people are already talking about, and authentic.

Carlton Draught has done this well with its ongoing “Made from Beer” campaign, a great example of a long story that has been running since 2003. From “Men with Canoes” to the “Big Ad” and more recently “Beer Chase”, at the heart of this long idea there’s a great idea with a consistent message. McCann’s own “Dumb Ways to Die” also perfectly demonstrates the long idea, with ‘chapters’ appearing at regular intervals since the campaign’s November launch, including a Karaoke version of the song and a game app that’s reached number one across the world.

Now more than ever, the most effective integrated creative advertising agencies are not coming up with big ideas but with multiplatform stories – stories that can be told in many different and compelling ways across marketing channels, but always unmistakably from the one brand.

Naturally, another aspect of the always-on strategy is the need to monitor what is being said about your brand through social listening. Measuring the online buzz around your brand to determine whether it’s neutral, negative or positive is increasingly important. For starters, it can mitigate or reduce any negative fallout around your brand or product.

But just as importantly, social listening enables brands to be more responsive to consumers’ needs. It can also inform a brand’s broader thinking and product development, as well as positively positioning the brand where people are talking about it.

Coca-Cola is doing that on a grand scale with its recently launched Social Command Centre in the Philippines, which combines community management, social listening, moderation and call centre management for Coke’s brands in the Asia Pacific region. The Social Command Centre ensures Coke is listening, analysing and able to respond to conversations happening in the social space about its brands.

There may be agencies and clients that lament the decline of the big idea, but it’s increasingly clear that in the owned and earned media space our work needs to be always on and go beyond just campaigns. We need small pieces of content built around a long idea that deliver value in the form of utility, education, entertainment or community.

Anything less will fail to deliver.

Over the years, the ‘big idea’ has attained almost mythical status in advertising. Agencies stress its importance and clients want a piece of it. A big idea equals a big campaign and, if it’s the right big idea, a big ROI result. But thanks to the rise of digital media, the…

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Advertising notes from the land of the chicken-fried steak – by John Mescall

06 Aug 2013
 

John Mescall - Executive Creative DirectorAs well as lightening the wallet, travel also broadens the mind. As I’ve been doing a fair bit of travel lately, I’m kind of hoping that I may have picked up a thing or two. The past couple of weeks I’ve been road-tripping my way around the South West of the USA: California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado.

Here are some things I’ve noticed.

I’ve noticed that without even trying, I have developed an uncannily accurate gaydar which can see through walls even when I’m travelling at 75 miles per hour. It doesn’t matter how unpromising it looks on the outside, when I’m driving past a café on an interstate highway I can immediately sense if it’s being run by two gay inner-city refugees spending the summer on a grand adventure out in the backwaters of Utah or Arizona. A quick U-turn later, and I’m being served a long macchiato from two guys with hipster beards and rolled-up skinny jeans. In a place where good coffee just doesn’t exist.

This is a wonderful skill to have.

I’ve also noticed that small business in places such as San Franciso and Boulder have a wonderful way of creating conversations with their customers, in ways that big brands can only ever dream of. So many of the small brewers, cafes and shops have cultivated a genuine personality that charms the greenbacks right out of your pocket. Big brands think they can use Twitter and Facebook and quirky on-pack copy for this, but they are very wrong.

These smaller owner-operated businesses have a humanity and personality to them that bigger brands can never achieve, unless they make a genuine effort to allow their marketing to be so humanistic it doesn’t feel like marketing at all.

Perhaps the real genius in marketing is to not let it feel like marketing at all.

On a similar note, American craft beers are amazing. And American mainstream beers are amazingly shit. And I’m seeing this polarity everywhere: it’s like there are two countries running parallel to each other. One, populated with people who care about quality, and one with people who care solely for quantity. But it’s a big enough country that the two groups rarely have to meet up.

Another observation is that this country eats a lot of cheese. I mean, a LOT of cheese. I’ve been trying to avoid the stuff, but even so I’ve eaten at least triple my bodyweight in cheddar this last fortnight. Cheese and corn. Is it the fact that the corn and diary farmers have such powerful lobby groups? Or do Americans just like the colour yellow? I think politics is informing consumer (lack of) choice to a large degree here. I wonder what Australia would be like if our sheep farmers got huge subsidies like America’s corn and dairy farmers do? It’d be lamb and sheepskin everything, and we wouldn’t need Sam Kekovich.

Fast food advertising is totally out of control here, and people who worry about such things in Australia: can I just let you know that we have a LONG way to go before plumbing the depths of our American friends. The ads here exhort you to supersize your way to death, and Australian fast food advertising seems a model of restraint by comparison.

There’s even fast food for pets. Yesterday I saw an ad that seamlessly combined America’s love of cheese with its love of junky snacks: cheesy cat food treats. It’s pretty awesome.

Speaking of death, menus in the kinds of terrible places that you are forced to eat at on a road trip (that would be Denny’s) warn you of the ‘dangers’ of eating runny eggs and steaks cooked medium rare. Apparently these things can kill you, and the menus are full of lawyer-jargon about liability and so on. Yet not a word of warning regarding the chicken-fried steak smothered in cheese sauce and its 30 other companions in crime. Wonderfully astounding.

Oh, the advertising here is terrible. I know most advertising everywhere has a pretty low baseline, but the average American ad is actually worse than the average Australian ad. After an hour of them, you find yourself thinking fondly of Harvey Norman’s amazing 38-month interest-free offers. Yes, it’s that bad.

Great trip, though.

As well as lightening the wallet, travel also broadens the mind. As I’ve been doing a fair bit of travel lately, I’m kind of hoping that I may have picked up a thing or two. The past couple of weeks I’ve been road-tripping my way around the South West of the…

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The fountain of youth – by John Mescall

01 Jul 2013
 

Every time I see fresh work from an artist, writer or filmmaker on the wrong side of 50, it makes me wonder why advertising creatives traditionally struggle to maintain relevance in their latter years.

It’s fashionable to blame the industry itself for having a jaundiced view of those in their dotage (and when it comes to the advertising industry, dotage comes remarkably early). But I think that may well a bit of a cop-out.

I think perhaps the accumulation of scar tissue is to blame. I have a bit of a theory that every time you do something, it leaves a trace upon you. Work on a brief, make a campaign, sit through a meeting, solve a problem, go on a shoot… every time you do this it marks you in some way.

How you deal with these repeated experiences probably defines how successfully you can not only keep coming back for more, but do so in a way that allows you to maintain the same levels of enthusiasm you had when you were just starting out.

Is it possible to gain wisdom without also gaining the sense that you’ve been there and done that? To become experienced without becoming complacent? Is it possible to gain confidence in your abilities without losing the desperate need to prove yourself that you had when you first started out? Can you assimilate life’s lessons while still maintaining the sense of naïve wonderment that is so essential to creativity?

All of these things are most definitely possible. For me at least, the key is to make sure you don’t accumulate scar tissue along the way.

Applied creativity (or creativity to order, take your pick) is not an easy thing to do day after day, year after year. But that’s ok. Easy is boring and desperately unfulfilling. Hard is where it’s at, but you have to look after yourself in the process lest over time you compromise your ability to deliver.

Scar tissue is what your previous efforts can leave behind if you don’t make a conscious decision to let go of them and start every day (or week if you prefer) fresh and new. I call it scar tissue, others might refer to it as baggage. But I think scar tissue has a nice edge to it, as if our efforts to create hurt us in meaningful ways.

The thing is, our jobs are comprised of repeated experiences. And if you don’t make a conscious and concerted effort to treat every single experience as something new, something full of promise, you’re screwed. You’re going to be the guy who gets tired, burnt out, left behind before his time.

Don’t carry the past around with you, good or bad. Great work you’ve previously done – forget about it. The thousand painful defeats you’ve suffered at the hands of research, clients, circumstance or your own inability to live up to your lofty ambitions – forget about them. They’re done. What’s next? What’s in front of you right now?

The next thing you do needs to be the best thing you’ve ever done. This is as true of a 20-year-old junior writer as it is of a 20-year veteran. Slip back, slack off, and you’re finished. This is the reality of our industry, always has been, always will be.

Does this sound daunting, this constant challenge to deliver better work than you ever have before? It shouldn’t daunt you, it should inspire you. Because it’s the one thing that will keep you relevant, productive and creatively alive.

Let’s look at two international music acts that toured here recently. One is Neil Young. The guy is fast approaching 70 if he hasn’t got there already, but he’s still writing great stuff. He’s still doing two-hour live sets, doing all kinds of crazy shit with feedback loops and making real music. He’s also just written a book, and together with his son developed a new digital music platform that approaches the organic richness of vinyl.

The other act is Status Quo, who once tried but are now singing supermarket jingles for cash.

How does Neil Young do it? He refuses to stop creating, but more importantly he refuses to live in the past. He grudgingly plays a single acoustic song from his ‘old stuff’ but that’s not what he’s here for. He’s on this earth to create. To make his next thing his best thing. That’s pretty cool. Picasso was like that, too.

No one’s going to fire you if you’re old. They’re going to fire you because your mind has gotten old, because you’ve stopped being restless and you’ve lost the burning desire to create. They’re going to fire you because you’ve built up so much scar tissue, it shows.

And even if they do fire you because your face doesn’t fit (because people can be stupid sometimes)… well, if your mind is still young, if you still burn with the desire to make your next thing your best thing, you’ll be fine.

Every time I see fresh work from an artist, writer or filmmaker on the wrong side of 50, it makes me wonder why advertising creatives traditionally struggle to maintain relevance in their latter years. It’s fashionable to blame the industry itself for having a jaundiced view of those in their…

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