To make better advertising, learn from the masters.

Like Rembrandt, Degas,
Hemingway and Mercer. Yes, the
songwriter, Johnny Mercer.

Today’s marketing people are on high alert.

Always looking for the next new thing; afraid to miss it; afraid to get left behind.

I don’t want to be left behind either. But, let’s not leave the "old" masters behind.

What they did in their day could be even more relevant in our day.

The "old" masters can teach us how to write and design to engage, involve and make emotional connections that still work even hundreds of years later. And, what they did will give you new tools to cut through today’s media clutter.

Songwriter Johnny Mercer, like so many of the best writers of any kind, gives us the gift of big ideas in simple language. What a relief from small ideas expressed in complex, trendy, hard-to-understand jargon – jargon like “paradigm shift” and “enhanced” and “rigorous.”

I don’t know what those words mean anyway. I do know they spread like viruses through our language, deaden meaning and suck the life out of our messages.

But then there's Johnny Mercer’s song, “One for My Baby and One More for the Road.”

I know what he’s saying. I feel what he’s saying because his words put me in the bar next to a guy with a broken heart. Just like the times when I've been in a bar with a broken-hearted friend who's had a little too much to drink. Listen to Frank Sinatra's version. You'll see how Mercer's words brought it all back to me.

Read the lyrics. There is no complicated, obscure language. I counted 168 one-syllable words, 24 two-syllable words and two three-syllable words. Now you might say, yes, but this is songwriting; I’m writing marketing materials, and I’ve got to sound smart. You sound smart through the power of your ideas, not the complexity of your language. Besides, one of the most creative things you can do is take creative thinking from one discipline and apply it to a seemingly different endeavor. (Pardon those three-syllable words, but I couldn't find smaller words that meant the same thing. That's a good test, by the way.)

Rembrandt helps design my website.

Check the lighting for the photo on my website home page. Remember Rembrandt's dramatic side lighting where shadows on faces fade into the background? The photographer may not know it, but I do believe Rembrandt was at the photo shoot.

And ever notice how so much of Degas's work was asymmetrical? And how he used composition as a directional device to carry you through his paintings? My creative consulting page photo is off-center; it seems more interesting. And the contour of the man’s face and edge of his hand creates a directional device that leads you to the headline below. Check it out. Thanks, Degas.

One last example: When I ran an advertising agency we wanted to improve the creativity of our sound tracks, and we stumbled on a source of inspiration I never would have thought of – old radio programs from the 1940s. I listened, and the writing, acting, music and sound effects grabbed me and never let me go.

I could hear it, feel it and see it. I had found the home of visual radio, long ago created and now forgotten.

See radio (and I do mean see it) at its best. Check out "The Hitchhiker." (The story begins just after the 3-minute mark.

Look how the writer, Alan Maislen, used old-time radio inspiration to create a new radio campaign. He uses storytelling, interesting voices and sound effects to grab and keep the listener involved. Then he abruptly slams the listener with the single-minded selling idea. It's abrupt, but that makes it work; it also makes it funny. Check out “Deadeye.” You'll see what I mean.

As a consultant, I tell my clients to look beyond the obvious, and that includes their own business category. Have you ever noticed that so much retail advertising looks like a lot of other retail advertising? And bank advertising looks like bank advertising, and insurance advertising … OK, I’ll stop beating the dead horse. But, while you're at it, don't overlook the old masters in art, literature and music.

I recently heard an interview with the singer Tony Bennett. He said, “Don’t steal from another person; that’s plagiarism. Steal from everyone; that’s research.”

And while you’re at it, include the old masters.

Hemingway never said “paradigm shift.”

What I Learned About Advertising From Working in the Mental Hospital (Part Two)

In part one, we covered two lessons from the mental hospital that work in the competitive advertising arena:

1. Things aren’t what they seem.

2. So, get out of the ivory tower and into the real world.

Here are three more. So, you can get all the benefits of working in a psychiatric hospital without actually having to work in one.

1. Track patterns that others miss.

After a couple of nights on the job, I realized I could work on any one of five different wards. And I wouldn’t know which one until I signed in for work at midnight.

The problem was that we had to write a ward report the next morning that described anything important that happened during the night. And we had to have it done by the time the morning shift arrived. But getting 49 patients up, dressed and ready for breakfast, given that some of them didn't want to get up, get dressed or have breakfast, left no time to write the report.

I learned, though, that each ward had its predictable patterns. That meant I could write the report at the start of my shift before any of it actually happened and be 95 percent right. Then I could take about five minutes in the morning to correct the other 5 percent.

Later when I ran an advertising agency, I saw patterns again as I watched our competitors get hot and win every client they pitched, then get cold and lose every pitch. I could only conclude one thing: They didn't know why they won when they won or why they lost when they lost.

So, find your own patterns, whether they’re in new business presentations or any other marketing efforts, and don’t trust them to memory; write them down. I kept a diary. It covered things as varied as how to help our clients win against the toughest competition, what to do when your competition offers the same thing you do and what makes people respond to a LinkedIn profile. It also included the three keys to winning presentations. They are, by the way, one: relevance; two: differentiation; and three: chemistry. That may seem obvious, but in my role as a new business consultant, I've seen presentations from around the world, and I don't see all three of these things in any presentations. Too bad, that's a winning combination but presenters all over the world missed it.

So, keep a diary.

2. If you want to persuade, don’t just say it; demonstrate it.

A lot of our patients had insomnia, so they would ask me for a sleeping pill. Attendants could not give drugs without a doctor's order, but we could give placebos.

I asked a smart nurse from the day shift if placebos worked. She said, “Of course, but only if the patient believes it will work.” So, the next time a patient asked for a sleeping pill I could have said, “Take this; it’s real powerful.” Instead, I said, “Okay, I’ll give you something, but I can’t give it to you here; your bed’s 30 feet away, and you’ll never make it back there.” I then walked the patient to the bed and told him he had to sit on the edge of it before I could give him the pill.

The next morning he said, “I don’t know what the hell was in that pill you gave me, but it knocked me cold as soon as I took it.”

Thank you, smart nurse from the day shift.

That nurse, and what she taught me, led to the ultimate demonstration ad.

Years later, the Catholic Church asked our agency for an advertising campaign to get fallen away Catholics back to church. Their message was strong: We're no longer the rigid, cold remote church that drove you away. We've changed.

But what angry, fallen away Catholic would believe that? Fortunately, we convinced the Church to make a confession and build their campaign around that confession: "If you've fallen away from the church, it's our fault, not yours." Yes, that was a demonstration ad. When the Church went public with the confession it proved that the Church had changed. Check out the ad that proved the point.

When you're trying to help the Church out of a tough spot, it helps to have a demonstration that makes people believe.

It also helps to have a good Jewish writer.

3. Treat the people you work with like you should treat the psychiatric patients.

After five years running our new advertising agency, my partner and I (both creative people) discovered a new word: profit. And we thought it would be nice to make some, so we hired a business manager to run the place. He was a brilliant Harvard MBA and later became president of American Express, but working with creative people frustrated the guy. Once when he was having a bad day he told me, “You can’t manage creative people; the best you can do is contain them!”

I’m not saying the people around you need psychitric help, but, like the inmates, they are vulnerable. And, in our business we need everybody to think creatively and share their ideas. When people do this they become vulnerable.

Even if the idea is not right, they need to know they did the right thing when they offered it. Their workplace needs to be a safe haven for them and their ideas. That should be obvious, but it’s not.

I used to tell our creative people that working in the mental hospital was my best training for managing them. They’d say, “Joe, you’re so funny.” And I’d tell them, “I’m not kidding; the only difference between you and the psychiatric patients is that they were more predictable.”

And they’d say, “Joe, you’re so funny.”

What I Learned About Advertising From Working in the Mental Hospital

The first night I worked the midnight-to-eight shift I realized two things.

First, I was working with one other guy. And second, the two of us were locked in with 49 mental patients.

The second night I realized that my first night was my training, my only training, and the other guy hadn’t told me anything. I also learned that I would work alone every other night. That’s right, just me and 49 mental patients. Why every other night? Don’t ask me, I just worked there.

shutrstck_Ment Hosp359075291.jpg

So what does working in a mental hospital have to do with advertising? Well, for one thing, when you're locked in alone with 49 mental patients, learning to persuade large groups of people comes in mighty handy. I was just out of high school and needed money to go to college. Money I expected; the advertising training was a bonus I didn't grasp until years later. Now I'd like to pass it on to you. Here are five lessons from the mental hospital designed to help anyone in the persuasion business.

1. Things aren’t what they seem.

They told me when I started that we were the attendants and the inmates were crazy. But, what I saw didn’t match what they told me. I'm not a mental health professional, so all I know is that the people in charge had a view of reality that didn't match mine.

One night I was working with a highly regarded attendant, and we had to give a patient a penicillin shot in the butt. He said as we approached the guy’s bed, “Be careful; this guy’s dangerous.” The patient was sleeping on his back. So, the so-called highly regarded attendant grabbed him by the shoulders and tried to force him to turn over, and that started a fight, and we had to restrain the guy to give him the shot.

The next night I worked the same ward alone (Remember that every other night thing?) and I had to give that patient another shot. So I’m standing beside his bed with the needle, thinking how am I going to pull this off alone. And the patient in the next bed says, “You know the guy’s practically deaf, don’t you?” So I yelled in the guy’s ear, “Turn over; I have to give you a shot.” The so-called crazy person said, okay and turned over; I gave him the shot, and that was it. The mental patient in the next bed had better information than the people in charge.

Things weren’t what they seemed in that place.

Later when I ran an advertising agency, I learned that so many of the things we dreamt up inside our ivory tower office were just plain wrong or irrelevant in the outside world.

And we weren’t alone. People in charge of advertising agencies and corporations were making big decisions based on bad information, including big, bloated research reports that told you everything except what you needed to make a smart decision.

2. Look into the heads of the people you’re trying to persuade.

Try something new. If you use market research, do some of the interviews yourself. That will give you a shot of reality you can't get from just reading a research report. And make sure you use the right kind of research, or you could spend more money than you should, get confused or just plain tuckered out. Check my blog post "How research dumbs us down." You'll see how the least expensive research gives you better understanding than the most expensive research.

If your company or client has a salesforce, tour with them. Smart sales people can teach you how to create more persuasive messages. Plus, you can watch them use their sales materials and see what works and doesn’t and learn how to make sales aids that really aid. Going on sales calls may seem like an obvious idea, but the sales people would tell me all the time, “You’re the first advertising agency person to ever do this. Our own marketing people don’t even come out here.”

This kind of research is quick and inexpensive and always made our work more effective.

It's also the best tool I've ever seen to sell marketing and advertising ideas to whoever has to approve them. That's because it gives you credibility. For one thing, you can start your presentation with words like: "I've been talking to your customers, and here's how you can beat your #1 competitor." Or: "I've been touring with your sales people and…"

Most of my marketing clients get separated from their customers and sales people. The best ones know it, but they're busy with management stuff, so they value anyone who stays in touch with their market. One of my best clients was a tyrant who had principles that everybody had to live by. There was one principle, though, that overrode all others. If you took the time to understand the customer's point of view, you had the last word.

In my next post I'll cover the persuasive power of patterns and a demonstration approach that makes people believe. You’ll get all the benefits of working in the mental hospital without having to work there.

Look for me on April 13th.  

Why you should never start a presentation at the beginning.

People ask me why I always start presentations in the middle.

What most people think is the middle, to me, is really the beginning, or should be. That’s because most beginnings are irrelevant or dull or both. And the middle is where it starts to get interesting, if it’s ever going to get interesting.

A typical presentation starts by introducing the company or with the personal introductions of the presenters. This is usually dull and irrelevant because it's self-oriented and has nothing to do with the prospect’s needs.

The middle, at least effective middles, is where presenters finally get to what they can do for the poor prospects. I say poor prospects because they’ve had to sit through many minutes of dull, irrelevant presentation openings. If there are six competitors presenting, multiply the dull-irrelevance factor by six.  Therefore, “poor prospect” is not an overstatement. 

Just for the sake of human kindness, shake it up a little.

And be creative.

A client prospect needed a new agency and a new advertising campaign. Boy, did they need it. Their service had been so bad that customers not only left, they hated the company as they were going out the door. So instead of starting with the expected irrelevant boring beginning, our opening slide said this:


We knew being that bold could risk making them hate us. But we did it for three reasons:

1.    They had a big problem; if they didn't get that, we wouldn’t be able to help them.

2.    They seemed like reasonable, down-to-earth people who could handle our bluntness.

3.    We had no experience in their business category, so our best shot was to convince them that we knew how to solve their problem…and do it in a way that would grab their attention, right from the start.

It worked. A few days later I called to see if we made the finals in the competition. They told me they had decided to skip the finals. We had nailed it. Our blunt (call it “starting in the middle,” if you want) presentation won it, even with no category experience.

Starting in the middle is one of the tools I use to help my clients avoid the most common presentation failures.  Check them out on my presentation consulting page. Avoid these failures, and this alone can help you beat the pants off your competition.

How three words helped win against great odds.

When I ran a Hartford, Connecticut advertising agency, going up against 14 Boston agencies for a Boston-area client was not considered wise. To win was unheard of.

We thought, what the hell. Why not?

The new business prospect was a supermarket chain with a frustrated management team. That's because shoppers drove right by their stores and shopped at their top competitor even though the competitor's quality and pricing were not as good. It was just a shopping habit.

So we started the presentation with a promise, "If you hire us, we'll create shoppers' dissatisfaction with your competitor's stores, change their shopping habits and drive them to your stores."

That was a powerful opening, but too complicated for a slide. So, we just talked the idea, and our opening slide simply said this:


The prospect's marketing director told me that the entire 14-person management team voted for us. They said, "We want that ‘Jolt And Break’ agency."

So next time you present, start in the middle and end up on top. It works.

How research became a four-letter word

Misguided research burns some people so bad they never want anything to do with any research ever again.    

I first saw this when I ran an advertising agency and something rare happened. A client hired us without our having to make a competitive presentation.

It sounded great. Then we had our first meeting.

He needed research, we told him and he got angry. We tried for two weeks to sell him on research and managed to move him from angry to furious. At one point he said we were trying to sell him "research shit."

Then, a lucky accident

Since we got his business without a presentation, we thought this guy doesn’t know us, so we ought to make a capabilities presentation. For the research part of our presentation we got lucky and forgot to use the research word. We just showed how we get face to face with our clients’ customers, try ideas on them, find the most persuasive concept and present the results in a brief, clear report. Then we help our clients beat the pants off their competition. We still forgot to use the research word.

He slammed his fist on the table and said:

“That’s what I need; stop trying to sell me that research shit.”

Then he told us about the ill-conceived research studies, reports that made no sense and feeling it was all an expensive waste of time. Somebody sold him on whacky research years ago and he was still pissed. (Sorry, I'm talking like my client.)

I mentioned the following couple of paragraphs in an earlier post. So please pardon a little repetition because it shows how the wrong kind of research gets people in trouble.

Bad research can look like this

You want to understand what's in peoples' heads to come up with your most persuasive message. So you go through your big — which usually means expensive, and it's usually called quantitative — research report. This kind of research is good if you want to measure what you understand, but not if you're trying to understand in the first place. And to create persuasive messages you must understand.

Like a lot of people, I didn’t grasp this until a smart researcher summed it up in two simple sentences:

"Joe, quantitative studies can tell you that 60% of people like red and only 30% like blue. But if your job is to get more people to like blue you're out of luck."

Large (quantitative and usually expensive) studies typically have people respond to a questionnaire. So your possibilities are limited to the imagination of the person who creates your questionnaire.

This may sound crazy

But the most expensive research often gives the least understanding, and the least expensive research gives you the most understanding. One example: just a couple of focus groups helped a regional yogurt find a message that beat their giant competitors. By the way, as it often happens, the winning message wasn't what they thought going into the test. Check out the creative approach that beat Dannon and Yoplait and the other big brands.

$100,000 worth of confusion

One of our client’s new marketing director wanted a giant research study to understand customer attitudes. It would cost $100,000. His people tried to tell him they already had a lot of useful research; couldn’t he look at that first. He said no and moved ahead, anyway. When they got the research report they couldn’t understand the thing, so they hired us to interpret it. Two days later our research director walked into my office to show me what the marketing director gave him.

And I said, “This report really is confusing."
And he said, “That’s not the report; that’s the letter of clarification.”

If you have all the money in the world

Start with qualitative research, like focus groups or one-on-one interviews, in order to understand; then follow up with a quantitative study to confirm and measure. But that’s a lot of bucks and the best marketing people I know say if you can only afford one, make it qualitative. It’s a competitive world, so if you want to win, understand the prospect better than your competition does. Just make sure you have the right research tool.

Failure to understand is the thing you can’t afford.

How research dumbs us down

It’s a good thing research companies don’t charge by the pound.

I used to search through the big fat research report to learn how to create my most persuasive message. And I'd find all the information in the world except what I needed to create my most persuasive message. I felt like I knew less after reading the report than before; plus I was mentally tuckered out.


If you’re holding a big fat research report, you’re probably wading through an expensive quantitative study, which is good for measuring, but not so good for understanding.

Like a lot of people, I didn’t grasp these limitations until a smart researcher summed it up in two simple sentences:

"Joe, quantitative studies can tell you that 60% of people like red and only 30% like blue. But if your job is to get more people to like blue, you're out of luck."

Here’s why.

Large (quantitative) studies usually have people respond to a questionnaire. So, your possibilities are limited to what’s on your questionnaire. And that’s limited by your imagination and the imagination of the person putting together your questionnaire. The weird thing is that the most expensive research often provides the least understanding, and the least expensive research gives you the most understanding.

To persuade, you first need to understand.

Use small sample interviews. They usually cost less than large studies and let you get deep into peoples' heads.

Focus groups allow you to test ideas and get feedback. You can also alter concepts and messages that aren’t working, right on the spot, and test them again. It often sounds like this:

"You say the idea doesn't grab your attention.
Okay, then how about if we change the headline to this?
Or what if we alter the visual to that?”

Focus groups allow you to do creative things.

Once as a brand consultant I recommended that a bank do focus group testing to improve their advertising. Their service was so good it made sense to promote it. But the problem was, it was so good…almost too good, and I thought, who’s going to believe this.

So here's the creative part.

We set up the groups to be half customers and half non-customers. We put customers on one side of the table and non-customers on the other and asked the customers to tell the non-customers why they should switch from their bank to my client’s bank.

The customers made great salespeople.

The customers told the non-customers service stories that went beyond anything they had ever seen or heard of. We got compelling stories from the customers and, at the same time, got to see which ones turned non-customers into believers.

We knew the bank’s advertising copy was way too long, but we weren’t sure where to cut it. So we handed the customers some ads and told them to read them quickly and cross off anything that didn’t interest them. I later put the ads on my office wall to see if there was any pattern. There was, and it was so consistent we were able to cut ad copy by 70% and not lose anything important.

Better research, better advertising.

This research led to short copy focused on exactly what the customers cared about, took the bank where the competition couldn't go and beat their biggest competitors. See how little copy it took to win big.

See how a few interviews saved a new product introduction.

Individual interviews are even more effective at drawing people out because you focus on one person at a time and can burrow deep down into their heads. This type of research works well with business customers because they often face similar challenges. This allows you to get dependable results with a small numbers of interviews.

We once helped a high-tech client in Boston introduce a new instrument with breakthrough capability. The instrument had a pump that was so breakthrough they called it a solvent delivery module. Pump sounded too low-tech.

I was afraid “solvent delivery module” would confuse the devil out of people. So we carved out a day to call on some customers, one at a time.

The first three customers said, “What’s a solvent delivery module?”
The fourth customer said, “Say, is that a pump?
“Yes, it’s a pump.” My client said.
“You ought to call it a pump.”

They called it a pump.

We canceled the rest of the interviews. The new product introduction was among the best performing in the company’s history.

All from just four interviews.

I like small sample research like focus groups and individual interviews. You can show selling propositions, or pictures, demonstrations or testimonials, or whatever you think will make your point. If you’re not getting positive response, find out why. Then change your message right on the spot, and try again.

Patterns will emerge, and this will give you a better understanding than you'll find in that big, expensive quantitative study.

I want to thank market researcher Matthew Clark for his counsel on this blog. Matthew offers a welcome change from poorly thought-out research and unclear reporting that bedevils marketing and creative people as they search for reality.