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.”