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.”

So, I took a rigorous approach while enhancing and leveraging the paradigm. That’s how I maximized the solution.

Why does everybody talk like everybody else?

If everybody talks the same way it looks like everybody’s thinking the same way.

And we’re all flailing around in the same paradigm. Now paradigm is another word for model, but it has one more syllable, so some people think it’s more important and deeper and smarter, and if you use it, you sound more important, deeper and smarter. But, you miss a big opportunity because the most powerful and persuasive language expresses big ideas with small words. It’s original, clear, concrete and memorable.

And it separates you from the people who speak trendy talk.

Another problem with trendy language is that it can weaken your argument. What does “maximize” mean anyway? One dictionary definition is, “to make the most of.” My consulting clients want more than that. Most are in a competitive fight and they want to win, often against giant competitors. So, “making the most of something,” means nothing.

Don’t get lost in the clutter.

Even if you have a product or service that’s different, if you talk like everyone else, you lose your point of difference. While your product or service may be original, your language isn’t. And this messes up your ability to differentiate your brand and get the edge on your competition. Pick any cliché of the day: “unique,” “enhanced,” “paradigm shift,” “solution” – fill in the blank because that’s just a small sample. Buzzwords can render all businesses and products equal in your customers’ minds because you all sound the same.

Plus, the more you use trendy talk to try to sound smart, the more it sounds like you’re using trendy talk to try to sound smart.

Trendy language also gets in the way when you have a tough communications challenge because that’s when you need everything working for you.

See how Aetna used fresh language and shock value to get record-breaking results.

Masters of trendy talk.

Check out private schools, which are masterful at sounding like all other private schools. Your child can enhance her rigorous education and transform her world at the (fill in the blank) School. (Note: Nine out of 10 schools use these words, so now little Amy can get enhanced at just about any school, anywhere.) Or check out the websites of advertising agencies, and you’ll find loads of trendy talk. I don’t understand this. Advertising agencies should be the mother lode of original thinking and fresh language. Advertising agency people often complain that they can’t connect with their clients’ senior management. My partner, Leesa Lawson, tells them that they speak advertising speak, not management speak.

Advertising people say, “We’re full service. We offer total communications. We offer integrated communications. We satisfy all clients’ needs; we’re creative; we’re strategic; we get results, usually without defining what that means. Plus, we say ‘we’ a lot.”

Client management people say, “We want increased sales, improved profits, increased stock value, bigger share of market, competitive edge, customer understanding and to build brand equity.

They don’t speak the same language.

There's an answer.

Notice I didn't say “solution.” I vowed 15 years ago to never use that word again in advertising or in a sales presentation. It was already jargon. I prefer simple descriptive words, mostly one or two syllables. Save the many-syllable words for when nothing else means what you want to say.

Understand the language of your prospects, but filter out their jargon. The senior management language above is not jargon. “Bigger share of market” is concrete. It means in order to grow the business we’ll take it away from our competition.

Study the work of the best marketing people in the business. But, this may sound crazy, don’t stop there; break out and study the best writers in completely different lines of work, like the best fiction writers from the past. Think Hemingway and Steinbeck. They knew how to grab your attention and keep it.

Look at Steinbeck’s opening to Cannery Row:

 

Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood,

chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks,

restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries,

and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitant are,

as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gambler and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody.

 

The language is concrete and visual and memorable. I read it decades ago and I still remember the opening. I also remember what struck me most: everyday words (a lot of them one syllable) combined with unexpected writing.

With trendy talk you get big words, small ideas or no ideas.

Try this simple test.

Subject your writing to this easy to use evaluation tool. It rewards direct, easy-to-understand language. And that’s the foundation for clear, powerful and persuasive writing. You can’t sell something if you confuse your readers or tucker them out with excess verbiage.

Don’t talk trendy talk. You’ll take a big step toward getting people to listen and understand and buy your point of view. That’s because you will be refreshingly clear.

And you won’t sound like a jargon machine.

Don Draper. Good in bed; bad on the job.

 

Every time someone finds out I ran an advertising agency they ask the same question.

“Ever watch 'Mad Men'?"

I did watch it. Now, let me ask you a question. Did you ever watch "Mad Men"? If so, what do you think about that creative director, Don Draper?

Ever watch the way he treats his people? Think disdain, abuse and fear. They present their ideas; he trashes them, and then creates the thing himself. I don’t know what he needs them for, except to execute his ideas.

Draper is an interesting character, but a crappy creative director.

Sure, when I work as a creative consultant, my clients expect me to come up with ideas. They also expect me to give their people tools and processes that help them create their own ideas and make them work – ideas that will get attention, differentiate, persuade and move people.

Focus.

One tool writers and art directors need is a message focus, but it better be a focus they believe in, and it better ignite creative ideas. Contrary to what I believed when I started in this business, focus does not restrict people creatively. A focus they believe in frees them to be more creative because they don’t waste creative energy second-guessing what they're doing.

Sometimes my biggest job is to ask the right questions. That can lead to focus, a galvanized creative team, an unheard-of creative approach and exceptional results.

That’s what caused the Catholic Church to do something nobody ever thought they would do.

Here’s what I mean.

So, there you have it. The Catholic Church admitted that if you left them, it was their fault not yours. That’s how confession became a creative strategy.

And that's how our campaign led the country in results.

With all the talk about branding and strategic thinking, hardly anybody ever talks about creative strategy. They don’t now; they never did.

That’s too bad.

Creative strategy is one of the all-time greatest persuasion and focusing tools.

Creative strategies do wondrous things, like get people to believe what they don’t want to believe. The confession strategy did just that. Hey, the Church could have said, “Come on back we’re nice now.” But nobody would have bought it. Some examples of creative strategies are: demonstrate, document, compare, shock, create dissatisfaction. Or combine them. The Catholic Church admitting they were wrong was a demonstration. It also had shock value. And it got fallen-away Catholics to pay attention, open their minds and come back to church.

That’s the power of creative strategy.

Input. Not a data dump.

You must have the right information to create successful marketing communications. And, you must not have loads of irrelevant information. Often creative input looks like a book with everything you need to know except what you need to write the ad. I’ve seen creative people get mentally exhausted searching through pages of useless information.

It goes something like this. Read the 50-page research report. And, don’t forget the brand plan, and the 10 emails, and the conference call, and weren’t there some memos? Oh, yeah they’re in the black binder. Now where’s the black binder?

Focused input and a smart creative strategy are two of the most important and most overlooked tools of our trade.

They work, though. That’s why the Catholic Church campaign achieved what many people thought couldn’t happen: got angry dissolutioned Catholics to come back.

My clients want tools that enable their people to be their best creative selves, not an extension of me. They don’t want a creative consultant who has all the ideas.

They don’t want the creative director from "Mad Men."