I saw a tee shirt the other day that read, “More me, less you.” It made me laugh because we can all be a bit self-absorbed occasionally. Sometimes we tend to talk about ourselves too much.

Advertisers, like people, enjoy talking about themselves. It’s simple, human nature. But talking about yourself is no way to talk to someone else, especially in advertising.

When I was a cub I took a piece of copy to an art director to flow into a layout. He stared at it for a minute or two and I could tell something was wrong. “What’s the matter?” I asked.

He looked up and said, “this is we, we copy.” I took offense, thinking he had just called my work wee-wee. “Excuse me?” I said.

“It’s all ‘we this’ and ‘we that,’” he added. “It’s chest-pounding—it’s propaganda. Try less we and more you.”

If he had called my work wee-wee, he would have been right. It was great advice and a good rule of thumb for anyone who works in marketing.


The following blog was originally written for Primal Creative, a boutique started by me and an amazing designer named Chris Jones. Follow primal at http://primalcreative.com/thoughts

I hate doing estimates. Simply because I hate the question, “how long do you think that’s gonna take?”

It’s a fair question. But one I never seem to answer correctly.

Here’s a revelation we don’t want our clients to know: estimates are rarely accurate, particularly when they’re based on an hourly rate. Here’s another revelation I wish everyone knew: we creatives rarely emerge on the winning end of a miscalculated estimate—at least in my experience.

That’s because the work we do takes time. Probably more time than we like to admit, and certainly more time than you might think. After all, at the end of the process the work manifests itself as a simple idea, a bright design, or basic, readable copy. But here’s the thing: we agonized over it.

We studied your competitors, searched the Internet, browsed countless magazines and annuals. We went to strategy meetings, brainstorming sessions, and stared endlessly out the window searching for inspiration.

Our first ideas? Not good enough. Besides we’d seen it before. So we pushed it. Finally in the waning hours of our allotted time—eureka! An idea worth pursuing! Lo and behold, the forty-hour job was ultimately conceived, refined and executed in the thirty-seventh, -eighth and -ninth hours—if we were lucky that is.

I’m a much bigger proponent of a project rate. What will this work accomplish? What is that accomplishment worth? Clients get their solution and I keep my eyes on the prize instead of the clock.

In the immortal words of Bernbach, “The truth isn’t the truth until people believe you, and they can’t believe you if they don’t know what your saying, and they can’t know what you’ve saying if they don’t listen to you, and they won’t listen to you if you’re not interesting, and you won’t be interesting until you say things imaginatively, originally, freshly.”

For me at least, being imaginative, original and fresh takes time.

The following blog was originally written for Primal Creative, a strategic creative boutique. For more visit http://primalcreative.com/thoughts

I had the opportunity to chat recently with Ron Fisher, former Creative Director at BBDO in Atlanta and one of the principals at Hutcheson Schutze, a now legendary creative shop.

Ron is an old school ad guy. When I say old school, I mean it as a high compliment. He knows how to get your attention for the right reasons. He knows how to produce memorable work (remember “branding” anyone?). And he knows how to tell a story. Ron and I weren’t so much chatting as we were lamenting the erosion of traditional media.

There are fewer opportunities to do the print and broadcast campaigns we enjoy so much. Even worse, there is less reason to do that sort of work. It’s a conversation I’ve had dozens of times with dozens of ad guys. But Ron added a unique perspective.

“Word of mouth,” he said, “has always been the best advertising.” He added that new media and social media simply accommodate Word of Mouth quickly and efficiently. He closed on what I consider an optimistic note. “As long as people need to figure out ways to sell,” he said, “they’re gonna need ideas.”

Great point. And one I think is all too often lost in an increasingly noisy social media world.

I recently had the pleasure of working on a series of videos for the Greenville, S.C. AAF promoting the upcoming Addy Awards. A friend of mine told me the video was genius. Well, let’s give 90% of the creative credit to the folks at Apple. The truth is a deadline was looming and I was told to write something we could produce inexpensively and “preferably against a white background.”

Everyone knows the recession weighed heavily on advertising the past year. I simply wanted to do something that reflected our collective experiences in 2009 without being a downer. Seemed to me a discussion between new media and traditional media would make for pretty good fodder. I worked with designer Chris Jones of Popcorn Initiative, and by the next morning, a campaign was born.

To my pleasant surprise, Tweeters started picking up on the campaign. Even more surprising, most were proponents of print media who saw the beleaguered character in the first spot as their champion. That was never my intention, but print does make a valid point. As you’ll see in the remainder of the series, (I’ll post them as they’re complete) no medium was safe from attack.

Major kudos to Williams Evans for once again jumping through hoops and making the impossible possible. WE is a video, audio and music production company Greenville is lucky to have. Special thanks also Fisheye Studios, Audio Solutions, Shane Peters, a cameraman among boys and all the performers for making these videos happen.

Recently, I had the opportunity to write an annual report and a series of posters for the Wounded Warrior Project, an organization whose purpose is simply to honor and empower severely wounded warriors who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The impetus of the organization is the inarguable virtue of its cause. It enjoys support from the right and the left. From red states and blue. From people across the political spectrum.

In the course of writing the annual report, I listened to the recorded personal stories of a dozen wounded warriors, and like anyone else, could not help but be affected.

Their reasons for joining the military ranged from economic necessity to patriotism in its purest form. For some, recounting their experience was emotional and painful. Others described the events leading up to their life-altering wounds the same way you and I would describe a trip to the grocery store.

They came home missing limbs, badly burned, coping with traumatic brain injuries, dealing with what they had seen and wondering what was next in this new phase of life. Their photographs are disturbing and powerful and inspirational. In most cases, their injuries seem all too conspicuous. But too many of them suffer deeper, less-apparent wounds. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Broken families. Broken spirits.

There is a part of me that is uncomfortable with how easy it is to go about my business while so many service men and women –and their families—are enduring untold sacrifice. My six year-old keeps a picture of a young American sailor who belongs to our church. The photo is there to remind the boy to send up a prayer each night for the men and women who are far from their homes and loved ones serving our country. I for one am joining my son in his prayer.

The Wounded Warrior Project began by providing bedside backpacks to wounded warriors. Today they also provide advocacy on Capitol Hill, continuing education opportunities, benefits counseling, Warriors to Work, Soldier Ride and other worthwhile programs. To learn more, or to donate, visit http://www.woundedwarriorproject.com.

Wounded Warrior Ian Lennon. Photo courtesy of the Wounded Warrior Project.

Wounded Warrior Ian Lennon. Photo courtesy of the Wounded Warrior Project.

Okay, by now you’ve read countless opinions and infinite blogs as to why marketers should continue to spend in a downturn. Historically, brands that spend in a downturn capture marketshare. Yada yada yada. Blah blah blah.

So here we are, closer to the end of this mess than the beginning. In the midst of all this darkness, something fascinating has been taking place in the world of media and marketing.


Driven by necessity, agencies have been finding new, low-cost ways for advertisers to reach their audiences. Even better, new technologies are making it possible for audiences find advertisers.

When the upturn is in full swing, these new technologies and methodologies are going to stick. And they are indeed going to generate increased marketshare for savvy clients. For creatives, the upside will lie in these new media: Because, as is often the case with new technology, the bar ain’t been set all that high.

There are brilliant exceptions out there. But reeling ad agencies and design firms have been leaping upon the bandwagon and taking an “us too” approach. They’ve opted into technology over creativity. Search Engines over ideas.

Baba Shetty leads the digital and media groups at Hill/Holiday. He penned a column recently in Communication Arts entitled “Humans vs. The Hype.” In it, Shetty concludes that, “…if a lot of people are jumping on the train then there must be something there. But left unchecked by our better instincts as students of human behavior, technology won’t help us as much as we hope.” Amen brother.

I’m out of the business of making predictions. But I believe these technologies will help us by evolving as they should—as tools. And we’ll create on these vast new canvases as never before.

For years, my approach to writing for the Web was a lot like other writers who grew up in print advertising. Mostly, it consisted of placing brochure ware on a site. I was happy. Clients were happy. And life went on. But while I wasn’t looking, the Web changed the way we communicate, the way we connect and the way we formulate opinions.

How Different Is Reading for The Web?

To understand how writing for the Web is different, you have to understand how reading the Web is different. Most readers don’t read the Web at all—they scan. How could they not? There is inexhaustible content out there. And studies prove that ink on paper is easier to read than pixels on a screen. So you should write in a way that makes your content “scannable.” Be concise. Use subheads. And consider your tone of voice. Be conversational and informative.

In Some Ways, The Web’s Not So Different.

I’ve always written copy for short attention-span theater, especially for advertising. See the headline. See the logo. You get it right? Great, I’ve done my job. If you read the body copy, hey I’m closing the sale. The Web is similar. See the headline, the subheads—you get it, right?

The difference to me is, with ad copy, I feel as though I’m beguiling the reader. With the Web, the reader has opted in. It’s my job not to lose him or her.

What Isn’t Changing.

It’s tough to read about marketing or even our culture at large without reading how the digital world is changing everything. Obviously, our behavior is changing. But what isn’t changing?

Our human nature.

Our deepest primal desires, the things that have driven our decision-making for thousands of years, continue to drive us today. Bill Bernbach was quoted as saying “It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man.”

Far more recently, in a Wired article entitled, “Is Advertising Dead?” Michael Schrage writes, “time and geography—more than human nature—separates the captive crowds at the Roman Colosseum from user lists on the Internet.”

What this tells me is that we’re not evolving into emotion-less drones seeking only information, facts, tweets and the opinions of our peers online. We can be entertained. We can be engaged. We can even be persuaded.

Online, Are Creativity and Effectiveness Mutually Exclusive?

Of course not. I’m beginning to see more and more Web 2.0 sites that are adept at telling a good story and keeping content fresh and dynamic. But there are still plenty of proponents of Web 2.0 who are convinced otherwise.

This should go without saying but it always seems to get lost in the discussion of Web content: Make the copy interesting (See my last blog). Certainly there are guidelines you should follow when you’re developing content for the Web. But at the end of the day, good writing is good writing.

Looks like people don’t like being “sold to” with boastful advertising. I know because the content writers, bloggers and self-proclaimed social media gurus have told me this over and over. And over again.

Really? Thanks for clearing that up.

But I’m not about to give credit for that observation to digerati who develop line after line of dull, unimaginative content any more than I’m giving credit for the Internet to Al Gore. And if you tell me “people don’t like being sold to” followed by “they just want information,” and I’m smiling when I say this, I just may heave on your shoes. 

Of course people don’t enjoy being sold to. They never have. Advertising pros have always considered this an essential truth–it’s right up there with you can’t bore people into buying your product. That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been lots of bad, overbearing advertising out there, just like there are lots of dull Web sites created to engage Search Engines rather than people. But throwing advertising under the bus, or worse, suggesting it’s archaic, is misguided.

Look, I get it. Social media has indeed (gulp) changed the conversation and I agree there’s no going back. McCann Worldwide says 82% will believe a stranger online before they’ll believe your paid advertising. That’s sobering. But advertising isn’t going to go away. It’s going to evolve. We’re all going to have to get better at our craft. Advertising is going to become more accountable and more credible because it has to. 

So give me the tracking. Give me the low-cost reach.  Give me the unfiltered conversation the new digital world provides. But for the love of Pete, let’s make the work interesting, shall we? Let’s create language that pulls readers from one page to the next. Let’s give audiences a reason to watch. Let’s make our brands the subject of conversations online and off.

We might actually sell something.

At my firm we’re pretty transparent about finding the right solutions for clients, even when it’s not in our best financial interest to recommend, say, social marketing over a print ad campaign. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bristled in meetings when the president of our company says, “ads aren’t working now.”

But then I started thinking, when’s the last time an ad sold me something? I’m not talking about a retail sale ad or a buy-one, get-one special at the mall, but an ad that sold me on a particular brand, maybe offered me news and actually created a desire within me to buy a product.

The best answer I could come up with was a famous Timberland Boot ad decades ago. The headline read something like “In Ten Years, You Might Have To Replace The Laces.” Didn’t know what Timberland was at the time, but I bought a pair. True to spirit of the ad, I’m currently on just my second pair today.

Granted I’ m a jaded writer bent on judging the conceptual and strategic merit of all advertising. Still, off the top of my head, it’s tough for me to think of a lot of ads that changed my way of thinking, that actually persuaded me to make a purchase. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the Doritos “Crystal Ball” spot during the Superbowl. I still buy Tostitos though.

The good news for guys like me is that I believe advertising has reinforced purchasing decisions I’ve made countless times. Times when I was standing by the gum display at a checkout counter. Times when I exited the Interstate wondering which hotel parking lot to pull into. Why? Because those brands were top of mind.

Or maybe I  had seen ads that reinforced a preference or desire I already had. For instance, I’ve wanted a Jeep Wrangler my entire life. Not because their ads were cool necessarily, but because I’ve always liked jeeps. The two-door never made sense for me though. Then I saw the “new species” campaign announcing the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited 4-door.

Mine is blue.

So would I have bought the car had I never seen the ads? I don’t know. I think ads work because they generally confirm our desires rather than create them. But I don’t think ads can sell you something you don’t want or can’t afford in a bad economy.

What say you? I’d like to hear from you. Does advertising work? When’s the last time an ad sold you something?

I have written dozens of ad campaigns for resort real estate clients. I’ve been proud of all of them for the most part. But even when the campaigns prove extremely successful for my clients, I often experience an incomplete feeling. You see, when we write ad campaigns, we advertising folk look to connect with our audience by revealing some universal truth–an aspect of the product or brand that truly resonates with the audience in a compelling way. Now I think I’ve figured out why real estate advertising often leaves me unsatisfied.

I can’t tell the truth.

I can’t write, explicitly, that the real estate in question is a great investment.  Not because I don’t want to, but because  the law won’t let me. As I understand it, you can’t infer a return on investment without registering the property as a security. Which leads to regulation by the Securities and Exchange Commission, costly fees and responsibilities nobody really wants.  So you see, my hands and the hands of real estate advertisers are tied. Otherwise the investment potential would be the lead for most, if not all of my campaigns.

I don’t mean to sound unemotional, unromantic or unsentimental. But we’re talking universal truths here. Tell me when you or anyone you know ever made a real estate purchase without regard for investment potential? Sure I know there are times when you “have to have” that kitchen, that view or that corner lot. But there has been a generational understanding that real estate appreciates. This unspoken understanding has validated those emotional decisions in the past.

To me, it’s a universal truth that great places will continue to appreciate. If not in the coming months, then soon. So, in one form or another, I continue to write about the beauty and grandeur of properties, the incomparability of the amenities,  and the sweet stories of connection between generations. Critics call it fluff. And I’m okay with that. I think this so-called fluff works  because it convinces buyers that the property is going to be highly desirable for emotional reasons. And highly desirable property, for whatever reason, will almost certainly prove a good investment in the long run.

Shooting video for Safe Harbor

Shooting video for Safe Harbor

When we creatives talk about our work, we tend to throw the word “passion” about freely. This past week, I got a lesson in what passion truly means.

My firm had the opportunity to create a fund-raising campaign for Safe Harbor, a safe haven for victims of domestic violence in upstate South Carolina. I was charged with helping oversee the production of a video that would include interviewing over 40 “real” people who had volunteered to appear.

Our production schedule was challenging to say the least. Participants were scheduled 15 minutes apart. Few had any real briefing as to why they were here, and fewer still had any sort of on-camera experience. To complicate matters, we were working without a script. Truth be told, I awoke the morning of the shoot with a mild sense of dread. Most had been coerced into showing up, I thought. It’s the middle of the work-week. They’ll be inconvenienced, uncomfortable and irritated by the pace at which we’ll have to work. It’s going to be tough to get through the day, much less create a worthwhile production.

The first participant showed up. We talked for a bit about Safe Harbor and what we hoped to accomplished with the video. Since we were tight for time, we did away with chit chat and got started. She walked in front of the camera and took her place on the X underneath hot lights in a cramped, makeshift studio.

That’s when it started.

With little direction, she began to speak. Clearly, she wanted to be there and she wanted to be heard. In those few moments, we were all reminded that the gravity of the cause we had undertaken would trump any inconvenience and passion would overcome any case of nerves. Then came the next participant. And the next. And the next. Each matching their predecessors’ conviction and energy. Many sharing unthinkable stories of violence, of lost childhood, of hopelessness. Others heralding the hope that Safe Harbor had brought to so many lives. It quickly became a magical shoot with an incredibly positive vibe.
I’ve never been so happy to be so wrong about what a day would bring. Clearly, our biggest challenge would be editing down so much wonderful material. As time wore on, we weren’t tired, we were energized. We felt like we were accomplishing something.

We were passionate.

To learn more about the project, visit http://www.5dollarsin5days.org

I’m not a techy. Never have been. I’m a proud late adapter. In the realm of rapidly evolving technology, I consider myself an “Every Man.”

But the last couple of years, it’s struck me that the Internet is beginning to live up to the high aspirations we Every Men had for it during the boom of the late ’90’s–the era when everyone needed a Web site but no one knew why. Things have changed. I can find bargains online, research the Library of Congress, rekindle friendships from decades ago, travel a virtual street in Beijing and get the morning’s news the night before. But this mind-boggling connectivity and its proliferation into everyday life recently hit home for me in a big way.

One evening during the Thanksgiving week I came home after a long day. Waiting for me in my personal inbox was notification that a new podcast was available. There’s certainly nothing remarkable in that. But this podcast was from my five-year-old’s kindergarten class.

One by one, each child spoke simply about what he or she was thankful for. The production was poor. The music was melodramatic. But no producer, no director on earth could replicate the sincerity and purity in those young voices. When I heard my little boy through those tiny speakers saying he was thankful for his mommy and daddy, my eyes welled up, my heart swelled and my day had officially been made.

The rest of the economy seems to have caught up to real estate. We were at the tip of the spear when things began to slow, and I believe we’ll be at the forefront when things begin to turn around.

There are still folks out there marketing, still out there selling. But for the moment, not even the most optimistic among us would suggest it’s business as usual. We are in the midst of a downturn, at a traditionally “down” time of the year no less. Currently, we’re not telling our real estate clients that now is the time to spend their marketing dollars generating leads.

But if they’re not generating leads, what should they be doing? Hunkering down and waiting this one out? Hardly.

When the market is good, I’ll grudgingly admit that even mediocre marketing can work—or at least, it won’t hurt your chances at success. But what about marketing when all the sheep are nowhere to be found? At Hill Mullikin, we’re telling our clients that now is the time to plan to succeed. Current conditions present us with a rare and valuable opportunity: time to step back and figure out a few things.

Things we don’t always have the time or patience to figure out. Things like what is it my customers want? What makes me different? How am I going to be top-of-mind when they’re ready to buy? How can I leverage new technology and new ideas to get a greater return on my marketing investment?

Now is the perfect time to plan for the new year—for the new economy. Because when the market returns, relevance will be king. In other words, you’ll need to be relevant to your customers. They’ll be empowered not only by economic conditions, but also by a rising tide of information available at their fingertips. So take the time now to get to know who your customers are and understand what’s meaningful to them.

It sounds simple, but another essential component in preparation for the new year is figuring out who you are. At Hill Mullikin, we suggest a battle cry. A battle cry is a simple statement, a stake in the ground that defines who you are and what your position is in the marketplace. For instance, Microsoft’s battle cry is “information at your fingertips.” Barack Obama’s campaign battle cry was “change.” Both examples are clear, concise and ownable positions. Let’s take this time to figure out what your stake in the ground will be.

For many of our clients, the battle cry is presented in the context of a brand platform, an internal, easy-to-understand brand manual and a blueprint for all advertising and messaging. The brand platform outlines a clear, consistent voice that can easily be recited by every member of the team, from sales to marketing to administration. Coupled with a sound, strategic marketing plan, the brand platform has proven to be a powerful tool in the planning process.

“If you’re failing to plan, you’re planning to fail,” the old saw goes. For real estate marketers, I believe it’s truer today than it has ever been.

Me, Naked.

For those of you expecting to see me unclothed, sorry to disappoint. Take my word for it though, we’re both better off this way.

My reference is to nakedness is how I feel when I write anything personal, or more accurately, anything that isn’t advertising or marketing copy. One of my greatest dreads is the employee birthday card. You know the kind. The birthday card fairy brings it when you’re away from your desk in a plain vanilla folder. Truthfully I would rather write a brochure than write another birthday greeting. You see, writing is my profession. And whatever I write is supposed to be good.

Writing copy for advertising and marketing provides me with a sort of filter, a kind of comfortable anonymity that empowers me to express my observations and world views without any sort of personal consequence or judgement .

I’m especially apprehensive about blogging. This is me here. No epic photography to make up for my shortcomings. No logo in the corner to assume ownership of the words I write. It’s just me and my opinions standing naked before you. My problem with most blogs is that they’re nevermind-the-facts streams of consciousness with little real news or insight. Now that I’ve overcome my phobia, I promise I’ll try to provide news, insight or some other reason to read in the future.

So, here it is. My first blog.

Happy b-day!