Guess What Happens When Two Ad Journalists Try Their Hands at Advertising

Did Years of Covering a Subject Make Us an Expert on Doing It? What Do You Think?

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Credit: Illustration by Kelsey Dake for Ad Age

"Walking into Gerry Graf's office and seeing the man himself sitting there, this suddenly seemed like a bad idea.

"The sunlight was streaming in from the direction of Madison Square Park and the view expansive, but the spacious room seemed to shrink; the once-inviting sofa had somehow grown lumps. Despite the temperate April day, we found ourselves sweating.

"We were presenting our creative ideas on Cape Cod potato chips to the founder of Barton F. Graf 9000, and we had no freaking idea what we were doing."

That's Ad Age Deputy Editor Judann Pollack describing a little experiment she and I embarked on earlier this year.

The premise was simple. We've both been at Ad Age roughly forever and churn out and edit ad coverage on a daily basis.

We've even been known to write critiques of campaigns. So, one day over one too many beers, we thought why not try it? Really, how hard could it be?

You know where this is going, don't you?

I work with a lot of very smart people and Judy's one of the smartest. And whereas a lot of mainstream-media journalists catch a lot of flack for not grasping the very basics of what they cover, trade journalists are often seen as experts by those same mainstream journalists, and, depending on their mood and the most recent coverage about them, the people we cover as well.

But what people often forget is that being a student -- even an obsessive one -- of a subject does not make you any good at actually doing it. West Point professors don't necessarily lead troops into war, book reviewers don't write many best sellers, the person who watches six hours of Discovery Health a day cannot perform surgery and, it turns out, ad-trade journalists might not be so good at advertising.

The thing is, we basically lucked into a pretty sweet gig when BFG9000 and Snyder's-Lance let us come in on the Cape Cod assignment.

Potato chips are pretty easy to understand. And the brief was to convey the brand's salt-of-the-earth quality and small-batch production without making it seem uppity or artisanal.

This assignment was right up our blue-collar alleys. I'm from deep in the heart of Cajun Country and Judy's idea of a "craft" beer is pouring Coors Light out of the can and into a Solo cup (that's her line, not mine). Theoretically, when it came to coming up with the Big Idea with a small-town flavor, we should have had an advantage over any Cannes-going, Uber-loving, Brooklyn hipsters.

All we had to do was raise awareness in West Coast markets for a brand already well-loved on the East Coast. Cape Cod came with a ready-made story. The chips are still produced out of a small factory in idyllic Hyannis, Mass. Its bags picture a lighthouse on the front and on the back, a simple little map showing its location between the airport and the shopping mall. Its factory tour is the biggest attraction on Cape Cod -- when it's raining.

"Make it mass but keep it real," said Elisa Silva, group account director.

We had a few last admonitions from the big man himself. Don't be corny or disrespect the brand with made-up characters that had a phony down-homeness. "And remember," warned Gerry, to keep the focus on the chips. "This is not a tourist campaign for Cape Cod."

Cakewalk.

Or it might have been if we'd been able to get out of our own way -- or follow directions. We were told to go into a room somewhere and bounce thousands of ideas off each other, killing the bad ones -- Gerry said something about "4,000 no's." We were to think broad ideas, not executions, not actual ads.

Judy, it turns out, was very good at the last part, and some of the germs of her ideas made it into the final campaign. Me? Not so much. I really couldn't help leaning toward those phony ad-type characters.

And we both sucked at telling each other we sucked. Fifteen years of working together in journalism --where you work alone, hand off a piece, let someone else do what they will, then hustle it out into the world -- didn't translate into a dynamic ad team. If you judge us only by our writing, you probably won't believe this, but our biggest problem was this: we're too polite (to one another at any rate).

Eventually, we reported to Creative Directors Amanda Clelland and Nick Kaplan, the poor agency staffers who, along with Group Account Director Celine Cohen, were assigned to be our handlers. We handed them hand-scribbled half-sheets of paper with some vague ideas, some overly specific ones—and some drawings that looked as if a second grader had done them.

It's quite funny watching seasoned ad-pros figure out exactly how to tell two journalists that maybe they've missed the entire point. But they soldiered on and helped us shape a few things that Gerry wouldn't laugh right out of the room.

And then Amanda clued us in on a secret. If Gerry thought an idea was really terrible, he'd comment, "Well, it's an idea."

So a week later, after more fine-tuning, we found ourselves back in Gerry's office with our ridiculous half-sheets. We talked, he listened.

And when it was done, we could have heard a pin drop. We looked hopefully at Gerry, who said, "Well, it's an idea."

~~~

P.S. Judy and I finally did collaborate on something. We wrote this column together.