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THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO LUKE FALLON MCELLIGOTT COPYWRITER LUKE SULLIVAN ON THE DUES AND DON'TS OF CREATIVE CONSCIOUSNESS

By Published on .

RECENTLY, I WAS ASKED TO GIVE A speech at Atlanta's Portfolio Center. Rather than just show the agency reel and fend off questions, I thought I'd try to give the students some practical advice on getting through the day to day banalities of life in an ad agency. I submit them here for your approval. They aren't rules. God knows, rules don't work. Still, having been in the business for some 15 years, I seem to keep running into many of the same things over and over again. So for what they're worth, here are some of the things I have learned along the way.

Don't leave that for the account people. Do the factory tour, read every brochure. You will find cool ads just waiting there on the 23rd page of the smallest, most obscure brochure. Whole ideas are sometimes in the middle of a spec sheet, waiting to be transplanted into an ad. So read everything you can get your hands on. This goes for both writers and art directors. It will make you a better team. And the ads that you come up with have a better chance of surviving, because your client is going to trust you more.

Insist on a tight strategy. Ogilvy & Mather's Norman Berry once wrote, "English strategies are very tight, very precise. Satisfy the strategy and the idea cannot be faulted even though it may appear outrageous. Many U.S. strategies are too vague, too open to interpretation. 'The strategy for this product is taste,' they'll say. But that is not a strategy. Vague strategies inhibit. Precise strategies liberate."

Insist on a simple strategy. People think in broad strokes. Volvos are safe cars. Porsches are fast cars. Saturns are honest cars. Be simple. Don't let the AEs or the client make you overthink it. Try not to slice too thin. Think in bright colors.

Go to the focus groups. I used to hate doing this, and, to be honest, I still do, but I go to them just the same. Go, if only for the selfish reason that it helps you sell work to the client. Because once you've put in the hours at the groups, you can say, "Yes, I sat there and stared through the glass at those people and I know what they like and what they don't like and in my opinion this campaign will work." Once you've been to the groups, you can sit down back in your office and when you have an idea, you can go back to that room in your head and hold the ad up and you'll know if it is going to work or not. Those people are still up there. You can see their faces light up at the right idea and wrinkle up at a stupid one. You'll eventually get to where you won't let yourself get away with anything that won't work.

To get the words flowing, sometimes it helps to simply write out exactly what you want to say. Make it memorable, different or new later. First, just say it.

Get puns out of your system right away. And get those tremendously clever plays on words out of your system at the same time too. It's OK to think them, it's OK to write them down. Just make sure you toss them. Also, get rid of the formula where you say one thing and show another: "Your kids deserve a paddling this summer," and then show a picture of kids in a canoe. Get it?

Get the visual cliches out of your system right away. There are certain visuals that are just old. In fact, somewhere I think there's a place called The Home For Tired Old Visuals. And sitting there in rocking chairs on the porch are visuals like Uncle Sam, condoms and a flying pig, just rocking back and forth waiting for someone to use them in an ad once again.

Certain headlines are currently checked out. You may use them when they're returned. Such as "Contrary to popular belief ... " or "Something is wrong when ... " or "Think of it as a ... " These ideas are dead. John Lennon is dead. Elvis is dead. Deal with it. Remember, anything that you even think you've seen, forget about it, you've seen it. The stuff you've never seen? You'll know that when you see it, too. It raises the hair on the back of your neck. (Or, in my case, my ears.)

Don't be different just to be different. Somebody once asked Bill Bernbach, "Would you turn a man upside-down on his head in an ad just to get attention?" He said, "No, but if it was a way of pointing out how the pockets in these new jeans keep the change from falling out, sure I would." Your difference should be tied to the benefit of the product you're selling.

Be visual. Go short on copy. It's my opinion that people don't read body copy. Also, don't bury your main selling idea down in the copy just so you can get off a cool headline. Watch someone in the airport read a magazine sometime. They whip through it at about two seconds per page. If you can get them to stop to read your headline or take in your visual, your ad is a resounding success.

Be simple. "Simplify, simplify, simplify" used to be the line I lived by, until one day I realized the line is better written, "Simplify." There's an old rule called Occam's razor. I don't know where it's from or quite how it goes, but I know the moral: When you have two correct answers that both solve the problem, the most correct answer is the one that is the simplest. Because it solves the problem more elegantly. Cezanne once said, "With an apple, I will astonish Paris."

As in dancing, one should lead, one should follow. If your visual is some hard-working idea, let your headline quietly clean up the work left to it. And if the headline is brilliant, well-crafted and covers all the bases, the visual (if one exists at all) should be merely icing on the cake.

Develop a tone, a corporate voice, an attitude. This is particularly important in, say, the automobile category, where it's pretty much a given that you have to show the car; your ad may feel half-art directed already, and in a sense, it is. So when it comes down to a headline and a picture of a car, your headline ought to have a voice no one else does; an attitude.

Write quickly, but edit slowly. Get it on the paper, fast and furious. Be hot, let it pour out. Don't edit anything when you're concepting. Then later, be ruthless. Cut everything that is not A+ work. Put all the A- and B+ stuff off in another pile that you'll revisit later. And trash everything else.

Speaking of writing, I've always liked this metaphor: Warren Beatty said talking is the fire hydrant out front, gushing into the street. Writing is the drip of the faucet on the third floor.

Never use fake names in a headline. Like "Little Billy's friends at school ..." Anybody reading it knows it's fake.

Don't presume to know your audience. People hate being targeted. People hate being known quantities. As in those irritating lines of copy that go, "And you thought that ..." Or worse: "You. You're a woman on the go. You have a baby in one arm and a briefcase in the other." I watch commercials like that and I say: "Hey, I'm a guy. And I'm not 'on the go.' I happen to be at home in my underwear and I have a beer in one hand and a remote in the other and you are outta here, pigweed." Just say what your benefit is and let it go. Self-consciously "customizing" your message around demographics adds nothing to the persuasiveness of an idea. To get trout, fisherman fish where the trout are and use lures that trout like. They don't have little signs next to the lures saying: "Mmmm. This is your kind of lure, isn't it? You're breathin' underwater, you're swimmin' upstream, hey, check out this lure."

Don't waste time in your first paragraph being introductory. Get right to it. That doesn't mean that your copy should have a rocky, quick opening. But make sure it opens quickly.

Don't do snappy last lines in print body copy. The headline says something like "Rain or shine," and then in the last line the copywriter feels forced to write, "So storm into our stores soon." I suggest ending with the client's address and phone number.

Make the claim in your ad of something that is incontestable. Facts can't be refuted. When you say, "This product lasts 20 years," what's to argue with? State fact, not manufactured nonsense about, say, how "We put the 'qua' in quality."

"Tell the truth and run." This is an old Yugoslavian proverb. You cannot make a great or even a good ad on a false premise. You have to, above all, be believed. So, even if it is an unpleasant truth, say it. Find the central truth about your product; the central truth about your whole product category. The central human truth. There are ads to be written all around the edges of any product. But get to the ones written right from the essence of the thing. Joe Pytka told Pat Burnham who told me: "Be elegant or outrageous."

"Eschew obfuscation." Those words say what I mean to say, but to some they aren't clear. Which is my point: Make sure your readers understand you. My friend Jarl Olsen, when he was showing people his ideas, would say: "I really don't care if you like it or don't like it. I just care if you say you don't get it." If somebody didn't get his idea, he'd keep working on it. But if they said they got it, but didn't like it, then it became a judgment call and he'd usually go with his instincts. So make sure that, above all, people get your idea.

Show, don't tell. If a client says, I want people to think our company is cool, the answer isn't an ad saying, "We're cool." The answer is to be cool. Nike has never once said, "Hey, we're cool." They just are cool. Miss Manners once said, "It is far more impressive when others discover your good qualities without your help."

Remember: styles change, typefaces and design and art direction change. Fads come and go. But people are always people. They want to look better, to make more money, they want to feel better, to be healthy. Those things about people are not likely ever to change. So appeal to those things. Concentrate on perfecting your message.

Avoid trends in execution. For instance, this trend of setting headlines with varying sizes of type. Why are people doing this? It is the typographical equivalent of the white disco suit John Travolta wore in "Saturday Night Fever." It is a fad. It is design getting in the way of an idea.

Fight your AEs or clients when they ask for an ad about their full line of fine products. Full-line ads are rarely good. Coca-Cola owns maybe 50 soft drink brands, but they never run an ad for all of them with some catch-all claim about, "Bubbly, sugar-based liquids in a variety of vastly different tastes for all your thirst needs."

Make your tagline an anthem. Try to write something bigger than just your product. Own some high ground. The best ever written: "Just do it." That's not about shoes, it's about life. Yet it sold shoes. Anthemic taglines also allow you plenty of executional freedom down the road, when you may need to do something tactically different but must stick with the same strategy.

Be objective. Listen to what people at the agency say and what the client has to say. If a couple of people have a problem with something, chances are it's real.

You know those really funny ideas you get that make you say, "Wouldn't it be great if we could really do that?" Those are sometimes the very best ideas and it is only your superego/parent/internalized client saying you can't do it. Revisit those ideas. See if the objectionable element can be taken out without hurting the concept.

Kill off the weak sister. If your campaign has even one weak ad in it, replace it with one that is as great as the others. I've often talked myself into a campaign because one or two of the three ads were great and time was running out. Consumers don't care if one or two of them are great. They see ads one at a time, so all the ads should be great. Also, awards judges do care if only one or two are great. They'll kill off a whole campaign just to get rid of one weak ad, and rightfully so.

There's a saying about the strict quality controls they have in great Japanese companies. "How many times a year is it acceptable for the birthing nurse to drop babies on their heads?" Six times? One? There's another famous line: "Good is the enemy of great." It's true. Good is easy to like. Good puts its arm around you, says, "Hey, I'm not so bad, am I?" You talk yourself into it. Next thing you know you have a campaign that goes, Great, great, good. And that's bad.

I guarantee you, second-rate work is what clients will gravitate to; it is what they will buy. The reasoning I have used to allow myself to present so-so ads goes like this: Well, we gotta sell something to get this campaign going and time is running out. So we'll present five ads, but we'll make sure they buy only these three great ones. The two so-so ones we'll include just to, you know, help us put on a good presentation. They'll be filler. But the client will approve the second-rate work. It's safer, less scary.

Sweat the details. Go to any length to get it right. Don't let even the smallest thing slide. If it bothers you even a little bit, work on it till it doesn't. Paul Valery once said, "A poem is never finished, only abandoned."

When you get stressed and the walls are closing in and you're going nuts trying to crack a problem and you find yourself getting depressed and irritable and pissy, remember you're just doing an ad. That is all. An ad. A stupid piece of paper. It's not even a whole piece of paper you're working on. It's just half of a piece of paper in a magazine and somebody else is buying the other side. What's the worst-case scenario here? Let's say you don't get it. BFD. It's just half a piece of paper. This attitude may take a lot of pressure off you. Sit down and try again. But say you don't get it when you try again? Same answer: BFD. Bertrand Russell once said, "One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important."

If you're stuck, leave the room and go somewhere else to work. Follow the first rule of holes: "If you are in one, stop digging." There's a book called "Lateral Thinking," by Edward DeBono. His metaphor is that you shouldn't dig one hole and keep digging until you hit gold, but rather you should dig a lot of shallow holes first, all over the yard.

Don't drink or do drugs. You may think that drinking, smoking pot or doing coke makes you more creative. I used to. But all I was doing was fooling myself. In a business where we all purport to avoid cliches, a lot of people buy into this lifestyle cliche. I can assure you it is bullshit.

I once read a cool line that goes, "Be orderly in your normal life so you can be violent and original in your work." Seems to fit in right about here. Also, don't talk too much about your work, about the problems you're facing, the bad clients, the this and the that of it. Just do it. Talking about it just burns out your computer.

Somebody once said: "A manuscript, like a fetus, is never improved by showing it to somebody before it is completed."

Don't just wing it. I used to think winging it was cool, but that was just a false sense of bravado; as if my ideas were so good that they don't need no stinking presentation. Wrong.

Always enter into any discussion with the belief that there is a 50 percent chance that you are wrong. I mean, really believe in your heart that you very well could be wrong. I think that such a belief adds a strong underpinning of persuasiveness to any argument you put forward, because it doesn't feel to the listener as if you are forcing your thoughts on him.

I often think of the analogy of the two kinds of ministers I have seen: A quiet and anonymous minister at a small church, who invites me to explore his faith, vs. the noisy kind I see on TV, sweaty and red-faced, telling me I'm going to burn in Hell if I don't agree immediately. Which one is more persuasive to you?

Listen, even when you don't want to. It doesn't cost you anything to listen. It's polite, and even if you think you disagree, by listening you can gather information you can use later to put together a more persuasive argument. As they say: "Diplomacy is the art of saying 'nice doggie' long enough to find a big rock." I think our culture portrays passive postures (such as listening) as losing postures. But I think listening can help you kick butt. Relax. Breathe from your stomach.

Listen.

I recently did 14 campaigns on one assignment for one very bad client. Fourteen different campaigns over the period of a year and each one was killed for increasingly stupid reasons. Yet each campaign we came back with was actually better than the last, and we won with No. 14.

Keep your eye on the ball, not on the players. Don't get into office politics. Not all offices have them. If yours does, remember your priorities-doing ads. Keep your eye on the ad on your desk.

You are a member of a team. Don't ever forget that. Never get into that "I did the visual or I did the headline" thing. You work as a team, you lose as a team, you win as a team.

Don't waste time hating account executives. During my first years in the business I was trained to hate AEs. At the time, it seemed kind of cool to have a bad guy to hate and make fun of. But I was an idiot. It's wrong to think that way. They are on my side. Make sure they are on yours.

Don't fill your portfolio with cute ads for teeny clients that let you do anything you want. Try to do ads for checking accounts, newspaper subscriptions, brands of clothing; bigger stuff like that. These are the tough day to day projects that you'll actually be getting most of the time in this business. Ads on products like these are a better measure of your abilities than getting a cool headline off on a teeny ad for portable toilets or an acupuncture parlor.

Fill your portfolio with campaigns, not one-shots. Anybody can get off a decent headline if they work at it long enough. Only skilled ad people can think in campaigns. Don't send your book out until it has six or seven great campaigns in it. Don't gussy up your portfolio too much, by, for example, putting felt on back of ads. Some of my friends disagree with this, they say it keeps the laminated proofs from getting scratched up. I say forget it for two reasons: It makes a stupid ad look too important (if you've come up with the cure for cancer, yeah, put plenty of felt on it), and felt backing takes up way too much space. And I can make my portfolio beat your portfolio with more great work in the same space you're taking up with all your felt. Forget about the packaging. The work is everything.

Don't say, "I shouldn't bother sending my book to that agency. They're too good." All people are subject to low self-esteem, and I think creative people are particularly prone to it. I can think of five people in our creative department who didn't think they were good enough, but sent their book to Minneapolis on a lark, and we took them up on it.

Don't overestimate yourself. For some stupid reason, a lot of people in this business develop huge egos. I have to wonder why. None of us is curing cancer. None of us is saving babies from burning buildings. We're just a bunch of overpaid knuckleheads who think up nutty stuff to get attention for some other knucklehead's products.

You'll be paid a lot of money in this business. Aside from handling your paycheck, you'll never have to do any heavy lifting. You'll never have dirt under your fingernails or an aching back when you come home at night. The fact is, you're lucky to be talented, and lucky to get into the business.

Stay humble.

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