Park the Snark

We talk a good game about bullying. Then the claws come out.

Maybe we can’t help ourselves.

Maybe we should try harder.

Last weekend a good portion of the globe enjoyed the annual late winter Sunday evening television marathon known as the Academy Awards. The Oscars and the Super Bowl are two of the remaining real-time TV tent poles broadcast from the U.S. to the rest of the world still commanding appointment viewing of some of the largest assembled audiences joined collectively. Whether they are culturally worthy of that significance is beyond the scope of this blogger, but they are what they are: massive, temporally significant, and dare I say, glamorous.

EllenOscarTweetThis year’s Academy Awards offered what many have called the best line-up of nominated commercial films in years. Among the strong critically acclaimed competition, an important film won Best Picture. We saw unusually significant advances in motion picture technology win accolades. An excellent line-up of creative contributors offered heartfelt belief in their projects. We also enjoyed a quite clever world record tweet stunt (“the retweet blasted round the world”) emerge from a reasonably relaxed show format that seemed to try hard not to focus on itself too seriously, but to put that focus on the work being honored.

I don’t know if it was one of the best Oscar shows ever, but it seemed to me a credible, enjoyable celebration of creativity, all the more poignant given the immense geopolitical events mounting on the world stage as it played. It was a good night for Pharell Williams to sing “Happy.” A lot of us felt that way.

Then came Monday morning. Or if you really wanted to get in on it, later Sunday night.

What was the most insulting joke told by the host?

Who had the bad taste to show up with the worst vanity surgery?

How awful was that mispronunciation of someone’s name?

Can you believe that awful gown? She has to be the worst dressed, no contest.

What kind of self-aggrandizing acceptance speech was that?

Did you see how drunk he was at the party?

What kind of backstage snub comment was that?

Did you see the look on his face when he lost?

Did you really think she deserved to win?

It’s astonishing. We can’t even have one night to send up fireworks and smile in the glow without the snark. Maybe it’s because I live in Los Angeles and dissing in social circles is as common as saying, “Let’s have lunch,” but it seemed for every word of praise I heard for a winner, I heard three times that many diatribes flicked at presumed losers. Were I able to isolate it to the Hollywood elite, I might feel better encasing it in a cone of irrelevant silence, but I saw and heard it everywhere–online, in the mainstream media, on the phone, wherever news travels.

Folks, this isn’t news. It’s babble. It’s unimportant. It’s not particularly clever. And it’s mean. Really, really mean.

Sure we are a society of tabloid media. Websites and TV shows and grocery checkout racks thrive on insults, humiliation, and Schadenfreude. Most of this is not satire, not irony, not well-crafted humor. It’s just junk. Bloated, bombastic garbage. And we absorb it until we become it, and then we spew it right back, as if somehow that makes us part of some intelligentsia, some wise-cracking inner circle that can distinguish meaningful critique from wasted breath. When we join in the rant, we are kidding ourselves. We become part of the problem.

And here’s the problem: the kids around us are listening. They hear every word we say, every word the media relays, every nasty remark that deflects from the celebration that should be going on of wonderful, creative work that helps define our shared culture, commercial or otherwise. Then they go to school and the clear message is that bullying is verboten–completely off-limits, not allowed, punishable by extreme… what? Any chance there is a slight conflict going on when what they hear in their heads are our voices institutionalizing the public act of professional cruelty? We wonder why bullying is everywhere, but we don’t hear it in our own everyday dialogue.

What the heck is wrong with us? Really, we can do better. All we need to do is talk more about stuff that matters, less about stuff that doesn’t, offer praise with enthusiasm where it’s earned, and try to be a tiny bit more polite when someone happens to make a boo-boo, or we perceive them as making a boo-boo.

Because you know what? We all make boo-boos. And I have yet to meet anyone who enjoys ridicule, especially when they just did something out of the ordinary, whether the words travel behind their back or in their face.

It hurts. So let’s stop.

Learning from Mars

If you went to elementary school circa the 1960s, you remember that one of the few times TV was brought into the classroom—likely a dusty, early model, enormous 21-inch Zenith B&W CRT with bent rabbit ears, strapped to a prison issue, grey steel rolling wheel cart—was for the Apollo lift offs, splash downs, and moon walks. During those turbulent years of hard-won civil rights and compounding economic expansion, you might have dreamed about growing up to be the next Mick Jagger, but it is equally possible you aspired to have The Right Stuff and be the next Neil Armstrong.

The Space Race captured our imaginations. We watched in awe as the first boot imprint and an American flag were planted in the Sea of Tranquility. We lost sleep with the good people at Houston who had “a problem” bringing home Apollo 13. It was all so captivating, the science in our textbooks was made real, technology was cool, and the Warp Factors of Star Trek seemed someday plausible. I’m glad I got to experience that as a child—it made childhood more childlike and less childish. The Little Prince would have been proud.

Much has been written about the fall off in public enthusiasm for the space program after the tapering Apollo missions and the less grandiose but still near miraculous Space Shuttle missions. As we left The Cold War behind with the collapse of the Soviet Union, we came to worry less about controlling our Solar System. Satellites became our path to better television and radio entertainment, not so much a magic portal to the future as a manufactured bridge to enhanced convenience. It all became ordinary, and then expensive, a difficult pair to keep at the high-end of federal funding without public enthusiasm. We moved on, to the information age, to the PC revolution, to the wildly lucrative internet. NASA was scaled back year after year, and although we knew that wasn’t optimal, we were largely okay with it.

Too often we forget all the ancillary learning that occurred as part of space exploration—not just the nifty consumer products like cordless power tools and vastly improved athletic shoes, but the processes of working together in high function teams. Getting tonnage into and out of space safely has never been a job for individual heroes as much as it sets the tone for working together in groups, combining scientific work methods that emphasize cooperation, breaking down gigantic projects into manageable tasks. Engineering is a profession of shared ideas, where the accuracy of each single contribution matters immensely, but the compiled knowledge of all participants matters even more. We take so much of that kind of process for granted now when we bite off big chunks. I wonder if we take appropriate time to digest just what the process of doing the incredible really means.

As we took a brief intermission from the Games of the 30th Olympiad these past few weeks to observe the otherworldly, never before tried jet-softened hard landing on Mars, I was left pondering if perhaps we were being a bit too casual about the successful parachuting of the Curiosity Rover. No, there were no astronauts on board, and yes, we had landed on Mars before—but not this way, and not with a nuclear powered craft of such immense size and scale. I think everything that involves operating with precision at distances of this magnitude is astonishing, and no matter how clear the physics, we should celebrate with the geniuses at JPL and NASA anytime they pull off the near impossible. Getting to Mars and sending back data to Earth is not a little thing no matter how many times we do it.

This one left me thinking even further. In the midst of a floundering economy and awful recession, precisely the opposite of the Apollo climate, our national tech teams did more with less and made us proud. What were the business lessons, I wondered—more ancillary byproducts of this adventure in science—from which we can additionally benefit in learning by example? I am sure there are many, but three leap out for me:

  1. Difficult is Good.  Paraphrasing President Kennedy’s challenge to set an arbitrary deadline without a known roadmap, the Curiosity team chose their path not because it was easy, but because it was hard. This was wide-eyed enthusiasm for a mission about something other than personal gain. Want people to rally around a task? Give them something where they need each other, where failure is acceptable in concept, but not in approach. Big problems are always worth solving.
  2. Resilience is Rebound.  Here was a team that had just put the Shuttle in mothballs, experienced colossal layoffs, and had no choice but to accept for the immediate future that our astronauts would have to hitchhike across the galaxy in the form of renting seats from former competitors. They put this behind them by committing to the project at hand.
  3. Sharing Triumph is Personal.  How do you get a team fired up and motivated? Bypassing cynicism is a decent route. This mission was about proving what was possible, about intrinsic meaning as much as the survival of equipment. The Curiosity team built pride because they did something together they will forever share, advancing progress, continuing exploration. Often you forget the details of a project, but you don’t forget people who matter. This is where emotion has a clear role in that which is otherwise objective.

I hope enough people at home were paying attention, partly because the landing was worthy of our attention, but more because when you think about it in the abstract, there is more application than meets the eye. Getting out of this recession is no small task, and it won’t be our government who gets the job done. It will be teamwork, commitment, creativity, motivation, and entrepreneurial spirit. Our move forward will be economic, but satisfaction has come from more than that. It will be of the human spirit, with celebration in the process of innovation as well as getting some problems solved.

I like that they named the rover Curiosity. It’s a good, real world metaphor. It sings aspiration. It’s worthy of our attention, a form of pedagogy that really does come from another planet.

Best Written TV Series of All Time

This is not a “normal” blog entry for me, but it seemed fun and worth sharing.  Earlier this month, I received the following announcement from the Writers Guild:

In 2006, the Writers Guilds of America, West and East presented the 101 Greatest Screenplays, honoring the best screenwriting of all time as chosen by WGA members. The final list and tribute event garnered major media and industry attention.

Now in 2012, the WGA turns its attention to the small screen with plans to unveil the 101 Best Written TV Series, honoring the most outstanding television writing of the past seven decades and spotlighting the writers who crafted the acclaimed TV shows that helped shape our lives.

If you would like to take a trip with the Ghost of TV’s Past through an extensive but still incomplete list of WGA acclaimed television series, they have provided the link included here.

The request was to vote for my own Top 20 in no particular order, which I found so interesting, enjoyable and difficult, I offer it here.  I share this not because it is definitive or I think my choices are in any way the correct ones, but to offer a perspective of what gets me jazzed about good commercial writing for the media.  This is highly subjective ground and potentially controversial, but what it says to me is that our choices of what we find to be good writing help define our own unique place in the world by nudging us to articulate a personal sense of aesthetic.  Storytelling in any compelling form can offer a window into interpreting our own motivations.  What we like is what we like, and that helps make each of us who we are.  No doubt you will think I am wrong for both what I included and did not, but hey, that’s the fun of it.  Maybe you’ll talk me in or out of a title.  Vive la difference!

Some of these lasted a single season, a few more than a generation.  Clearly the ones that went on longest had the most ups and downs, but even where they may have been inconsistent, the fact that they held my attention to stay connected kept me from penalizing the rough patches.  I tried with each to think about writing specifically as the key element in my selection, although too often it is hard to tease apart the written word from acting, directing, and even show design.  Television is known to be the writer’s medium, but there are times when a featured actor creates a character so defining it can carry the show beyond the craft of the teleplay.  Although outstanding writing is a critical component in what I enjoy, I did not approach this as a “favorites” list per se — otherwise as many as a half-dozen of these picks might have been switched.

The shows noted all had an impact on me for all kinds of reasons, personal, professional, in work and play, writing and non-writing professional work.  In no particular order, with a touch of bias toward recency, here is what I came up with for my best written 20:

1) Hill Street Blues

2) NYPD Blue

3) Friday Night Lights

4) Roots

5) thirtysomething

6) My So-Called Life

7) Man Men

8) Sopranos

9) Lost

10) The West Wing

11) Boardwalk Empire

12) The Dick Van Dyke Show

13) Mary Tyler Moore

14) All in the Family

15) Modern Family

16) M*A*S*H

17) Cheers

18) Married with Children

19) Daily Show with Jon Stewart

20) Saturday Night Live

If you want to know why or why not, please feel free to comment, but make sure you suggest at least a few of your own!  We’ll see how all our tastes aligned with the compiled WGA ballot tabulation when the 101 Best Written are announced later this fall.

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Brand vs. Direct: Must We Choose?

My distinguished colleague Gene Del Vecchio sent me some insightful follow-up thoughts to my post last week on advertising. Gene’s credentials in this area are much deeper than my own, with more than thirty years of advertising experiencing rising to the level of SVP at the renowned agency Ogilvy & Mather. He is an award-winning expert on advertising research, and also a successful author of non-fiction and fiction books, including the data-driven breakthrough Creating Blockbusters!

Gene’s point was that the distinction between brand and direct response advertising is a label, sometimes artificial and not necessarily useful except by executives managing ad budgets, often on the agency side. As simply stated as possible as handed down by legends like David Ogilvy and Leo Burnett—the individuals, not the agencies—all advertising has a single purpose: to sell products. Image is nice, awards are nice, clever memories are nice—but if the shirt doesn’t sell, it’s a cruddy shirt ad.

Gene summarized his point of view as follows:

The distinction between “branded” and “direct” is a red herring. If I advertise a movie on Thursday, I expect people in seats on Friday. Isn’t that direct? Sure it is. Simply because the time delay was 24 hours instead of 12 seconds, people are likely to say otherwise. These two disciplines need desperately to merge into ONE that both brands and sells. They are kept apart because many clients view them as silos. Adding to this is that agencies often hold these disciplines in two different groups with separate profit & loss responsibilities. Brand account managers at agencies don’t want to give up money to their counterparts in direct, and vice versa. Agencies also tend to have their highest profit margins in television ads, more than direct response campaigns, thus the agency business model with its higher overhead tends to favor the bucket called brand advertising. This is a battle on three fronts: 1) a philosophical battle of what is brand vs. direct; 2) a mechanical tracking battle regarding how to measure the effect of each; and 3) a business model battle regarding how agencies make their money.

Creating BlockbustersGene is a wise and honest fellow. I admire his candor which is firmly grounded in extensive experience. Surely an account executive would argue his or her job is always to do what is in the client’s best interest, but if they are doing what they believe is in the client’s best interest and it happens to be on the more profitable side of the agency’s business, one would have a hard time criticizing that as anything but a win-win. Rather than argue the potential conflict in an agency’s interest vs. that of the client, I find it more interesting to consider whether Gene’s suggestion that the distinction between brand and direct marketing has become anachronistic, and that this is yet another topic where we ought best to Think Different.

Few who have survived long careers in media would argue that brand advertising is meant to do anything other than sell products, and in that respect it has the same intention as direct response advertising. Long before the internet or digital platforms were available, long before the 1000 television channel universe, marketing budgets were allocated by clients as an acceptable percentage of total sales volume, invested in multi-platform campaigns that included TV, Print, Radio, and Outdoor. Sales expectations were set to evaluate Return on Ad Spend (ROAS). The concept of buying a carefully constructed and flexible campaign was investment driven, leading some forward-thinking corporate heads of marketing like Sergio Zyman at Coca-Cola to begin thinking of themselves as CMOs, or Chief Marketing Officers. If funds were invested and returns did not appear, they were accountable, and yes, these jobs have always been volatile. When CMOs turn over, ad agency accounts often come up for review, also a very volatile affair. While some agencies like Ogilvy and Burnett were well-known for keeping clients for ten, twenty, even thirty years, it was not because of Clio Awards, it was because of sales results. Anything less than accountability and ad business would be in jeopardy.

As more technologies became more available to CMOs and award-winning TV commercial directors found paths to becoming movie directors, a notion of image advertising entered the equation—as if to suggest that some advertising was meant to sell and some advertising was meant to make you feel good about a brand. Gene’s argument, with which I concur, is that makes no sense at all. If the advertising does not result in sales growth relatively soon—the car ad putting a perspective buyer in the showroom, a movie ad putting weekend butts in seats— it really doesn’t much matter how people feel about the Chevy brand or the Indiana Jones brand.

The job of an ad is to create action. A nice step in that direction might be a feel-good moment, but without action, no one paying for an ad cares a hoot about ” feel good.” Clients pay for an ad for a reason, and they don’t much care about trophies or “best-of round ups.” If the stuff they advertise is stuck in the warehouse, they are out of business. There are no more ads to buy next year, just burned creditors seeking liquidation crumbs.

At the same time advertising options became more creatively interesting and diverse, direct response mail and television infomercials touted their accountability. You mailed this many pieces, it cost you this much, you got this many orders, your cost per acquisition was at your target, live long and prosper. All of that may have been true, but with response rates worth celebrating at well under 5%, it was hard to argue the same kind of waste identified in TV epic brand spots wasn’t to be found in direct marketing initiatives—if you can get a 5% response rate, why can’t you get 10%, or 50%, or 100%? Why do we have to accept the old adage that in any campaign 50% of your ad dollars are always wasted, you just don’t know which 50% went up in smoke? And why can’t your direct response campaign have a residual brand effect, so that even if you don’t buy now, you might buy later, and if you do buy now, you might remember to buy again later? How do these urban legends become generally accepted principles, simply because they produce positive return on investment, however marginal?

Along comes perhaps the most important advancement in advertising since the thirty-second TV spot—the internet keyword ad generated by search engine marketing—and suddenly we begin touting 100% accountability in advertising. You pick the words you want to buy, you set your parameters for the auction, you pay your bill, and you get your orders. Perfect, right? Well, not exactly. You still pay for a lot of clicks that produce no value, factoring these as negative offsets to the profitable transactions of the campaign, and you feel a little better because you only pay for the clicks, not the impressions. The question is, can you or should you be getting residual brand or feel-good value for these unprofitable clicks, and if you aren’t, can you at least get some residual or byproduct brand value from the impressions that people are seeing even though the are costing you nothing? If you can, you have discovered advertising nirvana, which is precisely Gene’s point on bridging the applied and artificial distinction between brand and direct response marketing. Gene calls this finding the Golden Goose:

The key for both brand and direct response marketing has always been this: SELL IN A BRANDED WAY. TV, radio, print, and outdoor should create an image that sells. Internet clicks should create an image as they sell. That has been a rallying cry at agencies for years. Have they attained it? Sometimes yes and most times no. These two tools should also work in concert, together, as part of an overall strategy, and not thought of as mutually exclusive. The trick is to find the right balance of each, given each brand’s strategic objectives and its consumer’s decision-making process. The blend creates a consumer driven contact strategy, where you cannot tell where brand leaves off and direct begins, because they are part of the same whole.

I like the way Gene is thinking here. I find his approach to be liberating and aspirational. Will it be easy? No, but why should anyone in media get paid for what is easy? Can we get better at what we do and make our tools and platforms work harder for the people paying the bills? We better, or we ought not expect our invoices to continue getting paid. As the world becomes more flat, the notion of separate creative buckets becomes harder to defend. It’s time to be less defensive and get on offense, applying higher level creativity to more difficult problems of client advocacy, focused communication, and customer call to action.