How I Got to Madison Avenue. And beyond.

As with life, this blog is developing and changing. It began with a lot of stories that occurred on my career path from Albany to Madison Avenue and back.

There were some similarities to the AMC series "Mad Men," and then I went even farther back in time with a somewhat fictionalized version of growing up in Troy's Little Italy.

And now, a new development. As my free lance advertising and marketing career winds down, I'm becoming more interested in the theatre arts that my father and his 3 brothers helped instill in me as I grew up.

As a result, I've volunteered to help promote the Theatre Institute at Sage, and now, to continue a long-interrupted desire to be behind the proscenium, I've joined the newly formed Troy Civic Theatre, and was actually fortunate enough to appear in their first production.

So, I hope you'll enjoy the new stories that will develop from this latest turn.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Blithering Idioms

Strategy. In 1980, after 20 years in the business of writing advertising and promotional campaign, I couldn't tell strategy from execution.

Because I didn't study the definitions of those terms in any school. I learned to write convincing messages for radio, TV and print by doing, by watching, by comparing actual campaigns.

Before learning the definitions and methods of developing strategies for creative development, media exposure and expenditures, I and my contemporaries in the relatively small Albany market developed the instincts for it.

Tell us the problem, and we'd give you the right solution. Usually. But defend it? We could only tell you that it felt right – we had no intellectual defense, only an emotional one.

Of course, that sometimes led us down the wrong path, and we'd fall in love with a creative gem that really didn't solve the problem – it only satisfied our egos.

I know how it happened, and it's still happening. I just received a mailing from one of those coupon magazines with a lot of colorful ads for local businesses. In it was an example of one of those clever headlines that copywriters love, with two meanings. But cleverness is not a strategy – one of the meanings is totally off strategy.

It's an ad for hot tub maintenance service, and the clever line is “You'll be in hot water soon.” An idiom whose meaning is, “you're in big trouble!” It's literal meaning is fine, of course.

It's not “What were they thinking?” but rather, as my wife Eileen used to say, “What? Were they thinking?” They weren't thinking about strategy, that's for sure.

When I got to the center of the advertising world, Madison Avenue, and was thrown in with the big guns at Kenyon & Eckhardt, and then Bozell Jacobs, I couldn't afford to let just cleverness rule my work.

Now I was dealing with trained MBAs as account supervisors, managers and executives who dealt with equally proficient and educated clients. I had a research department to rely on. I had media buyers. Creative Directors, Supervisors, producers, art directors, bull pen, print buyers – and in order to keep them all on the same page, the agency had developed forms for all the decision-makers to sign off on – a media strategy, and a creative strategy. There was a lot of discussion and background that went into those strategies, and that got boiled down to “strategy briefs” – a list of ten or so questions that helped you focus down.

Everyone filled them out, then the answers were discussed, massaged, argued over and finally distilled into a strategy statement that everyone would agree to. Only then did the creative work begin. And heaven help you if you strayed from that strategy.

After ten years in New York, I returned to the Albany area, and, with a few modifications, brought my creative strategy brief with its ten questions with me. I give it to every new client – pro bono and paying clients alike, and ask them to fill it out. To my amazement, they almost never do.

But I think it helps them to understand what questions they need to answer, even if they don't take the time to put it in writing. I keep trying to get those answers, because the more I know, the better my solution will be.

If you'd like a copy of my Creative Strategy Brief, send me a request. ( I hope whoever's in charge of approving ads for the hot tub service will ask.)

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