What the #@!*$#% Was Coke Thinking?

Coke billboard

I haven’t written in a long time. But I had to write about this. I hate the new Diet Coke campaign. I’ve been walking past the same bus kiosk for weeks now and I keep looking at the campaign is disbelief.

You’re on Coke.

Really? The great American icon Coca-Cola is running a campaign with the tagline ‘You’re on Coke.’ At this moment, I feel like my father ‘I remember the good old days when Coca-Cola stood for something good in the world.’

I work in advertising. I’m familiar with the thought of getting attention. But I think this crosses the line of taste. This also seems like a bad fit for the brand. I’m a huge fan of the work done by Droga5. Not this. I don’t like this. The fact that virtually every parody online is a drug reference only makes the point – Coca-Cola Company thinks the only way to perform at your best is to be coked up.

Coca-Cola’s response? “This advertising is one part of the new campaign for Diet Coke, which is called ‘You’re On.’ It celebrates ambitious young achievers from all walks of life and reminds them that Diet Coke is there to support them in the moments when they are at their best. Diet Coke in no way endorses or supports the use of any illegal substance.”

No – that’s not what the campaign says. It doesn’t say we’re there for you when you’re at your best. It says to be at your best you need coke. The brand has become a punch line.

It’s Monday. It’s still too cold in New York. And I’m not feeling like I’m at my best. Maybe I need a Pepsi.

Be careful what you wish for.

A few nights ago, I had the strangest dream. I remember so much about it. Every detail. The people. The numbers. The decisions I had to make. And when I woke in the morning, I couldn’t stop thinking about it – as if it really happened. Did I make the correct decision? What would I really do if given the choice? Why did I make that choice?  I kept telling myself ‘it was just a dream’ but I still couldn’t shake the feeling.  Here’s the dream.

I’m asleep in my bed when a god-like figure comes to me and wakes me out of a sound sleep. “I’m here to grant you a dream,” it said. “But you can only chose one, and you can’t change your mind.” I answered, “I have so many dreams, things I’d love to do, people I’d like to see again.”  The voice answered, “I have chosen your dreams for you.”

“Here is the first dream. In January of 2014, you will win the lottery. The prize will be $883 million dollars. People all over the country will know your name. You will have financial security for the rest of your life. With the money, you can make any dream you’d like come true. You can help the poor. Be a patron of the arts. Start your own business. Some of these are also dreams of yours, but you haven’t had the financial means to make them happen. Now you will.”

“And what is the second choice?”

“You’ve always dreamed of being a better athlete – here is your chance. On January 1, 2014 you will be the world’s greatest golfer. You will be able to hit any shot you want at any time. All you have to do is think about where you want to hit the ball and it will land there. People all over the country will know your name. You will have financial security for the rest of your life. With the prize money you will win, you can make any dream you’d like come true. You can help the poor. Be a patron of the arts. Start your own business.”

I asked, “When do I have to make my decision?” The voice came back, “right now.”

I looked around, was this real? Is this a dream?  Then I answered, “I be the golfer. While you will be giving me the tools, I still have to earn it.” And then the figure said “done,” and disappeared.

The rest of my dream was about me playing golf. Hitting the ball exactly where I want to hit it. Winning tournaments. But then something else happened. Golf became less interesting to the public. Because one player (me) was dominating the sport, people stopped watching. The outcome wasn’t suspenseful or interesting. To make it better for the public, I started losing on purpose. Getting close but not winning. I would win enough to keep the reporters away, but I would lose enough to make people watch. People started rooting against me. People wanted me to lose. I stopped playing a full schedule because I couldn’t take people telling me I wasn’t good anymore. I knew I could win every time I played. But I also didn’t want to ruin a game that I loved. So I stopped playing.

And while I had all the financial security I could ever want, I was sad. People all over the country knew my name – but also remembered that I used to be really good. And while I could do anything I wanted, I didn’t want to leave my house. I felt like a prisoner.

And then I woke up.

I remembered so many details. I woke up sweating. I was confused. What just happened? For the next few days I remember thinking about this dream. If it were real, what choice would I have made? If it were real, would I still act the same way? If it were real would I keep my promises to help the poor and be a patron to the arts?

I’ve replayed this dream in my head over and over again. And then yesterday I noticed the lottery jackpot has risen past $500 million. So if it reached $883 million – you know that I will be buying a ticket.

Because I can tell you this – my golf game isn’t getting better any time soon.



One of the classiest creative directors I ever met.

I only met Mike Hughes a few times. I was working in New York; he was in Richmond, Virginia. Our companies were both owned by the same holding company, IPG. Mike passed away recently. He wrote his own obituary. I thought it was amazing. Please take the time to read it all.



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Just a little over a year ago, on Dec. 12, 2012, Mr. Mike Hughes started posting his thoughts on living and dying on a blog, Unfinished Thinking, which he used as a way to update his friends and family about his health while he was in hospice.

Frank, shocking, funny, heartwarming and completely human, his reflections, ultimately, were not about death, but showed how much Mr. Hughes embraced life, love, his family, friends and colleagues.

Mr. Hughes made his final post on the day of his passing today, posthumously, in an autobiographical obituary that he had asked a member of his team to put up once he passed away. We share his parting words here.

An Autobiographical Obituary by the Late Mike Hughes

After many unexplained delays, I have finally lived up to my prognosis and have at last departed this life. It’s been a life I’ve loved.

In the months leading up to this moment, I was astonished at the outpouring of love and caring and respect from hundreds of people. There were handwritten notes, emails, blog posts, comments, letters, magazine articles, personal visits and phone calls. The tsunami of glorious thoughts sent my way has made it increasingly hard to justify my deep insecurity about my place in the world—an insecurity I’ve clung to all my life.

I want to take this last opportunity to clear up one common misjudgment in the oft-repeated, highly exaggerated list of my virtues. Many of you have credited me with humility. That’s not even close to true.

No one has ever been prouder of a marriage than I’ve been of my 38 years with Ginny. There have been outrageous laughs, tears, squabbles, joys, illnesses, heartbreaks and thrills. We’ve shared eye-opening travels and surrendered to high-calorie challenges. We’ve held hands during quiet moments that I’ve treasured more than any other. Although we’ve never quite recovered from it, we somehow survived Preston’s death, holding on to each other the whole way. I’m proud of that. There’s been love and friendship and high expectations. She’s made my life feel extraordinary even in its most ordinary moments.

Our sons have been the source of unending pride. Preston, who provided some of the biggest adventures in my life, was always a handful, but he was also always his own man. What father wouldn’t be proud of that?

And Jason. Quick and smart and passionate and outspoken and funny and competent and good and nurturing. I’ve never met a better man.

Jason brought us Carley and Ella, the daughter and granddaughter we wanted and needed. There’s no room for humility in my feelings about my girls. Carley is the best baker in the world and Ella is, as she’s quick to tell you, “the best drawer in the world.” I’ve always been afraid of women and I’ve always been a feminist. These are two of the reasons why.

I’m proud to have been the son of Ann and Jim. They loved each other as much as they loved Patti and me: there’s no better gift parents can give their children. I’m proud we shared our home and I shared my room growing up with my uncle, Jim Kennedy, known to all as Foo Foo.

You can’t help being proud if Patti Hughes is your sister. My whole life has been a quest to be as funny as Patti. She’s lived a life filled to the top with great friends and great adventures around the world. She’s taken care of our mother with a gentleness and strength few people could muster.

“Uncle Doctor Todd” Jarrell is an honorary third son and I’m proud to have him in the family. And I’m equally proud to have Preston’s partner, David Jackson, as an honorary son-in-law.

I’m proud of my most intimate friends. I won’t name them all, but it would be wrong not to mention George and Megan Douglas; Craig and Beverly Bowlus; Larry Hall and Flinn Dallis; Bruce and Nancy Mansfield; Ed and Eileen Kitces. Over many years, they’ve put up with my crazy work hours and my general unreliability. The conversations we’ve had have been invigorating. I am especially proud to count many of their grown kids among my closest friends today.

I’m proud, too, to have lived and worked alongside incredibly talented people who were also incredibly good and generous people. My mentors always treated me as valued friends. Father Augustine made high school bearable and made me try new things. During my newspaper days, Jerry Finch was the editor every young reporter should have. Larry Kaplan was my first advertising boss, encouraging me early on to reach higher—even if it meant working somewhere else. Bill Wynne was my first partner/mentor. He brought out the entrepreneurial side of me.

Then there was Harry. Harry Jacobs made The Martin Agency a contender in the industry worldwide–and he made me an advertising man. He put me on a wonderful track that I’ve stayed on for 34 years. I hope he’s half as proud of me as I am of him.

I’ve learned from many of the industry leaders I’ve worked with at The Martin Agency, but none taught me more or stuck with me longer than John Adams. He’s the wonderfully stubborn, highly principled partner every creative director desperately needs. He and I have had the extreme good fortune to work side by side with the best agency management people in the business.

I’m proud to have been one of the hundreds of people who put The Martin Agency on the map. We owe a lot to our clients and stockholders, of course, but no one gets in this line in front of the men and women who earned their paychecks doing things a little group in Richmond, Virginia, wasn’t supposed to be able to do. I can’t begin to list the account, planning, media, design, tech, administration, finance and business partners who have done the work for which I’ve been given so much credit. I hope they know how much I’ve needed them and how much I’ve loved them. I can’t remember the first time I said “I do work I love with people I love,” but I know I’ve said it thousands of times. Every word is true.

A special call-out is due to the magnificent, crazy, elegant, messed-up, damn-near-perfect gaggle of creative partners who have put up with me for so long. Hundreds of writers and art directors have come through the doors of the agencies I’ve been lucky enough to serve. A huge number of those writers and art directors taught me valuable lessons—not just in advertising, but in how to live a meaningful, all-in life. The greatest joy in our business comes not from a gold medal or a place in the industry hall of fame—it comes from doing the work and from doing it with people of integrity and ambition and good humor.

I’m embarrassed that I get way too much credit for the success of the VCU Brandcenter. Diane Cook Tench, Rick Boyko, Gene Trani, Helayne Spivak, the students, the alumni, the faculty and the administration deserve all the bows. Still I’m proud (if a little self-conscious) that my name’s on the side of the building. And I proudly liberate the current administration from any obligation it might feel to keep that giant painting of me hanging over the stairway.

I should say I’m proud of all the honors I’ve been accorded in my career, but the truth is, I’ve never been sure I deserved them. I’m a Hall of Fame creative director because I’ve worked for and with Hall of Fame caliber people. My honorary doctorate—and every other citation and award I’ve collected–is also an honor for those people. I am inordinately proud to have represented the groups I’ve represented.

I’m both proud of and grateful to the people who have taken care of me in the cancer years. Julie Garner made the appointment for me to visit Johns Hopkins. Helen Vennard and Susan Lueke have been eternally patient with America’s medical systems and with me. I have no idea how they do that. They wrapped their arms around Ginny, Jason’s family and me and made us feel safe and protected and indulged.

One final thought. I hope each of you enjoys every minute of your life. You’ve all contributed so much to mine.

And one last favor. Keep me in your thoughts. I love you.

20 intern interviews later …

Over the past three weeks, I’ve interviewed 20 intern candidates for our Spring creative internship program.  The maximum number of interns I will hire is 5. That means you had a 25% chance of getting an offer letter from my agency to work here and learn from some of the best creative people in the industry.

But the odds decreased with every interview mistake.  So after meeting students from the Fashion Institute of Technology, Syracuse University, The University of Delaware, Temple University and the School of Visual Arts, I’ve identified 5 mistakes that most of the students made and have to correct.

Mistake #1 – The portfolios are not ready for prime time.  The most common line I heard from the students I was interviewing was “I’m still working on my portfolio.” That line was closely followed by “I plan to work on my portfolio over the break.” I find these statements incredible.  You’re an advertising student. The entire purpose of going to school is to create campaigns and ideas to fill a portfolio. Have you not noticed that you’re graduating in a few months? When were you going to put something together? After all your interviews are finished?  The best portfolio had 1 or 2 good campaigns. The worst had none. Some had no campaigns at all, but a collection of images that were supposed to be ideas.  My advice: Get to work. Now.

Mistake #2 – The ideas seemed small. In many of the portfolios, I saw ads. From time to time I saw an app or a website. Once in a while there would be an environmental idea.  But the ideas seemed confined by the page.  There was nothing that was huge.  Actually, that’s a lie – I saw one HUGE idea but the creative team that worked on it never understood how big it was, and made it very small. Instead of a movement that could change the world, they made an app. But that was the exception. Most times I saw well-crafted executions without the hint of an idea.  My advice: Know why you’re doing something, not just what you’re creating.

 Mistake #3 – Typos, typos and more typos. Virtually everyone had mistakes in their work. Resumes with really bad typos. Campaigns that spelled the name of the product incorrectly. I even saw a resume that had the name of the college misspelled. I don’t know how many times I have to say this – hire a proofreader.  You can’t see your own spelling mistakes. Trust me, I know. I’m the KING of typos. Read virtually any of my blog posts and you’ll find a typo. That’s because I don’t follow my own advice. I don’t have these posts proofread before I add them to my blog.  But I’m not looking for a job. You are.  My advice: Everything needs to be proofread. Twice.

Mistake #4 – The work lacks passion.  This was the most surprising. These students get to choose what they create – yet there wasn’t a single campaign about something they were personally passionate about. I met dancers, photographers, custom sneaker artists, improv actors, horseback riders, competitive swimmers, and women’s rights advocates. And guess how many of them created campaigns about these passions. That’s correct, zero. I told them all to create a campaign for these passions. That’s because only they could create them. Nobody else has that point of view. Nobody else knew the subject matter as well. That campaign would not (and could not) appear in any other portfolio.  My advice: dig deep inside yourself and find that campaign that only you can create.

Mistake #5 – Bad Interviews. 50% of the interviews were awful. 25% were bad. 20% were just OK. 5% were good.  Do the math, 5% of 20 people.  Yes, 1 good interview. What made these interviews so bad?  Asking no questions. Asking really dumb questions. Wearing something completely inappropriate. Not knowing anything about the agency or the work we do. Pulling a folded resume (with typos) out of a backpack as if you’re handing in a homework assignment. Having nothing interesting to say. Being bored. Being boring.  The good interview was very different. We had plenty to talk about. I gave some advice about his portfolio, and by the time he sent a follow up e-mail, he had made the corrections. Great attitude. Great work ethic.  My advice: Practice interviewing. Do research. Don’t be boring.

I am making my decisions today on who to offer and internship. I may offer 1. I may offer 2. I may offer none. I feel really torn. The teacher in me wants to take the least prepared students so I can work with them. But should I be rewarding them? This is very hard.  You would think that it was easy, but its not.

If you interviewed for an internship, good luck. If you’re thinking about a career in advertising – please pay attention to these tips. It could really help you get the job of your dreams.

Happy Wednesday,



I’m addicted to Netflix

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Hello, my name is Rich and I’m a Netflixaholic.

Lately I’m always tired. And just when I think I’ve had enough for one night, a little pop up box shows up and says ‘your next episode will being in 7 seconds’ and I can’t say ‘no.’

It started with Breaking Bad.

I went away on a trip with some friends and they were all talking about how much I’d like Breaking Bad.  I had my iPad with me, so I fired up Netflix and watched Season 1, Episode 1.  By the time I finally went to sleep that night, I knew the life story of Walter White, Jesse, Skylar, Hank, Marie and Walter, Junior.  I think I also spent some quality time with Skinny Pete, Badger & Combo.  I was hooked.  Every night before I went to sleep, I would watch 2-3 episodes.  Tuco, Gus, Steve Gomez, Tio Salamanca, Krazy-8, Eliot and Gretchen Schwartz all became a part of my life. Soon I’d be quoting my favorite characters Lydia, Saul and Mike.  I loved this show.

But the bad news – try falling asleep after watching 3 episodes of Breaking Bad. It was not that easy.

Luckily, there were only 5 glorious seasons to watch.  Yes, I burned through all 5 seasons in 3 weeks. And I realized that this show was a little like driving past a car accident. You know you shouldn’t slow down and look but you always do.  You knew this show was a wreck. You knew the characters couldn’t survive all the crazy stuff. But you kept watching because you were never sure.  I was shocked by the final 5 episodes. The twists and turns were mind blowing.

But that was only the beginning of the addiction. Next up was House of Cards.

I had no intention of watching the entire first season of House of Cards in 1 week. I always liked Kevin Spacey. The Usual Suspects is one of my favorite movies. His work in the 90s is amazing. American Beauty, LA Confidential, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (love the book), Hurlyburly and of course, Glengarry Glen Ross. But he hadn’t done anything that I would call ‘amazing’ in years. I’m not a huge fan of Robin Wright. In fact, off the top of my head, the only films I could recall are The Princess Bride and Hurlyburly.

Then I watched Chapter 1. Wow. Did Kevin Spacey really do that? Did he just talk to the camera? I’m in awe of Robin Wright. I hate Zoe Barnes. I feel bad for Peter Russo. I want to punch Remy Danton. And hey, isn’t that Dana Gordon from Entourage playing a newspaper reporter?  This show is amazing. Amazing. Let me say that again. Amazing.

I’m now watching two chapters a night.  I want to watch them all before the new season starts in February. Although I can’t imagine how there’s a second season. I’ve watched the first 12 episodes. There’s only one more. The house has to fall down soon. This can’t continue.

But it seems like I said the same thing about Breaking Bad.  Hmmmm, maybe this can continue and I just enjoy watching the car wreck.

So now I’m beginning to decide what to begin next.  Yes, I’m truly a Netflixaholic.

Here are the shows everyone is telling me I should watch next. And yes, I’ve never watched a single episode all of these. (Except Newsroom – I watched 3 episodes on a plane once.)

What do you think?

Here’s to another sleepless night. And in the voice of Jesse Pinkman – Have a great weekend, bitches.



Advice for potential interns

It’s that time of year again.  The e-mails are beginning to flood the office from students looking for spring internships. We will take 4-6 interns. Over 100 will apply. What can you do to insure that you get one of the spots? I’ll provide a few tips. I’ve given many of these before, so hopefully this isn’t news to you.

Hire a proofreader

I can’t tell you how many people have typos in their resume or in their work. A famous typo that I pointed out to a student was for a ‘pro-bono’ campaign to support low-income young women who need interview clothes.  Now remember, the woman who created this campaign had looked at the headline for one of her ads 1000s of times. And this ad is targeted at other women.  Yet she failed to notice that the work ‘count’ was missing a letter. And trust me, she didn’t do it on purpose. When I asked her about it, I thought she would crawl under my sofa and hide.

Another time I was meeting with a candidate who had spelled the name of two agencies incorrectly.  He worked a McAnn Worldwide and Sattchi & Sattchi. Since he was a copywriter, it made me wonder if he really ever worked at either. Good thing he never worked at Gray. (Which in case you don’t know is spelled Grey.)

Know something about your audience

Who are you meeting? What do they do? What do they like? What type of work do they do? You can find lots of information about the people you’re scheduled to meet. ALWAYS ask, “Who will I be meeting with today?” Never accept – “You’ll be meeting with members of our creative department.” That’s too wide open. Try to get their names and titles.  I think it’s quite fair for you to ask why you’re meeting them. Do they have a similar job title? Do they come from the same school? Or do they just have down time?  Virtually everyone in the world has some form of online presence. It’s very easy to find out something about everyone.  One other thing,  don’t use a ‘familiar’ short version of someone’s name. There are plenty of Roberts who don’t like Bob. Christopher is not automatically Chris. Elizabeth is not always Liz or Betty or Betsy. Someone once called my Rick Levy.  I’m not a Rick. I’ve never been called Rick. Its best not to get your audience angry before you begin.

Write an interesting e-mail

If you want a creative position, perhaps a good way to start is with an interesting introduction. Write an e-mail like you’re trying to get a response. Don’t take the easy way out. Spend time crafting it. Show it to people. Proofread it. Revise it. Send it to one person and see how they react before you send it out to hundreds. Test and optimize. Make it personal. Don’t use the exact same e-mail for different people in the same organization. Yes, we forward e-mails to each other. If its cookie-cutter, you lose points.  Be creative. Don’t suck.

Ask your college professors to make an introduction for you

There’s a very good chance the people teaching you know a lot of people in the industry. If they like you, they will happily introduce you to a lot of their friends. It’s helpful for you. It’s good for them.  I hired someone recently simply because their college professor (who I knew) told me I’d be an idiot not to. I trusted his judgment. And he was right. This guy was amazing. I hired him. He’s been great.  Use your network. Use their network.  It’s far better than a cold call.

Have great work in your portfolio

I know this seems obvious.  But if want a job, make sure your work is really tight. Make sure the art direction is fresh and unique. Make sure you know the difference between and idea and an execution. If you’re still working on your portfolio – don’t waste anyone’s time going on an interview. You’re not ready. Again, your college professors need to give you some tough love.  Don’t let them be nice. Ask them to be brutal. Ask them if they’d hire you. Hopefully, they say yes.

Good luck. I start meeting people next week. My fingers are crossed.









Why Not?

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I once wrote a series of TV commercials (with my art director partner Rich Dahl) for the Bank of America that was called the “Why Not?” campaign. It was all about dreaming what is possible. It was all about being visionary.  And it was perfect for the bank.  They didn’t produce the campaign the way I had originally wanted.  We did a hybrid campaign, mashing two ideas together to create something new. And I was never happy with the final result.

But last night I had a dream about the campaign. I hadn’t thought about it for over 10 years, since the campaign was produced in 2000. When I woke up, I remembered that the original “Why Not?” campaign also came to me in a dream. I wrote down these words (and many others) at 2 AM in a notebook next to my bed:

There will always be skeptics.


People who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

You know them.

They say it will never work. Never happen. Never fly.

But the next time they tell you all the logical reasons why it can’t be done.

Just remember all the times that they have been wrong.

But last night, I wasn’t dreaming about the bank or an old campaign. I was dreaming about my job. My dream was telling me to press on. To keep moving forward. That even when things seem impossible, we have to keep looking forward. Keep inventing. Keep trying. Never give up.

Yes, there will always be skeptics. Healthcare advertising can’t be creative. It has to be one way. It can’t have a human voice or insight. But they’re wrong.

There will always be those who do not value what we do. They don’t understand the blood, sweat and tears we bring to the office everyday. And we do it with one purpose in mind – to make their brands succeed.

Every day, someone will tell us what we do will never work, never happen, never fly. We must continue to reach for the stars and not settle for the expected. We must go back and find another way. We must have think skin and short memories.

And of course, someone will show us research – and tell us all the logical reason why it can’t be done. It’s our job to remind them all the times research has been wrong. That sometimes when you’re trying to change an industry, you have to do things in the face of logic.

What we’re doing is hard. We’re trying to envision a world of endless creativity in an incredibly regulated industry. But I think you know what I say to that.

Why not?



In case you’re curious – here’s a link to the Bank of America spot from 2000.

Don’t give up.

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Today someone is going to tell you that the amazing idea you just came up with is not a good idea.  Don’t give up.

Today someone is going to tell you that in a focus group somewhere in the world, someone didn’t respond to the work you’ve spent the last year creating. Don’t give up.

Today someone is going to invite us to a new business pitch that will have a timeline that’s too short to do good creative work. Don’t give up.

Today someone will walk over to your personal workspace with bad news. Don’t give up.

Today someone will call in sick – and that rush project you spent all night working on will suddenly have 4 extra days. Don’t give up.

Today the product you’ve been working on will fail its primary study endpoints and die. Don’t give up.

Today an FDA advisory panel will vote 0-12 against your product causing a two-year delay. Don’t give up.

Today the client you’ve spent the past 3 years building a relationship will be transferred to a different brand – and the new guy doesn’t like you. Don’t give up.

Today you will be booked in back to back meetings and still be expected to create amazing new work. Don’t give up.

Today someone will quit. Don’t give up.

Today someone will be searching the Internet and find that someone else has created a campaign that is exactly like the one you’re proposing to a client tomorrow. Don’t give up.

Today you’ll get contradictory direction. Don’t give up.

Today someone will tell you that the client wants to stop working and go back to an ad that you created 4 months ago. Don’t give up.

Today you probably won’t have time to get lunch. Don’t give up.

Advertising is tough. Everyday there are new challenges to overcome. Everyday there are new things to learn. New problems to solve. New people to meet.  

And yet, that’s also what makes it so much fun. Because, just when the crap is hitting the fan, people come together to do amazing things. Miracles.  They don’t give up.

Today I’ll see a video that was created for a client that makes me jealous.

Today someone will create an idea that takes my breath away.

Today we’ll win a piece of business that will make it all worthwhile.

Today someone will get promoted.

Today we’ll solve a problem that yesterday seemed impossible.

Today is another day when we can make a difference.

We’re trying to do the hardest thing in the world. Improve the overall creativity for an entire industry.  It’s not easy. I never said it would be. But it’s worth the fight.

And every day I have to remind myself of one thing.

Don’t give up.



(PS – Today is world diabetes day)

It’s time to get out of the weeds.

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I attended a brainstorming session this week. One of our teams was stuck. The creative team and the client couldn’t agree on a way to move forward. The client thought we were close. But clearly something had to change.

Within the first hour I knew the problem.

The team, both client and agency, were stuck in the weeds. The small stuff.  The functional stuff. They recognized that their product could do some amazing things, and they wanted to talk about all of them.

But they were missing the point.

The combination of all of those things leads to a much bigger idea. If we stopped thinking about how it worked, we could get to a much more interesting idea.  We had to raise our game. Instead of focusing on the small pieces – we needed to look at the whole. Because the whole story was pretty amazing. In fact, it’s so amazing, it’s almost unbelievable.

And that was the point.

In a category that has had no good news in decades – we had the ability to change everything. For people who had no hope – we had the opportunity to be a beacon in the night. And for the people in the room – we had the responsibility to make sure we didn’t settle for anything less than brilliant.

That also meant starting over. Examining everything. Questioning everything. And putting marker to paper.

But something else happened in the room that day.  Everyone felt liberated. By throwing away the baggage from the past, it allowed everyone to dream a bigger dream for the product. But not being concerned about each individual data point that may or may not be better than a competitor, we allowed ourselves to imagine a new path forward.

It was magic.

The logjam that had paralyzed the team for several weeks was suddenly open to new possibilities. The different factions of the company all suddenly agreed on what was possible for the brand. We talked. We created. We voted. We disagreed. We argued. But in the end we came together.

We now have a single purpose. We now have a vision for what was possible. We now have a way to go.

It’s this clarity that will help us all get to an amazing new idea. And is a great reminder that sometimes the best way to find the path forward, is to take a step back.



I made a client very unhappy yesterday

rubber chicken

When you work in a service industry, we’ve all been told to ‘keep the client happy.’ Happy clients say nice things about you. Happy clients want to give you more business. Happy clients don’t call your boss and tell him/her that you’re being a horse’s ass.

And yet, yesterday I made a client very, very unhappy.

Because I told him that I thought he was wrong. I told him that in my experience what he wanted to do would backfire. I told him that one of his ideas was in poor taste. I told him that what he wanted to do was off strategy, would potentially do harm to his business, and would potentially harm the reputation of his brand.

And he didn’t want to hear it.

I knew within 15 minutes of the beginning of the phone call that I was not on solid ground. The client had already made his decision. Testing would prove whether he was right or wrong – and he really didn’t want to hear my opinion. And yet, I feel my job is to scream when I see something dramatically wrong.

He didn’t agree.

So where does that leave us? We’re doing what he wants. Plus we’re doing what we think is the right thing to do. If he is completely reliant on testing to make his choices, we have to trust that testing will prove us right or wrong. But that’s putting a lot of faith in 8 people behind the two-way mirror. How do I know that? The most famous campaign I ever created – the Verizon Wireless ‘Test Man’ campaign – came in second place in nationwide focus group testing. That’s when I learned one of the most valuable lessons in my entire career. The Chief Marketing Officer of Verizon Wireless said something to me that I thought was amazing. “Research on a campaign is but one data point. Our judgment is a data point. What we think will propel the brand forward is a data point. What will motivate our sales force and store employees is a data point. Our own history of what drives business is a data point. Research is a data point. An important one. But not the only one.”

I have never forgotten those words.

The other thing I will never forget is that research results are interpreted by humans. And humans make judgments on what they see and hear. Results are not always 100% factual. You can spin the results to get what you want. I’m not saying that happens often. But I’ve seen it happen. And in this case, it scares me to death.

What’s next? Research begins next week. There are 5 pieces being tested. And while I never want to make a client unhappy – I really think the research will prove that what our client wants to do is the wrong thing to do.

I could be wrong. I’ve been wrong many times in the past. But just as I knew that the Verizon ‘Test Man’ would be a huge success – I know that this project will be a huge failure.

My goal is to always make my clients happy.  But I also have to be truthful.  No matter what.