Full-Service vs Fine Dining.

In the restaurant world sit-down restaurants generally fall into a few different categories. For simplicity's sake this post focuses on two types to which I think parallels in advertising can be drawn. 

It's an oversimplification, sure. But this is a blog not a term paper.

The first type is full-service casual restaurants. These are usually part of a chain and can often be found a few yards from another, similar restaurant. The prototypical example of this is Olive Garden.

Olive Garden serves middle of the road food. Food that people seem to enjoy because as long as they're not food snobs. You've probably heard some derivative of "Those breadsticks, oh those breadsticks! And the endless soup and salad bowl. I simply cannot get enough Olive Garden." (Maybe you haven't if you didn't grow up in the Midwest like I did.)

It's a brilliant marketing concept. Giving people exactly what they want. Essentially a home cooked meal prepared by someone else, to the tune of $7 plus tax and tip. Of course it has way more sodium and fat and everything else than you would make at home. But it's food people want to eat. Often lots of it. And the quality is consistent regardless of location. 

And Olive Garden is not alone in this perfectly homogenized food game. It's joined by a legion of other fast-causal restaurants that give people what they want without a lot of thought. We're talking the Red Lobster, Chili's, Applebees, Hooters, and TGI Fridays (really anything owned by Darden) of the world. And while the food might not be mind-blowing, it is passible as sustenance. 

Meanwhile, what seems like worlds away in a culinary sense, is the second type of restaurant: fine dining establishments. And the top of these are restaurants that have or are attempting to garner a Michelin Star or a few. (The Michelin Guide also happens to be my favorite advertisement of all time because it transcended being just an ad. From a humble scheme to sell tires it became the most respected authority on where people need to eat. Pretty incredible.)

Michelin starred restaurants are not the easiest to get in to. Or to approach. Or afford. But they are consistently interesting, daring, and high quality. Oftentimes toeing a fine line between dining and event. They take huge risks. They develop techniques. They polish themselves so that they become the envy of chefs across the globe.

They lead the world of food rather than existing in it.

Extrapolating from my time working in and studying adverting I think this metaphor can be extended to our industry. With agencies substituting for restaurants. Creatives for chefs/cooks. And work for food. (The main difference being that no one needs advertising to live. Unlike food. But how easy would our jobs be if that was the case?!)

These days most agencies seem fine with being a full-service casual restaurant.  Which is understandable. From a business perspective it even makes sense. There's a reason fast-casual restaurants exist. Not just exist; flourish. They're big, bloated, and flush with cash.

And within those restaurants there are people who truly care about the quality of the product that goes out. But that product is always compromised because it's only trying to be a certain level of passible. Good enough to not leave people retching, sometimes even 'good' but never remarkable. The product of mass production and compromise.

That's the way most ads come out. They might be fundamentally palatable, but not necessarily something people want. Work that took a lot of effort but is largely glossed over because there's plenty of other things to focus on These work best when they're pushed out over and over and over. They are bland but ubiquitous.

When you consider what is possible in advertising it's easy to assume that most people are reaching for the next level but that doesn't seem to be the case. Most people are beaten back and reduced to pale imitations of themselves. Told that originality has no place. That copy or visuals that have been changed but that's okay because it's just advertising anyway. This is the mass-production way of viewing things. The end product is nothing special. It is a means to an end. And that end is selling product, public perception of advertising be damned! 

And maybe that's fine for some people. Even though 90% of advertising ends up as wallpaper and we know that boring, safe stuff doesn't work as well as the bold, exciting stuff.

However, there are agencies on the other side of things. Trying and succeeding to work work that is consistently tasteful, exciting, and great. They're the same 5-10 names pretty much everyone talks about. And I don't think for a second that this type of work is easy. It takes bravery to wade out into the waters of the unprecedented. It takes bravery for someone in an agency to stand up and tell a client no. 

To tell them that they'd rather kill the work and find a solution to suit both parties, rather than produce middle-of-the-road mush. Agencies that develop a style and product that is distinct for their clients. Even when the client just wants something that's been done before.

This is a very scary proposition but it's what turns out the work that people love. And the public at least tolerates.

Here's one more thing to consider about the restaurant/agency parallel.  

The styles and dishes developed at the highest levels of each industry slowly eek their way into other restaurants. Even to the most pedestrian chains. 

(A bit like how Meryl Streep explains fashion in The Devil Wears Prada.) 

I believe this is the saving grace of Michelin Star restaurants and "good" ad agencies. The reason for being slightly unwilling to compromise. It makes the expense and extravagance somewhat permissible because they are affecting culture en-masse.

To be completely honest I don't care which side of things agencies and clients choose to be on. As I said earlier there are obvious advantages to being bland and boring and profitable. (The profit being the obvious advantage.)  It's a fine way to make a living if a living's all you want to make.

But I don't care about just making a living. So even if 98% of  agencies are content with producing full-service casual work, I'll keep trying to make something of Michelin quality (not that I'm anywhere near there yet). And I'll do it until I'm kicked out of every single agency and have to have a go at something completely different.

Science says brainstorming is bunk.

Yesterday I was listening to a rather excellent episode of On Being about the cognitive roots of creativity. Now I'm not saying I understand science 100%, but the guest, Rex Young, spelled things out in a way that was easy enough to understand. It was interesting hearing from someone who studied creativity outside of "creative" industries.  Plus, he was backed by science rather than the usual pop-psychological conjecture that surrounds creativity.

Here's a few quick things I took away from the episode. (Though you should listen to the whole interview.)

Science says that brainstorming is bunk.

While it can lead to decent results, it hardly leads to results that are the most creative. Because what happens in a brainstorm is that everyone is trying to impress everyone else. To have their ideas liked. As a result, people hold back the new, challenging ideas and present the ones that are easier to digest. People get shamed into submission.

Brainstorming, it turns out, is a really terrible process. At best brainstorming can add something to a conversation where there is nothing. At worst it makes people feel good that other people agreed with their less-than-creative idea.

I wish more agencies would listen to this kind of advice. Or maybe it's better that they don't and the smart ones do.

Which leads to the second thing I took away: comfort matters. In order to spark great creativity you have to be comfortable being wrong, around the people you work with, over and over and over.

If not, you run into the same problems you have with brainstorming. Comfort allows for a give and take that doesn't come naturally. It allows someone to eviscerate their partner's idea one moment, while championing a different one the next.

Comfort is the reason why writers' rooms work differently from the average brainstorm. The components look the same. But the process is dramatically different.

The episode went in depth about a certain building at MIT that was known for creative results. All sorts of great brains floated through this place and bumped into each other, knocking around some of the most creative ideas in history. It was this unplanned magic that gave the place its brilliance. And gave the world so many good ideas.

But, again, it was because all of these people were comfortable with each other, and accepting of each others' input, that this worked. Any other set of circumstances would have been absolutely toxic.

There's more, way more to take away from the episode. But you'll have to listen to get all that goodness.

What Wasn't Always Now Is.

A few years back I met with a senior ad-person in Minneapolis. He asked me what kind of work I wanted to make.

I told him (and this is still my driving motivation) that there was this ad for MINI, the MINI driver's contract, that I had torn out of a magazine and put in on my wall. It was cool. Mostly because I was 14 and these were some tips on driving not like my parents. I still take a piece of advice from it:

"When you reach the apex of a curve: accelerate."

That kind of work, the work that people put on their walls (or share, or talk about), is what I want to make. He told me that's all fine and good, but not every brand or category we work on is going to be as cool as MINI.

I argued back that Old Spice wasn't really cool until W+K made it cool. That I thought every brand, every brief provided the opportunity to change the way people think about a product. And we, as creative people, should be grateful for that.

He still disagreed with me. Thus I left his agency, which I really liked, feeling dejected and confused. In retrospect it is just two different ways to look at the industry, then it was soul shattering.

As I said above, I still believe that it just takes a little more caring and divergent thinking to make a huge impact. What reminded me of this is the Dollar Shave Club video that has been making rounds. If budget razors can be cool then anything can be cool.

Even if no one cared about budget razors a week ago, they do now.

The Lowest Common Denominator Isn't The Issue. The Issue is Us.

ALERT: Super Bowl reflection post below.

People complain that the majority of Super Bowl commercials are sub-par every year. In turn this gets blamed on the American Public or, as many others in the field like to call it, the lowest common denominator.

The problem is appealing to what we think is the lowest common denominator. Or thinking our ads have to be worse to appeal to all people*. They don't. But it does take a slightly different approach to make an ad that delights and sells when 100 million people are watching.

And it's not like there haven't been successful Super Bowl spots in the past. It wasn't long ago that Bud ruled the game with their frogs and wassup. It was just two years ago that Old Spice reigned supreme with The Man Your Man Could Smell Like (which actually ran before the game). Even VW's Little Vader was universally loved and slightly humorous (though the selling point was a little weak).

Contrast that with the "sophisticated" approach Bud Light Platinum took. Those spots were universally panned in polls and post-game commentary. They offered nothing to the audience and blended in with the blandervitisng we see every day. It was as though the creatives had never drank a beer in their lives (let alone a Platinum).

So while it's possible to make something that doesn't suck you have to understand where you're advertising. the point is to entertain groups of half-interested individuals. These people are cheering for a good ad. This is the one time a year they might actually care. It's not good to go in with the attitude that appealing to people sucks. That's something that should be celebrated.

It's easy to blame people when work doesn't go over well. They didn't get it, they just weren't smart enough, what does the public know? The issue is the public is our audience: including the lowest common denominator. An ad that doesn't work for them isn't really worth anything.

And if that doesn't make sense to marketers then the Lowest Common Denominator might be us.

*This is one point I disagree with George Tannenbaum on. For a balanced perspective check out his take on Super Bowl ads.

Creativity Thrives During Chaos

There’s never been a better time to do creative work than right now. You can get stuff started. You can get it out to people. And you can turn it into a business if it’s decent. And there are more ways to get work to material. And it’s easier to get work. We are at a peak. Everything about our country is going to hell. Our politics, industry — like this is the one part of America which is actually going great.

—Ira Glass

I couldn't help but be inspired by this interview with Ira Glass. Not only is he down about the future of his profession, he doesn't care. Because when things are coming to the end, when things are changing dramatically, that's when creativity is not only accepted, it's required.

Sure, there will be people that always stay the course. People who try to hold onto the last shreds of What Once Was. But while they do that, people like Glass (and, hopefully, you and me) laugh and ride off on some new creative (ad)venture.

When things are going wrong people look for something to latch on to, maybe that something will be yours.