Saturday, July 15, 2017

7/16/17—Musings On My Day Job

This ad began the multi-ad campaign discussed in this post.
It focuses on corporate learning trends. Click to see larger.
All these years of blogging and I have never once talked about the thing I do most during my waking hours—writing ads. 

Not just ads, of course. Brochures, emails, white papers, websites, TV spots—anything an organization uses to communicate with prospective or existing customers in an official kind of way. This kind of thing gives me a good deal of insight into my clients. I know their sensitivities and weaknesses as well as their strengths. I know their corporate "personality" and preferences and level of risk taking. I know their business strategies, and am certainly exposed to "confidential" information before even their employees know about it. 

Which is why I've never really talked about it until now. The way I see it, if I don't talk about it at all, then I'll never say anything stupid. While I'm a composed and careful writer, I'm a mess when it comes to opening my mouth.  And, while I may not always sign contracts to this end, all my client contact is confidential as far as I'm concerned. Most of my clients don't even have any idea who else I work for.

I'm not just an advertising copywriter, I do it as a freelancer or consultant. The first 10 years of my career were spent working in ad agencies and in-house organizations. The contacts I made at that point in my life have led, in one way or another, to most of the clients I have today. I quit working for others 21 years ago and have been working out of my home and managing clients myself ever since. Today, most of my clients are in the education field, travel and tourism, business to business, high tech and real estate. Over the years, I have learned a little about pretty much every kind of business there is. This would come in really handy in social situations if I didn't avoid them like the plague.

There are many ways to freelance. Some people work out of their homes. Some go to offices of their own or their clients' to work. Some do both. I just work at home. There might be a handful of meetings I have to go to during the year, but I haven't even met half the people I work for, and I've been doing work for the bulk of my clients for over a decade, if not longer. It's a strange thing, but it suits me well.

While I'm not entirely a textbook case of everything you need to be to be self-employed, I'm naturally suited to it...or have learned to cope. I love to work alone—I need very little human interaction overall in life, bordering on antisocial. I'm disciplined enough to get up every morning and go to work, rather than watch TV or goof off. I keep good records. I'm very responsive. I'm reliable. I don't need supervision. And, not for nothing, I'm not a control freak. Especially if you're a writer, you have to get used to handing your words off to someone who does whatever with them and you may not ever see the result. More importantly than all that, I'm pretty good at managing the demons in my head when it comes to the "feast or famine" aspect of the job. I am NOT always busy. I'm either inundated or work is dripping in too slowly to support me. Trust me, living that way can be a total mind f___. That and the working alone aspect is probably what takes most would-be freelancers down.

While I may not frequently be involved in what happens to my work after I hand it off, that's not to say I don't get feedback. I get way more feedback than I ever did when I worked for others. All my clients are really good at thanking me and telling me they appreciate me. And when something in particular resonates with their client or within their organization, they forward me the kudos. I mean, sometimes it feels like an embarrassment of riches in that regard. It remains the most pleasant surprise I've had doing this. When you're an employee, you rarely ever hear "thank you" because they see you as a transaction in that way. And you'd think that when people pay you way more each hour to work for them, it would be worse. But it's just the opposite. They value you more.

This is another ad in the same series, focusing
on adaptive learning. This gentleman lost his
leg in a friendly fire incident in the military.
Rather than let it defeat him, he adapted
Crossfit to his needs and went on to win a
Paralympic medal for bobsledding.
Click to see larger.
So anyway, I recently asked the marketing director at GP Strategies® if I could "out them" on my blog and use our working relationship as an example of how things go. And they said yes. GP Strategies is a performance improvement company that works with Global 1000 companies to optimize their people, processes and technology. To translate that into layman's terms, training is a large part of their business, but they do way more than that in the corporate learning space. They also have an engineering arm to their company, but this post is already going to be too long without me getting into that...haha.

My relationship with the company pre-dates most of the people I work with there. The current marketing director inherited me from the previous marketing director, whom I met elsewhere on a freelance job 20 years ago. Certainly the new lady could have fired me and moved on to another person, but she gave me a chance. Now, on any given day, I might hear from any one of six marketing people in that organization needing help with a trade show display, flyer, blog article, email blast or whatever else. There is nothing I haven't written for this company. Many years back I rewrote their entire website (which has since been redone/rewritten/reengineered again by an outside web development company.) I helped rebrand their company a few years back, requiring some really meaningful phone interviews with people who work there, a process I thoroughly enjoyed. (Notice the difference in the logo and company name between the Able ads and the Outsource ads. They also got a new tagline, though they don't use it in this year's ads.) And, I help them come up with new advertising campaigns each year or two. 

To them, I'm an extension of their in-house team. They do not have an advertising agency. I can't say for sure, but I imagine this arrangement is just as effective and far more affordable for them. Most companies can't manage to pull that off well, but this client does. The same is true about my higher education clients. (BTW, I also freelance for advertising agencies...about half my work comes from ad agencies and design firms.) Not to brown nose, but the key to a successful in-house effort is having a highly competent marketing director with good ideas and good people management skills.  Anyone can manage an outside advertising agency. But few can manage an in-house team that puts out agency-quality work.

This is a third ad in the series, focusing on
technology solutions. There are more ads to come
in this series, I just haven't been asked to
write them yet. Click to see larger.
Different companies work with me differently. When it comes to an ad campaign, GP says "here's the message we want to get across, now come up with a bunch of ways to do that." Some years the campaign focuses on just one particular area of specialization in their company, or a "vertical" approach (see the Outsourcing ads below). This year, the input was to go "horizontal", meaning a more general discussion of workplace performance as a whole across the campaign, including the business results the company delivers (see the Able ads above). Unless you work in the corporate learning industry, you will never see one of these ads. They run only in trade publications targeted to other businesses. This type of advertising is called business to business or B2B because it's one business marketing to another business, instead of marketing consumers (which would be B2C, like my travel and tourism clients). 

So the client writes up a document/brief telling me what they are looking for, what to include and maybe even imparts their internal ideas for me to consider and expand upon. Even though they give me their thoughts, they fully expect me to think beyond what they provide. And then they might have a wish list item they want to include. For example, this year the marketing director wanted to incorporate her Crossfit gym owner who has a really compelling and relevant story to tell about adaptive learning, which is a current industry trend. So whatever I came up with had to be able to incorporate him in one ad, but the campaign had to be bigger than him alone. 

In exchange for his story and image, GP Strategies helped support his Paralympic quest as a bobsledder, enabling him to travel to competitions and such. It was a really smart idea, considering that corporate social responsibility is huge these days, so supporting things of merit or giving a percentage of your profits to a cause is a plus in the eyes of your customers. So it was a win-win for everyone and gave us a really powerful ad, if you ask me. 

So my client tells me what they want, then a few weeks later (or whenever they want) I come back with multiple ideas. A lot of things get done last minute in this industry, but this client and, actually, many other clients of mine, plan ahead. We started this effort months before the first ad was scheduled to run. 

This year I went way beyond what was anticipated and gave them eight "well developed" concepts, including ideas for images to use with the headlines. In this case, "well developed" meant that they got content for a full ad in that campaign, along with an image idea and either headlines for future ads or an explanation of how the concept would play out. (I don't do the art, but share any images I have in my brain, which they either use or don't.) Each campaign might have anywhere from three to six ads in it, all of which use the same headline/art structure and idea. In addition the eight well developed concepts, they also got six marginally developed concepts, consisting of a brief explanation of how the idea would play out.

That's way more ideas than usual, but I like to work until I'm fully satisfied a) I've got something I can be proud of and b) I've given fair attention to the ideas they came up with. I should note that, while most clients ask me to stick within a budget (usually because they have a budget to stick to themselves), this company rarely ever does. They just want a good product. So if I spend more time than usual, they don't worry. I do enough work for them, including things that take less time than anticipated, that everything evens out over the course of a year. And they trust me. So I usually won't quit until I feel I have "THE answer". But my "THE answer" and my client's "THE answer" isn't always the same. So one idea is not enough. Besides, it's rare that "THE answer" is the first one I think of anyway.

Usually I'll just present my ideas over the phone, but this time I drove up to their offices outside of Baltimore (an hour away) primarily to surprise other attendees who have worked with me for over a decade and have never met me. As I was talking them through all the many concepts, it was clear to everyone in the room which one was the winner. It's "Able" the idea I'm using to illustrate the top half of this post.

This is a previous year's campaign. All the ads
were about outsourcing. More on that below.
As an aside, B2B advertising in general is pretty conservative and few companies ever want to break out of the norm. In fact, you'll be told by many to "do something like XYZ competitor does, because we like their ads." Which is just stupid thinking. I could write a whole other blog on that alone. But GP Strategies, even though they are conservative like many other publicly traded B2B companies, always does something with a color, image, headline or otherwise that looks like nothing else in the industry. Which is as it should be in marketing. I'm so blessed that all my clients are smart cookies when it comes to this.

If you have ever looked through a trade publication, even having a cohesive concept is "wacky" and "out there" in some industries. I do a lot of work in higher education and, up until maybe 10 or 15 years ago, having a "brand" was a totally foreign thought. Here's an ad that changed all that in higher ed, and I just happened to write it (including the idea of making the turtle roar and  many other fearsome things he does in subsequent ads). The TV spots were backed by an extensive print campaign of turtles bursting through walls and doing other badass things (their school's mascot is a turtle/terrapin). And, all these years later, "Fear the Turtle" and the idea that they are a force to be reckoned with academically is still their "brand". Even though the average consumer is used to seeing creative/fun/funny ads, the creativity of this ad literally shook the entire industry because they had never seen an institute of higher education play by the same rules as a consumer products company so successfully. 

I tell you all this to illustrate that there are many different worlds in advertising beyond the slick, sophisticated consumer advertising you're used to. In B2B you have to keep shareholders happy, you don't want to risk offending customers, and there's usually a concern your competition might find something in your advertising to mock you about. So many tend to play things safe or just marginally risky, unless they're a maverick underling trying to get noticed. I'm not saying that's the way it should be necessarily, but I am saying it's the way it is in most B2B industries. It's not the free-for-all you're used to as a consumer.


This is a second ad (out of three) in the
outsourcing campaign. Outsourcing is when
you hire another company to take over
something you do. In this case, GP might
manage part of your learning organization
for you, like administrative functions that
keep you from focusing on the big picture.
An example might be manning a help desk
for you or keeping track of what courses
your employees have and haven't taken yet.
So back to the concepts. After the presentation and once we knew what we wanted, I went back home to develop and refine the idea even further. In fact, I don't remember, but I probably refined more than one idea. The marketing director knew what she wanted, but had to lay the groundwork for the acceptance of the concept (including the sponsorship of the Paralympic athlete for the one ad) in the organization. Then, once we were good internally, she told me what she wanted the first couple of ads to say and I wrote them in many forms—as print ads, as memes and as online banner ads. Then I sent them back to her and their in-house designers designed and finalized everything. 

I have won many awards over the years, including a One Show certificate, a rare honor coveted by every advertising creative in the world. But my particular talent lies mainly in the strategy (psychologically and business-wise) behind the idea. To that end, I'll point out a few ways in which this campaign is devilishly smart:
  • Each headline in the series consists of one word, partially crossed out. That treatment says, "we take you from unable to able", which is the crux of performance improvement. Each ad then focuses on different ways we take you from unable to able. For the audience, it's an incredibly quick "get" and, in its simplicity, is pretty smart. How often does one word say so much? And that smartness and efficiency says a lot about the company doing the advertising.
  • "Fashionable" transformed into "able", in particular, says "we know all the trends, because we're experts in this stuff. But not all trends are worthy of pursuing. Not all will make you more able. It depends on who you are, what works for your culture and if the trend has legs (which means it's not a passing fad.) We can help you sort all that out." It also points toward a key differentiator for the company—they do custom work. These are not one-size-fits-all solutions, like many of their competitors. So all of that, while not explicitly spelled out, is nonetheless connoted in the 11 words of the headline and subhead, which is about as much as most people will read, according to research. 
  • If you are inclined to read on, more details are spelled out in the ensuing 50 word copy block, along with mentions of the trends the reader is most curious about pursuing. The "tone of voice" of that content is knowledgeable, competent, approachable and clever, which means the company is all those things, too. At least as much information in any written piece is conveyed in the way the words are put together, as in the actual words themselves. In advertising, your goal is to connect with the reader in the most profound way possible, even if they're just skimming the ad. The attitude, tone and personality behind the words and picture do a lot of that heavy lifting. Finally, we don't link people to the main website, but to a cache of informative learning trends articles and webinars that demonstrate the company's thought leadership. We offer value, not just a home page. 
  • If you're flipping through one of the magazines this ad runs in, you'll see a lot of photos of people sitting around conference tables, or of globes (to represent the company's global presence), or of two people shaking hands to show what a great business relationship they have. So a woman dressed in a superhero costume or a man with an artificial leg or even just a laptop (though images of people are generally more effective than images of things) is going to catch your attention. There's color and interest in all of these ads that stands out from the sea of gray and black suits and corporate settings. Also, the ads are "white", which is an industry term to mean they're not overly cluttered...there's a lot of blank space in the ads. White space (even if it's actually green or red) is a powerful force in advertising for the same reason a clean desk is more inviting than a cluttered or overly fanciful one. All of that, however, is the doing of the art director and not me. :D
The point of all of this is that, when the average person looks at an ad, it looks easy. In fact, many might think, "I could do better." But the fact is that an awful lot of thought goes into this stuff. It's not effective by chance. Every single element is there for a business reason. And it often accomplishes a million tiny things in a small amount of space. When I watch American Ninja Warriors, it looks easy and I think, "I could complete that obstacle." But the reason it looks easy is because of the skill of the athlete, the effort of their trainers, the people that build the obstacles they train on, etc. The same is true of marketing. If I'm successful, it's because I've been set up for success by a marketing director (not to mention art director) who is a brilliant strategist, recognizes good work and stays out of my way...haha. 

As a freelancer, I get to engineer those relationships, in that I won't keep working for someone who isn't competent and doesn't properly value or understand the skills I bring to the table. Of course, I have to rise to their level in how I work, too. There are plenty of smart, competent people out there that want nothing to do with me...haha. But there are also some I won't do business with for any variety of reasons. That is one of the best perks of being self employed. You don't have to put up with jerks, abusers or incompetent co-workers. Unless you allow it for financial reasons. But I have walked away from my biggest client on a few occasions in my career and have never regretted it. Someone better always appears to take their place. To the regular readers of this blog, unerring (or only occasional erring of) faith and trust in the universe are paramount to my survival. As such, this job is inextricably interlaced with my spiritual beliefs.

As I wind down this epic post, I want to say something else. Advertising has a really bad rap in the world. Yes, advertising is structured to elicit a desired response. In that way it is "manipulative." But it is not dishonest. Or even unethical. Not by a long shot. Everyone reading these words has used charm, for example, to get what they want over the years. "You attract more flies with honey" is something you may even say. We all know how to deal effectively with the people in our lives and adjust our messages and presentation accordingly. Advertising is no different. 

The purpose of advertising is not usually to sell you an idea, product or service anyway. It's rare to buy anything off an ad alone. Our goal is to intrigue you enough to get you to visit a website, drive to a store or call a number where you can get more input upon which to make your decision. If we didn't tell you Geico is cheaper than most other auto insurance, you'd be paying too much. If we didn't tell you Scrubbing Bubbles does all the work for you, you'd be needlessly scouring grout. And if you didn't know a Big Mac had two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions and a sesame seed bun, you'd probably be afraid to order one, and you certainly wouldn't know where to find one. It's called "the second oldest profession in the world" because what's the point of a hooker if you don't know the service even exists...haha. With the exception of e-commerce sites, our job is awareness, not sales.

Only once in my entire 30 year career have I ever been asked to do anything that felt slimy. It was just after 9/11 and a client wanted us to "prey on peoples' fears" to sell an emergency preparedness kit. Me and my creative partner refused to do it and we told our account executive as much. It was his job to tell the client our agency wouldn't take that tack. We ended up doing the ad, but we did not prey on fear. 

In the vast multitude of cases, I have found that clients exercise an abundance of caution when it comes to things like that. Nobody wants anything that even smacks of braggadocio, much less questionable ethics. GP Strategies has a number of accomplishments that they could tout, but they don't like to brag. This year they won more industry awards than ever before and they finally did an ad reflecting that forthrightly, instead of downplaying it. That is more often the case than not in my experience. And while I have infinite skill to make to make something look better than it is while still being entirely honest, most clients prefer to forego puffery. Overall, companies are vastly more likely to be overly cautious than to do anything that could be construed as misleading in any way. 

It was a huge disappointment to my father that I chose to work in this industry. He didn't support my career choice. He saw advertising as evil. But in any well regulated industry (the FTC and FCC both regulate parts of the industry) outliers are rare. And compared to the scandals you see in the financial sector, ethics violations and misleading claims are extremely rare in the mainstream advertising industry. The worst you could say about us is that we are really good at working within the rules. But even then, professionals tend to stay well clear of the line. 

It's clear from the length of this post that I have a lot to say. I could write a book on freelancing or on copywriting. The same is true of anyone who has been doing it as long as I have. But the older you get in this industry, the rarer you become. It's a very hard industry to work in. People can be quite aggressive. I was just never good at doing the things you need to do to rise up in the corporate structure as a woman and as a writer. I'm not politically inclined. 

But here's the thing...if you're in your 50s or 60s and you're still creating in this industry (as opposed to managing, such as a creative director), it can only be for one reason—you love it that much. I'm insecure about so much of my life, but you can't tell me I'm a bad writer and expect me to believe it. When you're in a career that lends itself to subjective criticism, you have to believe in yourself. And even when you have that confidence, this industry can be crushing if you don't love doing it. 

When I was in college, one of my professors was Philip Ward Burton, a man who literally wrote the book on advertising copywriting. Here is a story about him. He was a tough old bird who was an industry legend. He was also deaf as a door knob, so if you raised your hand, he would run up the aisles of the lecture hall and lean in to hear your question. It was endearing because he was so cute and spry. 

On the first day of his copywriting class he told us that none of us would earn an A. If you were good enough to earn an A, you had no business learning copywriting. In his mind, you should already be paid to do it. To get a B, that meant it would just take a little work before you could do it professionally. To get a C, you were doing pretty good work for college. By the next class, about a third of the people had dropped out. By the end of the semester, only about half of us remained. 

His grading system was the single most important lesson I learned in the industry. Only the people who really want it make it as a creative in this industry. If you can't take a C on an assignment...if you're worried about maintaining your perfect image/grade point average...then you won't survive in this business. You have to be impervious to gut kicks and body slams. You have to be completely unafraid of coming up with the worst idea in the world (because that's how you get to the good ones.) And you have to produce. Every. Single. Day. For every two or three artists in an advertising agency, there's only one copywriter. It's a hard job to get in an industry that's hard to survive. And I'm proud to say I have been one for 30 years.

I got a B in his class that semester, and even got an A on one project. (OK, it was an A-.) While I may never talk about it, it's not just a job I do to keep me busy between blog posts...haha. I have never shared this part of my life with you before. You know all about my dogs, my shortcomings, my neuroses, my childhood, my illnesses, my spiritual beliefs, my struggles and my other 30-year venture as a tarot reader, but you don't know about this. And now you do. 

If you're still reading, thank you. This was a long one. I would NEVER be allowed to write something this long and meandering in my day job. Shorter is better in that gig. But you guys put up with my long, winding stories pretty much every week, so hopefully you were able to maintain your stamina. I will never understand why you keep coming back for more, but I'm grateful you do.

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