The Spaces in Between

  A mate started a gig at a company that bigs itself up as innovative.

After he’d been there a few weeks, I asked him what he thought and he said, “I think they confuse innovation with novelty.”

For some reason his answer came to mind after the death of Johan Cruyff.

Cruyff was a football genius who died last week following a battle with cancer.

One of the first and probably the best exponent of total football.

Circa 1970, total football was revolutionary because it treated space as an element that’s just as important as the ball.

As a player and later a manager, Cruyff thought about football almost in terms of design thinking.

Today every team tries to create space when they have the ball and close it down when the opposition has it.

At the 1974 World Cup, Holland was playing Sweden.

In the 23rd minute Cruyff, was one-on-one with Swedish defender Jan Olsson.

Feinting to pass, he gently touched the ball behind his own standing leg, swivelled 180 degrees and accelerated in a blur of orange.

A collective gasp swept around the stadium as Olsson flailed backwards into a space, which surely hadn’t existed a moment ago.

The move was more like a magician’s trick and the crowd was stunned.

It was promptly christened the Cruyff Turn.

And swiftly became mandatory for any aspiring top-flight footballer.

You could say it marked the beginning of modern football.

Just as surely as DDB’s Think Small ad, marked the beginning of modern advertising.

Helmut Krone famously devoted 80% of the page to white space and the result was equally simple and brilliant.

Both Cruyff and Krone saw where others couldn’t see, they worked in the spaces in between.

As Bill Bernbach said, “Creating advertising is very simple but creating simple advertising is the hardest thing there is.”

Actually Bernbach never said that.

Cruyff said it, but about football, “Playing football is very simple but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.”

It probably fooled you because it feels like something Bernbach would have said.

And one thing he most definitely did say was, “Good advertising builds sales. Great advertising builds factories.”

Which is echoed by Pep Guardiola’s comment referring to Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium, “Cruyff built the cathedral; our job is to maintain and renovate it.”

There was advertising pre-and-post Think Small.

There was football pre-and-post the Cruyff Turn.

Nothing would—or could, be the same again.

You couldn’t confuse either with novelty.


The C-Word

A woman shouts, ‘’Fire!’’ in a crowded theatre. The audience stampedes for the exits and in the ensuing panic two people are crushed to death.

The theatre burns to the ground and the woman is acclaimed as a hero.

A woman shouts, ‘’Fire!’’ in a crowded theatre.

The audience stampedes for the exits and in the ensuing panic two people are crushed to death.

There is no fire and the woman goes to prison.

The message is the same in both cases.

Only the context is different.

So clearly context is every bit as important as content when it comes to delivering a message.

They're really two sides of the same coin.

Given that the effectiveness of one is inextricably tied to the other, I find this next statistic odd.

Google “content marketing” and you get 19,400,000 hits.

Google “context marketing” and you get 37,900.

Does this huge disparity help explain the repetitious drivel, inane listicles and dull platitudes that make up so much of what passes for content?

It's hard to believe there's no connection, data usually means something.

What I Have in Common With a Legend

I don’t wear tweed suits or smoke a pipe. And my real estate holdings may not run to a chateau in the South of France.

But I still have one important thing in common with David Ogilvy.

We both worked in sales before we worked in advertising.

At fifteen I worked Saturdays at the local department store selling bedding.

Before university I spent a year selling wine at a 300 year old London wine merchant.

These two jobs taught me basic sales techniques.

How you never lead with a closed question.

(I’m amazed how many retail salespeople still get this wrong.)

It’s never, “Can I help you?”

It’s always, “How can I help you?”

The first question can be answered with a No!

And if you don’t want to hear No!—don’t make it easy for prospects to say it!

The more open-ended your questions, the more you find out what’s on a prospect’s mind.

That’s how you get inside their head.

And once you’ve poked around in there and made some sort of connection, you ask the obligation question.

If I throw in a sheet set with this deluxe mattress you like, would you buy it today?

After university I talked my way into Advertising.

And what I’d learnt in sales was useful in a couple of ways.

First, I was comfortable presenting, internally or to clients, and I could usually sell the work I wanted to sell.

Second, because I’d spent a few years selling to different people, I could empathize with them.

Selling to people face to face is much easier than selling to people you never meet.

Selling to people you’ve never met is akin to a thought experiment.

And I had a better idea how to think my way into the head of a mum with 2 kids, or a 19 year old bloke going out with his mates or whoever the target was.

I had a better idea of what they would respond to, because I had a better idea of who they were.

Einstein used thought experiments to understand the universe.

A famous one had him imagining a man floating in a box in zero gravity.

I never fully understood it.

But there was one I could understand and I used it to write ads.

I’d imagine the target in a shop so I could talk with them one-on-one.

And I could usually visualize this quite well because I’d spent a lot of time talking with prospects in shops.

John E Kennedy, another advertising legend described advertising as, “salesmanship in print.”

How exactly do you write that if you’ve never really sold anything?

It’s hard enough when you have.


Blank is Dead!

Pundits love death. They’re forever proclaiming the death of this or that.

It’s dramatic and authoritative.

So over the last decade we’ve been told:

Newspapers are dead.

Books are dead.

TV is dead.

Advertising is dead.

Of course all these industries have undergone radical change over the last 10 years, but name an industry that hasn’t.

And radical change is far from death but nowhere near as dramatic.

Newspapers generated an estimated $179 billion in circulation and advertising revenue in 2014, according to the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers. That’s bigger than the film or music industry. Yes, many papers have closed or consolidated but a $179 billion death? Bring it on!

Book sales in the UK totalled 245 million in 2014 (up from 237 million back in 2008). True, 63 million of these were e-books, but there are still 2,500 bookshops serving the country. Furthermore e-book sales appear to have plateaued. Makes sense to me. Who wants to spend more time looking at a screen?

TV may get beat up the most of these examples. Mobile video is eating its lunch in spite of being dogged by scandal. Netflix is eating its dinner but it’s not a horrible dinner guest because it’s also paying the networks millions for rights to shows.

With everyone taking their bite you’ll probably be surprised to hear TV revenues are still growing to $71.1 billion this year and $81 billion projected in 2019. TV may be a mess but reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

Global Advertising revenues increased from $438 billion in 2009 to $611 billion in 2015. That’s a tad under a 40% increase in 6 years. Yes, much of the spending is going into digital and lots of traditional agencies got caught out but if this is death, bring it on!

It’s not what Keats had in mind, but the line fits: “Now more than ever seems it rich to die!*”

I imagine there were people around 1950 watching the ascendancy of television convinced that radio was dead.

Which will come as news to Howard Stern who just signed a new 5-year contract with Sirius XM worth a rumoured $400 million plus.

And many people have proclaimed the death of the buggy-whip industry, which has long been used as an example of failure to adapt to a changing marketplace.

But guess what, if you need a buggy whip you can still buy one!

From which we can surmise that while the industry may have been in a coma it cheated death.

And if the buggy whip industry still has a handhold, however tenuous, it would seem very few industries die completely.

Not that you'd know it from the Blank is Dead brigade.

It’s not the hyperbole I object to, it’s the lazy bandwagonism masquerading as thought leadership.

Guess there really is a sucker born every minute.

It’s the circle of life!


* I added the exclamation...

What if Good Enough is Enough?

Not long ago, but in a different century, the late great Jay Chiat coined the phrase “Good enough is not enough”. There was a time when I whole-heartedly agreed with him.

Advertising was a craft, and I was a damn fine craftsman.

My clients’ deserved nothing less than excellence.

And when excellence required casting commercials in New York, or shooting them in Paris, it was a small price to pay.

Besides it was fun.

Chiat’s dictum remains a mantra for creative agencies to live up to.

Currently Bartle Bogle Hegarty subscribe to a similar POV:BBH pencil adThey keep at it until they get to great.

There’s no doubt outstanding creativity deserves to be applauded.

Did you see the British Airways digital billboards that won a Grand Prix at Cannes?

It’s brilliant, but I doubt it will persuade anyone to change airlines.

Still, as a creative director, it’s almost heretical if you don’t subscribe to the creed of “Good enough is not enough”.

Only hacks would knowingly present their clients with less than the very best, right?


As Tom Goodwin, SVP Havas Media commented, “The last few Cannes Lions festivals show all the signs of the industry unbundling itself further from reality. At a time when businesses face existential challenges, we seem determined to provide silly, self-serving solutions.”

Maybe what worked in the twentieth century doesn’t work so well in the twenty-first.

At least not for the SMEs and startups who will be driving tomorrow's economy.

Many of them operate in highly specialized niches against a few direct and indirect competitors.

They don’t need the perfect Super Bowl commercial.

They need to be mostly right, right now.

That means strategic and tactical agility that delivers creative that’s better than their direct competition, to boss the category they operate in.

All I have to do is make them top-of-mind with a well-defined target, by putting as much daylight between them and their competition as possible.

And do this as fast as possible because the creative we’re working on today, will very possibly cease to be relevant in 12 - 18 months.

That makes my job simple—but not easy.

I’ve written about the unattainability of perfection before.

Art for art’s sake is a good maxim—for artists.

But not so suited to practitioners in the advertising trade, challenged by limits of time and budget.

Maybe we need a different skillset for different times.

Good enough is probably still not enough.

But mostly right, right now—undoubtedly is.

The New Door-to-Door

Not so long ago business was simpler. You had a brand.

You advertised it.

It was called brand advertising.

You had a sales force.

They knocked on doors (figuratively or literally) and sold your brand.

There was a clear delineation between advertising and selling.

Now the distinction is blurred beyond recognition or no longer exists.

You’re selling to someone on their mobile while they’re waiting for the bus and watching videos on Facebook.

Screen-to-screen selling is the new door-to-door.

It’s versatile. It can sell you Grumpy Cat or financial services with a couple of clicks on Apple Pay.

It’s infinitely scalable.

It’s granularly trackable.

You don’t need an army of sales people demonstrating your vacuum cleaner house by house.

All you need is a great demo video and Fulfillment by Amazon.

Screen-to-screen selling is the future, but the switch from traditional advertising can be a tricky one to make.

Tricky enough that eCommerce accounted for a mere 6.5% of overall retail sales in 2014.

While marketing fundamentals haven’t changed that much, the peripherals are quite another story.

Half the lessons learned from a hundred years of marketing history no longer apply.

And no one seems entirely sure which half.

Here are a few things we do know:

Only one opinion counts and it’s not the agency’s. It’s not even the client’s.

The only opinion that matters is the click-through rate.

And there, in a nutshell is the good and the bad of digital advertising from a creative perspective.

It’s good knowing what works and precisely how well it works.

It’s not so good when what works isn’t what you hoped would work.

Say your finely crafted headline is out-performed by a meat and potatoes headline.

Once this happens, there isn’t much you can do about it.

It’s hard to argue with analytics.

And digital produces lots of analytics.

Sooner or later they will make a mockery of your judgment and kill your favorites.

When this happens you either learn to roll with it, or face a lifetime of frustration.

And this happens on a macro level too.

When Y Combinator’s Paul Graham was asked to invest in Airbnb—here’s how he reacted, in his own words:

“I thought the idea was crazy. … Are people really going to do this? I would never do this.”

Clearly not a potential customer, but he still became an investor.

He didn’t go with his gut, he went with the numbers.

And today Y Combinator’s seed investment is worth north of half a billion.

Here’s another thing we know.

Benefits don’t need to be spelled out. If your phone has 24 hours of battery life, while continuously web surfing over a 4G LTE network, people will quickly figure out they need to recharge it less.

Increasingly, features are benefits.

And unless your product benefits are mind-blowingly esoteric, or earth-shatteringly new, you probably don’t need to explain them.

This is nothing new. Back in the 60’s David Ogilvy wrote, “Headlines that promise a benefit sell more than those that don’t.”

A phrase which has often been misunderstood to mean: Headlines with a benefit sell more than those without one—which is not the same thing at all.

The key word is promise.

Let’s look at one of Ogilvy’s most famous ads: rolls_royce_ad The benefits are inferred not stated.

The clock can be heard because the engine is quiet.

The engine is quiet because it is well-engineered.

The benefits of good engineering are twofold.

Passengers can hold a conversation without shouting, and a well-engineered engine is presumably, a reliable engine.

But the reader has to join the dots to get there.

The headline doesn’t directly promote these benefits; it just nudges you towards them.

It’s the promise of a benefit that does the heavy lifting.

And online, a feature is often enough of a promise for the benefit to be understood.

Consumers are savvier than they were in the 60’s.

And that’s good news, because it allows for more direct sales communication.

Something Ogilvy, a former door-to-door kitchen stove salesman, would have appreciated.

What he would have made of screen-to-screen marketing, sadly remains conjecture.

Killers and Poets

David Ogilvy once said, “Most good copywriters fall into two categories. Poets. And killers...If you are both killer and poet, you get rich.” Poets understand emotion.

They know how to make you feel what they want you to feel.

They work magic.

Killers understand strategy and know how to stay on it.

They work logic.

Clients love killers.

Then there’s the unicorn, the mythical killer poet, who can stay on strategy while making you give a damn about dish soap, or margarine, or just about anything.

These killer poets don’t only write advertising.

Some write about killers.

And these ex-copywriter’s have been responsible for some of the best crime novels ever written.

There’s logic to this.

A large part of copywriting is problem solving.

But problem solving is rarely straightforward, as Dashiell Hammett pointed out:

“The problem with putting two and two together is that sometimes you get four, and sometimes you get twenty-two.”

For a couple of years Hammett was the highest paid writer in America.

In the end he drank it all away, but not before banging out classics like, The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man.

While he was learning his craft, he worked as copywriter for Samuel Moss, a San Francisco jeweler.

Hammett, an ex-Pinkerton man was every bit as tough as his creations, in spite of bad health.

During the McCarthy hearings he refused to name names, preferring to serve time.

Legend has it that when he went to prison the guards addressed him as Mr. Hammett out of respect.

The late Elmore Leonard was another ex-copywriter.

He worked for several years at Campbell Ewald, in Detroit.

Then he wrote more than 40 novels, including some great ones like: Get Shorty, Out of Sight, and Rum Punch.

A master of quirky dialogue and stripped down prose, around 15 of his books have been made into movies.

His 10 rules of writing are excellent advice and #10 should be hung over every copywriter’s desk:

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Philip Kerr worked as a copywriter at Saatchi & Saatchi.

His Bernie Gunther novels may not be a household name--yet.

Tom Hanks is producing a series for HBO based on Kerr’s brilliant Berlin Noir trilogy.

Kerr’s hero Bernie Gunther, is a grouchy ex-cop, caught up in the maelstrom of Berlin between the wars.

Tough, cynical, funny, Gunter is a classic private dick.

He’s talking about crime, but could just as easily be talking about advertising, when he says:

“The man who succeeds is the man who is able to reduce problems to their simplest terms and who has the courage of his convictions.”

As every reader of crime fiction knows, once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it’s a pattern.

Copywriting sometimes feels like looking for clues; discover one and you get a better idea of what the next one looks like, a better idea for conjuring up your own blend of logic and magic.

A better shot at becoming a killer poet.

The Cleverest Advertising is About Nothing

Advertising is a simple business.

We persuade people to buy goods and services.

We do it by pointing out a product’s benefits and giving them a reason to buy.

And when we do our jobs convincingly, they do buy.

And when we perform at the highest level, people form emotional attachments to brands.

This may not happen very often, but when it does the results are remarkable.

Think of the Apple cult at its height.

500 people lining up overnight to buy the latest gadget.

In 2001, the latest gadget was the iPod.


This is the original ad and it’s excellent.

It’s as close to a product demo as you can get in print.

The ad doesn’t need to be clever, because it’s advertising a product with revolutionary benefits.

So it simply states what the product does.

And it worked, millions of people bought iPods.

But revolutionary products are the exception.

The majority of products aren’t that clever.

The majority of products are actually, or virtually, parity products.

Like toothpaste, or toilet paper, or detergent.

These products are the antithesis of clever.

They don’t have real competitive advantages, in spite of what the agency brief may proclaim.

No one is lining up overnight to buy toilet paper.

If you’re like me, you buy whatever name brand is on special, because it doesn’t matter.

So how do you make it matter?

How do you get people to care about toilet paper, or dish soap, or whatever?

How do you make the unremarkable remarkable?

How do you distinguish the indistinguishable?

How do you sell parity products?

By being clever, that’s how.

Advertising needs to be clever in inverse proportion to the cleverness of the product.

Truly clever products don’t require clever advertising.

They require advertising that clearly communicates why they’re clever—and then they’ll sell themselves.

That’s why the cleverest advertising is about nothing.

It’s because the degree of difficulty is higher.

Like Olympic diving where the difficulty of the dive is factored into the final score.

Doing an easy dive perfectly can score fewer points than doing a hard one imperfectly.

It’s harder to advertise toilet paper than sexy new technology.

Here’s a great ad that says absolutely nothing about the product.


It says nothing, but we understand a lot.

That’s pure creativity.

And according to the awards show Eurobest, it  increased sales by 130%.

That’s the power of saying nothing brilliantly.

Advertising is a simple business, but simple is not the same as easy.

Thinking cleverly is rarely that.