Anyone can copy an idea. Great companies invent them.

Not so long ago, if you came up with a Big Idea – a product, a service…a book or movie, whatever – you also developed some creative marketing to go with it.  That way, when you put your Big Idea out into the world, the marketing would (hopefully) entice people into buying it.  With persistence and a little luck, your Big Idea might just set the world on fire. 

Well, Grandpa, now we have analytics and preference-based marketing.  With analytics, marketers can find out what people already want.  No guesswork.  No inventive ad campaigns required.  No waiting for results.  Actually, you don’t even need a Big Idea.  With analytics, it’s all about selling more of what already has worked in the past.

Creativity?  We don’t need no stinkin’ creativity.


Analytics has essentially changed marketing from a creative process to a data-driven process.  If you’re unfamiliar with how analytics works, here’s the short story:  vast pools of consumer data are compiled and analyzed to discover purchasing patterns.  Some patterns are actual – the stuff you’ve downloaded from iTunes over the past year, your age, sex and income, whether you’ve contributed to a political campaign.  Other patterns are predictive…for instance, what certain marketers think you might want to download from iTunes next week.  These patterns form profiles which tell marketers all about you and the particular group of “people like you.” 

Marketers use profiles to tailor their advertising to what’s potentially most effective on “people like you.”  There’s nothing wrong with that – good intel has always been a cornerstone of successful marketing.  But more often than not, strategy and creativity is compromised and exchanged for the singular goal of duplicating repetition.

If “duplicating repetition” sounds redundant, it is.  The same messages are repeated, over and over, in order to duplicate the same transactions, again and again.  The primary objective of analytics, then, is not simply to predict your next purchase, but to influence it.  Not only that, it’s manipulation (word carefully chosen) orchestrated in real time – as you walk through a store, drive past a billboard, watch TV or update your Facebook page – all before you have time to pause and consider.

You say you like the Twilight movies?  Great!  Here’s more stuff other Twihards, Twilighters and Fanpires just like you have bought.  It’s brilliant.  Almost like Minority Report, except with less violence.  And happily, no Tom Cruise.

Easy money?

Whether it’s analytics, customer surveys – or my personal pet peeve, focus groups – there’s always plenty of data to support what’s worked before, and little to justify taking a risk.

Analytics proves that boosting repeat sales or pulling transactions from a less-than-saturated market can be a low-risk, high-reward approach.  This is how my cat Mingus operates: why go to all the trouble of hunting for a fresh tasty mouse in the back yard when there’s a perfectly good hamburger left unattended on the dinner table?

By comparison, old-fashioned marketing is a dicey proposition.  Creative ideas actually have to be good.  They have to excite and convince people.  And their success is based on what people might do next week or next month.  With analytics, the real-time numbers never lie.  And should the results ever be off, it’s those fickle consumers’ fault, not the data’s.  

If you’re betting the farm on next quarter’s sales, the attractiveness of analytics is understandable.  There’s big money to be made identifying, manipulating and exploiting purchasing patterns.  (Table.  Hamburger.  Yum.)

Some guy named Steve Jobs, ‘tho, preferred to have a Big Idea or two in the can:

 “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups.  A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.  That doesn’t mean we don’t listen to customers, but it’s hard for them to tell you what they want when they’ve never seen anything remotely like it.”  – Steve Jobs

I had no idea what an iPod was before I saw one.  Or an iPhone, or an iPad.  No one did.  But as soon as I saw one, I had to have it.

Think hard about this.  One minute, you have no clue what the product is or why you need it.  The next, you can’t live without it.

This is how Big ideas work.  They hit the scene – without prediction – and the world changes.

The Tyranny of Expectations

As a tactical intel-gathering tool, analytics can be very useful.  Do our clients use analytics?  You bet.  But no tactic, no matter how impressive, is a substitute for a creative strategy.

Tactical methodologies like analytics reinforce what we call the Tyranny of Expectations – the belief that history will repeat itself, exactly and precisely.

When overconfidence in expectations shifts our focus to probabilities at the exclusion of possibilities, there is no room for new ideas…no chance for surprises, no time for contemplating “What if?”

The Tyranny of Expectations explains why we have a Kodak “shocked” that people no longer needed photographic film.  A Postal Service that “underestimated” email.  A Radio Shack that realized a decades late that it needed to “reinvent” itself.  (Where else can you still buy a pager?)

Every 18 months or so, the power of technology doubles and its size halves.  Play this out 20 years forward and you have computing power at the cellular level.  What will that do to customer buying habits?  How will we respond to products and industries that are years from being invented?  What value will today’s view of the consumer have?  My first-generation iPod is in the bottom of a closet with my CD burner, so I’m betting “not much.”

Analytics cannot predict a market’s perpetually accelerating evolution.  It cannot forecast consumer response to a new, exciting Big Idea.

Which brings us back to Twilight.  Stephanie Meyer hit the motherlode with her girl-loves-blood-sucker novels.  Much like Harry Potter creator JK Rowling, she never published a piece of fiction before she wrote Twilight in 2003.  Love it or hate it (I’m in the latter group), Twilight was a monster Big idea – a new and untested commodity from an unknown creator.  And it’s made about $3.5 billion to date.  Not bad.

More telling is that the movie industry – a pioneer in aggressive market optimization, predictive modeling, grassroots social media campaigns and, yes, market analytics – is no better off for its advanced tactics.  Post Bella and Edward, Hollywood threw a host of Twilightized features to a ready-made fan base, including Beautiful Creatures, Mortal Instruments, I Am Number Four and Red Riding Hood.  Each should have raked in the cash, or so the analytics clearly predicted.  All failed miserably.

Another Big Idea filled our need for something new:  The Hunger Games.



Creativity requires a little ‘tude.

People are always asking: How can we get our company to be more creative?

In Backbeat Visioning, we often turn to some of the giants of jazz as examples of what to do. (And occasionally what not to do.) When it comes to creativity, we say:

Be a little more like Miles Davis.


Miles Dewey Davis III. Trumpeter. Composer. Band leader. Celebrity. Fashion icon. All-around bad-ass. One of the most gifted musicians in all of music. In my opinion (and I’m hardly alone on this), Miles was the most innovative jazz player ever.

Miles Davis spent his entire career – 40-plus years of it – reinventing himself. While some of his recordings may have been more successful than others, all his music, it’s safe to say, made some noise. Fans, record companies, the music press and fellow musicians would love him, then hate him, then love him again.

For example, when Birth of the Cool was released in 1957, no one quite knew what to make of it. Winthrop Sargeant, classical music critic for The New Yorker, compared Miles to:

“…an impressionist composer with a great sense of aural poetry and a very fastidious feeling for tone color…the music sounds more like that of a new Maurice Ravel than it does like jazz…it is not really jazz.”

Birth of the Cool. One of the great jazz albums of all time. “Not really jazz.”

This story was repeated over and over. Kind of Blue (1959) is hailed as the most influential jazz album ever recorded. (Let me repeat that: Most. Influential. Ever.) Its release, ‘tho, was overshadowed by the then-trendy “free jazz” scene.

And the revolutionary Bitches Brew (1969) was mercilessly blasted by fans and critics. From The Penguin Guide to Jazz:

“It is profoundly flawed, a gigantic torso of burstingly noisy music that absolutely refuses to resolve itself under any recognized guise.”

From Bill Meyer of Ink Blot Magazine:

“Davis drew a line in the sand that some jazz fans have never crossed, or even forgiven Davis for drawing.”

And from acclaimed critic Bob Rusch of Downbeat:

“This to me…[is] part and parcel of the commercial crap…beginning to choke and bastardize the catalogs of such dependable [jazz record] companies as Blue Note and Prestige.”

Ah, this is the thing about being out in front – you ruffle a lot of feathers. That’s kind of the whole reason for creativity, to shake up the status quo. But man, how we humans just love us some status quo.

In over 30 years in the advertising biz, I’ve found that the primary reason for bad marketing, bad management, low employee morale and disappearing customers can be traced to one thing. And it’s not lack of creative ideas. It’s resistance to them.

New ideas are fragile. They need nurturing and development. Resistance to new ideas kills creativity before it’s had time to establish the slightest of roots. Resistance says, We know what people want, how people think, and how the universe works. Resistance offers no room for alternative possibilities.

Worst of all, resistance scares creative people (and we’re all creative people) from bringing new ideas to the table. After all, who wants to get pommeled by an army of naysayers? In some companies, suggesting one might entertain abandoning the time-honored way of doing things in order to consider something new can produce a sideways glance or two. In other companies, it can kill a career.

Miles Davis? He didn’t care what you thought – whether you were a fan, the guitarist in the band, or the president of the record company. You didn’t like his new music? Too bad for you. You didn’t understand it? Get out of the way, there are others who did. You didn’t think it was going to work? Shut up. Watch. Listen.

Here’s what we learned about creativity from Miles Davis:

1. Ignore everybody. The more original your idea is, the less good advice anyone can legitimately give you. (To borrow from another bit of music history, Decca Records refused to sign The Beatles in 1962, claiming they had “no future in show business.”)

2. Ignore expectations. Expectations are the prediction that the past will repeat itself, precisely and unerringly, again and again. Based on that logic, we’d have no iPod, iPhone or iPad.

3.”Big Ideas” don’t need to be big. It can be a small, simple idea. In fact, those are usually the ones that change everything.

4. Prepare to go it alone. Not everyone gets a Big Idea. That’s OK. The more compelling the idea, the fewer the number of people telling you right off the bat how “great” it is.

5. Change is not dangerous. Refusing to change, however, is certain death. Ask any dinosaur how that evolution thing went for them.

6. Avoid the crowd. All existing business models are: (a) all wrong, (b) in serious need of improvement, or (c) working but have a shorter shelf-life than anyone realizes. In any event, deliberately trying to be different is as bad as conforming.

7. You cannot have two lines in the sand. A business, just as an artist, needs to know what is worth putting up with and what is not. That’s the easy part. More challenging is realizing that the line in the sand cannot be one place when it comes to creativity and another when it comes to making money.

8. Stop listening to experts. Is information valuable? Sure. It’s also an intellectual narcotic. Miles Davis never had a focus group.

9. The best way to get approval is to not ever need it. You don’t get power, you take it.

10. Find your own voice. Miles sounded like Miles. Other trumpet players who put the mute in their horn and squonked out a melody – some of them very good – they sounded like Miles too.


How to sell something no one really wants to buy.

No sooner did we get all those Christmas ads off the air, the next swarm has hit.  Yes, it’s Tax Time.

To make the annual torture as painless as possible, lots of people turn to companies like H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt to do their taxes.  Do these tax prep companies really do a good job?  Or are you better off hiring a CPA or doing them yourself?

No, no, nonsense!  H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt would like you to trust them.

Aye, there’s the rub.  We know that that in 2007, Jackson Hewitt was sued by the federal government for fraud, only to file for bankruptcy protection in 2011.  And H&R Block’s long-running stream of scandals and questionable practices recently got itself ranked third from the bottom in a 2013 CoreBrand survey of least-respected brands.  Ouch.

So – here we have two companies with questionable reputations, each selling something many Americans don’t even want to think about.  To meet that challenge, both have hit the airwaves.  Who’s been better at it so far?  We’ve selected one spot from the new Jackson Hewitt series and the new H&R Block campaign.  Let’s take a look.

Production Values

jackson hewitt spot 1-1

Presumably, Atlanta’s 22squared is the genius behind Jackson Hewitt’s ads.  I say “presumably” because these spots have the look and feel of a Bob’s Discount Furniture commercial, and one expects better.  Is this person selling tax preparation or floor covering?  As for spokesperson Lindsey Sheppard’s connection to the tax biz, it’s unclear, but if television personality is her profession of choice, she should keep her day job.  (“Hey there…it’s me again.”  Annoying much?)

h&r block spot 1-2

H&R Block’s spots were produced by the creative team from Fallon.  This must have cost Block a pretty penny, but man, was it worth it.  These spots are Super Bowl-worthy and smartly executed – camera shots, music, the whole package is top-shelf.  And they again feature honest-to-god-real-tax-guy Richard Gartland, bow tie and all.  You just can’t help but feel good watching.

Bottom-line, the look of Jackson Hewitt’s campaign reinforces all things cheap and low quality…which is fine if you’re looking for a deal on a sofa-with-a-secret, but not if you’re trying to convince me that you can be trusted with my taxes.  Or, that your company is no longer worthy of its own audit by the IRS.  D

Block gets an A.  Their spot sells expertise.  Experience.  Excellence.  Whatever these guys may or may not have done in the past, they clearly look to be on top of their game now.

Creative Strategy

jackson hewitt spot 1-2

I’m trying hard to get to the substance of Jackson Hewitt’s creative, but it’s pretty darned thin.  “Switch-and-Save”?  That’s it?  Saving me some dough off the competition’s fee is nice, sure.  But that’s all about what I’m giving you.  What are you giving me?  And, please, no dancing.  Seriously, it’s not helping.  Another D.


By contrast, Block’s “Get Your Billion Back America” delivers an irresistible message that anyone can connect with: one billion dollars in unclaimed tax refunds, left on the table.  Money that could have been mine or yours.  Fallon put that number in even more compelling real-world perspectives – for the “Stadium” spot, equating it to $500 in cash on every seat of every professional sports stadium in America.  Brilliant.  And at the end, there’s happy, friendly, trustworthy Richard Gartland, imploring:  “This is your money – get it back!”  A+

h&r block spot 1-3

Who do you trust?

Can these spots move the needle?  We can’t see how the Jackson Hewitt TV has any hope of recasting their brand…sorry, but while “cheap” works for Walmart (one of Jackson Hewett’s in-store locations), it’s not buying much trust.  I can only picture some poor guy explaining to an IRS auditor, “But I saved $50…”

H&R Block?  We all know that ultimately, it’s not what you say to people, it’s what you do.  If Block’s performance can meet the standards set by this pretty-darned-near perfect ad, they have a shot.

Disclaimers: Just say “No.”

OK, we’ve all seen this TV spot:


In fact, we all saw it so many times that a backlash from viewers forced Nissan to tweet an apology:


All that’s a lesson in overexposure – which as we’ve learned from Miley Cyrus, can generate a heck of a lot of buzz, but as we’ve also learned from Ms. Cyrus, can be off-putting to a lot of people. (And I’m offering no opinion whatsoever on Miley. Twerk away, hon.) Nissan however, being in a highly competitive market, doesn’t want to risk annoying any potential customer; hence, the apology.

But that’s not what’s got me writing. Instead, it’s this:


“Fantasy. Do Not Attempt.”

…Seriously? The Rogue can’t leap onto trains? This is dangerous?

I know, I know. Disclaimers are nothing new. And we all know it’s the lawyers who force us to stick them in there. They’re just doing their job.

Still, I wouldn’t think of launching my car onto a moving passenger train (even an Amtrak, which likely isn’t going all that fast). And I bet you wouldn’t either. Nor would anyone you know.

So, since it’s the New Year, and therefore time for resolutions, I have one for our industry.

Tell the lawyers: “No more.”

I don’t wish to get into a discussion on how best to avoid frivolous lawsuits from numbskulls (or their surviving family members) who blame advertisers for TV commercials that “made them” do something stupid like drive a car onto the top of a speeding train. Maybe the disclaimer does the legal trick. But as a consumer, I feel like this company has just taken me for an idiot. That idiot.

If Nissan is expecting me to consider forking over $25-30 grand for a Rogue (a name, by the way, which I simply cannot stop associating with Sarah Palin), I sincerely desire not to be lumped in with a bunch of mythical mental midgets. To the contrary, I’d like to be held in the highest possible regard, thankyouverymuch.

Commercials like this tell me that, bottom line, a company is preoccupied with protecting themselves from wildly hypothetical lawsuits. Perhaps they should hire corporate lawyers that could actually win such a ridiculous case. And while it’s perfectly understandable to want to protect one’s business, legal maneuvering does not a positive and engaging brand make.

So to all the car companies, as well as anyone else out there using action-movie-type FX in their TV spots: No more disclaimers for idiots! Unless it’s something like:

“If you’re stupid enough to try this, please buy some other company’s car. Our customers aren’t morons.”

Best. Marketing. Ever.

…Okay, “best” may be an exaggeration.

But without a doubt, this video from Dollar Shave Club is just about the most inventive work we’ve seen in a long, long time. It’s everything advertising is supposed to be. Entertaining. Irreverent. All the info you need is in there.  And it establishes the brand oh-so-well.

Most importantly, it’s memorable.

Mike, the Razor Dude

Mike, the Razor Dude


Want more?  Are you sure?  Then check this out too. I dare ya.

For Sale: Log. $98.


Memo: To every client I’ve ever had who told me that advertising “doesn’t matter” (and there have been a lot of them), I offer this CNN article.

Is this absolutely ridiculous?


Is it safe to say that anyone who drops $98 Canadian on a hunk of log is a donut shy of a Timmies Combo?


And just because a DesignRepublic store in Toronto has dedicated valuable retail space for the discriminating stump connoisseur, does this mean that the essential value of advertising is now proven beyond all reasonable doubt?

Ah, no.

But what it does demonstrate is:

(1) Anything can potentially be sold if marketed the right way.

(2) “New products” and “new markets” are not necessarily “new,” but simply “reimagined.”

(3) People will spend money on the most ridiculous things, as they will on things that really matter – as long as it matters to them.

Will DesignRepublic experience a massive spike in stump sales? Will we soon see people lined up ’round the block for the latest release? (Stump v2.0? iLog?) I’m not holding my breath. This is just another fluff internet news story – although the traction from this one CNN article might exceed anything DesignRepublic’s ad budget could ever muster.

And you know, if it does catch on, I’ve got a gold mine in maples and beeches in my back yard.

“Skuse me while I kiss the sky.”

In searching for the “perfect headline” for an ad, I was trying to explain to a client that it’s not more words that convey the most information. It’s fewer words.

We’d been at this for nearly an hour. He hated all my suggestions…not enough features and benefits for his taste. So he – a creative guy himself (heard this before?) – was in the room to help us come up with something more suitable.

I get a lot of flak from some of my friends in the biz that I don’t play the political game well enough. My project has hit an obvious roadblock. This should be my cue to run with what the client likes best.

I’m thinking, maybe this should be my to cue to run. Instead, I pressed on. (I’m not that politically savvy.) Apple’s “Think different.” Nike’s “Just do it.” C’mon, these guys knew what they were doing, Mr. Client. Maybe you’d care to take note?

Nope. He wanted something more Tolstoyesque.

“So…tell me, on a completely different subject…what do you think is the greatest song lyric ever written?”

He was clearly confused. “Quick, tell me that one line in a song that sums up your favorite music – or even better, the happiest time of your life.”

His face lit up. “Well, that’s easy! Jimi Hendrix. ‘Purple Haze.’ ‘Skuse me while I kiss the sky.’

I was told, in rather animated fashion, about his youth and the 1960s and a cross-country road trip and his first concert (The Grateful Dead) and how he met his wife at college. It seems whenever he hears “Purple Haze” – and especially that one line – it all comes alive.

“Skuse me while I kiss the sky.” Nothing specific about 1969 or a road trip or any of those other memories. And yet, everything.

That’s what a headline is supposed to do. In a few smart words, kick-start the imagination. Convey a feeling. Recreate an experience. The details, the “information,” is dealt with somewhere else. And in some ads, perhaps not at at all.

“…Interesting,” he said. “Tell you what, do you have a ‘Purple Haze’ headline?”

I did. He’s seen it already. “Nope. But that’s my job. Let me come up with one.”

We met a couple of days later. “So…did you bring ‘Purple Haze?'” I showed him three headlines, one of them the original.

Guess which one he chose?