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.”