Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Poetry of Marketing

Per my invitation in the previous entry, Jen asked for an entry on poetry. So... here we go.

We (Jen and I) had a conversation a few weeks ago in which I admitted that I like what I do, and she asked me why.

Because I do like what I do. I really enjoy marketing, specifically being involved in marketing management, the creation of marketing campaigns, materials, branding strategy, tactics, etc. Whether it's sitting in meetings yakking about "the big picture," designing brochures, writing Web copy, working on the details of advertising schedules... whatever. Frankly, I have a ton of fun with it. It is often mentally stimulating, it involves both sides of my brain, I get to work with creative and analytical people and subjects, I paint pretty pictures... all kinds of good stuff. And they pay me to do it. Go figure.

I know it is supremely uncool and non-Protestant-work-ethic-hip to like what you do. I've sensed, my whole life, that there's some kind of Unwritten Law that says, "The more you suffer at work, the better a person you are." There's a wonderful Monty Python sketch where a bunch of rich buggers sit around talking about how rough they had it as kids. Full text here. It starts with one saying, "We were glad for the price of a cup of tea," and then the others "one-downing" each other ("without milk," "or sugar," "or tea!") until you end at this:

"I had to get up in the morning at ten o'clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, eat a lump of dry poison, work twenty-nine hours a day down at the mill, and when we got home, our dad would kill us and dance about on our graves singing Hallelujah!"

We all complain about how hard we work, how hard the work is, how many hours we work, how much work we bring home, how awful our bosses are, how lousy the... yadda yadda yadda. Conan O'Brien once interviewed some super-model du jour and she said that modeling was really hard work. He begged to differ, saying, "Lady, there are people in this country whose job it is to turn a big crank for 12-hours a day. That's hard work." I remember Conan's wise words whenever I start to complain about my job.

All that as background for the radical statement that I enjoy what I do. Not every minute of every day. I get headaches, and there are projects that drop into my lap that aren't much fun. And there are particular aspects of modern corporate business administration that aren't fun for anyone. But, as my Dad once said, "If you had fun all the time, they'd call it 'Camp' and make you pay to go."

And one of the main reasons I have a good time with marketing, I have come to realize, is that it shares much in common with something I do for pure enjoyment -- poetry. I will make no claims to being any good as a poet, but I will simply say that I enjoy writing, reading, analyzing and discussing poetry to the point where I would pay to go to "Poetry Camp" [Which, actually, is what you might have called my four-year stint at Cornell, BTW].

Let me be a bit more clear -- I mean that the entirety of the experiences of working in marketing are, to me, similar in many ways to the experiences of poetry. I'm not talking about specific actions involved in both, although those synchonicities are neat, too. Marketing (at least the part with which I'm involved) requires writing skills, as does poetry. It involves reading, talking, gesturing with pens and coffee cups, the use of hyperbole and synthesizing different view-points. These are, of course, skills and activities that are also related to enjoying and pursuing poetry as an avocation.

But I'm not talking about the particulars of marketing and poetry. I'm talking about the gestalt of each discipline.

At this point, my poetry friends and my marketing friends are snickering. At me. Mostly over my use of the term "gestalt," which is bothersome to both camps, I'm sure.

Marketing is about making money, communicating corporate ideas, selling stuff. Right? And poetry is about communicating feelings, thoughts, abstract weird-o principles and vague, creepy ideas that you can't quite make sense out of using "real" language. Right?

OK. Sure. And so the only thing in common is "communicating." And if marketing and poetry share a "gestalt," then so do sign-making and journalism and movie-making and every other anything that involves communication and so I should give up this analogy and go home.


Poetry is about finding balance. Balance between word choices, rhythm, rhyme, metaphor and direct language. When to be obvious, when to be intentionally vague. When to repeat, when to hold back. How to use the sound of words in conjunction with their meaning. Why the voice of the poem may be different than the voice of the poet. How to lead your readers to the conclusion you want, either directly, or via a set of nested, carefully clustered images.

The decisions a writer makes when creating a poem draw on various sets of ideas. There are layers and layers and layers that can be built up, over time and over many drafts. Ezra Pound wrote the following:

In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;     
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Which seems like a really short, insignificant little piece. It began as a 30-line poem. You can read more from Pound and other critics of the poem here. But, suffice it to say, that writers and readers for the last 90ish years have been amazed and humbled by the grace and power of this tiny little poem and the layers of meaning it contains.

Marketing has the same potential. Note to my poetry friends -- back off. I didn't say marketing is "better" or "as good" or "as worthy of devoting a lifetime of study and pain and angst to." I said, "the same potential." A great marketing campaign can tap into as many layers -- different than those used in poetry, of course -- and affect the world as deeply as any art. Sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. Sometimes just to sell crap.

The picture, above, is from the 1925 ad for Listerine, "Always a bridesmaid, never a bride." Yep... that phrase was invented by Listerine. "Edna," the gal in the ad, was approaching her "tragic" 30th birthday, and although she was as pretty as her friends, she had somehow failed to secure a husband ("Like every woman, her primary ambition was to marry."). Why? Hallitosis. A "disease" invented by Listerine. Nobody really cared about bad breath before Listerine. But after this ad campaign, and ones like it, sales went from around $100,000 in 1922 to more than $4 million in 1927.

Now... when I teach the history of advertising, I file this example very squarely in the category of "evil" or at least "troubling" marketing. It perpetuates bad stereotypes, plays off of unhealthy body-image issues, uses psychological tropes in heavy-handed, manipulative ways and promotes a product that, while not harmful (and maybe better than doing nothing at all), isn't really as big a deal as declared. People had been, after all, getting married and procreating without the aid of mouthwash for a couple million years.

But still... for an ad campaign to grow sales by a factor of 40 in about five years? That's insanely brilliant. It is, in fact...

pure poetry.

Often, when examing the data and requirements for an upcoming marketing program, I get the same frisson I do when sitting down to write a poem. The sense of...


The allure of the blank page. The teasing, flirting, come-hither glance from a dance partner who won't quite come close enough to touch you... yet. The moment when the ball is put into motion, but before either team has control.

The poet wants to make ideas known, to create beauty, to have an effect on readers. To pull something out of him/herself. That's what marketers want, too. It's just that there's a dollar-sign at the end of the rainbow instead of an "ah-ha" or moment of fleeting melancholy or joy.

Saturday, January 7, 2006

Creative Blocks


Lego has just recently put up some free software called Lego Factory that lets you design your own creations, post the resulting model in a gallery on the site, and order a kit from them of the actual pieces necessary to build the model in real life. Obviously the parts cost money. And, if you're like me and my son, you've probably got all the parts necessary to build 3,248,905 models straight out of your head. And I'm not sure we needed a virtual building tool for modeling a real building tool that was already about the zippiest, most creative toy ever invented. But...


I can't quite figure out why. Maybe because it bridges some virtual-to-real gap or divide. Maybe because it will let me create something in my head/computer, and then on my kitchen table. Maybe because it is another example of those super-duper crazy-creative Danish Lego-monkey-freaks doing everything they can to improve my building experience.

I can't say enough good things about Lego. Some people get all pissy about their tie-ins with movies, about the whole "Bionicle" thing and how they've "gone commercial." Screw 'em. My son, at 3.5 years of age, because of Lego, came up to me and asked, "What do you call somebody who decides how things are built?"

I replied, "Those are 'mechanical engineers.'"

"That's what I want to be when I grow up," he then told me.

He's six and a bit, now. And that's still what he says he wants to be. God bless Lego, I say. Bionicle, Harry Potter and Star Wars tie-ins and all.

Now... back to the neat idea of this virtual-to-reality thingy...

Think about ways to connect your Internet communications and media to what you've got going on in the real world. Think about ways to engage your buddies, customers, employees, colleagues, peers, pets, imaginary friends, etc. not just online... but in online-to-offline ways. Or ways that offer true 360-degree creative communication a-la "The Lego Model."

Here's an idea for us: I invite any of my four regular readers to assign me blog topics at any time. Go ahead. You tell me what to write about. I don't promise to do a good job, but I promise to give it a whack. I'll build your blog post in this space. Leave the idea as a comment to this post, and we'll see what happens.

Wednesday, January 4, 2006

New poem posted: The Blower-Man Must Die

New poem posted on the writing page: The Blower-Man Must Die. This is an act of poetic therapy for me. Much of my writing ends up being therapeutic... just not this obviously or directly.

Law-enforcement officials please note: I am an extreme pacifist. And a coward. And weak. And I have a bad back and am no good at subterfuge. The subject of this poem is an amalgamation of the many yard-warring overachievers who have lived around the many places I have inhabited over the years. It is not meant to imply intent on my part to actually do harm to any particular individual. So if anybody who owns a snow, leaf, sand, dust, garbage, mulch, twig, bark, dirt, flotsam or hair blower dies under strange circumstances in my neighborhood... it's a coincidence. Really.

Sunday, January 1, 2006

The Mighty Ground Game

Found a link to this CBS News story on "The PR Playbook" from a post on Nova Spivak's excellent (and often surprising) blog. I generally find Nova's posts really fascinating, and he usually goes places that I don't see others heading in the blogosphere, which is why I RSS him and point folks that way.

In the case of this post, however, I'm going to have to disagree with Nova... but only because (I suspect) he hasn't spent time inside the marketing/PR world.

From the perspective of "regular people" -- i.e., consumers of mainstream, reported news -- the CBS article is fine, yes. It seems like a little peek-behind-the-scenes into the rough-and-tumble world of hard-nosed journalism, where every fact is dug up through layers of rocky resistance, and every nugget of data has been extracted at great pains from corporate shills who only exist to keep America away from The Truth. Thank goodness we have the Fourth Estate to look after our interests and go nose-to-nose with these rapscallions of resistance... these hoodwinking horse-thieves... these... er... other badly alliterated examples I can't think of at the moment.

Problem is... the story itself is both "old hat" and refers predominantly to the laziest kind of reporting in the book, which is the kind where you call the company up and ask, "Did you do the bad thing?" "Why did you do the bad thing?" "Can you tell us more about the bad thing?" "Who is responsible for the bad thing?" "How many more times will you do the bad thing?"

This is the football equivalent of a coach, in the 21st century, telling us all about how running the ball is really the most important, exciting and strategic way to score points on the gridiron. None of the statements are, factually, wrong... but it's about as old-hat (see clever illustration above... ha-ha-ha) as it gets.

Gee. Corporations don't hire people to spend their shareholders' money (in the form of their salary) spending time doing reporters' jobs for them? Of all the "2005 Top Ten Tactics to Influence Negative News" that the CBS article goes into, only one (#7: The Cinch Connection; basically, hire famous/influential people to shill for you) has anything to do with stuff a PR department might do that's outside the bounds of response to journalistic querry; i.e., a proactive strategy. All other nine "tactics" on this list are simply things that tend to frustrate (in my opinion) lazy reporters.

Don't get me wrong -- I love the press. Well, the members of it that are left that aren't simply doing exactly what the author accuses corporate PR hacks of doing -- shilling for their corporate masters. I love good investigative reporting. It's one of the bedrocks of our democracy. But this "report" on the "Top 10 Tactics" is more of an example of what's wrong with the press than what's wrong with corporate PR. Why? Because, as I said, all but one of the tactics are exactly what PR people are hired to do. And while it may be part of a journalists job to make the understandably onerous and probably futile call to the company PR person to ask, "What's your position on Bad Thing Du Jour," to expect anything other than "Spin-Spinnery spin spin," is the height of immaturity.

And to write an article asking us to believe that good reporters are flummoxed by this is... well... doing a disservice to real reporters. So. As my grandma always said, "If you can't say anything nice... clean up the mess yourself." With that, here's MY list of the "Top Five Tactics to Influence Negative News." Not for 2005, because... jeez. Just 'cause it's January 1, we don't have to play that game. And because this crap has been around forever. Note that these are all proactive tactics. Things that a company/organization might do to actually influence (as the title suggests) news, rather than just frustrate reporters. Because if simply frustrating reporters is all we PR bozos need to do to influence news... the world will end very soon.

Why only five? I ain't getting paid for this, and I'm hoping maybe somebody, somewhere will point a real reporter at this list and stimulate him/her to add on a few of their own.

  1. Discredit your competitors/critics -- Classic example, the Plame Affair. When Joseph Wilson criticizes the Bush administration, make it look like his wife got him his job. If doing so also exposes her as a CIA agent, well that's a three-fer; you discredit him, punish him by making him look like a panty-waist whose wife wears the gun in the family, and punish her by, well... endangering her life. This is, of course, the extreme example. In the commercial/business world, usually we don't kill our competition. Usually.

  2. More dirt yonder -- A kissin' cousin to #1, you'll notice that the CBS report never mentions PR tricks that play directly on journalistic shortcomings. My favorite being the "look over there for more dirt" tactic that works really well on the American press. "You think our product is dangerous... you should see our competitors' numbers!" The only thing better than a helpful PR director is one who will help you to someone else's dirty laundry. Now... I said all these tactics would be proactive, and of course this can be used as a reactive measure. But really good PR folks will court and keep a list of journalists whom they will feed information to that sets them on trails other than their own. If the dog is busy worrying a bone, it ain't chewin' on y'all's leg, after all.

  3. Change the name of your company -- See those nice RJR... er... "Altria" people for a good example. They said, of course, that they were doing it because, "we have evolved into a substantially larger, more diverse enterprise than we were originally." Not a lie. But I'll bet that the association of RJR with a few million cancer deaths had something to do with it, too.

  4. Fake corporate communications -- Sorry, but we've got two tobacco related tactics in a row. They've got so much bad PR, it's hard to avoid 'em. In 1998, the multi-state tobacco settlement had provisions in it for youth anti-smoking ads. Problem is, if you're really good at advertising -- and toboacco marketing is some of the best on the planet -- you can make anti-anti-ads. Here's a good blog post that goes into it in depth, but the basic point is this; if you do an anti-smoking ad aimed at youth, and make it really, really lame, it will have the effect of being a pro-smoking ad. Witness some of the TV ads funded by the tobacco industry where kids on school busses talk about how uncool it is to smoke. Yeah. Because a school bus is truly the bully pulpit of cool. Problem is, all the people that vet these ads are old geezers who look at the straight-up content (similar to the content of the CBS article I'm spending too much time disecting), and not the context. Hmmm... Maybe some super-savvy US journalists could take a crack at really exposing the true memes of anti-smoking ads, rather than leaving it to weirdos and bloggers.

  5. Be less (or more) entertaining -- the worst, worst, worst thing in the circus of the American mediasphere is not murder, child-molestation, terrorism, gay marriage or lipstick parties. It's "The Great Ennui." Boredom. Stuff that has no glam appeal. If you can make everything your company does so completely dry and uninteresting to the press-consuming public... you are in like Flynn. On the flip side, if there is an "us and them" in a particular issue, and you can be more photogenic, more appealing to the press corps, more responsive, provide more background and generally be more entertaining in the details you provide... again, you win. The trick is to always tilt the ball away from whatever it is you want hidden. This can be very subtle. For example, if you are having problems with monopolistic trade practices and employee fairness issues (WalMart, at one point, for example), you might think that the best thing to do would be to shift focus onto positive things you're doing; good works, environmental clean-up, employee education programs. No! You're so "ground game!" If your fair-trade and employee benefits issues could possibly cost you a couple billion bucks, the press isn't going to fall for "look at our donations to UNICEF." They will, however, fall for a more entertaining story about how you're screwing up something with more of a juicy bite. Like how you're banning certain books and music in your megastore. A few of those stories, and the billion-buck stuff (i.e., the important stories that the PR flacks are paid to bury) gets burried. Why? Because there's only so much room for WalMart in the media, unless they are sacrificing nude, Siamese-twin virgins to Pantheist senior citizens while wearign Brittney Spear's new line of hip-hop clothing. That would have more entertainment value. See... it's not about what is true-er-er, it's about what is fun-er-er.

OK. I'm done. You either buy the point or not. And why are we going over this on a creativity blog? Because really good PR people -- spin doctors, corporate flacks, marketing hacks, call them/us what you want -- are creative people. And so are really good journalists. They find new ways to get around old roadblocks. They figure out what people need and/or want to see, hear and read and push it out there. They question the status quo. They never take "no" for an answer... unless "no" is the answer they were looking for all along.

Beware the ground game. Beware the easy answers. Beware the "tell all" articles that promise you a peep inside the machine, but that don't turn any of the glare on the "peeper's machine." Beware your own first response.

Oh. And Happy New Year.