Conversation my arse

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Andrex, the toilet paper manufacturer, has recently updated its packaging and branding to incorporate its new, trademarked ‘Andrex Clean Routine’: a five-step guide for doing the one thing in life for which we all previously hoped we didn’t need a five-step guide.

On the plus side, this marks a step away from the ‘Scrunch or Fold’ campaign that saw Andrex attempting to start a national conversation around the vexed question of whether you are a ‘scruncher’ or a ‘folder’ when it comes to the one activity in life that we all previously hoped would never become the subject of a national conversation.

It’s still hard to believe the Scrunch or Fold campaign really happened, but it did. This was one of the TV ads.

It even inspired the first and only Asbury & Asbury Vine: an art house creation that I think showed promise.

Andrex has become a great case study in modern marketing, because it represents the logical outcome of two dominant trends: the mission escalation trend and the conversation trend. Both are waves of brand thinking that have swept all before them in recent years, and it’s not exactly Andrex’s fault that they have been caught up in it. It’s just that the nature of their business means stretching both trends to breaking point.

First, there’s the mission escalation trend. This is the homeopathy of marketing. It involves taking the functional purpose of any given product, diluting it to a slightly more abstract level, then diluting it again and repeating the process until you reach a level of abstraction so remote that any sense of specific purpose has been lost entirely. So if your product is a bar of chocolate, it’s not about giving people something chocolatey to eat, it’s about giving them a tasty treat. And it’s not about giving them a tasty treat, it’s about giving them a treat in a wider sense. And it’s not about the treat as such, but the enjoyment you get from that treat. And it’s not about the physical enjoyment, but the emotional enjoyment. And it’s not about the emotional enjoyment, but joy itself. And it’s not about experiencing joy, it’s about believing in joy. And now your brand purpose is more closely aligned to Buddhism than it is to chocolate.

There’s an obvious appeal in this for marketers and creatives, because it gives everyone a bigger field to play on. With a rationale like that, Cadbury’s can move away from talking about milk and cocoa and show drumming gorillas instead, because it’s all about joy. But that was a decade ago and the trend has had diminishing returns ever since. It’s the reason Burger King has ended up with ‘Be Your Way’ as a strapline: an idea so abstract that language itself no longer makes sense.

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In the case of Andrex, you can see they have consciously gone through the same process – we’re not about toilet paper, we’re about Clean. We are answering one of the fundamental needs of human existence. Our mission should be to own ‘Clean’ in the same way that Google owns ‘Search’. (I’ve been in meetings like this and Google always comes up.)

That’s what leads to this on Andrex’s website:

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As an incidental point, I really wish they hadn’t put ‘bottoms’ and ‘openly’ so closely together in a sentence.

But the key part of that sentence is the word ‘so’ and what comes after it. Having established this higher purpose, we are now going to have a conversation about it.

The word ‘so’ implies some kind of causal link, but there’s no real connection. We’re going to have a conversation because that’s what brands do. Alongside mission escalation, the second big trend is Conversation.

Brands have been talking about having conversations for years, mainly since social media came along and made such a two-way exchange theoretically possible. No longer would marketing be about shouting to the masses through 48-sheets and big TV spots. Now it would be about hosting a conversation, with everyone passionately acting as your brand advocate through the simple process of joining and sharing the conversation.

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Of course, nowhere on the planet has this happened. For a taste of true brand conversations, look at the Twitter feed of any major service brand – a never-ending stream of apologetic answers to customer complaints, punctuated by the odd, hopeful brand message from central marketing.

But it doesn’t stop brands trying to start a conversation, and this has clearly been the thinking at Andrex. At some point early on, someone must have said “Look, I know it’s all about conversations these days, but do we really want to have a conversation about, you know… what we do?” And after a while came the reply: “Absolutely! It’s time to do away with the embarrassment around this subject and tackle it head on! So what if it’s a bit icky? All the more reason to have the conversation! This is an opportunity not a problem!”

Except it really isn’t, for two reasons. First of all, even if you’re going to talk about it, it’s a seriously limited conversation topic. OK, it’s important to wipe properly and be clean. That’s a single message at best, not a conversation. The most gifted conversationalists of all time would struggle to make an evening out of it. Peter Ustinov would get to 30 seconds before gently steering things towards the weather.

But even if there was more to be said, it really doesn’t have to be said. Every human instinct tells us this is an unenjoyable subject to discuss. The original marketers of Andrex took this as a self-evident truth. Andrex didn’t build itself into the biggest toilet paper brand in the UK by initiating a conversation about wiping brown stains from between your cheeks. (I’m really sorry about this post.) It showed us puppies. It told charming stories that emphasised the product benefits of softness, strength and length. There was no need to go into the details of why strength was important, because we all know why strength matters in toilet tissue. No need to spell it out. Look at the nice puppy.

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It’s that kind of proper, big, traditional advertising that built Andrex to the point where its marketing people can afford to sit around in meeting rooms talking about starting conversations. Strangely, you could even argue that the traditional advertising approach sparked something much closer to a genuine conversation. People still talk about the puppy today, whereas no one is having a conversation about scrunching or folding. That campaign has been and gone, remembered only in the way you can’t shake off a bad dream.

But this post isn’t really meant to be criticising Andrex. As I said earlier, they’re just following the same trends that have swept up countless other brands in recent years. Mission escalation and conversation. (You could add a third, which is infantilisation, given the way the campaign encourages us all to be more child-like in discussing these delicate matters, and adopts the voice of a boring parent trying to engage us in an awkward conversation while we wince and edge away.)

The real point of this post is that, in following these trends, Andrex usefully takes them to their logical conclusion and shows up their inherent absurdities. When a certain way of thinking about brands leads you inexorably towards Scrunch or Fold or a five-step arse-wiping programme, there is something wrong with that way of thinking about brands.

It’s a great case study in modern marketing, and one worth having a conversation about.

New Year, New York

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Our year peaked early with a New Year’s Day interview in the New York Times about the Perpetual Disappointments Diary. It’s based on a phone interview and the way it’s been transcribed includes a few inadvertent Americanisms – I’m sure I didn’t say ‘I’m from Manchester and New Order is from there’. 

The picture was taken in a graveyard. 

You can read the whole thing here.

Beer books and mats

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A quick post about two enjoyable projects I’ve been involved with recently – both with a beer theme, which may explain the enjoyment.

The first is The 100 Beer Project, in which design company SB Studio got the Liverpool Craft Brewing Company to bottle its own beer, then commissioned 100 designers to create bottle labels, each working with an ‘SB’ name, ranging from Stranded Badger to Silent Bingo.

I contributed this Foreword, which I decided might as well be 100 words:

There’s something about a beer label: a simple canvas attached to a uniquely appealing product. Every designer wants to do one.

And there’s something about restrictions. The modest size of the canvas and the deliberately limited starting point of names beginning with SB.

Then the game starts: on one level, a purely playful exercise in creative expression; on another level, a distillation of the purpose of design and branding – to give life and personality to the products around us.

This project gives 100 personalities to a single product: some witty, some weird, some bold, some beautiful. All subliminally branded: SB.

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There’s some great work in the book, which you can buy here – all proceeds to ArtFund.

The second project is a festive collaboration with design company Build and printer Generation Press. I recently supplied words for the new Generation Press website and brand refresh, based largely around the word (Th)ink.

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When it came to the Christmas mailer, we decided to make it all about (Dr)ink. So it’s a set of eight drinks coasters, each dedicated to a particular service area (Litho, Digital, Foiling and so on), but playfully relating it to a favourite tipple.

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The nice thing about working with Build and Generation Press is you can count on it being beautifully designed and produced, which always makes the words look ten times better.

More pics here. 

Chris Wilkins on jingles

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The January issue of Creative Review takes music as its theme and I’ve contributed an article about advertising jingles: that enduringly effective commercial art form where music and copywriting meet.

In the course of researching the article, two of the first jingles that came to mind were ‘For mash get Smash’ and, inevitably, Go Compare. As the campaigns are nearly three decades apart, I was surprised to find the same copywriter associated with both. His name is Chris Wilkins and, when I got in touch to ask some questions, he sent some enlightening answers.

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For the full article, you’ll have to subscribe to Creative Review. But they’ve allowed me to reproduce the Q&A here (an edited version appears in the magazine).

Chris Wilkins started out as a copywriter at JWT in the 1970s and went on to be joint creative director with John Webster at BMP. While there he won D&AD Silvers for his work on Cresta and Smash (although the jingle itself preceded his involvement) and was also involved in Pepsi’s ‘Lipsmackin’ campaign, created with Dave Trott. In 1985 he founded Davis Wilkins with Siân Davis and later sold the company to TBWA. Since 2005 the pair have worked as creative partnership Chris & Siân Wilkins, with notable successes including the jingle-led Sheilas’ Wheels campaign, and the operatic Gio Compario character for Go Compare.

Here are my questions and Chris’s answers:

Why do you think jingles work?

I think they can work in a couple of ways. They can act simply as an ID badge for the brand – a role which goes back to radio, I suspect, when music could add a distinctive ‘colour’ in a non-visual medium. ‘For mash get Smash’ is an example, as is the Pepsi ident, ‘Lipsmackinthirstquenchin’. These are really both traditional ‘stings’ – rather than jingles – serving primarily to glue the brand name to the preceding message.

Jingles act most powerfully as mnemonic devices. Just ask yourself – how much Victorian religious poetry can I recite from memory? Not so much. Now ask the question in a different way – How many Christmas carols can I sing along to? The music makes the words memorable, particularly through repetition.

What makes a good jingle?

There’s a phenomenon known in the neurology trade as an ‘earworm’ which refers to a piece of music that gets stuck in your head and no amount of conscious voluntary effort can banish it. Good jingles take up residence in your brain. They are ‘catchy’ with all that word’s association with contagion.

This is not just the case with advertising themes, of course. I recently found myself repeatedly humming an old TV series title track which I knew really well, but I couldn’t attach it to a programme. (It turned out to be The Rockford Files.) This is why it’s crucial for the brand property to be tightly knitted into the fabric of the jingle.

You cannot mentally sing along with Sheilas’ Wheels or Go Compare without mentioning the brand name. A lot of current advertising seems to start with a ‘borrowed’ song which is grafted arbitrarily onto whatever product message happens to be next on the creative to-do list. That’s just lazy.

Do jingles work better for a particular type of brief?

Jingles work most happily when there is a simple, single-minded message to be communicated. (Mind you, since that should be the case with all advertising briefs, you could argue that a jingle should always be considered as an option.) There is some research which suggests that people don’t take in rational sales messages that are sung to them, but there is also research suggesting that people don’t respond much to rational sales messages anyway. It’s an emotional business, and music has always been pretty good at stirring emotions.

You could argue  ‘For mash get Smash’ was already a great line without the need for music. How did that come about? 

When I moved to BMP in the early 1970s, to work with John Webster – sadly, no longer with us – the Smash campaign already had its musical pay-off. You’re right, it is a strong line anyway, so why set it to music? Well, times were different then and I think we were still very much under the spell of the Americans. The Madmen tended to sign off their films with a little musical ‘sting’ – almost as a parting gift to the viewer. Webster, in his own account, remembers briefing the composer, Cliff Adams, who happened to be sitting at his piano. Cliff said, “You mean something like this?” and played the four notes which, it is rumoured, were to earn him more in royalties than the rest of his TV work put together. When I wrote the first of the Martians scripts, the jingle was already a household property.

Why did you choose a jingle/music-led route for Go Compare and Sheilas’ Wheels? Did the client come to you with that in mind, or was it your idea to go in that direction?

The client brief for what became Sheilas’ Wheels was simply to create a car insurance brand aimed at women. The name, the brand, the idea of a jingle was ours. Even the big pink ‘Sheilamobile’ was designed by Siân Wilkins, my art-director partner.

During our 35-year-long careers in advertising, neither Siân nor I had ever done a full-on jingle campaign. We wanted to devise a brand with ‘Girl Power’ (echoes of the Spice Girls) which led to our creating a ‘real’ singing group, styled on the 60s Motown sound.

We cast three brilliant session singers and – on the back of the advertising success – they actually toured the country as an act. The spin-off for the client was terrific. When one commercial asked women to post online videos of themselves dressed up and performing as our ‘Sheilas’, we had over 11,000 responses (some 240 from men) just for the prize of a guest spot in a commercial.

The brief for Go Compare was to make the brand front-of-mind in a market of four pretty competitive comparison sites. The success of Compare the Market’s Meerkats had spooked everyone else. We were lucky, because our brand name was already a call to action, so we hit on the idea of using another call to action from WW1 – the song ‘Over There’ about US troops coming to the rescue in Europe.

We unearthed an old recording of the great Enrico Caruso singing the song, which inspired the notion of using an Italian operatic tenor and we had originally intended to cast an actor and have him mime to the track. We were lucky, as it turned out, to find Wynne Evans, then Principal Tenor at Welsh National Opera, who could not only sing, but was a great physical comic.

As well as being successful, the Go Compare campaign famously annoyed a lot of people. What’s your reaction to that?

Yes, it was voted Most Annoying Campaign in the marketing press for two years running. But, to put this in context, the year before the campaign broke Go Compare posted a loss of £4m. At the end of the campaign’s first year, they posted a profit of £12m. We went on to make fifteen increasingly ‘annoying’ films over the three years we worked with them.

Similarly, our campaign for Direct Line with that little red phone on wheels and its strident bugle-call jingle, was also voted Most Annoying. Direct Line grew to become the country’s leading car insurer. It’s funny how much you can achieve when you stop checking over your shoulder for the D&AD jury, and start working out how to make your clients rich.

Jingles are often seen as ‘unsophisticated’ and outdated – what’s your view on that?

There are fashions in advertising, as in every other form of ‘creativity’. Currently, there’s a powerful groundswell pulling advertisers towards social media and there’s this desperate optimistic belief among some clients that Facebook and Twitter are freebie media for business to exploit. Problem is, the wonderful professional skills out there – musical skills included – are being bypassed in favour of mass mediocrity. A million competent ukulele players on YouTube still don’t add up to one Mozart.

Would you say you have a musical ear? How important is it for copywriters to have a sense of rhythm and the ‘sound’ of words?

Siân and I are not particularly musical but we’ve been wonderfully well served by the musicians we’ve worked with – particular the guys at Yellow Boat Music whose ingenuity created a whole raft of musical styles for Go Compare, ranging from Baroque Chamber to Moroccan Folk.

We’ve also evolved a secret trick for writing lyrics which composers can work with. If you want to write a great jingle, write it to an existing tune. That way, it will have an inbuilt ‘lyrical’ structure to it. Then, when you hand the words over to a composer – and here’s the secret bit – don’t tell him what your tune was. That’s what we did with Sheilas’ Wheels and the legendary film music composer, John Altman, took it from there.

Particularly with Smash and Go Compare, you’ve produced work that has entered the nation’s collective memory. How does that make you feel?

Lucky.

Do you have any favourite jingles (either your own or someone else’s)?

Of my own stuff, I’m quite proud of rhymes like ‘With just a few clicks / Save your spondulicks’ and ‘It’s where you go ter / Insure your motor’ for Go Compare. And I was also pretty happy with ‘If you had a name like Florence / And you needed car insurance’ for Sheilas’ Wheels.

But there have been some great jingles over the years. Dave Trott knows how it’s done – his ‘Gertcha’ spot for Courage beer and his ‘Ariston... and on...’ were classics. But my all-time favourite has to be, ‘You’ll wonder where the yellow went / When you brush your teeth with Pepsodent’. That was written in 1948.

Thanks to Chris for his answers – you can read the entire article in the January edition of Creative Review.

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Rough notes on 2014

Ferguson

This isn’t exactly a comprehensive review of the year, more a trawl back through things I’ve tweeted or favourited over the past 12 months – Twitter can be a useful mental archive that way (when it’s not being used for retrieving lost property, as in my most shared tweet of the year). 

One of the common themes is mortality (please keep reading). This was the year we lost great advertising writers including David Abbott (The Economist, JR Hartley and countless others) and Julian Koenig (Volkswagen ‘Think small’), and stars of design including Wally Olins, Massimo Vignelli and more recently Rodney Fitch. I wrote about David Abbott here and reviewed Wally Olins' last book for Creative Review (subs only). Also recommend New York Times on Julian Koenig and Michael Johnson on Wally Olins.

One writer happily bucking the trend is Clive James, who recently admitted to being “in the slightly embarrassing position where I say I’m going to die and then don’t.” His ‘Japanese Maple’ won widespread praise this year and he continues to write lucidly and arguably better than ever as he approaches the end.

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Death has a way of leading to great writing. In the bleak aftermath of the MH17 flight, these notices in Schiphol Airport (via @jessbrammar) were a civilised, secular piece of corporate writing.

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More recently, the sudden death of cricketer Phillip Hughes saw collective grief expressed through a powerful symbol. Hard not to be moved by #putoutyourbats 

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Such genuine expressions of grief put into severe perspective the trend for ‘sadvertising’ that has been noted by a few commentators this year – referencing ads that aim to make us cry rather than laugh.

For example, there’s Dove challenging mothers and their daughters to confront their inherited ideas of body image (quite moving to watch, but always in the uncomfortable knowledge that you’re being sold a brand positioning).

Then there’s the camera rising from the trenches of the First World War and that big Sainsbury’s logo appearing in the sky (in the Christmas ad that at least moved the conversation on from John Lewis). Whatever you think of it, it’s hard for brands to associate themselves with issues so real and emotionally charged without at least a whiff of self-interest surrounding the whole thing. (At the other end of the life cycle, this was also the year that a detergent brand live-tweeted the birth of a new baby.) 

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Then again, for all that we feel uncomfortable with brands intruding on the serious issues of life and death, sometimes life and death intrude on brands. This Costa coffin (in which a woman who was a great fan of the coffee chain requested to be buried) has a jarring and, let’s face it, blackly humorous effect. But there’s something moving about the way people form such an affection for brands – albeit not the kind of connection Costa can place at the centre of its next ad campaign.

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Even more affectingly, there was this story of a son keeping his dead father’s memory alive by racing against his digital ‘ghost’ on Xbox (worth reading the whole thing here). Again, not something Xbox can easily turn into an advert (although it’s not out of the question).

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Before leaving the subject of life and death, I was pleased this year to come up with a line for this bench plaque, dedicated to the very-much-alive Ben Terrett – backstory here

So, on to lighter things. Packaging copy continues to entertain and amuse, usually not intentionally.

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This was the year of tomatoes with the unmistakable aroma of, erm, tomatoes. (via @whatsamadder). 

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Leading edge chocolates for chocolate eaters who mean business.

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And the most middle-class copy ever for Waitrose (via @will_jkm)

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There was also some good stuff, like this Cultivating Thought project for Chipotle, which uses packaging as a platform for interesting writing – would love to see more brands doing this, rather than chatting away about a product you’ve already bought.

Now the quickfire round:

Best speech

Bob Hoffmann hailing the Golden Age of Bullshit at Advertising Week Europe. Uncomfortable applause all round.

Best TV ad

Not strictly TV, but a 6-hour pre-roll on YouTube for Virgin America (created by Eleven in San Francisco), imagining a deathly boring competitor called BLAH Airlines. A well-worn strawman strategy, but brilliantly done: advertising as high commercial art. 

Best press ad

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This Unlaunch ad for the VW Bus (actually 2013 I think).

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And this Nothing happened ad for Ecotricity.

Worst print ad

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This Cobra campaign, which is apparently based on the fact that Cobra is an anagram of BraCo, so let’s imagine a company that makes bras and... and... sorry, I resign. (How that brainstorm should have ended.)

Best exhibition graphics

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Enjoyed these simple, writing-led graphics that completely make sense of the Design of the Year exhibition (by Ok-RM). 

Most heroic filler copy of the year

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This description of curtains is one of the most stoically professional pieces of writing ever crafted, taken from the IKEA website

Best non-commercial writing project

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 17.05.17Pop Sonnets: reimagining pop songs as traditional sonnets. Lovely idea, skilfully written.

Best national slogan

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Only one contender: this wonderfully evocative Ivory Coast team slogan for the World Cup. I wrote an analysis of all 32 slogans for Creative Review, including Brazil’s ‘Brace Yourselves, the 6th is coming’, which proved painfully prescient when they got hammered 7-0.

Weirdest strapline

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Burger King’s new strapline was another milestone on the continuing journey into pure abstract thought that is currently being undertaken by all global brands. By 2019, all brands will have replaced their straplines with a steady, mantra-like hum. 

Brand extension of the year

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This story about trademarks registered by Donald Trump is gold from start to finish (via @design_week)

Protest branding of the year

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The $urreal: a mock banknote and social media campaign protesting against rising inflation in Brazil and the increasingly ‘surreal’ prices of everyday goods. 

Protest song of the year

Bit obscure, but in a year of continued austerity while the rich get richer, I liked this 64-year-old singing a 17-year-old’s song.

Plagiarism of the year

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Will award this to The Sun for nicking our Nation’s Prayer and filming themselves reading it in Brazil. Happily, they eventually made a donation to Street League.

Image of the year

Has to be the one at the top of this post, from Ferguson. Sadly, ‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ and ‘I can’t breathe’ are also the most memorable slogans of the year. 

There ends this incomplete and impressionistic review of 2014, which nevertheless took ages to write.

If only there was an efficient way of keeping track of an entire year in diary form

Get Christmas all wrapped up

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(That headline is just to annoy the people behind this.)

A couple of weeks ago, we launched Perpetual Disappointments Diary: the appointments diary and journal with a series of disappointing twists. The London Metro has since described it as the ‘Best. Diary. Ever.’ which is our best review ever. Thanks to anyone who has ordered it or shared it in any way – greatly appreciated.

This post is to alert you to the fact that we’re now doing a gift-wrap service, so you can send the diary directly to your friends and avoid having to see them in person.

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Visit the store here and choose from the gift-wrapped (£15) or non-gift-wrapped (£13) versions.

Here is the video we used to promote the diary – haven’t posted it here yet. 

 

And on a related note, I found myself writing a weird thing mixing the lyrics of Every day is like Sunday and Blue Monday. It's called Every day is like Blue Monday.

Perpetual Disappointments Diary

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Today we release a new version of Disappointments Diary, which we first published in 2012. The new version (available here) comes in a larger, more cumbersome format, suitable for use as a journal and week-to-view appointments diary. It’s not specific to one year and can be used any time, hence the name Perpetual Disappointments Diary.*

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As before, the diary contains a weekly demotivational proverb, combining new ones with the most depressing of the old ones.

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Targeting the international loser, we have included a section of Useful Phrases translated into French, German, Spanish and Mandarin.

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Other additions include Bank Insecurity Questions (first published on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency), Personal SWOT Analysis, double the amount of Notable Deaths, and templates for Apology Notes and Passive-Aggressive Notes.

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The diary comes with months and dates marked as normal, and a sheet of Monday stickers to mark the start of each working week. Dimensions are 210mm x 130mm.

Creative Review have written about it here.

Our strategic rationale is that it’s hard to do a new diary every year and there’s only a short window in which to sell each one, so by doing a Perpetual version, we free ourselves from having to do it again, while allowing us to flog this one grimly for years to come. 

Perpetual Disappointments Diary is available from disappointmentsdiary.com for £13+p&p

This version is written and designed by Asbury & Asbury, based on an original design by Jim Sutherland, Hat-trick Design and Sue Asbury. You can read more about the original version in these previous posts

Please buy the diary now.

 

* The name was Sue’s idea, which is pretty good for a designer.

Read me writing about Read Me

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I’ve written a review of Read Me: 10 Lessons for Writing Great Copy in this month’s Creative Review. You can read it here if you’re a subscriber or buy a print copy.

The book is by Roger Horberry and Gyles Lingwood and is a smart overview of writing for advertising and design (which, as the authors argue, could be better described as ‘brandwriting’). For anyone starting out, I think it’s the best practical primer out there. And for anyone more established, it’s worth buying for the many examples it includes – indeed, it would be nice to see an extended version consisting purely of examples and lots more of them. Even in the days of blogs and online archives, it’s useful to have a physical book that you can dip into for inspiration and reference. 

The book is available from, among other places, Best Little Bookshop (a UK-based alternative to Amazon). 

Abbott and Koenig

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A short post to say I’ve written about the late David Abbott in the July edition of Creative Review. If you’re a subscriber, you can read it here. (The article is an adaptation of this earlier blog post.)

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It’s been an unhappy time for copywriters, with the further news that Julian Koenig has passed away – most famous as creator of the ‘Think small’ Volkswagen Beetle ad. (Art director George Lois has maintained for years that he came up with the line, but seems to have a chronic habit of making similar claims.)

Koenig doesn’t appear in the D&AD Copy Book – possibly because the VW ad predated D&AD by a few years, but maybe also because he was dismissive of awards and classed his trade as pure salesmanship (which it was – just very good salesmanship). There’s a nice obituary in the New York Times.

New Blood 2014

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The results of the D&AD New Blood Awards were announced last night – essentially the 'student' awards, but open to any young person who wants to have a go. The awards take the form of a series of briefs which entrants from all over the world can choose to tackle. I was a judge on the Sky copywriting brief and was bumped up to Foreman when someone had to drop out.

I’ve been involved in professional judging before, but in some ways the responsibility feels bigger here, as you’re aware how much is riding on it for the entrants. An award can be a major boost at the beginning of a career, and having a brilliant piece of work unfairly overlooked can be a real downer that lingers with you for years.

Our brief boiled down to ‘create a copy-led campaign promoting the Sky brand’ – a tricky but interesting challenge for what is, on the face of it, a visual brand. There were 12 in-books, of which four were ‘nominated’ (a big achievement) and of those four, two won a pencil.

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The first was Telescopic Nostalgia by Adam Newby and Will Wells from School of Communication Arts 2.0. It's an interestingly heritage-based route for a technology/media brand – appropriate when you realise Sky has been around for 25 years. Each execution relates various Sky breakthroughs to the cultural context of the times, using an interactive device called ‘telescopic text’, so that a short version of each line expands into a longer version when you swipe it. The device is borrowed from telescopictext.com but the execution is skilful and feels right for a screen-based brand.

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The second pencil went to The Colour of Entertainment by Lyle Martin and Viloshan Appasamy of the Vega School of Brand Communications, Cape Town. The idea is a verbal extension of Sky’s visual brand, where the colour spectrum is a key element. Each execution takes a colour from the spectrum and relates it to the full range of Sky’s programming using a series of evocative phrases.

The posters ignored one of the few ‘mandatories’ in the brief, which was to include Sky’s ‘Believe in better’ brand line as a sign-off. After some debate, the feeling was that it was so firmly rooted in the Sky brand in other respects that it earned the right to drop the line. But it highlights a paradox in the judging generally, where on the one hand you’re looking for evidence that people can follow a brief professionally, but on the other hand encouraging bravery and rule-breaking. In the end, what matters is whether the work is any good.

It would take too long to talk about all the other entries in detail, but I was a big fan of ‘You're better off watching it’ – by Alvaro Palma Tara, Juan Álvarez Porto and Kike Garran of the Miami Ad School, Madrid – in which people humorously fail to describe brilliant TV moments. It’s edited with a comedian’s sense of timing and it plays into a key truth about why people subscribe to Sky – that fear you have as a consumer of missing out on stuff that everyone else is talking about.

I was also involved in the Black Pencil judging, where the best entries from each category compete for the highest award.

Three

The first winner was Three for XL recordings, by Anna Barton, Louise Delves and Sam Smith from Kingston University – a beautifully crafted interactive poster where sections are torn off and played through a punch paper music box.

And the other Black Pencil went to The Green Switch by Paul J. de Ridder and Yme Gorter of Edinburgh Napier University. The (ambitious) brief was to create an idea to fight climate change on a large scale. This solution proposed modifying Google's search algorithm to take sustainability into account, so that eco-friendly companies and products are rewarded with higher search results. You can argue about the feasibility, but it's exactly the right kind of thinking – a systemic change that could have a big effect without people having to do much.

While it didn’t get a Black Pencil, this campaign for the National Trust deserves singling out (by Robert Sewell and Vytautas Busma, University of Gloucestershire). It owes a lot to Adam Buxton and it’s stupid and over the top, but I love the way it reinvents a brand in a way you can almost see working. The entrants had the nerve to release it as a ‘leaked advert’ on YouTube, where it went viral and won coverage in the national press, subsequently attracting positive attention from the National Trust themselves. It’s exactly the type of irreverent, boundary-pushing work students should be doing.

For those who didn’t get in-book, I would say a lot of the work showed flashes of skill and talent – many of the entrants clearly knew how to write a decent headline and will probably go on to have brilliant careers, regardless of whether they happened to impress a particular group of judges on a particular day. (I would even say sometimes it’s better to be Will Young than Gareth Gates, but I’ve worked out most of the entrants would have been about six years old when that happened.)

Craig1

The exhibition graphics and branding by The Office of Craig Oldham also deserve a mention – a strong, humorous voice carried through into every element. The hoardings around the exhibition space in Spitalfields Market had a real presence – I can imagine a lot of members of the public being engaged and entertained by it. It was good to see some of the work recognised in Writing for Design in the D&AD Professional Awards.

Cf
And before leaving the subject of awards, I was pleased to be involved in a project for Cystic Fibrosis that made it in-book in Writing for Design this year. The idea for a writing-led identity was down to Johnson Banks and I helped with some of the executions. But I think it’s a nice example of a writing-based identity that does a serious long-term job for a client.

This post took ages to write.

More on the New Blood Awards here.

Lead us not into uncredited appropriation

Sun_photo

This year’s version of the Nation’s Prayer (see last post) must be the least successful yet given England’s performance. Someone in Costa Rica must have written a very strong version.

Nevertheless, the prayer had an interesting life, in a story that ended with a Sun journalist reading the prayer out (uncredited) to a congregation of England fans beneath the statue of Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio. There’s an entertaining film of it here but I can’t share it because it’s behind their paywall.

I’ve written the whole story up in this post on Creative Review, touching on some of the wider issues it raises about popular culture and attribution.

One thing I forgot to mention was the reviews the prayer received after it ‘went viral’ via a couple of dodgy accounts on Twitter:

Reviews_np

Properly warms the heart.

Thanks to everyone who ordered the prayer card (sorry, no refunds) and shared it on Twitter or elsewhere. Thanks also to Creative Review for spotting that The Sun had used it, to Stig Abell at The Sun for putting it right and making a donation to Street League, and to Tim Rich of 66000milesperhour.com for some helpful advice along the way.

We may return for Euro 2016, if England make it.

Top image copyright 2012 News Group Newspapers Ltd

The Nation's Prayer 2014

DSC_0004_lr

Following no popular demand and one explicit request not to do it, we’ve decided to release a new version of The Nation’s Prayer to mark the impending 2014 World Cup. This year, we have chosen to go one step further and produce some prayer cards that you can buy and place strategically alongside your remote control and chosen beer.

If you remember, we first came up with The Nation’s Prayer in 2010 (read it here) and released an updated version for Euro 2012 (here). It’s written in the tradition of the Bus Driver’s Prayer, of unknown origin but popularised by Ian Dury.

This year has presented a particular challenge as there remains a chance Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain may be replaced at the last minute, which will present an existential threat to line 5. We’ll have to deal with this if and when it happens.

Keen sports fans will notice there is no place in the poetic starting line-up for reserve keepers Ben Foster and Fraser Forster, nor for Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka, Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw. This will be embarrassing if Gary Cahill goes on to score a hat-trick in the final, but we will take that risk.

Prayer cards are sized 127mm x 76mm and come in a protective plastic sleeve, the way prayer cards do. They cost 66p.

N_prayer

Think of England and order yours here.

Mr Paxman interrogates the poets

Paxman

If you’re one of those strange people who don’t follow the poetry world closely, you may not have been aware of the recent Paxman Controversy.

As the chair of this year’s Forward Prize jury, he made some characterisically brisk comments about the need for poets to engage with the outside world, even calling for an ‘inquisition’ where the more obscure poets could come and explain themselves (a suggestion that I don’t think was meant to be taken entirely seriously). Nevertheless, it caused understandable consternation among poets, not least because the ‘poetry world’ is arguably more accessible and politically engaged than it has ever been, but also because popularity isn’t necessarily the best measure of poetry’s worth in the world. 

Anyway, the whole thing got me thinking about how a Paxman-esque inquisition might work, which led to me writing and publishing this poem (it originally appeared here):


Mr Paxman interrogates the poets

Who set fire to the tyger? 
Will you apologise to the people of Slough?
So you’re admitting you ate the plums?
Twas not, in any sense, “brillig” was it?

“Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song” –
You stole that, didn’t you?
Nothing depends on a wheelbarrow, does it?
Are you saying you set fire to the tyger?

In what possible sense is anything “dapple-dawn-drawn”?
Was there really a man from Nantucket?
These people you call the best minds of your generation – 
presumably not smart enough to avoid being destroyed?

You write about shepherds and daffodils, 
but I believe you were grammar school educated?
Why did this imbecile kill the albatross?
Shall I compare thee? I’ll ask the questions.

Did you threaten to set fire to the tyger?

 

As these things sometimes do, it did the rounds on Twitter and eventually got noticed by the people at the Forward Arts Foundation. Before I knew it, an email landed in my inbox:

Paxemail

In some ways, my poem bears out Paxman’s criticism in that it’s full of smart-arse allusions that probably exclude as many people as they entertain. But fortunately he saw the funny side (I think...)

An appreciation of the 45-day tweet

Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 13.43.56

A tweet by cheese brand Président has caused a stir on Twitter following a report that it took 45 days to prepare, including the involvement of a copywriter, designer, between 10-20 strategists, at least two social media managers, more senior writers and designers in the approval process, and then presumably various layers of management within the client company. Unsurprisingly, the result hasn’t been taken entirely seriously, but it's worth noting that it is actually quite a strong tweet.

Here’s my word-by-word appreciation.

Sharing
Implants a subliminal message into the first word of the tweet, enticing readers into an RT- and fave-friendly social state of mind.

a
Note the modestly generic ‘a’ not ‘our’ – a brave move that theoretically means this tweet promotes competitor Camembert brands. But the right decision. ‘a’ is less controlling and more confident – and there is a massive picture of PRESIDENT CAMEMBERT below.

Camembert
Important to get this into the first three words of the tweet.

with friends
More social triggering. Interesting exclusion of ‘family’ here – was this a sticking point in discussions?

?
Good to open with a question, immediately creating a sense of involvement and dialogue.

(How generous!)
At this point, the tweet is only seven words, but has impressively set up a dynamic tension between the opening question and the cheerful and socially flattering aside. The use of parentheses is key here – worth the deployment of two extra characters.

Get
Note the graceful move from interrogative (opening sentence) to exclamatory (parentheses) and now into the imperative, gutturally Anglo-Saxon ‘get’. This switch of mood is a sign we are getting to the ‘meat’ of the tweet (or the cheese).

the best flavor
That mildly winded sensation you’re experiencing is the Benefit hitting home. Despite its deceptive opening, this tweet isn’t just here to make conversation – it has a clear product-related message. (Was there a discussion about the Americanised ‘flavor’ as opposed to the the UK-friendly ‘flavour’? Of course there was.)

by serving at room temperature.
The tweet is working hard now, delivering pure information at high speed. The slip into more formal language isn’t accidental, but creates a reassuring sense of quasi-scientific authority.

#artofcheese
This is where the tweet steps up several levels from incidental disruption into pure Idea. The reader is being invited to consider all that has gone before not merely as good advice in its own right, but as one part of a bigger vision to appreciate and champion the ‘art’ of cheese. Think of the possibilities deftly captured in that 12-character device. The perfect cheddar-bread ratio for cheese on toast. The best cheese to pair with a Ritz cracker. How cottage cheese got its name. And is the subtle echo of 1980s synthpop experimentalists ‘Art of Noise’ coincidental? Nothing is coincidental in this tweet – it’s a smart trigger for the mum/dad demographic.

‪pic.twitter.com/R6iWPeKv1z
This appreciation is primarily concerned with the wording of the tweet, rather than the styling of the accompanying picture (which deserves an appreciation of its own), but note the enormity of the brand name – a no-nonsense contrast to the subtlety of the preceding tweet.

One final note: the entire tweet leaves three characters of its 140 to spare. At first sight, this is troubling – that’s three characters of valuable social media real estate unused. Were there discussions about this? Could there have been more exclamation marks after ‘generous’? Could ‘flavor’ have been depicted as ‘flavo(u)r’ to embrace the UK English market? Perhaps it’s nice that we’re being left to wonder what else might have been. This tweet has worked hard, but there is always the possibility of better to come.

Take your time, Président Cheese, we’re prepared to wait. 


UPDATE:
It should be noted that the agency involved has challenged the ‘45-day’ version of events, although the journalist has stood by the reporting. I think the agency might be better off embracing the humour and mounting a forensic defence of the tweet – they are welcome to use any or all of the above.

David Abbott and the fourth wall

David Abbott, one of the great advertising copywriters, has died at the age of 75. The campaign he created for The Economist will mean he’s remembered for as long as copywriting exists – it’s hard to imagine a time where it will stop being a reference point – but it was only one piece of work in a prolific career.

This post isn’t meant as a comprehensive tribute – follow the links at the end for some excellent articles. But it’s interesting to analyse the detail of how a great writer works and, looking through David Abbott’s entry in The Copy Book, I was struck by one trick that he uses repeatedly and feels notably fresh even though the ads in question are decades old.

Chivas_David Abbott

The first example is this Chivas Regal Father’s Day ad (1980). It’s a mass market advert for a big brand, but it’s written from a personal perspective – a direct message from the copywriter to his father which, by being personal, manages to be universal. (David Abbott acknowledges it might strike some people as sentimental, but it makes sense in the context.)

Volvo

Then there’s this one for Volvo (1983), where the copywriter steps out of the accepted fiction that an ad is a ‘brand’ talking to its customers and instead puts himself directly into the frame (literally – he’s the one beneath the car).

Ddb_hires1

Finally, there’s this recruitment ad (1967) for agency account managers (‘men’ in those days), where the copywriter speaks directly to the people with whom he will soon be working.

In all three cases, the same trick is taking place. The writer is playing with the convention that adverts are a ‘brand’ talking to its audience, and explicitly drawing attention to the fact that there is a copywriter – a real person – being paid to write this stuff. In theatre, you would call it breaking the fourth wall – momentarily stepping out of character to address the audience directly, effectively to say ‘Look at me, I’m an actor’. It’s a technique that plays with expectations and has a postmodern edge to it – a sign that David Abbott could have fitted comfortably into the age of Twitter and meta-jokes.

In the writing tips that appear alongside his work in The Copy Book, David Abbott advises copywriters to ‘Put yourself into your work’, where he’s no doubt nodding towards this trick. But I think what he’s doing in these ads is more specific than this general advice implies. He’s not putting himself into the writing in the conventional writing-workshop sense of ‘drawing on your own personal experience’. He’s shifting the conceptual framework entirely to place the writer in the foreground. In a world where the babble of disembodied brands with annoyingly ‘personal’ voices is getting ever louder, there’s something appealing about this honest acknowledgement that a copywriter is involved in the process. It’s not a trick you can play every time but, when you do, it has a nicely humanising effect.

It’s also done with a commercial purpose. Like many of the great copywriting tricks, it’s rooted in the tradition of door-to-door sales, where a common trick is for the salesman to step out of character – ‘Between you and me, it’s my job to sell this stuff, but I’ve actually got one of these vacuum cleaners at home and it works a treat.’

I wonder what David Abbott made of the more recent trend for chatty, informal copy that has become the norm on packaging in particular. While the people behind that hyper-personalised approach might protest that they’re simply ‘putting themselves into the writing’, I suspect he would have been sceptical. The difference is that, when Abbott talks about putting himself into the writing, he’s not simply gesturing towards it tonally – nor, crucially, is he equating himself with the brand. The power of the approach comes from the way he’s separating himself from the brand and highlighting the fact that he’s a copywriter doing a job. It’s a structural idea, not a writing style.

By his own admission, David Abbott was never that interested in style (or tone of voice as it might be termed now): ‘I am not interested in words. I don’t own a Thesaurus, I don’t do crosswords and my dictionary has pictures in it. Words, for me, are the servants of the argument and on the whole I like them to be plain, simple and familiar. I believe that I’m paid to be an advocate…’

Whether it’s in a press ad or on the side of a juice carton, I imagine David Abbott would maintain that copywriting is primarily about advocacy rather than self-expression – building an argument rather than projecting a personality. If drawing attention to yourself as a writer is an effective device for bolstering the argument, then it’s worth doing.

All this is a long analysis of a simple creative trick. But I find it interesting how a lot of the best writers, designers and creative thinkers have a bag of tricks which they draw on and reinterpret over the course of a career. This ‘fourth wall’ device was one of Abbott’s best. It’s instructive to see how he returns to it in pieces of work that are years apart.

Looking through the rest of The Copy Book, there are sections where the work starts to feel dated and the claims made for it seem overblown. But the entirety of the Abbott section is timelessly and disarmingly great, because the work is rooted in great thinking. It’s appropriate that he of all people should use this device of drawing attention to himself as a copywriter – when you’re David Abbott, why wouldn’t you?

Creative Review on David Abbott
Ben Kay on Abbott’s best work  
Mike Dempsey on David Abbott: Man of letters
David Abbott’s leaving speech 
Excerpt from The Copy Book 
Dave Trott on the roots of the Economist campaign

Elephants Charging Towards Brazil!

Hp_bus

The press have recently reported on the slogans chosen by each of the teams taking part in the Brazil World Cup to appear emblazoned on their team bus.

The slogans were submitted and chosen through a public contest sponsored by Hyundai, with predictably varying results.

However, for a copywriter, the whole thing is quite fun – the slogans equivalent of the Eurovision song contest. Here’s my take on each of the entries.

AlgeriaDesert Warriors in Brazil
Good – rooted in a point of difference about the country and sounds like the subtitle to an awesome movie. 8/10

ArgentinaNot just a team, we are a country
Mystifying statement of fact. Arguably more meaningful the other way round: Not just a country, we are a team. 1/10

AustraliaSocceroos: Hopping Our Way Into History
Cheerfully embraces the national stereotype, but ‘into History’ makes it sound like they will soon be history in the negative sense. Drop the alliteration and up the optimism: ‘Hopping Our Way To Glory’. 6/10

BelgiumExpect the Impossible
A mind-bending concept, but at least acknowledges that winning is an impossibility. Given the popular misconception about there being no famous Belgians, I'd have gone with: ‘Audrey Hepburn was technically born in Belgium.’ 4/10

Bosnia and HerzegovinaDragons in Heart, Dragons on the Field
Should be epic, but somehow isn't. 5/10

BrazilBrace Yourselves! The 6th Is Coming!
The kind of over-confidence that could end up backfiring badly. But then they are Brazil. 5/10

Cameroon A Lion remains a Lion
Strong. Suspect the original meaning is closer to ‘A lion will always be a lion’. But the odd phrasing gives it a mystical quality. 8/10

ChileChi Chi Chi! Le Le Le! Go Chile! 
This is how you write a slogan for a national team. Joyful, optimistic, fun. Contrast with USA. 10/10

ColombiaHere travels a nation, not just a team!
Cross-reference with Argentina. You know what they mean – the whole country is with you. But it says very little. Humour may have helped – Addicted to Victory / The Drugs Do Work. 2/10

Costa RicaMy passion is football, my strength is my people, my pride is Costa Rica
My slogan is lame. 3/10

Ivory CoastElephants Charging Towards Brazil!
A stunner – four words, nationally relevant, creating a memorable and massively exciting visual image. The new benchmark for all slogans – it’s good, but it’s not Elephants Charging Towards Brazil! 10/10

CroatiaWith Fire in Our Hearts, For Croatia all as One!
Fire in their hearts, rather than Dragons (see Bosnia and Herzegovina), but sounds like they’re trying to convince themselves. 4/10

EcuadorOne Commitment, One Passion, Only One Heart, This Is For You Ecuador!
Ecuabore. 2/10

EnglandThe Dream of One Team, the Heartbeat of Millions!!
Completely unEnglish line. Two exclamation marks? (Although in its favour, at least it’s not ‘Keep calm and score goals’.) In honour of the John Barnes goal against Brazil, they should have gone with ‘Get round the back’. 3/10

FranceImpossible is not a French word
Seems to have been lost in translation, as ‘Impossible’ definitely is a French word. Reminiscent of George W Bush’s ‘The trouble with the French is they have no word for ‘entrepreneur’.’

GermanyOne Nation, One Team, One Dream!
1/10

GhanaBlack Stars: Here to Illuminate Brazil
Poetic. Sounds disconcertingly race-fixated until you realise it’s a play on the national flag. 7/10

GreeceHeroes Play Like Greeks
Given the way they won Euro 2004 and the fact these slogans are being printed on the side of a bus, they should have gone with ‘Where do we park this?’ 3/10

HondurasWe are one country, one nation, five stars on the heart
So many of these slogans are obsessed with numbers. And a country is a nation, so the repetition grates even more. 1/10

IranHonour of Persia
A dignified slogan which I am not going to criticise as it’s from Iran. 7/10

ItalyLet’s paint the FIFA World Cup dream blue
Stop sucking up to FIFA, Italy. 3/10

JapanSamurai, The Time Has Come to Fight!
Yes. Solid and whole-hearted embrace of national stereotype. 9/10

South KoreaEnjoy it, Reds!
I want to give this slogan a big hug. 5/10

MexicoAlways United, Always Aztecas
Expect better from the Mexicans. 3/10

NetherlandsReal Men Wear Orange
This is good. Bit of humour, bit of attitude, very Dutch, sounds like a proper slogan. 9/10

NigeriaOnly Together We Can Win
Lighten up, Nigeria. 3/10

PortugalThe past is history, the future is victory
They seriously put ‘The past is history’ in their slogan. 1/10

RussiaNo one can catch us
The campest of all the slogans (even the Dutch). Conjures up images of a bare-chested Putin sneaking into the room, tagging you and then running away giggling. 3/10

SpainInside our hearts, the passion of a champion
You can just about get away with talking about ‘passion’ when you’re a Mediterranean country (imagine this line spoken by Antonio Banderas), but this still talks about passion instead of showing it. It’s not Elephants Charging Towards Brazil!

SwitzerlandFinal Stop: 07-13-14 Maracana!
Check Switzerland out with their fancy numerals, no doubt set in Helvetica. 03/10

UruguayThree million dreams… Let’s go Uruguay
Rare example of a line that would be improved by an exclamation mark at the end. I worry for their mental state. 4/10

U.S.A.United by Team, Driven by Passion
Good in the sense it could only have come from America. Straight out of the corporate manual of buzzword collage that is handed out to every MBA student. United by Team? What does that mean? Should have gone with the @usasoccerguy approach: ‘GOALSHOT! Team USA with the deathstrike! #worldsoccerchampionship’ 2/10

All in all, an entertaining tournament, with Chile and Ivory Coast cruising into the final, which Ivory Coast go on to win 12-0. 

Text sells

Screen Shot 2014-03-25 at 09.52.56

It’s nice to have played a small part in the return of design title Grafik, now in online rather than print form.

The new site is interestingly text-led for a design site and the same approach has been carried through into its advertising. Rather than garish banners fighting for attention, Grafik is running text-only ads that are consistent with the editorial style, while still being clearly marked as ads.

I’ve helped write some house ads explaining the new approach, and written an essay about the continuing power of good writing in advertising and design.

Read the full article here.

The grand old man of brand

Wallyspread
The March 2014 edition of Creative Review includes my review of Brand New: The Shape of Brands To Come, by Wally Olins. If you’re a subscriber, you can read the article online.

The book is released on 7 April and available to order.

For anyone interested, the article references a number of sources:

Adrian Shaughnessy – Why designers should give branding back its soul

Michael Johnson – Mind the gap

Terry Eagleton – Reading On Brand 

Talking point

Cp_4

Following Jonathan Meades’ exploration of brutalism which began on BBC4 last night, I thought I’d post this interview with Wilem Frischmann, the engineer who built Centre Point in London.

I spoke to him in 2011 as part of a project (with hat-trick design) exploring the history of Centre Point, a building whose hypnotic honeycomb façade and decorative patterns belie the ‘brutalist’ label that is often attached to it.

Cp-drawings

Wilem Frischmann is now a grand old man of engineering, a partner in global firm Pell Frischmann and father of Justine, lead singer of Elastica. But when Centre Point was being built in the early 1960s, he was just starting out and keen to make a name for himself.

The whole thing was an amazing piece of engineering, built in record time using a single crane and no scaffolding. At the time, planning details weren’t available to view so readily, so Londoners played a continuing guessing game wondering how tall the tower would get.

Cp-build

I was struck by how hands-on the project was for Wilem Frischmann, to the point where he personally ventured into a 100-foot narrow bore-hole beneath Tottenham Court Road to check the strength of the foundations – and nearly didn’t make it out again.

The interview is on the Centre Point blog and is in three parts:

Part one
Part two
Part three 

An interview with hat-trick

Hattrick1_0

Having just posted an interview with myself, here’s one with me doing the interviewing.

I’ve been fortunate to work with hat-trick a lot in recent years, on projects including Victoria hoardings, Centre Point, Ebbsfleet Valley and Help Musicians UK. They also collaborated with us on Disappointments Diary 2013.

Now they’re the subject of a book by Chois Publishing (part of its We Love Graphic series), for which I’ve written the introduction, an extended case study about their work with Imperial War Museums, and an interview with two of the company’s founders, Jim Sutherland and Gareth Howat.

Hattrick3_0

The interview has been re-published on the Creative Review blog and you can read it here

The book is called 240pp of thoughts and you can order a copy from the hat-trick shop.

Storytelling – an interview

Threepigs

I was recently invited to answer some questions on storytelling by Martin Lee of Acacia Avenue, an agency that has specialised in writing and storytelling for many years. He’s kindly allowed me to reproduce the interview here. It’s inspired in part by the tongue-in-cheek brand stories I wrote last year, including The Brand Story of the Three Little Pigs, pictured above. 

ML: Why do you think storytelling has become such a source of fascination in business?

NA: Stories have always been there in advertising and branding, but have only recently been given a label. I think the reason it caught on was because it played into a wider trend to seek out ‘authenticity’. Compared to the old terminology of marketing – full of military terms like ‘targets’ and ‘strategies’ and ‘campaigns’ – the idea of ‘storytelling’ feels very down-at-home and uncommercial.

You could also relate it to the trend for ‘infantilisation’ in recent years – that habit brands have of talking to customers as a parent would to a small child. When a brand says it’s going to tell us a ‘story’, it’s subliminally tapping into that childlike, uncritical part of our brains, which is prone to suspending disbelief and accepting the narrative on its own terms.

ML: What are the mistakes brands make when they try to harness storytelling?

NA: The main mistake is to gesture towards storytelling without having the courage or creativity to do it properly. True to their marketing instincts, many practitioners are simply taking old approaches and rebranding them as ‘stories’ in order to fit with the trend. So we get the surreal sight of things being called ‘stories’ that possess no discernable narrative or any of the accepted characteristics of a story.

This isn’t about policing what stories are and are not – there are no rules dictating what storytellers can or can’t do. But if we’re convincing clients of the archetypal power of storytelling, it’s strange to ignore all the elements that give it that power.

ML: What should they be doing?

NA: Politicians talk about ‘framing the narrative’ and I think it’s a useful idea for brands. For example, it helps for a company like Apple to remember its overarching narrative about being a plucky adventurer exploring new frontiers. If that narrative is locked in people’s minds, then any bad news becomes a setback on that bigger mission, rather than a sign of terminal decline. By framing the narrative, you change the way people see events unfolding – I think Apple has lost sight of that lately.

That said, I think brands get hung up on having one ‘brand story’, when sometimes it’s useful to have many. Taking Apple as an example, I’d think about developing a bank of stories, ‘tagged’ with different themes. So if someone wanted to demonstrate values like ‘pride’ or ‘innovation’ they could look up all the stories that bring those values to life. Under ‘pride’ you might tell the story of how Apple engineers used to etch their own names onto circuit boards as a hidden ‘signature’ that would only ever be seen by other engineers. A bank of stories like that is an endlessly useful resource.

I’d also get a professional on the case. Every organisation has great stories inside it, but it takes a storyteller to spot them and frame them effectively. I’d pay a writer to immerse themselves in the company and become a roving story-gatherer and archivist. Tell them to go and find 50 more stories like the circuit board one.

ML: Who is doing it well?

NA: One brand that has been doing it consistently is Jack Daniels. Their whole approach is based on brand lore and legend and they were doing it long before the storytelling trend started.

A typical ad tells a micro-story about the product – the barrels it comes in, the water they use – and relates it back to the bigger brand. In some ways it’s classic old-school advertising – take a feature and turn it into a benefit by spinning a nice yarn – but it’s done with such charm and consistency that it always works. And they carry it through to the rest of the brand. I remember them getting a lot of praise on Twitter for sending a brilliantly laid-back and respectful cease-and-desist letter to someone who had infringed their trademark.

But different factions will fight over this – brand strategists could claim Jack Daniels as a strategic insight; storytellers would claim it as a triumph of storytelling; advertisers would say it’s just good old- fashioned salesmanship. There’s lots of commercial territory at stake in all these arguments.

ML: What is the prize – if a brand gets it right, what do they stand to gain?

NA: A few years ago, I took part in a US-based project called Significant Objects, where the idea was to take a near-worthless junk store object and write a story about it. The object and its story were then posted on eBay. Once the objects had a story attached, they multiplied in value – one object bought for $3 ended up selling for $193. It was a playful project, but it makes a good point about the way we value things for the stories attached to them.

This is really what branding is about – taking a non-descript product or service and investing it with a bigger narrative. There are huge benefits in a storytelling approach to branding and it’s something writers in particular should welcome. In some ways, the proliferation of pseudo-stories and bandwagon- jumpers is an inevitable by-product of a successful movement. But the good thing about stories is they will always be more than a trend – they were around long before this period in the commercial spotlight and they’ll no doubt survive long afterwards.

Links:

Acacia Avenue

Jack Daniels cease-and-desist letter

Significant Objects

The brand story of Little Red Riding Hood

The brand story of Peter Rabbit

The brand story of the Three Little Pigs

Toy Brand Story

The brand story of Chicken Licken

Towards the domain singularity

Blogshot

Big news in our small world this week. We’ve recently decomissioned our individual sites (nickasbury.com and sueasbury.co.uk) and folded them into an updated Asbury & Asbury site, which you’re now looking at.*

The back story if you’re interested:

Ten years ago, there was nickasbury.com (site of freelance writer Nick Asbury) and suerogers.co.uk (site of freelance designer Sue Rogers).

Five years ago, for reasons easy to deduce, the latter became sueasbury.co.uk

At the same time, a new site was born to showcase side projects and collaborations between the two of us – asburyandasbury.com

Close on its tail came the @asburyandasbury Twitter account, where Nick has always done the tweeting.

In the five years since, Sue has stopped working as a freelance designer (making room for motherhood) and now works solely on Asbury & Asbury projects. Nick continues to work as a freelance writer (he’s even writing this sentence), but it seems increasingly unnecessary to have a nickasbury.com site alongside asburyandasbury.com

So you’ll find it’s all part of one site now, with our own projects in the Projects section and Nick’s freelance writing (still his main thing) in the Writing section. There are also updated Press and People sections and the all-important Shop.

The best email addresses to reach us on are now nick[at]asburyandasbury.com and sue[at]asburyandasbury.com

The old addresses will still work, but be aware you’ll be aggravating us ever so slightly every time you use them.

After ten years, we have achieved the domain singularity. It is a good feeling.


* OK, unless you're on an RSS reader.

Porpoise poem

Porpoise-seen-in-the-Rive-006

With the news that five porpoises have been sighted far up the Thames following the recent storm surge, I thought I’d welcome them with this poem that I wrote a while ago. It’s taken from a collection called Songs for Animals which we plan to produce in book form one day, but we have no idea when.


Porpoises

I asked a pair of porpoises
what the purpoise of a porpoise is –
and whether dolphins are like porpoises
to all intents and purpoises?

‘How dare you!’ said the porpoises,
storming off to sea.
It was strange to have cross porpoises
talking at me.

Brands and The Psychopath Test

Brodericks

I recently read Jon Ronson's book The Psychopath Test, in which he explores the prevalence of psychopathic tendencies among some of the most successful people in society. He writes in detail about the Hare PCL-R checklist, which lists 20 traits associated with psychopathy and has been the basis for most diagnoses over the years. While studying the list, I couldn't help wondering how most brands would score. 

I don't mean this in a glib '20 ways brands are like xxxxxx' way. I mean that brands arguably make more sense when you think of them as psychopaths and respond to them accordingly.

That's not an aspersion against anyone connected with the creation of specific brands, but a comment on the peculiar status of brands in general. Brands exist as separate legal entities from the rest of us and possess a life of their own. They could be considered a superior life form, in the sense that Coca Cola will be around long after the rest of us have gone. By their nature, brands display a lot of superficially positive human characteristics, including charm, slickness and facility with words. But they are also necessarily incapable of empathy and remorse, and especially prone to an inflated sense of self-worth.

Here's a verbatim list of the 20 psychopathic traits (underlinings are mine), with some illustrative examples. There could be countless examples for points one and two in particular. 

1. Glib and Superficial Charm
The tendency to be smooth, engaging, charming, slick, and verbally facile. Psychopathic charm is not in the least shy, self-conscious, or afraid to say anything. A psychopath never gets tongue-tied. They have freed themselves from the social conventions about taking turns in talking, for example. 

Bravenewmalden


2. Grandiose Self-Worth
A grossly inflated view of one's abilities and self-worth, self-assured, opinionated, cocky, a braggart. Psychopaths are arrogant people who believe they are superior human beings. 

Starbucks13. Need for Stimulation or Proneness to Boredom           
An excessive need for novel, thrilling, and exciting stimulation; taking chances and doing things that are risky. Psychopaths often have a low self-discipline in carrying tasks through to completion because they get bored easily. They fail to work at the same job for any length of time, for example, or to finish tasks that they consider dull or routine.      

Yahoo1


4. Pathological Lying           
Can be moderate or high; in moderate form, they will be shrewd, crafty, cunning, sly, and clever; in extreme form, they will be deceptive, deceitful, underhanded, unscrupulous, manipulative, and dishonest.  

Adamhess1


5. Conning and Manipulativeness           
The use of deceit and deception to cheat, con, or defraud others for personal gain; distinguished from Item #4 in the degree to which exploitation and callous ruthlessness is present, as reflected in a lack of concern for the feelings and suffering of one's victims.

 


6. Lack of Remorse or Guilt           
A lack of feelings or concern for the losses, pain, and suffering of victims; a tendency to be unconcerned, dispassionate, coldhearted, and unempathic. This item is usually demonstrated by a disdain for one's victims.

Tesco


7. Shallow Affect           
Emotional poverty or a limited range or depth of feelings; interpersonal coldness in spite of signs of open gregariousness.           

Pinterest


8. Callousness and Lack of Empathy     
      
A lack of feelings toward people in general; cold, contemptuous, inconsiderate, and tactless

Aapparel


9. Parasitic Lifestyle           
An intentional, manipulative, selfish, and exploitative financial dependence on others as reflected in a lack of motivation, low self-discipline, and inability to begin or complete responsibilities. 

Virgin


10. Poor Behavioral Controls           
Expressions of irritability, annoyance, impatience, threats, aggression, and verbal abuse; inadequate control of anger and temper; acting hastily.           

Waitrose


11. Promiscuous Sexual Behavior           
A variety of brief, superficial relations, numerous affairs, and an indiscriminate selection of sexual partners; the maintenance of several relationships at the same time; a history of attempts to sexually coerce others into sexual activity or taking great pride at discussing sexual exploits or conquests.

Passion


12. Early Behavior Problems           
A variety of behaviors prior to age 13, including lying, theft, cheating, vandalism, bullying, sexual activity, fire-setting, glue-sniffing, alcohol use, and running away from home. 

Ella

13. Lack of Realistic, Long-Term Goals           
An inability or persistent failure to develop and execute long-term plans and goals; a nomadic existence, aimless, lacking direction in life

Andrex


14. Impulsivity           
The occurrence of behaviors that are unpremeditated and lack reflection or planning; inability to resist temptation, frustrations, and urges; a lack of deliberation without considering the consequences; foolhardy, rash, unpredictable, erratic, and reckless.           

Bmw1

15. Irresponsibility           
Repeated failure to fulfill or honor obligations and commitments; such as not paying bills, defaulting on loans, performing sloppy work, being absent or late to work, failing to honor contractual agreements.

Barclays


16. Failure to Accept Responsibility for Own Actions
           
A failure to accept responsibility for one's actions reflected in low conscientiousness, an absence of dutifulness, antagonistic manipulation, denial of responsibility, and an effort to manipulate others through this denial.

           


17. Many Short-Term Marital Relationships    
       
A lack of commitment to a long-term relationship reflected in inconsistent, undependable, and unreliable commitments in life, including marital.      

Fd

18. Juvenile Delinquency      
     
Behavior problems between the ages of 13-18; mostly behaviors that are crimes or clearly involve aspects of antagonism, exploitation, aggression, manipulation, or a callous, ruthless tough-mindedness.

Fanny


19. Revocation of Condition Release   
        
A revocation of probation or other conditional release due to technical violations, such as carelessness, low deliberation, or failing to appear.     

Gap

20. Criminal Versatility           
A diversity of types of criminal offenses, regardless if the person has been arrested or convicted for them; taking great pride at getting away with crimes.Hillsborough

 

Sources/links:

Broderick’s bars
Treacle Moon – via @bravenewmalden
Starbuck’s Mission Statement
Yahoo 30 logos in 30 days
Hall’s – via @adamhess1
Nivea
Tesco
Pinterest – via @underwoodsimon
American Apparel
Virgin Media
Waitrose
Passion – various Google images results
Ella’s Kitchen
Andrex
BMW Mini Cooper
Barclays
Halifax
First Direct – via @totalcontent
Irn Bru
Gap logo withdrawn
Newsworks 'Hillsborough/hacking' campaign