conversation is an engine

A lot can happen in a conversation

Posts Tagged ‘marketing communication

Clothe Your Team with Inspiring Briefs

with one comment

Creatives are natural problem-solvers. Start them with a tantalizing puzzle to solve.

In stark contrast to the meeting where the boss wanted creatives morphed into analysts, Adrian Goldthorpe (Lothar Böhm London) has such faith in the creative process he thinks creatives are proper problem solvers. All they need is the right question, which turns out to be a really good puzzle to solve.


One Artist’s Solution: 262 Studios, St. Paul Art Crawl

The creative brief (as you know) provides a quick take on a new assignment. All too often the brief is prepared and presented as a sleepy, non-essential document. But for copywriters and art directors, that brief can and should be a vital link to starting with the right focus.

Goldthorpe laments the mindless filling of briefs and checking of boxes, which is how many creative projects begin. Instead, at a meeting in Moscow earlier this year, he recommended short, informative briefs that facilitate (versus block) creative solutions. The brief should succinctly answer five questions:

  1. What should the creative do?
  2. What do we want to achieve?
  3. Who is the audience?
  4. What is the brand proposition and how is that supported?
  5. What is the tone of the voice?

Of course there is more to say in a brief and we all experiment with different ways to communicate this information. But I like Goldthorpe’s succinct, concrete statement of the problem. It is enough information to provide a frame to begin the creative process.

Naturally the creative process is not just for “creatives” at an ad agency. Presenting our problem or opportunity for others to consider and collaborate with is something authors deal with, and parents and professors and bosses. And coworkers.

It behooves any of us to consider how we succinctly introduce a topic to others, especially if we want help.



Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

October 13, 2014 at 9:53 am

How to Make Your Message Permanent

leave a comment »

A tip from a prehistoric consultant

First: Forget about it. Nothing is permanent—at least not in the way advertising mavens augur.

Second: OK—if you insist—make your message about someone else. Make your message give back more than it takes in. “GE” branded on a rock would never last. Even the Apple logo will be chiseled away by Microsoft rebels. But a man with jointed wings, well, who can resist that story?

Who can resist the story about the “Thunder Being”?]

Who can resist the story about the “Thunder Being”?

Prehistoric peoples stopped by these ancient rocks to tell their version of the human condition. So they carved/picked/incised/abraded their messages into the exposed Sioux quartzite outside Comfrey, Minnesota long before there was a Comfrey or a Minnesota or a U.S. of A. Maybe before the pyramids and Stonehenge. Ancients left messages here to direct and entertain passers-by.

Why make your message permanent? We understand marketing communications for companies—it’s about keeping the wheels of commerce turning. But you personally—what messages do you have to communicate? And why would you make them permanent? I argue that your take on the human condition comes out in the way you do your work, the way you interact with family, friends, colleagues, and even the way you see/refuse to see the homeless guy at the end of the exit ramp. And all these daily interactions amount to a carving and incising that is far more permanent than any of us imagine.

The Jeffers Petroglyphs tell a story that became a destination.

The Jeffers Petroglyphs tell a story that became a destination.

Our conversations have an enormous (cumulative) effect on the people around us. An effect that may move through generations.

What exactly is your message, anyway?



Image credit: Kirk Livingston

“Viral” is Fool’s Gold

leave a comment »

People often have legs and feet. So do collaborative ideas.

Years ago we noticed the threshold to globalization falling to the point where anyone could step over it. Back then advertisers talked about music or images that could transcend language with television and radio. And it was true: cloak your message with a mainstream song and off your product flew to sell among lands and languages previously unknown.


Today we routinely interact with people across the globe. Tweets and Tumblrs and blog posts and comments can and do come from anywhere at any time (because it’s always 17:01 somewhere). It’s mostly asynchronous. But not always—my WordPress friend in Hong Kong responds to my morning posts (his evening) and I respond to his evening posts (my morning) and it feels like real time.

Marketers and advertisers want to promise a viral result from the work they do for clients. But the bar for viral gets higher every day: interweb participants stand amazed at less and less.

More realistic: go back to the old way of focus on the important people. In this we make sure our message can be carried in a style to which our target audience is accustomed. Making sure our messages are sticky for the primary and secondary audiences we care most about is better than shooting for viral. And the first step toward sticky ideas is to simplify (not the same as dumbing-down) so the idea is quickly grasped and possibly even elegantly presented.


This simplifying process is a natural result of collaboration. Just explaining an idea in the course of a normal conversation is a step away from Teflon toward sticky. That simple act of saying it aloud helps you realize what works and what doesn’t: it’s all written in the face of the person you are explaining it to.

Start with a simple collaborative conversation to begin to move toward sticky.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

We Landed a Medtech Account—Now What? 3 Understandings

leave a comment »

Bollixed and castrated and then we begin

Advertising agencies and marketing firms are eager to land medical device accounts. These prestigious accounts are much desired and would seem to enlarge the status of an agency because of the exacting, rigorous work that helps the human condition. It doesn’t hurt that they seem to pay on time. But having worked with a number of ad agencies once they land such an account, there are a few common threads that surprise principals and employees:


  • You’ll need experts: people who know how to work within a regulatory framework (“Claim this.” “Never claim that.”). People who know the words that soothe lawyers while still making sense to humans. And especially people who know their sinus node rhythm from their rhythm method. You will stay on message and every claim must be neatly tied to an article from a respected (first or second-tier) journal.
  • Your creatives are (already) wringing their hands. That’s because creative solutions lie on the other side of a legal/regulatory/corporate culture grinder.
    • Yes: the company has come to you for creative solutions.
    • No: they cannot/will not back-off their own internal legal/regulatory controls. Their own internal machinery will bind and castrate many of those solutions you have used in the past. What a great beginning point!
  • There will be rounds of changes. Many rounds. Way more than you are used to. Far more than you can reasonably put in your bid. They will seem…unmanageable. Taming revisions will take your best customer service manners and may take you deep into the internal relationship structure of the firm. But that is exactly the kind of partnering that is needed

If your agency can come to grips with these three understandings without imploding or driving sane people mad, you’ll begin to build a reservoir of expertise.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Loose Lips Link Scripts

leave a comment »

Open(ish) access for tight-lipped companies

Technical people can learn something from advertising people.

My creative director friend presented advertising concepts by first showing how his agency team came up with the idea. His presentations took a bit more time, but along the way he restated the problem, showed visuals of how competitors attempted to solve the problem and then revealed stumps of ideas that never really worked. Then he got to the solutions he hoped the client would pay for.

My friend’s process placed his solution in a context that helped those around the conference table understand why the solution made sense. As he spun out his process, he verbally brought these people with him so they were nodding “Yes” long before they signed off on the solution.

The boardwalk protects fragile land while providing access.

The boardwalk protects fragile land while providing access.

Many of my clients guard their proprietary information with fierce protections. And rightly so: their processes keep things running and bring in the coin that satisfies employees, stakeholders and shareholders. But in a search and share economy where like-minded people find each other more and more often, is a firewall surrounding all information really the best way forward?

The right information presented at the right time (that is, just when someone needs it, which typically coincides with a search for that information) affects buying decisions and brand loyalty. Interestingly, your technical people are right now busy working through the context that, if properly presented, would draw others to your product.

People are searching for your information.

If only they could find you.

My more innovative clients are finding ways to help their problem-definers and solution-makers talk more publicly. And as these discussions move outside the corporate walls, they best ones are finding ways to combat the PR department temptation to suck meaning from the words. Because sharing useful information happens person-to-person. And useful information will always have something of an unfiltered quality to it.

How is your organization preparing to share details with those who can help you move forward?



Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Today I’m Listening

leave a comment »

What can you hear between the lines—and where will it take you?

I’ll start by listening to a set of phone conversations my medical device client fields constantly. I want to hear the questions. I want to hear the responses. But I especially want to hear the tone of the questions. I’m listening for urgency and for actual language used. I’ll write down the words and note the flow and capture quotes. These notes and my listening will guide the communication that takes place next.

Listening goes somewhere.

Listening goes places.

I’ll spend the balance of the day listening between the lines for another client. But this time I’ll be listening to the text I am creating for them. And I’ll listen to the process they use to serve their customers. Listening and revising and re-jiggering and re-listening.

Listening is required to know where to go next

What—or who—are you listening to today?


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

More time to think: Another reason to take the bus

leave a comment »

More wonderfulness from lg2, Quebec

Waiting, without a screen or a book, can sometimes accomplish what you’ve repeatedly failed at. To step away from engagement—or its tiresome cousin, distraction—is to take your brain pan off the fire for a moment. All the whirring bits and quarter-thoughts collect and congeal and answers form. Not always. But often enough to make me eager for a bit of waiting nearly every day.

I’m not good at waiting, but I’m starting to see benefits.

Are you able to wait?


Written by kirkistan

April 30, 2014 at 8:41 am

Let’s get visceral: Choose your signal before you gut-punch

leave a comment »

What forms say before we know anything

I recognize a business card because of the shape and size. I recognize a sermon more by a particular tone and rhythm (which signals a certain intent) then I do the presence of a pulpit or podium. I know a joke is coming because Letterman is on stage and it is 10:37pm. I know the joke will have a setup and a payoff. Or perhaps the third of three statements will be funny. I am ready for the joke because of these forms.


Before we know anything we recognize a form. Our brain sorts how to react to that form, and then, once that is settled, we process communication content. Long before I hear any content, I know what category to place each of those communication events. It is the context that prepares me: when I see X, I know Y is not far behind. My nervous system anticipates the next piece.

But what if the form is out of whack?

What if I hear preaching on a street corner? What if a clever copywriter uses a rubber stamp instead of a business card (“Here, give me your hand and I’ll stamp my contact stuff on you palm.”). And what if Letterman was serious? He has been a few times: right after 9/11 his serious tone—entirely uncharacteristic—began a bit of national healing.

I tell my copywriting students to follow the forms at times and to bust the forms at other times. For instance, we must make our ideas as easy to understand as possible, and so we present our ad concept to a client in a form that is immediately recognizable—even if the idea itself is challenging. And sometimes one thumbs one’s nose at the form on purpose, just to bust through (that is, the communication gut-punch).

In any case, following the form or busting the form is a conscious decision.

And the form is not God (not even a god).

By the way, Dan Pink has a great story about the Pixar way of presenting a concept here.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

What happens when we say stuff?

with 2 comments

An Epistemology of Writing

I just realized I run my college writing courses in ways possibly dissimilar to how others do it. We have texts, of course, and readings. We have my dry lectures, which I try to turn to discussion (with limited success). We have examples of excellent copywriting and we talk about why they work and when they don’t. We have questions. We have answers (some from me, many from the class). We have cordial fights and the occasional snark (more remains unsaid, I think). We have yawns and longing looks at the clock.

And we have assignments.

You have my attention.

You have my attention.

A portfolio addition due ever Saturday night, five minutes before the stroke of midnight. Way to ruin a perfectly good weekend, right? (Ahem: for the record, one need not wait to start an assignment until 10pm on Saturday night).

It’s the assignments—these portfolio additions—that are the real teachers. I try to direct. I try to offer my small ways of thinking, but the real work of this education happens deep in a student’s brain pain: where sparks fly and catch the dry tinder of panic: “What do I say—and how?”

So it has always been with me: I learn as I write. I often don’t know what I think until I write it. Or say it. Just ask Mrs. Kirkistan. But when I research a topic and begin writing about it, all sorts of synapses fire and connections meet and angels sing and the sun shines on my keyboard, where doves and baby deer have collected. Especially after three cups of coffee.

And this is what I depend on in my class: that the threads of our discussion will come together in the doing thereof—the writing of copy. This capturing of a brand, or a dream. The useful words that direct and possibly encourage as they launch into a reader’s mind.

But this: just doing an assignment dampens the angels singing. This class is less about getting my grade and approval and more about creating something you will proudly show to Ms. Creative Director or Mr. Small Business Owner who can hire your magic for their capitalistic endeavors. I can already see those who get this concept. Their work shows it.

Bless them.

And bless all the rest of us, too.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Let’s have a prune party

leave a comment »

In what odd corner of the universe could “prune” and “party” ever fit together?


C’mon copywriter: not everything your product marketer says is true.


Via Vintage Ads

Written by kirkistan

April 16, 2014 at 11:14 am

%d bloggers like this: