All posts by Steve

The F-Word. But This Time We’re Talking Failure.

Ta-da, new from Colgate …

Colgate Frozen Beef Lasagna.

Perfectly normal for a toothpaste company to bring out frozen Italian food, isn’t it?

Except in 1982 nobody believed that in the least and it was considered little more than a stinker.

More to product failures, you have the worst bike ever made.

A charlatan of a bike, the Itera
Plastic Bicycle was weighty, fragile and it flexed.

 The Itera Plastic Bicycle designed in 1980 to help combat the oil crisis.

It was heavy, it was dangerously flexible, it was fragile, it was expletive deleted.

A board game karked it as well.

‘I’m Back and You’re Fired, Trump’ is famous for flopping twice, 1989 and 2004.

People weren’t exactly aglow with desire for it.

These are just a few of the exhibits in the Museum of Failure,

Since 2017 it’s been the home to stuff ups, duds and no-hopers – over 100 failed products.

It’s a cheery collection of crap, as a friend on Zoom this morning put it.

Still, it’s fascinating to see what companies thought would be sought after products.

Call it a learning experience to understand how innovation went awry.

It’s a test of sorts as people can’t help asking themselves ‘would I have approved that?’

‘Of course not’, goes the answer.

In retrospect we’re all brilliant predictors of success. 

We can sniff out a duff product to avoid the accompanying discredit, right?

So you have to wonder, what sort of business mind approved the money-losing 1958 Ford Edsel.

Or a doll with alarming eyes and a pinched mouth called Little Miss No Name, developed to compete with Barbie.

Both are stars in the Museum collection.

The thing is, we’re personally invested in exceptionalism; we have an aversion to failure.

It’s reason enough we read about people like Steve Jobs, hoping some of the magic will rub off.

We look to gain something to make wiser decisions.

Well then, what about ads that are hucksterish, samey and a failure in everything but turning people off.

Why aren’t we more invested in exceptionalism for ads?

Why can’t marketers sniff out all the drawbacks?

And instead of endlessly tweaking commercials why can’t they start afresh with something called an idea?

Remember ideas?

After all, where’s the sense in being the most marvelous of all disagreeable commercials.

Certainly there’s room in the Museum of Failure for more than a few campaigns of late.

But if you have the nous to realize Colgate Beef Lasagna is iffy, why not apply that ability to evaluating TV scripts.

Fossicking for Gold.

There was a time when gold fever struck.

It sent me hunting around abandoned gold mines in places like Mudgee and Gulgong in New South Wales.

Tambaroora was another location … a ghost town.

The area had been prospected heavily in the mid-nineteenth century, but you never know.

‘You never know’ … not my words but those of a guy who sold me a complete gold panning kit — professional model.

Like every good selling proposition his message carried an element of promise.

When gold nuggets are sizable they’re given names. In 1869 one 66kg find in central Victoria was called ‘Welcome Stranger’. Turn up something like that now and you’d be all the better for four million dollars in your pocket.

Happily, we weren’t entirely luckless. A few bright yellow flakes turned up in the pan, and gorgeous they were, albeit microscopic.

No cries of Eureka that day.

It wasn’t unlike fishing for Marlin and returning home with an underweight shrimp.

All this makes me think of gold panning from another era … the Depression, when prospecting became a mode of survival for laid-off workers.

Know about that? Few do. But it could make a comeback if jobs continue to go astray with the lockdown.

In the ’30s jobless Americans with imagination and grit headed out to sift through the tailings of 1850s gold sites searching for overlooked wealth.

Utah, California, Nevada and Colorado were rife with men hunting for gold that had gone unnoticed.

Vermont as well.

It’s said there’s plenty of overlooked gold out there left by 19th century mining methods that were less than efficient.

A few gold hunters in the ’30s did find traces of color (that’s gold hunting lingo for you) to see them through.

But when the economy came back fossicking for gold fell to weekenders keen on an adventure.

Of course, all you’ve read so far is amateur stuff, hobbyist at best.

If you were to head out for gold nuggets this week you might want to do some research. Time spent studying a geology book could pay off.

More to that, one path to a gold strike is to find ancient rivers.

Water courses that could be several hundred million years old. 

These flows might be found hundreds or even thousands of feet above modern-day rivers.

Massive geologic uplift put them there along the steep reaches of mountainsides.

That’s your sign of a river. One that could have been gold-bearing a million or so years ago. 

To find these overlooked areas trek the mountains searching for telltale smooth stones, water-worn rocks.

Who knows what you could find.

But closer to home how about applying a bit of gold hunting resourcefulness to marketing and advertising.

That way you could find one thing that’s been overlooked in favor of technology.

The power of great creative work.

As to that, Bill Bernbach said ‘It may well be that creativity is the last legal unfair advantage we are allowed to take over the competition’.

That may be old school, but canny marketers know it as in-school when it comes to turning up riches.

For many in marketing and procurement some ads will seem great … only because they’ve never seen a great ad.

Too many haven’t taken the trouble to study the last 50 years of advertising.

They’re content to take advice from themselves without reading or study. 

As a result they don’t insist on ads that stop people, ads that are memorable.

The opposite of controlling, humorless and workmanlike. Go on to YouTube for spots that are risky, ballsy and memorable.

The idea that brilliance is compulsory doesn’t guide the development process.

So, are they the best for briefing agencies and evaluating their work?

Maybe not.

But a bit of time spent on YouTube could change that.

Look up the great spots Doyle Dane Bernbach did in their heyday.

See the Wells Rich Greene ‘Driving Instructor’ spot for American Motors Corporation.

Take in the Scali McCabe Sloves Volvo work.

Get the Collet Dickenson Pearce spots for Heineken.

Find the Boase Massimi Pollit Guardian ‘Points of View’ commercial.

That’s all you need to understand that people respond to emotion, warmth, wit, charm and reasoned persuasion.

The public haven’t changed in this – they’re still human in the digital age. 

It’s only that marketing and procurement people have changed.

They’ve been sold the idea that technology is a silver bullet.

Yes, well …

If technology is a silver bullet then wit, charm and reasoned persuasion is a bullet of the Cruise Missile kind.

An attention-getting headline.

Phil Gaimon, pro bike racer, but let’s start with Yul Brenner.

Know about Yul Brenner, the actor?

He died of lung cancer.

No surprise there, it was fully expected.

He was more than a pack a day smoker from when he was a kid.

Maybe from when he was 9.

The doctors told him he could count his days on one hand.

What was a surprise was a commercial he made to convince young people to quit.

It opened with Yul Brenner to camera saying, ‘If you’re seeing this I’m already dead from lung cancer’.

A voice talking to you from the grave about the dangers of smoking.

Will you find a more effective anti-smoking advertising message? Probably not.

The strength of this approach is being used again.

By Phil Gaimon, a professional bike racer.

He isn’t dead, but he could have been many times as careless drivers put him in peril while he was on his bike training.

He did a video to tell the story,

It comes with a stopper of a headline: “Please share this when I’m killed by someone driving a car.”

Have a look at the video and the story by Bob Mionske. And yeah … have a care when you see cyclists on the road.

Two headlines. Which one would you use to kick cancer’s ass?

We’d rather see you for regular mammograms than regular chemotherapy.


One of the best cancer centers in the Mid-West.

Let’s turn the tables on cancer and have more lines like
‘I Kicked Cancer’s Ass’. Photo by kind permission of Linda Bowman who
you see above.

Both lines were presented to a marketer whose brief read: ‘the best hospital for cancer care.’

But we’re not talking famous hospitals like the Cleveland Clinic, the Mayo Clinic or Indiana University Hospital.

His hospital wasn’t among widely known cancer care facilities.

Still, he went for the second headline because he said, for him, it hit the nail on the head.

It encapsulated everything his hospital hoped to be.

Yes, there’s a necessity for regular mammograms, he granted, but the headline that pressed the case for that was ominous.

He said it could scare his target audience.

So he ticked a box and eagerly moved on to the next business of the day.

That was a content assignment for his hospital’s biggest revenue maker, the heart and vascular unit. That held the greatest opportunity for profitability.

This story, related at a seminar last year, points up one fact.

An important ingredient for creating effective content can be ‘worry’.

There are more than a few marketing solutions to a brief. But why skirt the fact you have a frightening subject in cancer.

The best cancer headline still sticks with me after a ridiculously long time. I’m thinking it goes back 20-odd years or so.

It might have been done by the Martin Agency.

You have cancer. Let’s start by removing that lump in your throat.

Healthcare marketers aren’t ‘Gatoraded’ on the field like a triumphant football coach. They’re not drenched in victory that way.

But maybe they should be if they can choose a headline that can save a life.

Fighting Settles Everything.

Fighting Settles Everything. It’s the tag line for a gym that trains boxers for championship bouts.

Dwight D. Eisenhower said war settles nothing.

He should know. Personal experience as a General and as President endorses his view. 

But then you have the reverse: Fighting Settles Everything.

Eisenhower might have bridled at that until he realized one thing.

It’s a tag line for a boxing gym that trains fighters for title bouts.

It encapsulates just the right attitude for up-and-comers with lofty ambitions. 

Fighters and fight fans revere it as it whips up excitement for championship events.

Given that, maybe even Eisenhower would approve.

More to compelling thinking, you have 100 Pipers Scotch.

100 Pipers is a middling Scotch, it’s okay but not in the running for a prize.

To give it character, tartan authenticity and memorably we get this line: 100 Pipers 

Scotch. Makes Bagpipes Sound Like Music. 

There’s a nice turn of phrase for you, one that sticks in the mind.

If only you could trot out lines like that to amuse your drinking buddies.

On to restaurants.

One we like is called That New Mexican Place.

From day one the name was a stopper. People poured in.

That New Mexican Place stands out because it uses the language of the customers it hopes to attract.

Let’s try that new Mexican place … that’s how people talk, right?

Incidentally, even after 10 years the name made the restaurant feel new. How’s that for a first?

Now, an ad for Cheese of Holland. 

The visual is a wheel of Edam. Simple.

Here’s the headline as it appeared vertically:

Paté costs more than liverwurst. 

Bisque costs more than soup. 

Stroganoff costs more than stew. 

This cheese costs more than other Edam. Life is short 

No apology for the price, just three truths about food, starting with lowly liverwurst.

Life is short, why not go for the Stroganoff of cheese … there’s an appeal.

This ad from the 1960s is relevant today.

Because we continue to face the challenge of getting people to pay more for premium priced products.

That raises a question … how adept are you in getting customers to put value ahead of price? 

Now, to a car that’s indecently quick, the BMW 5-Series.

It’s the Ultimate Driving Machine, right enough.

But a bright spark of a copywriter lifted the 5-Series even more with this headline: The Hot Rod of Polite Society.

Memorable, isn’t it? A souped-up idea to define performance and differentiate the brand.

Ideas like the ones above were needed in the past to gain public trust and sell products.

They were the mainstay in building brand share and shading the competition.

They still are.

Ideas are bound to come in handy the next time you embark on a new campaign. 

Without strong thinking, content comes across as thin gruel, something that’s little more than drab.

Which is why it might be an idea to fight for better creative work.

Because with that, fighting settles everything. 

A Short History of Phony Applause.

We were at the ballet recently, the Bolshoi.

Where did phony applause come from? Quite possibly Emperor Nero. He hired thousands to applaud and cheer his speeches.

It’s was a live-from-Moscow performance beamed in to local cinemas.

Special only begins to describe it. 

It might have been on screen but that didn’t stop us wanting to applaud like mad.

As you’d guess, Bolshoi performances are not without rapturous applause. 

But it wasn’t always that way

In moments of uncertainty a company founded in 1776 hired claquers.

That’s French for an organized body of professional applauders. They’re paid for their efforts.

In 16thcentury France, playwrights called on claquers.

They bought blocks of tickets to give away on the promise that there would be applause enough to sway the critics and attract audiences.

But phony applause wasn’t the only trick, you had specialists.

Rieurs, laughers, were paid to laugh loudly at punch lines. 

Pleureurs, criers, were paid to sob into their handkerchiefs in moments of despair.

You also had Bisseurs. They were paid to shout ‘Bis Bis’, a request for an encore.

You might say there was as much of a performance in the audience as there was on stage.

There’s something of a digital version of this these days with video click farms.

From New York Magazine, Max Read gives us this with a link: 

On some platforms, video views and app downloads can be forged in lucrative industrial counterfeiting operations. If you want a picture of what the Inversion lookslike, find a video of a click farm: hundreds of individual smartphones, arranged in rows on shelves or racks in professional-looking offices, each watching the same video or downloading the same app.

No shrug of indifference to that, is there?

Phony views and sham data … maybe it’s why P&G’s Marc Pritchard pulled back from social media.

He cut $200m in 2017.

Video click farms are enough to turn us all into pleurers … with proper tears, of course.

But for many there’s a more pressing issue. The state of content and commercials.

Too many content efforts feel drab against the promise of something bright and appealing. 

Equally, for many commercials nobody’s wishing they were a split second longer than they are.

Too many of them are non-starters compared to spots from Snickers, Geico and Old Spice.

Small wonder then that trust in advertising has dropped to a record low of 25%.

This comes from Unilever CMO Keith Weed,

Of course it’s easy enough to be a pessimist, but it’s not as if we can’t apply a little reason.

Many believe we need to improve creative work. 

Among the many are Google and Apple.

They’re built on creativity; their TV spots brand with an emotional intelligence.

Their commercials have an ability to put feelings into people.

More marketers could do with that.

Maybe they should stop taking advice from themselves and read something about the power of ideas and branding.

Because to motivate people you need more than algorithms.

After all, what use is gee-whiz technology if what’s delivered is crap messaging.

Nobody’s about to applaud crap messaging, are they?

A Fresh, New Start for Anxiety.

David Abbott created advertising that people  loved. See his work for The Economist, Volvo, Chivas Regal, Sainsbury’s and an account executive recruitment ad for Doyle Dane Bernbach.

It seems anxiety over creative work is set to enter a fresh, new phase of grumbling.

The worry is we treat technology like gold and ideas like scrap iron.

There’s a grievance for you.

More to that, industry professionals who aim for better creative work are stewing over the fact too many ads deserve to be ignored.

The same is true for content in all its forms.

Much of it requires improvement just to reach the mediocre level.

Small wonder then that advertising is often snubbed/ignored/rebuffed/ridiculed.

Well, nobody wants to put up with guff, do they?

Proof of that is ad blocker usage; it surged 30% in 2016 alone.

As a marketer, here’s a question.

You’re an ad blocker, aren’t you? It turns out most are.

So how do you get through to people?

Wouldn’t it be an idea to view technology as just one part of the  process?

The other part is to create ads and content that have the power to stop people with wit charm and reasoned persuasion.

Why not start by making creative brilliance compulsory so ads don’t come across as a blunt instrument.

Why not stop taking advice from tech companies who wouldn’t know the difference between drab, wearily familiar ad speak and a teacup.

That teacup jibe may be a bit much, but ask yourself … do tech companies have a real and abiding interest in looking after your customers and prospects? Probably not.

With that ‘not’ response comes a question: without ideas imaginative enough to stop people, what hope do you have of converting them?

As someone who probably knew more about imaginative thinking than even Bill Bernbach, David Abbott valued ideas. They were key.

He worried about boring content and had doubts digital technology alone could be effective.

‘Shit delivered at the speed of light is still shit’ … that was his take on it.

Happily the last chapter on all this has yet to be written.

As David Abbott might have said, there’s sense in combining amazing digital technology with creative work that has value.

That way you’re more likely to stop customers and leave anxiety to those who deserve it most.

Your competitors.

The Agency/Client Relationship is Just Fine. (We’re toying with you on this, of course.)

After a 106-day pitch process the marketing director calls one evening at 7 with good news.


A marketing director is on the line at 7PM with the good news.

You’ve won the pitch for a project and they want the campaign up and running. Ideally tomorrow.


After a 102-day search process the marketing director is in a rush.

The next minute isn’t soon enough.

There’s no time to re-assess the work together. No proper de-brief.

You wonder, where’s the breathing space for questions.

At 7pm it’s impossible to research creative ideas further, beyond asking the cleaners.

But sadly, they’ve tidied away the coffee cups, hoovered the carpet and gone.

By the way, asking the cleaners is never a bad idea.

If they’re unsure about your work you may want to think again.

Should you have brought up more questions in the pitch process?

You did of course, but in taking the brief you were at arms length.

More to that, the marketing director did the talking — you were reduced to scribbling notes.

Steve Jobs had a comment about that sort of thing. He said, “If you open your ears instead of your mouth you make more money”.

As part of the pitch process, you sent in 16 questions.

More than a few came back with a one-word answer.

Nobody would be quick to call that ideal.

The next morning … it’s ring-ring again.

But this time it’s you calling the marketing director with the good news.

You’ve been working since he rang and you have further ideas.

The kind of thinking that makes more of the brief.

So at noon a celebratory drink with the client turns into another presentation.

A beer together becomes a starting point, not a finish line.

More of that could be a good thing.

It could warm up the relationship between agencies and clients.





Head-On Collision.

Sergio Zyman, Chief Marketing Officer for Coca-Cola in the 90s.

The head-on collision of ad agencies and clients has been written up more than a few times.

You don’t need me to tell you there’s moaning on both sides.

The unease puts you in mind of McGregor vs Mayweather.

From marketers we hear agencies aren’t responsive to change, they haven’t diversified and they’re overstaffed with management types.

They gripe about ad fraud and whinge about agencies that charge like the proverbial wounded bull.

Moreover, marketers say agencies aren’t knowledgeable about business, agility is iffy and  agency holding companies are focused more on quarterly returns for investors than on shaping the future for brands.

What’s all that if not bruising.

But it’s not as bruising as hearing the agency model is broken, that’s it’s dead.

From the other side, agency people say marketers are sidetracked chasing the latest tech.

We hear ad managers think tactics are everything. They’re wedded to fix-its, not strategy.

We hear the importance of brand purpose is overstated and digital technologies are seen as solutions rather than platforms to deliver content.

We hear fee cuts are a threat to agency viability.

We hear bureaucracies reign and those in Procurement lack marketing vision.

Equally, it’s said too many ad managers don’t know a creative idea when they see one and their briefs carry all the inspiration of an empty bookshelf.

Right enough there’s a rift, agencies and clients aren’t exactly chums.

Maybe we need an advertising and marketing version of Julian Assange to get to the bottom of it.

Only joking on that account but until we see something positive it’s the work that suffers.

We have to put up with drab content and ads that are wearily familiar.

You wouldn’t be wrong to call them advertising chloroform.

So, what’s the cure?

It might be an idea to quash the infighting and begin improving strategies and creative work.

Maybe more sales-focused marketers are required.

We’re thinking of CMOs like Sergio Zyman who was at Coca-Cola in the 90s.

When everyone thought you couldn’t sell more Coke — the market was  saturated — he rose to the occasion.

Zyman increased sales by 50% worldwide over five years.

With that, the stock price went stratospheric. It quadrupled.

Where are the marketers now who are as shrewd, gritty and unwavering?

How about creative work?

Axe the conflict with clients and agencies might have a better chance to produce ads like this one for the Economist.

Can ads can be something the public welcomes? This interactive billboard for the Economist is hope for that.

By putting a premium on engagement it’s winning the battle against creative boredom .

Not surprisingly the public loved it. You heard about it in pub conversations.

Work at this level changes the way ads are viewed, doesn’t it?

Instead of an intrusion, a billboard becomes a memorable part of your day.

There’s a turnaround for you.

Time spent studying great stuff, like the Economist, should blanket marketers and agencies with discomfort.

Discomfort about all the dreary efforts produced these days.

But maybe more agencies and marketers will rise above the bickering and do something about it.

PS. Sir Martin Sorrell exits.

Just read about it in an article by Tom Doctoroff. Don’t miss it:

Docotoroff has a good point: ad agencies should be more than producers of low-end TV spots and print ads … the ones that do little to make brands less anonymous. Doctoroff says agencies should regain their value as a source of ideas. Because to improve and enlarge a brand they are the only place to attract both creative and strategic minds.

Some may quibble with that as there’s a case for say, the creative talent in Dyson’s in-house team. They’re strong.

But you can say the best agencies are active and imaginative in their approach – hugely so. They work to counter fixed outlooks. They go beyond conventional solutions in dealing with recurring problems. They question accepted thinking, they’re not just reactors, they have the creative ability to position a brand well beyond the reach of competitors. And they operate with an autonomy that’s rare in a corporate environment; they often give you a more searching view of your brand outside the four walls of your boardroom.