Category Archives: Blog

Cold as Ice.

We don’t have green fingers in our house.

Nobody is a dab hand with plants.

Yet our orchids are something special.

Credit for that goes to the discovery of a secret way to look 

after them.

Avoid watering orchids like other plants; instead place ice cubes 

in their pots.

That way the release of water is just what they require.

Slow and steady care to thrive.

How about a secret way to nurture creative people.

That starts with creative directors who are as cold as ice

when it comes to approving ads.

If the work tries to force-fit purpose to the brand, a red pencil

is required.

If the work lacks stopping power, the creative team is sent

back to fix it.

If the work lacks originality other teams are invited to improve

on that.

If the work is up against a deadline the creative director calls the

client with the good news.

Instead of expedient work ready to the minute, breakthrough ideas

are in the works.

Of course all this is dependent on one thing.

Canny creative directors.

Pros with the nous to do better work and the desire to quosh clueless 


Like ill-chosen influencers, fabrication of a flimsy social connciousness and

putting purpose before the one thing CFOs live for.


The best creative directors should be able to do all that.

But only if they’re cold as ice.

How to get someone who’s been dead 278 years to speak to you.

We were gobsmacked by Jonathan Swift speaking in a podcast interview yesterday.

That’s the Anglo-Irish satirist we’re talking about, the 1667-1745 Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels.

Thanks to ChatGPT he comes alive, speaking about satire, religion, politics, economics and literature.

With that he’s no less than a charmer. And you learn an amazing amount. 

Take a moment to see for yourself, here’s a link to the podcast, Conversations With Tyler.

Click on the “Jonathan GPT Swift on Jonathan Swift” episode.

The interview is conducted by Tyler Cowen, a polymath and professor at George Mason University who has hosted something like 175 deep thinkers with engaging rapid-fire questions.

Cowen’s guests range from Barak Obama, Sam Harris and Ken Burns to Margaret Atwood, Malcolm Gladwell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosopher at NYU and Karl Ove Knausgård, a literary sensation from Norway.

We should add: with guests like Katherine Rundell, Emily Wilson, Amia Srinivasan and Lydia Davis, Tyler Cowen feels his interviews with women are among the best.

To keep you on your toes, new episodes appear every other Wednesday.

Here’s how the Jonathan Swift podcast was put together.

Tyler Cowen rapid-fires questions and the responses are printed out by ChatGPT to be read by someone who may well be an actor.

Questions and answers are then combined to create a polished interview.

The result is machine learning that starts with a moral seriousness then progresses with wit, charm and sudden outbursts of humor – Jonathan Swift comes across as sharp, resourceful, charismatic and above all, current. 

If only learning at school could have been as riveting.

Applied to advertising, agencies and their clients could benefit if the right questions were aimed at the ChatGPT personas of long-gone greats like Bill Bernbach, Howard Gossage and David Ogilvy.

That way some of the best minds in advertising could ensure we’re not dead when it comes to ideas.

A Test for Robot Copywriters.

The buzz is about ChatGPT. Many are talking of nothing else.

They can’t resist the lure of an AI neural network that writes ad copy, 
composes music, makes films, churns out stories and in doing so responds to natural language.

To put all the hype to the test we asked ChatGPT to knock out a few 
Volvo ads.

We wondered, could a bot write as well as two of the best copywriters of all time?

Could it be as good as Ed McCabe and David Abbott?

As you probably know, both wrote brilliant Volvo ads (like many you might even have been among those who wrote them out by hand to learn how to be a better writer).

With copy completed in a trice, 11 seconds on one ad, ChatGPT did passably well.

But it wasn’t a patch on Ed McCabe or David Abbott. Or even a middling writer.

The result was a laundry list of features without a tone of voice, original thinking or the wit, charm and reasoned persuasion you might expect. 

Formulaic describes it.

So rest easy if you’re a copywriter, your job shouldn’t be in jeopardy.

But …. 

Rumor has it that in 2023 you’ll be faced with a dramatic upgrade.

The current ChatGPT (which spins off from GPT3) is fueled with tons of 
data starting with everything on Wikipedia, Twitter and Reddit.

It’s equipped with what computer boffins claim is 175 billion parameters — a figure that correlates to human brain cells. 

The next iteration, GPT4, will be energized with everything on the Internet plus billions of images and sounds.
It’s predicted to have 100 trillion parameters, making it as much as 500 times better than GPT3.

It leaves you wondering, doesn’t it … where will we be when GPT5 and GPT6 arrive?

Will AI eventually be as brilliant as Ed McCabe and David Abbott?

You can always run your own Volvo ad test to see.

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.

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.










Learn From Airline Pilots.

Pilots are planners. In a cruise they’re often discussing emergencies that are improbable … but possible.

For long-haul flights like Dallas-Sydney or New York-Johannesburg the pilots take on a special focus.

While in cruise mode they discuss emergencies that are improbable … but possible.

Like engine fires, sudden decompression or turbulence that could lead to a critical situation.

You don’t just fly the plane, it seems, you make the best use of flight time by planning for possible dramas.

So the captain and first officer put together emergency scenarios.

They pinpoint alternative airports.

They judge the suitability of those airports with respect to the kind of difficulties that could arise.

Call them Darwinian in this respect.

They’re planning to put the plane down safely, no matter what.

How about marketers these days, how Darwinian are they?

Fair question as there’s turbulence when it comes to digital.

According to Cnet only 38% of traffic on the web is human.

Marketing Week says only 9% of digital ads are viewed for more than a second.

They go on to say the vast majority of digital advertising is not being viewed at all.

The research firm, Lumen, found that only 4% of ads received more than 2 seconds of engagement.

Marketing Week sums up the problem with this thought …

Many marketers are still failing to apply effectiveness techniques learned from print, direct response and out-of-home to new channels.

They’ve forgotten how to sell.

Well, amazing technology is our genie, but what use is it if your messaging is little more than tripe.

Tripe may be harsh but one thing’s clear …

Too much creative work needs to improve if only to reach the dull level.

More to fraudulent web traffic, Business Insider predicted it would double in 2017.

They went on to say …

According to a new study commissioned by WPP the amount of global advertising revenue wasted on fraudulent traffic, or clicks automatically generated by bots could reach $16.4 billion.

Maybe this is why Procter & Gamble’s Marc Pritchard pulled back from digital.

You might say he’s not unlike long-haul pilots scoping out alternative airfields for a safe landing.

Because when you’re the world’s biggest advertiser — or any advertiser, for that matter — the last thing you need is an engine fire.







What’s Wrong With Algorithms?

Bill Bernbach

In 1947, two years before Bill Bernbach opened Doyle Dane Bernbach he wrote this:

“There are a lot of great technicians in advertising. And unfortunately they talk the best game. They know all the rules. They can tell you that people in an ad will get you greater readership. They can tell you that a sentence should be this short or that long. They can tell you that body copy should be broken up for easier more inviting reading. They can give you fact after fact. They are the scientists of advertising. But there’s one little rub. Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.”

Today’s marketers might want to print out these 97 words and tape them to their office walls.

They’re a reminder.

Advanced techniques in computational sciences have yet to produce one thing that’s key for marketers.





Irredentist. Does That Describe You?

Irredentist. Is that some special kind of dentist?

What’s an irredentist?

It came up the other day.

A non-native English speaker in the next office wanted to know.

She’s forever curious to learn.

Does it have something to do with drilling teeth?

We looked it up.

Irredentism is reclaiming and reoccupying lands you believe belong to you.

It’s re-establishing your control over a territory.

In 1982 Argentina’s junta demanded the Falkland Islands back from Britain.

That’s irredentism.

Of course, Mrs. Thatcher thought otherwise.

She sent the fleet to the South Atlantic and sunk the battleship General Belgrano.

Bad luck for the Argies, but understandably everyone wants back what they feel belongs to them.

Including creative people in ad agencies.

Many want to re-take control from business types, financial gurus and planners.

Reason for that comes down to holding company supremos and agency business managers. They seem to be chasing what clients say an ad agency should be instead of defining it.

Misguided, right?

Shouldn’t an ad agency’s identity be driven by brilliant strategies and creative work?

Instead, you get the feeling agency CEOs are often hamstrung fighting rearguard actions against improprieties.

Like supposed over-billing on digital advertising.

Like complaints from marketing companies having to pay for online ads that consumers don’t see. (Is it only robots who see them?)

Like Facebook’s admission last year. They inflated the average time people spent watching video ads.

Plenty of grumbling on those points, but what about great creative work, when will it make a resurgence to become the talking point?

Not soon enough according to some, like the Ad Contrarian Bob Hoffman.

Have a look at his presentation ‘Marketers Are From Mars, Consumers Are From New Jersey’.

Others critical of drab work and mistakes marketers make (like ignoring the most lucrative demographic today: the over 50s) say we’re writing for search engines, not people … search engines that can’t detect emotion, subtlety, irony or humor.

You often hear gripes about that in seminars that go something like this : ‘too many strategies have no force of personality’.

‘Too many ads are dim and wearily familiar.’

Ads like that are the daydream of those who haven’t bothered to read about, understand and use tested advertising methods.

Equally, more than a few marketers take direction from only one source: themselves.

That kind of insularity ensures you’re limited to what’s merely passable instead of what’s exceptional.

One wonders, how do you get away with creative work that’s fallen off a cliff when it comes to anything emotional, gripping and breakthrough?

With ad agencies, isn’t brilliance supposed to be compulsory?

If your selling message isn’t read, what hope do you have of making an impression, let alone a sale? Bill Bernbach was of that mind.

But a new kind of ad agency could help.

Especially if it’s an irredentist one.




The Aztecs Were Shortsighted. Some Marketers Are The Same.

It was here, but it vanished. The Aztec empire.

You may know a bit about the Aztecs.

National Geographic has had more than a few articles on them.

Then there are the conquistador movies. Netflix has some.

If you studied the Aztecs at school you know human sacrifice featured in a big way.

Chests were slit open with obsidian knives and still beating hearts were plucked out to be held aloft to appease the gods … there’s an image for you.

The ritual was to ensure the crops flourished and women didn’t die in childbirth.

Something about it must have found favor with the gods as the Aztec empire was no small affair.

It was a union of three powerful city states controlling Mesoamerica in the 15th century.

Still, the civilization was defeated quickly with the arrival of the conquistadors.

Surprisingly enough it was only a small force, less than 700 soldiers.

Anthropologists tell us the collapse was the result of naiveté about war. A blindness to a more worldly, European view of battle.

The Aztec approach was to take prisoners — that was the measure of victory.

The more prisoners the better as captives were needed for human sacrifice.

Call it a cultural necessity

But against the Spanish it led to a bloodbath.

Aztec beliefs blinded them to the menace.

Which brings us to the way some marketers can be vision-challenged.

That stems from seeing technology as a silver bullet, the answer to all their problems.

Of course, gee-whiz delivery systems, new platforms and big data are a breakthrough, but less so when they blind you to the importance of ideas.

Shouldn’t ideas come first if you expect to change minds and win hearts?

Without ideas messaging is a about as effective as a dog with no nose.

There’s little chance a hound like that will hunt.

More to that, why invest in technology when the messaging you deliver can only intensify boredom.

That has to be mush-headed and self-defeating, right?

We regularly hear what’s needed is persuasion.

But what about brilliance, shouldn’t that be compulsory?

It was in the past.

We’re talking about a level of brilliance that comes with messaging that’s strong on wit, charm and reasoned arguments.

Without that you’re left with little more than a disagreeable intrusion.

So, do you know marketers who can’t see past technology to realize ideas are key?

If so, tell them they have a problem.

Like the one that undid the Aztecs.


Improvement. And Improvement.

One area where the Panthers are still up there. But next year on the field we're looking for one thing. Improvement.
One area where the Panthers are still up there. But next year on the field we’re looking for one thing. Improvement.

A third grade teacher sweeps into the classroom throwing out a question to her kids.

Good morning, children, tell us, what’s the smallest room?

Like a well-trained chorus the class responds as one: a mushroom.

Well, of course it is.

Pleased with the answer, the teacher continues.

Now, children, tell us, what’s the largest room?

The answer comes with enthusiasm as thirty kids shout: room for improvement.

There you have it in a story that comes from the English writer Laurie Lee. The point, of course, is that we can always do better.

The possibility of improvement never leaves us.

More to that, if your marketing and advertising is already excellent, you can always aim for one thing better.

The high side of excellence.

Just about every coach of a sport is probably drilling that into the heads their team. Making it second nature.

On the topic of sport, it’s been a few  weeks since the Super Bowl.

So let’s hope those marketers who bought spots — whether great, just okay or rubbish — are well into doing more.

Going for the high side of excellence, so to speak.

Not just with TV, but across all channels.

Let’s hope they’re planning to do wonders with everything from trade shows to emails, podcasts, Web, white papers, out-of-home ideas and more.

Even with the smallest job there’s always room for a big idea. Bill Bernbach said that.

Business sense tells us the Super Bowl shouldn’t be the one time of the year people get interested in brands.

Happily, that brief interlude can be extended with a bit of creative thinking.

After all, why limit improvement to just one cold Sunday in February.

Why not go for communications that rivet people no matter what date is showing on the calendar.

So, how about starting right now?

Aren’t you planning to impact your target audience before heading home from the office tonight?

You could manage it with an Instagram or a Tweet.

All you need is a brilliant idea; something to stop people.

Maybe you could use a happening that comes from today’s news.

The best agencies are always on the lookout for timely ad opportunities.

The Oreo ‘Blackout’ Tweet is an example of that.

The result of a timely ad benefits you in two ways.

You can outshine the competition and create a better brand experience for your customers.

Think about it for a moment. Isn’t there room for improvement on both counts?

Share with us. Leave your comment below. Thanks for reading Regards, Steve Ulin. LinkedIn: