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Jerry Rice gets it done as Lyft driver

You were looking for our usual overview of the Super Bowl FSIs which bend over backwards to relate their snack, cleanser or constipation-related product to the b*g g*me without ever mentioning its name?

This is better: very entertaining, brilliant product placement featuring NFL Hall of Famer Jerry Rice pretending to be a Lyft driver.

Standing up to the Department of No

NRDC Bees appeal

The “some of” is the result of an overzealous legal department; they were concerned that not all species of bees are dying at the fastest rate ever. But as we copywriters know, adding the qualifier waters down the teaser and weakens its appeal so that less money will be raised to save bees.

Not to get overly sentimental, but as a marketer you’re one of the good guys. By selling more products or services, you help create and maintain jobs. To the extent that they are of good quality, you may even be changing lives for the better by introducing people to your offerings.

Suppose there was a department in your company that kept you from selling as effectively as you could, and watered down strong marketing statements so they were less effective and sold less products and services and generated fewer jobs and changed fewer lives. That would be a terrible thing, right?

Yet there is such a department in almost every organization. It’s called “legal”. And in the name of protecting the brand, trademarks or whatever, they may be sabotaging your best efforts. You need to push back.

Here are some of the most egregious issues:

1. Being overprotective of your trademarks. You are asked to put an ™ after the first occurrence of a trademarked phrase (or, worse, after every mention which is completely unnecessary to protect your ownership_, or to only refer to a product by its full official name even though it’s too much a mouthful to say or remember. Legal feels this is protecting you, but it’s reducing response because people are distracted by all the foliage or simply can’t make sense of it. (As we’ve often pointed out in this blog, there is a certain percentage of your prospect audience that will bolt at the slightest excuse, and this exactly what they’re looking for.)

2. Being protective of OTHER brands. I never understood this one. You think Apple might sue you, so you’re sure to put a trademark after every mention of the Apple product compatible with your doohickey. It’s true that Apple is a very brand-centric and litigious company but if you look at all the advertising mentioning Apple you’ll see that most people violate their guidelines on a regular basis (by, among other things, giving away Apple products in promotions, which Apple says is absolutely verboten). Why should you be the one to kowtow, before being asked to?

3. Rewriting copy because of legal paranoia. You, the copywriter, have done your research or relied on solid background from the product team. If you say something, it’s true and can be supported. But legal is concerned about a hypothetical objection and makes you water it down. This is death.

4. Rewriting copy for reasons that have nothing to do with legal. This is a Lord of the Flies outcome, but it happens more than I would like to admit. Once all power is ceded to the legal department they think of themselves as the final arbiter of brand and they make you change things just because they can. If things have devolved to the point this is happening, it may be time to look for a new job.

But I said push back. What does that mean? First, don’t anticipate those legal objections by putting in all those qualifiers and curlicues before you’re asked to. Write the strongest marketing copy you can. Put a stake in the ground. Then water it down if you must. At least you’ll have the original draft to show your boss.

Second, when the legal changes come through fight back. If it seems like the requests are overreaching say so, or just ignore them. Make the nitpickers escalate it and see if their supervisors are more interested in jobs and sales than ®s and ©s. You just may win, at least once in a while.

P.S. This article is legally protected under Creative Commons. You are absolutely welcome to quote or misquote in any way you chose.

CES, Comdex and me (plus a few survival strategies)

CES 1979

On the floor at CES, 1979

I first attended the Consumer Electronics Show around 1980, when it really was what its name says. I was a young account executive working on the Federated Group, an “entertainment superstore” that was sort of like what Best Buy is today. Being low on the totem pole I was placed in the Showboat Hotel, a marginal facility located downtown. (Then as now, hotel prices skyrocketed during conventions; unlike now, you didn’t have the internet to comparison shop and find available rooms.)

3d pen at CES

Demonstrating a 3D pen at ShowStoppers, my favorite CES press event

The audience was mom-and-pop retailers who took a yearly junket to Vegas where they met with suppliers and made decisions about what to stock in the coming year. Betamax and quadraphonic were big. Even though I was not invited to the back-room discussions, I found myself fascinated by the opportunity to watch the watchers. I’d attend demos, and look at the faces of attendees as the features were explained. When their eyes lit up I would take note of hot buttons that might be used in my marketing.

Fesco Bags

Collecting bags is a big deal at CES. Extra points if they are from obscure Chinese companies or are sturdy and actually useful.

By the 1990s I’d moved up through the ranks and then out, with my own freelance copywriting practice. My clients were primarily technology based and I started attending Comdex (the name stands for Computer Dealers Expo, which it was not; the focus was on much larger operations and installations) on a yearly basis as well as the much smaller Interop show in May. We now had the internet but not Travelocity or Kayak. My lodging philosophy was to rent a car and drive around till I found a room at a reasonable price. I stayed at some pretty scary places. I’d park that car on a north-south street (no longer in existence) parallel to the LVCC and walk about 10 minutes to the convention hall. Parties were plentiful (the best ones were from Oracle, IBM and other large companies for their clients, which usually included my clients) and I rarely paid for food or drink. Comdex was dealt a crippling blow by the events of September 11, 2001 and limped on for a couple more years before closing for good in 2003. I believe I attended the 2002 show and it was a shadow of its former self with many sections of the LVCC hidden behind fabric drapes.

Meanwhile, CES was picking up where Comdex left off and many of the largest vendors moved there. It became a place for big electronics hardware companies to show their wares and, as before, I could watch the audiences and see what I should be saying in my copy about these products. It also took on something of the third-world bazaar personality of Comdex in its wildest years, with massage chairs among the technology exhibits and adult entertainers in the lobby at the Sands (not by accident because AdultX was held at the same time, a schedule which has sadly gotten out of sync in recent years).

Massage chairs at CES

Massage chairs are an irresistible attraction for the foot weary CES visitor.

I’m not attending CES every year these days, since it has gone increasingly back to its consumer roots and most of my clients are b-to-b. So in lieu of my usual posts-from-the-floor, this year I’m sharing a few of my personal practices:

• These days, I always stay at the Econolodge on Convention Center Drive which is around $100 if you reserve well in advance. The only reason to do this is that it’s a 5 minute walk to the LVCC.
• Rent a car. They’re not that expensive compared to other jacked-up prices because most people take shuttles or wait in the endless cab lines. You’ll only use it to go from the airport to your hotel and for evening forays around the desert.
• Go on Yelp and explore local ethnic restaurants. Vegas has a vast array of Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean places that are insulated from the tourist traffic and prices.
• Go to In-N-Out on Tropicana at least once, unless you live in California and get to go all the time.
• Don’t go to parties. They’re not what they used to be. Don’t go to buffets. They’re no longer a bargain and the food’s not that good. And of course, don’t gamble.

Here are a few more dos and don’ts from someone who is on the ground this year as a vendor.

The USPS is getting better

USPS tracking

Tracking for my two-day Priority Mail package that took a week to arrive

Remember my fiasco with the Post Office last holiday season? This year they’re a lot better. They’ve updated their tracking tool, so you know what’s actually happening in their system rather than simply that it is “in transit”.

Using this tool I was able to determine that just 1 of my 7 packages arrived in two days as printed on the “2-Day Priority Mail” box. (To be fair, the clerk at my post office said it’s “two to three days”.) One just arrived today, after a week on the road. We’re getting there.

The age of the scary brand manager is upon us

Freelance creatives are familiar with the sales/marketing conflict at their client organizations: sales needs to generate business, while marketing needs to generate the maximum number of leads at the lowest possible cost. When good leads can be produced cost effectively, everybody wins. It’s an example of creative tension that produces a positive result.

But now there’s a new force to be reckoned with at many client companies: the brand guardian, who might be a product manager, an in-house creative director or some kind of special off-to-the-side position on the org chart reporting directly to the marketing VP. Unlike the sales and marketing folks, the brand manager is often not required to show measurable results. And their interference can do serious damage to your best work.

Companies have long been aware of the importance of a consistent identity, but social media has caused them to be ultra-vigilant. If you go off-brand in a way that’s tacky or politically incorrect or just counter to what your customers expect, you risk being excoriated like Gap with its new logo and Starbucks with its #RaceTogether campaign. The brand manager would appear to be a sort of flack jacket, taking a daily activist role to keep this embarrassment from happening.

The bad stuff occurs when setting and enforcing brand standards becomes a subjective process. These standards grew out of style guides and copywriting rule books, which were specific enough that they were easy to follow. You knew what colors you could and could not use, and you knew not to sound like J.C. Penney when you were writing for Neiman-Marcus.

But now, weighed down by “voice of the customer” screeds and “personas” for the various pilgrims you meet along the “buyer’s journal”, brand enforcement has gotten much broader and at the same time more arbitrary at many companies. (NOT all and certainly none of my clients—see below!) The only way you know for sure is when your hand is slapped for going off-message. And because they want to avoid this experience, many marketing managers are over cautious and will preemptively kibosh good creative because they think brand won’t like it.

Historically, good lead generation has had little to do with brand. If you want to start a conversation at a party, you don’t begin with your elevator pitch but with a statement you think will be of interest to the other person. If you’re DirectTV, a satellite provider with a huge brand investment, you trick people into opening your envelope by making it look like a personal invitation. Now that AT&T has acquired them, the difference is an AT&T logo on the back of the envelope. Brand can wait. Right now they just want to get leads.

Don’t take this the wrong way. Brand is good. I love brands. One of my favorite clients is an agency that specializes in helping companies define their brands. The damage is done when brand is apparently in conflict with good creative—something that should never happen because brand should not be “this is who we are” but “this is what we can do for you” or “this is how you feel when you use our brand”.

Brand is still about benefits, about you and not about me. But many brand managers don’t trust this. They’ll dial back powerful selling statements in favor of stilted, stuffy language that is somehow “brand-y”. This hurts your chance to win for your client by generating more customers and revenue through powerful copy. Same thing happens with graphics if you are shoehorned into a template that looks great but doesn’t follow principles of good eyeflow and doesn’t allow enough content to deliver a compelling message.

So what can you do? If possible, get an audience with the brand manager as part of your assignment. Ask them to explain why the standards are the way they are. Then, when you present the work, play back those explanations in the same way you quote from the creative brief. This gives the brand manager some skin in the game and may even win them over.

But that’s an ideal situation. At some companies the brand manager may refuse to even talk to you. They may argue there’s no need because the brand standards are already laid out. It’s obvious they’re being defensive—but the very reason you need to talk about standards is to be sure you interpret them correctly.

A brand needs to listen to its customers. It needs to evolve. Marketing is a key part of that conversation. As my sales training client Roy Chitwood says, “nothing happens till somebody sells something”. When a brand manager shuts you out of that conversation, everybody loses.

This post was inspired by conversations at my “Devilish Details” Ignite Session at the 2015 DMA conference, where over 100 creatives shared examples of good ideas gone bad. It has no bearing on any of my own clients, past, present or future.

American Red Cross blood donation marketing could use a shot in the arm

A family member died from a blood disease, so I’m sensitive to the importance of blood donations. I had not given in far too long when I stopped into an American Red Cross trailer a few weeks ago and donated a pint plus platelets.

The techs warn you at the time there’s no guarantee your blood will be acceptable, but I got a follow-up call a couple weeks later for another donation. I happened to be in a public place and the connection seemed to be poor. I asked them to call me back. Later, I reflected on the fact my blood must have passed muster or they would not have called me. Why didn’t they just tell me the good news?

Tonight, another call. Again the connection was poor, which I’ll now say is due to some budget choices on the equipment used by the telephone staff. There’s a drive this Thursday at Saratoga Catholic, would I prefer 11, 12 or 1 pm?

Wait a minute, I said. I understood there was something special about my blood from the previous call and I’d like more detail before committing. The rep read through a script about how important blood donation is. But what about my blood, what’s special about that? Well, you’re A Positive which is 34% of people but only 3% give blood. Further you’re able to give to A Negative donors as well.

I had to stop her there because I’m not available on that date but asked her to call again. I really do want to give blood and intend to, but this process is self defeating. Let’s see how it could be made better

1. On the first follow-up call, congratulate the donor on the fact their blood was found acceptable and is helping save lives right now. Why in the world would they not do this?

2. On the second call, don’t lead with generic blood donor motivators. Tell me what my blood type is and why that’s important, rather than have me ask for it.

3. Finally, don’t twist my arm. Calling me out of the blue and trying to set up an appointment right way is way too intrusive. How about a softer direct mail sell? And how about a secondary ask of a donation, which might help pay for the program?

DMA 2015 &then was a home run

&then2015, also known as #andthen2015 or simply the DMA Annual Conference, is in the books. The Boston event concluded with an emotional keynote from John Legend that wrapped up about 4:15 this past Tuesday, October 6. I would venture to guess that the event succeeded beyond anybody’s wildest hopes and dreams.

A huge format change had staff scrambling up to the last minute to get relevant information online. As a presenter, I was a bit worried about who might show up or if nobody would. But they came, and they were engaged, by a curriculum that somehow weeded out the self-serving promotional sessions of prior years as well as cutting a full day off the program by removing the Hall of Fame Luncheon, report from the DMA President and other excuses to take your client offsite for lunch.

I’ve rarely seen a mature organization give itself such a radical makeover and objectively the possibility of a failed event was pretty high. But these guys pulled it off and it really was the best of maybe 20 DMA conferences that I’ve attended. Special thanks and congratulations to my immediate contacts, Jeremy Ladson and Keith Baker of the programming committee. See you next year, I hope.

First review of $50 Amazon Fire tablet

Mine arrived today and I wanted to review it on the Amazon website but they said the product has not yet been officially released and can’t be reviewed so I’ll share experiences here. It’s a 2 or maybe 3 star product. Good performance and graphics, but due to interface problems it’s going back if I can’t fix it.

This is basically a delivery mechanism for Amazon products and services. If that’s all it’s good for they should give it away free, not charge $50. It’s very difficult to log in to anything other than Amazon’s own app store. (I tried to access the NYTimes app for which I had a subscription; they wanted me to get it through their Kindle store.) The second problem is that when you try inputting your user info after finally reaching a log in page, it autocorrects to nonsense. Can’t find a way to turn this off.

Not a fan.

Get a free copy of my book at DMA2015 &then

Update: DMA &then website has now been updated with full schedule information. Go to to read all about it. BE SURE TO USE THIS LINK; the “build your schedule” menu on the home page of still produces the old placeholder content.

Here’s the session I am leading on Monday, October 4, from 4:45-5:30 at the DMA’s revamped &then conference in Boston:

Devilish Details: Looking for an Advantage in Your Copy and Design
An interactive sequel to one of last year’s most popular sessions, “The Devil’s in the Detail”. Share clever tweaks and clumsy misfires that made a big difference in creative execution and bottom line results—good or bad. Veteran copywriter Otis Maxwell will kick things off with examples of a few gems and gaffes, then you join the fun. Fabulous prizes for the best ideas!

This is an “Ignition” session which is designed for attendees to interact in a town-hall environment. I’ll share some examples of copy and design decisions that had a negative impact on campaigns, then make suggestions for how to improve them. After a few examples I’ll open things up to the floor and ask folks to share their own experiences which can be a/creative home runs and pratfalls they’ve experienced in their own work and what they’ve learned from them, or b/third party examples similar to my own.

While copies last, everybody who makes a meaningful contribution gets a free copy of my copywriting book, Copywriting that Gets Results!

Note: As of September 27, there is still placeholder copy on the website. This is the session in the slot called “Concentrating on the Detail: Copy & Color Choice”. That’s the placeholder title; what I’ve described above is the real deal.

Why too many good ideas can sink your direct marketing campaign

Front of Save the Children OE

Save the Children outer envelope has lots of good ideas

It’s great that you are brimming over with good ideas. Unfortunately, your prospect is not nearly as enchanted with your creativity as you are. They’ll sit still for one powerful marketing statement, perhaps supported by a call to action subhead, then it’s off to the deleted messages folder or the recycling bin. When you put out too many good ideas, you run the risk of getting none of them across.

This Save the Children appeal is an example of too many good ideas. On the front of the outer envelope is this headline: “What if your donation had 4x the impact for children in need?” That’s a very legitimate teaser and it’s supported by the subhead “learn more inside…” Unfortunately, the reply-by date is a complete non sequitur. Does the 4x benefit cease on that date? Then there’s the free notecard statement which I’m aware is a popular fundraising technique in today’s society, but it appeals to greed which is a different motivator than wanting your gift to do the most good so it’s misplaced here.

Save the Children OE back

Still more good ideas on the back of the same envelope (click the photo to enlarge and read the quotes)

On the back there are MORE good ideas. Here’s a quote from Bill Gates that would support a package all by itself. When asked to recommend a top philanthropic cause on the Today show, he replied, “you can go to Save the Children—they help mothers have safe births… It’s amazing. You can be sure that [this organization] will put your money to good use.” A minor quibble, not everybody knows who Bill Gates is so I’d set the stage by saying he was the world’s richest man until he started giving away his money. Then we’d have a very nice setup for a direct mail pack or maybe a long form print ad.

Unfortunately, the Bill Gates quote is diminished by a quote from the Save The Children’s own president, in the same size type. Since she has maybe a tenth the credibility of a legendary philanthropist in this context, that should be the weight of the two quotes—or, better yet, leave it off. And we’re not done; the envelope needs to tell us that Save the Children has earned its 14th consecutive 4-star rating from Charity Navigator. For what? Hopefully it’s for using my money efficiently instead of spending it on administration and marketing. But tell me; don’t just show me the Charity Navigator logo.

Save the Children is a fabulous organization that really does great work; I was quite familiar with some wonderful packages written by my mentor Robbin Gehrke at Russ Reid. But this isn’t a winning effort. It falls victim to too many good ideas.

Coming to DMA &then in Boston? We’ll be talking about this and other examples of marketing milestones and miscues in my interactive Ignition session, Devilish Details: Looking for an Advantage in Your Copy and Design. It’s at 4:45 pm on Monday, October 4. See you there!

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