A Life Lesson From Steve Drogin: Take More Snapshots

Maureen and I flew to La Jolla yesterday to attend a memorial service for Steve Drogin.  We first met “Uncle Stevie” as the Dad of our good friend Laura, but over the years we were drawn to his charisma, his  swim trunks and t-shirt zest for the life aquatic and his palpable and endless fascination with people from all over the world and every walk of life.  Obituaries characterize him as everything from a ‘philanthropist’ to an ‘underwater photographer’ and my favorite: “ocean adventurer.”  I doubt even GI Joe ever came in an “ocean adventurer” model…

Steve Drogin: Ocean Adventurer, Inspiration, Friend.  1979-2009

Steve Drogin and his wife Hiro: Ocean Adventurer, Inspiration, Friend. 1939-2009

We gathered in a clifftop hall of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography as the sun dipped into the crashing Pacific and watched slide after slide of this wonderful man so full of life and appreciative of every moment. And whether he was hugging his children and grandchildren, scuba diving off Thailand, or reveling in the company of his wife Hiro in yet another far flung land, he perpetually flashed the same smile, that of a man who truly believes himself blessed.  And as the photos filled the big screen, I swear I heard Steve speak to me, clear as day, across the veil that separates the living and the dead.  WIth a laugh and a chuck on the arm, he urged me to take more snapshots.  To capture every day.

I will Steve.  I promise, I will…

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Technology Changes Advertising, But It Might Also Change Something (gasp!) Even Bigger

I come from a military family.  My Dad graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis and my older brother was ROTC at Penn State, eventually retiring as a Commander of a P-3 Squadron.  I am deeply grateful that America supports a strong military, given a world infested with Somali Pirates, insane tinhorn dictators, and fragile democracies. Still, the old question of “guns or butter?” always stuck in my mind, fostering my personal military industrial complex. How could reasonable people ever aggressively wage peace in a violent, selfish world?



Finally, we might have some real tools. Ammunition and weapons never provided a lasting answer, but perhaps technology can. Maybe the keys to more universal justice will prove to be literacy, laptops and broadband. Think about it: a literate populace can not be isolated from an ever-tighter global community.  A laptop allows anyone to express and share their unique thoughts, sounds and images. And broadband allows the one to instantly connect with the many all over the world. With literacy, laptops and broadband, the traditional barriers to communication fall away; genocide in Darfur can be brought to our desktops, starvation in North Korea can be felt in our homes, the world’s huddled masses can no longer be bottled up by the dictatorial few.  

“Mass amateurization” as the sociologically-insightful Clay Shirky calls it, threatens many aspects of our marketing business with devaluation and commoditization.  But if it also helps the oppressed, the abused or the marginalized gain their voices and have them magnified by the amplifying effect of a global social network, well, that mitigates my professional uncertainty somewhat.  I can live with that.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

R.I.P. Pontiac Motor Division: 1926-2010

I’ve owned exactly two Pontiacs in my life: both GTO’s, both convertibles.  Sitting still, they exuded a raw, rumbling, asphalt-shaking power.  Which was a really good thing…

Zoe, Me and The Goat in Happier Times

Zoe, Me and The Goat in Happier Times

–because they never ran worth a tinker’s damn.  Truth be told, I’ve never owned more unreliable automobiles. The list of major family events where my cars wouldn’t start is legendary, including my older daughter Zoe’s Eighth Grade Graduation, where only the combined efforts of three grease monkey Dads and the janitorial staff of the Joseph Sears Elementary School brought my car to lurching, sputtering life a full three minutes after the rest of the cars had driven away for the traditional parade through town. Determined not to let Zoe down, I drove like a bat out of hell, confident in the knowledge that our entire small town police force was at the front of the parade. Screeching to a halt at a less-trafficked corner, I was able to hijack my daughter and two of her classmates out of their makeshift rides and back into the GTO before sneaking into the tail end of the line and turning down our town’s main drive.  We passed our family and friends, waving and smiling Grand Marshal style with no one the wiser.

Through the years, my Pontiacs proved to be mechanical nightmares; rusty frames, overburdened door hinges, entirely unreliable convertible top motors.  Both had huge, loud V-8 engines, yet a tiny Honda could smoke them off the line.  I got nowhere near the value out that I invested into them, with one major exception…

They looked vicious.  Exciting and sexy, they were bold in a notice-me-dammit way that no affordable production car is today.  Pontiac GTO’s and Tempests were integral to a proud Detroit muscle car heritage, even if my two specimens were pathetically out of shape.  Sadly, that era is now long gone, ground under the iron heel of assembly-line efficiency, wind tunnel dictates, and the total elimination of individuality the corporate industrial process engenders.

And there lies the real threat, not just to GM as it struggles to find a way back from the dangerous precipice it drove to under it’s own freewill, but to every American manufacturer. Yes, efficiency is useful to production.  Certainly, management can eke out greater productivity from a workforce.  But neither efficiency nor management are agents of inspiration.  They can’t capture our imagination.

In a world cluttered with too many choices and too much parity, we would be wise not to discount those rare products that represent the maverick, the singular, the non-focused group fever dream of a true-believing zealot.  Because unlike every other species, mankind alone respects and needs art.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

On Descriptive Writing…

One Blogging Site, One Day, 42 Million Words--and This Was Sunday    One Blogging Site, One Day, 42 Million Words–and This Was A Sunday

According to a wonderful word-nerd site called the Global Language Monitor, there are 999,353 words in the English language. This sheer head-spinning volume all but guarantees I’ll never finish the New York Times Sunday Crossword, though it’s my ignorance of the Hebrew months that usually trips me up there.  This volume of available words also eliminates any excuse for lame copywriting.  With all those adjectives and adverbs, product descriptions should far exceed the shame of tripe like “wholesome goodness,” “family fun.” and “great values.”

Granted, we toil in a largely parity world, and so the vast majority of our work demands we enhance the mundane or magnify the mediocre.  It can be a challenge to elevate this type of writing so too often, lesser talents roll over in the product section, regurgitating the pre-approved, sanitized-for-no-one’s-engagement laundry list of attributes directly from the brief.

But every now and then, some brilliant creative escapes the constraints of these assignments and creates work that soars–even in the traditional wasteland of the product section.  And that merits celebration.

Which is why a few months back, I forwarded this link to the Element 79 creative department.  This is comedian Patton Oswalt’s review of the KFC “Famous Bowl” and while his words decidedly don’t sell the product, his description speaks vividly to the palate and memorably to the imagination–most notably when he summarizes this ill-considered but mystifyingly popular caloric nightmare as “a failure pile in a sadness bowl.”  Choirs of writing angels should herald that phrase alone, and yet Patton goes on to spin a total of 1,121 words into a yarn that simultaneously informs and repels anyone with even trifling respect for their arterial health.

That's DOCTOR Abraham Verghese To You...

That's DOCTOR Abraham Verghese To You...

On a similar if decidedly higher-brow note, I’ve been reading Cutting for Stone on the recommendation of my wife Maureen.  Reading the bookflap description of the author provides a harsh reminder of the standards set by true practitioners of the writing craft.  This is Dr. Abraham Verghese’s third novel that he penned while practicing as a board-certified internal medicine specialist in pulmonary and infectious diseases as part of the Stanford University School of Medicine Faculty.  By way of comparison, I know all the lyrics to Paper Lace’s “The Night Chicago Died.”

Even though I’m not yet a third of the way through this fascinating book, Verghese’s writing has already revealed itself as superlative: filled with astute observations and achingly emotive descriptors.  One that leapt off the page centered around a flight taken by one of his main characters from Yemen to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia aboard a rattletrap DC-3.  Sitting amidst a melting pot of nationalities, she notices “…the mingled scents of the human freight.  The Arabs had the dry, musty smell of a grain cellar, the Asians contributed the ginger and garlic; and from the whites came the odor of a milk-soaked bib.

Wow.  Never before, and perhaps never again, will you read those particular words constructed in that particular way.  A worthy goal for any professional writer.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Brands Are Opinions

I’ve read and heard hundreds of definitions of brands over the years and while many of them are compelling in one way or another, most of them get bogged down in intellectualism.  To me, the definition is simple: brands are opinions.  

Of course, thinking of your brand as a collective opinion of your market reveals the classic notion of brand management as a rather hollow conceit.  Today’s socially-networked, highly-viral world enables the exchange of opinions with unprecedented reach and speed, thus the idea of ‘management’ overpromises; a more precise word would be ‘advocacy.’

How You Feel About a Brand = The Brand

How You Feel About a Brand = The Brand

Further, the Web 2.0 revolution means we no longer control every brand conversation.  To be truly effective today, we must move beyond the static concept of reporting structure management to a more nimble, balls-of-your-feet stance. Protecting and advancing consumers’ often quicksilver opinions demands we stay highly aware, consistently focused, and quickly responsive.

When I first started this blog, the convergence of digital and traditional advertising seemed critical to this changing industry.  Yet despite all the jawing and posturing, that is currently well underway; digital agencies are hiring traditional agency people and digital people are increasingly mainstreamed within traditional agencies.

Nevertheless, convergence remains the central issue, but it is increasingly the convergence of advertising and public relations.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Susan Boyle Part 2–Who's Winning, Who's Losing

Relax: A Haircut Does Not Constitute A Makeover 


Relax: A Haircut Does Not Constitute A Makeover

Now that her clips from “Britain’s Got Talent” have earned well over 1oo,ooo,ooo hits in a little over a week, it’s time to get some sense of the Susan Boyle phenomenon.  Anytime something hits popular culture with this type of intensity, some will find a way to profit while others will suffer.  A highly-unscientific sampling of blogs and news stories reveal at least some early winners and losers.

On the upside, her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” seems to be revitalizing interest in the twenty-two year old Broadway hit Les Miserables. Over the past week, the soundtrack spiked back into the iTunes Top 10 and Amazon’s Top 25.  Local show productions have seen increases in ticket sales, including one Vancouver company that reported sales tripling between Tuesday and Friday of last week.  Other productions saw their Google page impressions skyrocket, with one California production’s page impressions rising from 7,000 to 50,000 in about a week. 

Clearly, Simon Cowell has won as well, by developing and producing the program and potentially providing a label for Susan’s future work.  And yet, since his production company Freemantle Media hasn’t made a penny off her groundbreaking number of video hits, one could argue that he’s also lost.   After all, the standard record label revenue-sharing model for music videos on YouTube would have paid $500,000.  Even worse, YouTube admitted they haven’t run a single ad alongside any or her posted clips as well, so they too missed a potential bonanza.

Amidst all the posted discussions, one of the more compelling and controversial essays on this topic appeared on the Silicon Alley Insider site.  Benjamin Wayne, CEO of Fliqz, posted an essay titled “YouTube is Doomed” which paints an incredibly harsh portrait of what he terms “the viral-video bubble economy.”  He draws most of his metrics from a recent Credit Suisse report pegging YouTube’s 2009 losses at nearly half a billion dollars, primarily due to their voracious, ever-expanding need for bandwidth and glaring lack of advertising dollars.

Essentially, Wayne argues that YouTube’s parent company Google won’t be able—or willing–to afford sensations like Susan Boyle.  Of course, Wayne’s POV is not universal; a number of very vocal and informed critics immediately posted responses taking both the author and the site’s editor to task for not clearly announcing that, though a tiny fraction of their size, Wayne’s company Fliqz is a YouTube competitor, which certainly colors his perspective.

At this point, after hundreds of millions of viewings and billions of written words, what can we learn from the Susan Boyle sensation?  Probably three things.  First; the online video industry will certainly change to try to monetize these unusual cultural events.  Second; the online video industry’s ability to monetize these cultural events will remain decidedly uncertain.

And finally, everyone everywhere delights in the unexpected joy of a true surprise. Good on you Susan.

 By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

PS:  On a related if not entirely congruent side note, my friend Mark Wegener wonders why everyone is amazed that “ugly people can sing: what, haven’t people heard of Willie Nelson?  Neil Young?  Meatloaf? “

Please Someone, Anyone: For the Love of All That is Good and Decent, Pay Attention To Radio

In the past five days, I’ve driven about 1,300 miles: down to Indianapolis, over to Columbus, back to Chicago then a round trip to Grand Rapids.  It was a vast wasteland.

picture-4No, not Indiana or Ohio or Michigan–I’m talking about FM radio and specifically, the endless and indistinguishable :60’s that clog it.  The work I heard was so uniformly uninspired and instantly forgettable, you got the sense that the creatives responsible considered it with as little regard as the eventual listening audience.  How sad.

About ten years ago, I judged a radio awards show in Chicago.  The inimitable Mike Sheehan and I were charged with reviewing work from the financial services sector. After enduring a dozen or so monologues touting leveraged risk debenture asset funds, our ears were glazing over.  But then, something magical happened: a spot came on that sparkled with an idea.  It had a strong premise and it proffered highly personal musings about the future with delightfully engaging language and a rich tapestry of sounds.  It was so remarkably fresh…up until it too took a hard turn into the flat, soul-crushing boilerplate of leveraged risk debenture asset fund talk.  At that point, Mike shook his head and said “They had it going good, then they went and dropped the meat in the dirt.”

Mike’s expression is good radio writing; pointed, colorful and memorable.  Yet this kind of individuality rarely exists on air and that’s a damned shame.  Think of how few accents you hear on the radio, or the paucity of regional expressions and offbeat verbal deliveries.  It’s so bad that when a brilliant radio ad comes along, you can’t miss it.  Consider the spectacular “The Most Interesting Man in the World” ads for Dos Equis: between the antsy-Phillip-Glass-resolving-into-a-Zihuatanejo-boat-party music bed, the ludicrous thunderclap and of course, the pants-wettingly funny writing, you simply can’t ignore these ads.  The announcer’s latest deadpan line “If he disagrees with you, it is because you are wrong” is so pitch perfect, it made me flat out jealous.  Similarly, consider all the comedy that Bud Light’s mined from their “Real Men of Genius” work.  That work’s been remarkable for years.

Actually, it may surprise some but I do like one financial services radio campaign very much.  From the moment I first heard it, the Lenox Financial work made me pay attention.  Founder Jon Shibley talks turkey with his Georgia accent, crowing about eliminating closing costs for mortgages.  And he does this with a zealot’s passion, signing off with something no other mortgage company would dream of saying: “It’s the Biggest No-Brainer in the History of Earth.”  Wow.  That’s writing.  I mean, a lesser person might say “Biggest No-Brainer In History” but adding the entire planet as a qualifier?  Brilliant.

Radio should be joy for creatives; it’s cheap enough that you can rework and revise it until your spot sings, plus you can get more intimately involved with the production process than with any other medium.  Not to mention that at any one time, a major portion of your audience will be driving I-65, hoping you’ll be interesting.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

A Visual Metaphor For Modern Marketing

picture-11One really nice perk of a career in advertising is free music; record labels send out CD’s promoting tracks and artists hoping we will use them in commercials, thus launching their artists to a music-buying public.  Every week, anywhere from four to ten CD’s arrive at my desk.  Which is kinda great. This photograph showcases maybe four months worth of free music that I’ve collected in the trunk of my car with the intention to eventually give all of them a listen and find some cool new music.   Because I know that somewhere in those thousands of tracks, I will find my next ten favorite songs ever.

However, finding those specific ten songs demands a lot of time.  Sifting through these thousands of tracks will require more than a few hours–it will demand weeks.  Once you fall behind on this, the task seems to grow exponentially.  It’s kind of like subscribing to The New Yorker–you inevitably fall behind but you know the writing’s so good that can’t just toss them in the recycling bin.  Which is the issue: with all of this raw product, the real value resides in the curation, not simply the ownership, of these assets.

This mirrors a fundamental challenge of the internet: while most of us share a tendency for collecting, few possess a natural propensity for archiving.  The abundance of information and content means there’s always another post to read, another link to follow, another tweet to retweet.

Regarding the CD’s, my best solution–aside from arranging frequent long car trips–would be to enlist a trusted friend who knows music to tell me what tracks she thinks are great.  Which is nothing other than recommendation marketing; the stock in trade of word-of-mouth advertising companies.  The smart folks at Zocalo Group cite studies that show 92% of Americans rate WOM of friends, family, and others as the best source of ideas and information (up from 67% in 1997) and the #1 driver of technology or services purchase decisions.

In a crowded world thick with potential experiences and opportunities, making informed choices efficiently isn’t simply appealing, it’s essential.  Because even when you get something for free, the time required to experience it commands a premium.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Brands Do Not Exist On Shelves…

–nor in parking lots or street addresses or user experiences.   Brands have no tangible existence because they live solely in the hearts and minds of people, and nowhere else. Brands reside in the realm of opinion.  At least, IMHO. 

Funny, I Never Saw The Ronald Brand That Way...

Funny, I Never Saw The Ronald Brand This Way Myself...

Oh sure, things like advertising messages and product design and word-of-mouth all affect brands, but only so far as they impact hearts and minds.  And opinions.

By now, most of us recognize that opinions about brands can change very quickly, thanks to our socially-networked society.  On the upside, there’s the previously mentioned Susan Doyle who leapt from unknown Scottish spinster to international sensation almost overnight. But at the other end of the spectrum, there’s the disgusting and totally unfair incident that arose around an unwitting North Carolina Domino’s Pizza store.   To their credit, Domino’s Corporate did a good job in their attempt to address this issue in a timely manner, eyelines notwithstanding. But even the best-trained, most experienced brand managers don’t wake up anticipating they will be handling these types of quickly-fanned crises–there’s simply no precedent for this type of issue.

In a quicksilver media world like ours, we need to rethink the old silos that separate advertising and PR.  Because by now it should be abundantly clear that the business of creating and reinforcing consumer opinion never sleeps.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Why Exactly Did Jingles Die?

There was a time in advertising when everything was sung.  When little ditties sold everything from Miller Time (“beer after beer”) to Marvel the Mustang (“he’s almost for real!”).  Today, aside from licensed tracks from known artists, no one sings a story anymore.  And I can’t help wondering if maybe we’ve walked away from a very powerful source of emotion.

Last Week, No One Knew Susan Bayer.  But This Week...

Last Week, No One Knew Susan Boyle. But This Week...

By now, a huge part of the world knows about Susan Boyle, an unemployed forty-seven year old woman living outside London. This clip, posted only six days ago on YouTube, has already racked up nearly twenty million views–it jumped nearly three million overnight.

Chances are, you’ve seen this.  But even if you haven’t, you know the drill: a highly-unlikely nobody appears on a popular TV program to a chilly reception from Simon Cowell’s panel of snide taste meisters and then, unleashing a voice that channels the glory of angels, proceeds to stun the judges, win the audience and knock the smirk off Simon’s well-moisturized face.  You know this drill because Susan’s story repeats, nearly beat for beat, the story of Paul Potts, the unassuming mobile phone salesman from South Wales who dreamed of singing opera professionally (and apparently, now does).

Ty Pennington does this same kind of thing yet for some reason I resent his stories.  Week after week, he tells yet another deserving family “you give so much to this community, this community wants to give something back to you” and later bellows “move that bus!” into a megaphone so the givers can finally see the cornucopia of product placements Extreme Home Makeover has whipped up that week.  I always feel manipulated and cheap, regretting any sentiment these stories generate for being so cheaply summoned.

But Susan’s story–and of course Paul’s–feels different.  Both live in that artistic realm of music, a humanity that serves no practical purpose and yet stirs the soul and calls up emotion like little else in our world.  When this many people around the world find themselves powerfully moved by nothing more than the simple act of someone opening their mouth to sing, it might be time to reconsider our reticence about commercial jingles.  Because genuine emotion is a powerful, powerful thing.

And yet, take another look at that photo…  Consider Susan’s honest, unglamorous face…  Maybe what moves so many of us about this clip is not simply her gorgeous voice, but the surprise that someone as unassuming, as unpolished as herself, can create such raw, palpable beauty.

That’s the real ticket.  In a pinch, I’ll always put my money on surprise.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

PS:  Today, viral fame can build with an almost terrifying ferocity: an addendum.