Adding Bursts of Color To Your Creative Diet

Doing something day in and day out changes your POV, altering the way you view your world in subtle ways.  If you make television ads for a living, you inevitably start thinking of stories in thirty second increments.

Dennis Ryan, Element 79, Chicago AdvertisingThat’s why it was such a gas and a giggle to join the jury for the 2010 Advertising Community Shorts Program of the Midwest Independent Film Festival (I know, that’s a mouthful–doubt it will fit on a t-shirt).  Optimus hosted the judging last night as we worked with the show’s Director of Programming Mike McNamara to whittle down three hours of shorts to a roughly ninety minute program.  It was all wildly uneven.  And it was pure joy.

Affordable technology makes filmmaking cheaper and more accessible than ever, but it’s still a major challenge.  Coordinating scripting, acting, lensing and perhaps most challenging of all–editing–requires weeks and weeks of concentration and attention to detail.

Reviewing all these entries really drove home the infinite breadth of human storytelling.  We saw stories of comedy and horror, ineffable sadness and inspired lunacy…often within a single piece.  For someone who works in advertising, it was like a mental palate cleanser.

If you can make it, try to see the final selections on OCTOBER 5th during the festival screening at Landmark’s Century Centre Theatre at 2828 North Clark.  You’ll enjoy it.

About the only bummer of the evening was losing this misunderstood gem from the program line-up.  Due to an abundance of music video entries, this video for Baby Teeth’s “Hustle Beach” didn’t make the final cut.  Still, its buoyant energy, irony laden 80’s synth sound and off-balance storytelling makes me smile with every viewing…even if that made me a lonely coalition of one among the judges…

I hope to see you at the show.


By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79


A Lovely Short Film For a Long Holiday Weekend

If you listen to NPR, you probably have heard of StoryCorps: the independent nonprofit organization whose mission is to record, share, and preserve the stories of ordinary American lives, stories that prove that there really is no such thing as ‘ordinary.’

Over the past seven years, StoryCorps has collected oral histories by conducting upwards of 30,000 interviews with more than 60,000 people, all of which are preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.  And of course, you can find them online.

Which is where I stumbled across this beautiful little six minute piece called “Danny & Annie”.  It’s remarkably romantic and at times pretty funny, but it’s essentially the anti-romantic comedy.  The characters aren’t glamorous, their situation is not contrived, the storyline is simple and unadorned.  In fact, this short is nothing more than simple cel animation recreating two interviews with an elderly couple: the Perasa’s of Brooklyn.  The Perasa’s themselves are no one special–they have no claim to fame, no stunning successes of note…aside from their relationship.

But by the end of this clip, just like the end of that hoary Holiday chestnut “It’s A Wonderful Life”, that relationship is shown to be the greatest accomplishment of all.  At least to my sentimental sensibilities.

Enjoy the movie.  Enjoy this Labor Day Weekend.  And try to find time to recognize the amazing stories in your ordinary life.  Because there is no such thing as ‘ordinary.’


By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79


The Slicker and The Snake: A Tale From Two Weeks of Texas Production:

Today, we’re happy to welcome Patrick Brennan, Canice Neary, Adam Samara and Josh Witherspoon back to the agency.  For the past two weeks, they’ve been galavanting all over Texas with director Jeff Bednarz, capturing authentic sights and sounds for a series of Wolf Brand Chili commercials.

Production has many uniquely wonderful joys: the discovery of location shooting, the challenge of designing shots on the fly, the plentiful gums and mints on the craft service table.  But best of all are the stories; the hilarious, ridiculous, remarkable stories that crop up any time a team of creative people work together for any length of time.

The following came verbatim via an e-mail from Creative Director Canice Neary last week.  Enjoy, won’t you?

“When Patrick Victor Brennan awoke at 4:45am on Tuesday, May 25, at the Holiday inn Express in Mineral Wells, Texas, he had no idea that this was the day he’d (almost) be a hero.”

Element 79 Chicago Advertising Dennis Ryan

Patrick V. Brennan, Producer/ (almost) Cowhand

We were setting up a shot where the director’s kid was to throw rocks into the Brazos River.  Young Josh Witherspoon was the first to spot a water moccasin, sunning itself on a river rock with a very full belly, right next to the area in which said youngun was to hurl the scalloped stones (being an art director by trade, Josh’s keen eye shouldn’t surprise anyone).

One thing was certain; that snake had to go.

After one of the ranch hands initiated the battle. brave Patrick began looking for boulders that would (almost) put that serpent out of it’s–and our–misery.

One after the other, rocks pelted that poisonous beast.  After about the fifth stone, it appeared the job was complete.  Until the ranch foreman lifted up the largest stone with the biggest walking stick these slickers from Chitown had ever seen.  Jaws agape, the snake prepared for it’s final defense.

Well, lemme tell ya…  They don’t call it ‘the Wild West’ for nuthin’.  With one whack, the moccasin slid into it’s watery grave for good.  And we got the shot.

And that my friends, is the story of how Patrick V. Brennan (almost) killed a water moccasin.”


There really is no greater joy in this business than making stuff.  And when it’s great–when it inspires and surprises and sells, the reward is the opportunity to go back out and make even more stuff.  Here’s hoping those two weeks provide nothing but good things for Wolf Brand as we go to edit.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

It’s Groundhog’s Day and PETA is Pissed. Again.

I love animals.  Specifically, I love Jack, our 135 lb. Malamute who’s literally dozing at my feet as I type this.  I don’t believe in animal cruelty; clubbing baby seals is unimaginably horrific and even pulling a hook from a walleye’s mouth gives me the willies.  But seriously, PETA?  You guys need to dial it back a notch.  Or ten.

I Love Animals, Exhibit J

In a move that comes as no surprise to anyone even remotely familiar with their headline grabbing tactics, this decidedly-excitable group has petitioned the good people of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to replace their world-famous groundhog with an animatronic. Seriously.

This is the same group that took issue with President Obama for swatting a nettlesome fly during a television interview.  The same wingnuts that bought outdoor boards in Florida featuring an obese woman with the headline: “Save The Whales-Lose The Blubber: Go Vegetarian.”  And the same whack jobs that urged Ben and Jerry’s to switch from using cow’s milk to human milk (Say it with me: ewww…)

I will admit that their tactics do earn them coverage; I’m not a fan but I’m writing about them so clearly they are being heard.

But in their madcap pursuit of headlines, they lost their story.  PETA has devolved into a bad joke, an embarrassment to many of us once-sympathetic to their issues.  Serious topics like the dangers of beef injected with growth hormones, the needless factory farming of whales, and the horrors of leg hold trapping by the fur industry pale before headline chasing stunts like asking Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal to convert a bankrupt poultry plant into a ‘Chicken Empathy Museum.’

It’s just one stunt after another.  And so PETA has lost it’s story.  For any brand, that’s a very bad thing.

As to the events in PA, here’s hoping ol’ Phil won’t see his shadow this year.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Smiling? With Her Cholesterol?

According to an article and post from Time this past weekend, a University of Palerno pathological anatomy professor (or UPPAP, as I refer to those kinds of eggheads) believes La Gioconda looks the way she does due to high cholesterol.  Specifically he cites two examples: xanthelasma, or an accumulation of cholesterol just beneath the skin, around her left eye, along with what looks like a fatty-tissue tumor on her right hand.

Aside from proving that Da Vinci took a hyper-accurate ‘warts and all’ approach to beauty (Leonardo would have HATED Photoshop), these types of theories prove little.  And there’s been an unending steam of them.  Scientists have subjected the painting to 3-D laser scanning, looking for hidden figures.  In 2006, researchers theorized her enigmatic bearing stemmed from being pregnant.  Around the same time, Dutch emotion-recognition software rated her expression as 83% happy, but also 9% disgusted, 6% fearful and 2% angry.  A Japanese forensics expert claimed she would have a low voice, given her skeletal structure.  And sooner or later, most everyone notices that she is singularly absent of facial hair–no eyelashes, no eyebrows.

So maybe all these theories and speculation do prove something: the enduring power of the Mona Lisa’s story.  The fact is, we’re talking about a 21″ x 30″ portrait painted just over five hundred years ago on a piece of poplar.  More importantly, even after five centuries we’re still finding new things to say about it.  This painting is an exceptional example of sustainable story built on mystery, beauty, and intrigue.

There’s a lesson for marketers and their brands here: great stories take on lives of their own.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Three Advantages to Emphasizing Story over Strategy

To a cynic—and yes, everyone in the advertising business does get cynical from time to time—the difference between ‘strategy’ and ‘story’ may seem a matter of semantics.  As a writer who earns a living on words, that makes a good argument right there.  But adopting a story-centric mindset opens up marketing in many powerful ways.  Because ‘many’ is a bit nebulous, here are three reasons to start thinking story.

1.  Strategies Centralize, Stories Travel. Any media expert will tell you that the biggest upset of our advertising applecart has been Web 2.0 and the emergence of social media.  This game-changing development changed the way consumers gather and share information.  Moreover, it is frequently mistaken for ‘free media,’ which intrigues resource-strapped clients.

People use social media to share stories, about their lives, their interest, their opinions.  A traditional strategy-driven ad only goes as far as the media plan, and then it disappears.  A story starts with that same media plan but when defined correctly, extends far beyond those finite GRP’s, riding the waves of social media and word of mouth as people spread their own versions of your brand’s story.  We don’t need consumers to create the story, but simply build on them and pass them along.  In an increasingly advertising-resistant society, using story to further recommendation is good business.

We should work brand stories to spread virally, but viral is not a tactic: it’s an outcome.

Clearly, There's a Story Here...

2.  Stories Serve Integration Better than Strategy. Because strategies are centralized, one agency inevitably takes responsibility for it.  They ‘own’ the strategy.  But in a social media-powered world, no marketer really owns how people consider their brands, we can only influence it.  Because consumers have such a hand in defining and sharing brand stories, no one marketing entity can claim dominion: everyone has a hand in defining the story.

A story is not owned, it’s shared.  And that simplifies everything.  For years, each discipline brought separate planning resources to interpret the strategy for their particular specialty, a divisive exercise which more often than not, really amounts to defining tactics.  When everyone knows a brand’s story, the integration process simplifies tremendously.  A promotion either reflects the story or it doesn’t.  A user experience either fits or not.  Instead of an intellectual exercise, integration becomes simpler, more human, more obvious.

3.  Stories Reflect Brands Better than Strategies. Both strategies and stories define their audience.  Both use conflict to build drama.  And both communicate a POV.  But stories go further to embrace tone.  In a parity marketplace, an emotional perspective, a tone, can be a big differentiator and make the story far more compelling.

Strategies largely avoid tone or consign it to a bullet-point at the base.  But the right tone is fundamental to a story’s success: Poe didn’t crack jokes and Hemingway never asked for a hug.  Powerful feelings can drive sales just as much as rational reasons to believe.  In fact, I would argue they are more compelling.  Logic and reason do not trump passion and emotion: we don’t get married or go to war for logic.  This may not hold up to quantitative analysis, but if the ultimate goal is predicting in-market success, consumer research is a rather suspect science at best.

So there you go—three thought starters for the first workweek of the new year.  I will be working with this thought and how it applies to the advertising business over the next few weeks.  If you have any additional points—or counterpoints—I’d welcome them.  Because I have a feeling we share a similar story: advertising professionals seeking answers in a changing industry to help our brands thrive.

Oh, and our careers too.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Happy New Decade! Here’s One Prediction for Advertising in The Teens…

Not a list or a look back of any kind; just one prediction regarding all this industry convergence and confusion about how the advertising business we knew will evolve in the decade ahead…

#1.  The Days of Strategy Are Over.

The Age of Stories Is Upon Us.


That’s not a quote from The Lord of the Rings; that’s a truth that’s become increasingly obvious as we’ve dealt with seismic changes within both our industry and the culture as a whole.  We live in times when great masses of people can organize without organizations (good point Clay Shirky).  We live in times when recommendation drives sales more than any other factor (good business plan Zocalo Group).  We live in times when the way people can experience a brand–has never been more diverse (good luck with integration there, Bub).

Today’s reality renders the notion of a centralized advertising ‘strategy’ quaint.  The conceit that any advertiser controls their message is both dated and dangerous.  Strategies assume centralized authority which no longer exists in an empowered-public forum.  Strategies come from people with a vested interest, but these days, those people are only a part of the in-market dialogue.  Today, consumers have loud voices: socially-networked, extraordinarily powerful and digitally-amplified via Web 2.0 voices.  And their voices will be heard

All of which means that if we want to learn, we will have to unlearn–it’s not about just what we advocate, it’s about what consumers accept.  To lead we will also have to listen–not just to clients but to consumers whose voices are stronger than ever.

We will have to put aside the older ways and accept that to move forward, we will have to embrace one of the most primal and fundamental assets of our humanity: storytelling.  We will not only need to tell stories on our brands’ behalf in the future, we also must shape those stories, enhance those stories, make them more pertinent, more relevant, and more impactful to the people we want to buy our brands.  Sparking stories, guiding stories, monitoring and brightening stories–that will define the advertising business in the coming decade.

And so that will become our daily work.  Identifying the story.  Shaping the story.  Refining the story.  And most of all, spreading the story in a way that others pick up our narrative and spread it themselves.

We are no longer in the advertising business.  We are now in the oldest profession known to man: no, not that–the storytelling business. And it just may be the most antediluvian business at work today–telling stories for the entertainment and edification of others.  But at least it’s honest work.

Come to think of it, the years ahead should be a really good time.  A Happy Decade Ahead to All!

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

This Monday Night's Football: Are You Ready For Some Backstory?

Since it’s debut in 1970 on ABC, Monday Night Football has been a storied franchise. With nearly forty years of TV ratings success, that would be inevitable.  Week after week, the nation tunes in to watch the NFL in it’s most deluxe packaging–extra cameras, ever more innovative graphics, and a palpably higher level of excitement that only a two team national telecast spotlight can provide.

scaled_jpg.phpTonight, the Green Bay Packers visit the Minnesota Vikings at Mall of America Field.  But that’s not the story. The story is Brett Favre vs. the Green Bay Packers.  People want to watch the perennial-retiree face the team he lead for sixteen seasons and by extension, the state that welcomed him deep into their hearts.  Green Bay and Favre were a storybook relationship that ended with feelings of betrayal and recrimination.  And it’s an awkward situation made worse because Favre ended up with Minnesota; these are two northern states with a deep-seated professional antitpathy.  Tonight’s game has so much interest, officials pushed back the Tigers-Twins one game baseball playoff game at the Metrodome til Tuesday.

I like the NFL, but I’m much more of a Saturday football fan.  Still, like every other person on the planet, I can’t resist a good story.  And tonight’s game features a terrific one, one that I’ll still care about even after every analyst and promo spot hammers it into overkill.  Stories matter, and the NFL brand seems to have an intuitive sense of that.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

The Greater Part of "History" is "Story"

A few of us from Element 79 came to New York City for an Omnicom program on digital platforms.  We spent the night at the Marriott Downtown in the heart of the still-bandaged Financial District.  After an al fresco pizza dinner at Adrienne’s, Brian Williams remembered once visiting ‘the oldest bar in New York City’ and so we set off in search of a pub called McSorley’s.

It’s obvious why writers love New York; every block holds a hundred stories (the Trinity Boxing Club behind our hotel with its brittle leather boxing gloves and fading poster of Rocky Marciano, the Volvo crossing the Brooklyn Bridge into Mannhattan with a canoe strapped to its roof), at least ten of which would make a compelling short story in the hands of Dorothy Parker or Robert Benchley or even Jay McInerney–this is after all, the financial district.  This town lives and breathes stories, and they came to vivid life when our taxis pulled up to McSorley’s in the East Village.

It’s a simple pub really, serving a few uninspired sandwiches and pints of either light or dark ale, neither of which is very heavy on the hops, with the light in particular displaying the brewer’s mystifying fondness of nutmeg.  Vintage photos and handbills cover the walls, the kind that Bennigan’s and TGIFriday’s reproduce with lifeless precision in their sanitized locations but here, they lay thick with the grime and dust of decades.  It is, after all, New York City’s oldest continually operating saloon, open since 1854.

Speaking of old, the clientele there helped me feel my proper age as they looked to average twenty-four or so, tops.  Gathered talking and flirting and joking around community tables, they smacked of first jobs and long hours, happily spending their paychecks at a watering hole they assured each other was ‘classic.’

Photo by Scott Beale,

Photo by Scott Beale,

And that’s what really hit me–these young adults with their wingtips and rep ties and work skirts were all enthusiastically reveling in the storied environs.  Three recent UVA grads at our table–two interning at law firms, one at Macy’s– were quick to share the story of the chicken bones hanging over a ceiling lamp above the bar.  Apparently McSorley’s served chicken dinners back around the Second World War and outbound GI’s would save the wishbones from their meals and balance them up on the light fixture, with plans to take them down when they returned from the front.  On that happy day, they would hoist a few pints and pull them apart, preparing for their post war life.

More than a dozen of those wishbones still remain on the light fixture, coated with a heavy rime of greasy dust, talismans for men who never came back from Europe or the Pacific.  The young law school grads pointed them out to us with a respectful awe, clearly caught up in the lives and drama of those soldiers of the great war who lived in an era so far removed from our own.

Why should these young people care?  In a world of 3G networks and text messaging and a million and one everyday miracles where everything is amazing and nobody is happy, why does a sixty year old tale still hold such a powerful sway on the imagination?  Why do legends still loom so large with young people who ostensibly have so many other distractions?

Because they are very good stories.  And in the end, though cities may crumble and our civilization may change in a million different ways, stories are what we hold dear.  Stories bring us together, demonstrating our common hopes and dreams and laughter and sadness in a way no other art form does.  Stories make us human.

Stories matter.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Why Let The Truth Spoil a Good Story?

To Ireland's Finest, With Ireland's Finest...   

A Toast To Ireland’s Finest, With Ireland’s Finest…

We value authenticity these days.  So we accept less flattering lighting and awkward camera moves even as we celebrate the banal and achingly average, all in the pursuit of some notion of ‘the Truth.’

The trouble with capital T “Truth” lies in the fact that sometimes, it pales before a good story,  a surprising story, a story that takes a twist and leaves you slack-jawed by the turn.

This St. Patrick’s Day, take a lesson from the great one himself–the fifth century Christian missionary who eventually became Ireland’s Patron Saint…

He was born a Scot.


By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79