No Offense, SF Tech Bros and Tech Sisses, But Good Riddance

I don’t want to sound like too much of a nostalgic old coot, even though I might technically qualify as one—the old part, anyway—but San Francisco hasn’t been recognizable to me for some time. I don’t mean physically recognizable, either. Yes, the skyline’s changed, that’s true. At the park near my house, the view doesn’t even include the wonderfully silly 1970’s-looking Transamerica Pyramid anymore. It used to make me smile every time I gazed on it. But I’m talking more about a change in the social, economic, political skyline.

I moved to San Francisco, an expensive city even then, because I wanted to become a poet and a novelist, in addition to having some vague idea of supporting myself by writing ads. It was a city famous for producing poets and novelists, Jack London, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ken Kesey, Diane DiPrima, Alice Waters, by giving them a place to thrive, with culture and interesting moody weather and stupifying vistas and historic, beautiful houses.

I even met an aspiring novelist while we were both just scraping a living together, someone then obscure and unpublished, whose name, which you would recognize in a second, is now synonymous worldwide with progressive contemporary literature. I also met other then-struggling but now-famous people in the arts, including a woman who is now a jazz vocalist of much renown, and an outrageous gadfly type who now produces trendy and infamous name-branded dance parties around the world attended by anyone who’s anyone, and several journalists and commentators who were then young upstarts but now write regularly for Salon, New Yorker and Time. All of this happened without my even trying, because that’s just the kind of place San Francisco was.

And then, it wasn’t anymore.

What happened? Tech companies like Google, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook took over San Francisco, starting in Silicon Valley and gradually moving in to suck up whatever creative talent could afford the rising rent. I was one of those creative talents who got sucked up, so I probably shouldn’t get to complain, but I will anyway.

Coupled with this was the associated demise of both the advertising and publishing industries. Ad revenue was all devoured by Google and Facebook, leaving ad agencies to wither and die; and of course magazines, without advertising revenue, did the same, or went online where they became financial shadows of their former selves.

Now, though, the chickens are coming home to roost.

Thanks to the pandemic and accompanying recession, the Bay Area’s formerly fabulous overpaid job market is now a shadow of its former self. Add in the fact that those still working not only have the technology to do so from anywhere (Hi, Zoom) but are also damn near forced to by social distancing protocol, and you have the makings of a housing market collapse.

That means it’s finally a renter’s market again in San Francisco (which I support even though I’m now a homeowner), as coders and marketers alike go home to the suburbs of Little Rock, Minneapolis, Austin, or Phoenix. Many of them are relieved since they don’t have to deal with things they secretly found pesky all along, like diversity, inclusivity, and needing to be able to talk about movies where nothing gets blown up or music that doesn’t have the words “Sweet Home Alabama” in it.

I’m relieved too, but for very different reasons. Finally this city can go back to what it was, a quirky, vibrant, naturally beautiful place where misfits and miscreants can find each other, each knowing that the other loves or at least embraces the city’s flaws. Its homeless that sadly never seem to be taken care of, its hills that never get easier to climb, its Sneetches-like tyranny of small differences. It’s a gold rush town for sure, but the most comfortable part for me is when the gold rush is over and you can just hang out and be.

And to all the kids who came here straight out of expensive colleges, mistaking their privilege for talent and their natural good looks for charm and sophistication, you’ll find your way. In the meantime, and I don’t mean to sound overly harsh, don’t let the Golden Gate hit you where the good lord split you.

The incredible power of negative thinking

Particularly right now with all the COVID, recession, and police brutality protests, all of which I believe are intimately connected and interrelated, stress reduction and professional development gurus are touting the power of positivity. Just stay positive, they say, and things will work out. Well, I’m here to tell you that’s all BS. Things may well work out, it’s true. But not because you’re “thinking positive.”

Every other LinkedIn post I encounter is full of “amazing” people, “incredible” ideas and “unbelievable” opportunities. The bar has really been raised, is all I can say. With so much amazing, incredible and unbelievable stuff, regular stuff doesn’t have a chance in hell.

What all this “amazing, incredible, unbelievable” talk really does is raise expectations. Then when the expectations are let down, as at some point they inevitably will be, comes the crushing disappointment. They’ve done studies on this. Despite its name, cheerleading does not lead to cheerfulness.

Look, things are unsure. It’s OK to feel disturbed or even nauseous about it, and it’s OK to be honest about it with other people. Yet for some reason that’s OK in a personal setting but not a professional one. For example, I’ve noticed that people are a lot more honest on Twitter than they are on LinkedIn, I guess because you’re supposed to lie to your work colleagues even about super-simple stuff. Being professional means you have to put a smile on everything–if you want to keep your job.

Except of course that it doesn’t. Unless you’re a server or a bartender, you don’t have to smile to do your job–in fact, it might distract you. And the same is true if you’re a writer, art director, busy sales director or coding team manager. Smile if you’ve just heard a funny joke or if your wife just sent you a picture of your baby’s first step. Otherwise, just stop it.

And going negative is less stress, since you don’t have to spend a huge part of your mental energy filtering your comments or monitoring the state of your face. You are what you are and it is what it is. If someone asks how your day is going, say “Terrible.” Chances are they’ll agree, or at least be sympathetic.

Also, and this is important, the world needs dissatisfied people. Necessity is the mother of invention. Without dissatisfied people, do you think hand sanitizer would have been invented? Or nachos, or electric toothbrushes? Of course not.

So do something good for your sanity, your dignity, and maybe even the world. Join me in going negative. Or don’t. I could care less either way.

“Why is every brand being cancelled?”

This week, a lot of bad stuff happened to big brands—brands so big, most people just assumed they were impossible to hurt.

The on that landed the hardest was Aunt Jemima. The Quaker Oats-owned pancake mix and syrup brand that was obviously racist to so many for so long, yet somehow stayed on the shelves, finally announced this week that it would get rid of the offensive “mammy” picture on the box, followed shortly by the name itself. (“Aunt” or “Uncle,” as in Ben, was the way slaveowners referred to slaves of a certain age, conferring a grudging, backhanded mock-respect without any accompanying status.)

Then there’s Big Tuna, of all things. If you thought there was something fishy and canned-sounding about that business, you were right. The CEO of Bumblebee was found guilty and hauled off to jail for conspiring with his friends at Starkist and Chicken of the Sea to fix prices. He’s doing three years, although it’ll be sandwiched between two high-paid executive gigs, so he probably won’t get too salty about it. Personally I think he should get ten years for his mullet alone—the hairdo, not the fish.

Disgraced Bumblebee CEO and hair icon Chris Lischewski

Then there’s Crossfit. CEO Greg Glassman was caught in a voice recording say he wasn’t mourning George Floyd, the Black American who was murdered by cops for the “horrible crime” of bouncing a check, and whose killing is looking more and more like it was premeditated. Glassman might as well have put on a KKK outfit with a big Crossfit logo and marched around midtown Manhattan and Beverly Hills. Word on the street is the company is either starting over from scratch or just closing up shop.

Finally, eBay had an unexpected moment in the sun when two top executives, along with a few lower-level colleagues, sent live cockroaches, a funeral wreath, and a bloody pig mask (not made from an actual pig) to a reviewer who dared to post critical reviews of eBay-sold products. They’ve now been charged by the U.S. Dept. of Justice with cyberstalking, and I think also with impersonating a John Waters movie.

What we can take away from all this? I don’t mean to be overdramatic, but I think something big is getting exposed. It’s not just institutionalized racism, which the popular narrative says is dead, but is sadly alive and well. It’s not just corporate greed, although that’s part of it. It’s not just white privilege or ruling class privilege or a narcissistic sociopathic vengeance when things don’t go exactly your way. It’s all of those things, rolled up into one huge virulent ball. And they’re coming back to bite everyone who worshiped the U.S. dollar at the expense of honesty and dignity.

For those of us in marketing, advertising, and branding, it’s time to pick a side. You’re either with Black Lives Matter, or you’re a racist. You’re either with First Amendment freedom of expression, or you’re a fascist. You’re either with free and fair competition or you’re a monopolist. Hell, even Republicans frown on those.

It doesn’t matter what expensive college you went to, what rich people you’re connected to, or how good you are at kissing up. The middle ground has now disappeared. You’re on the side of good, or you’re on the side of evil. Take a damn stand. If you can’t, more stuff is going to change, and I guarantee you’re not going to like it.

Why I’ll never take another writing test again.

A few days ago, a potential client asked me to take a writing test to qualify for a gig. The product was a powder that forms a beneficial drink when mixed with water. Things are slow for me, so I said yes.

When I received the creative brief, I was shocked. The brief was for, not a hypothetical project, but a real one. It included a send date for the actual lead generation email it was connected to.

Incensed at being asked to work for free, not even spec work but actual work work, I replied to the client that slavery had been outlawed in the 1860’s and that if he wanted an email written for free he could damn well do it himself. (I was slightly more polite than that.)

Mr. Client reassured me that he would not use my words commercially, and that he wanted my “take” on a project that was already in process, to see how I stacked up against their current writer. I was skeptical, but very reluctantly, I wrote my version of the email, adding a copyright watermark to protect my intellectual property.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, I didn’t get the assignment.

As a matter of fact, I haven’t won a single one of the assignments I’ve “auditioned” for in this way. And that’s why I’m officially not participating in these demeaning exercises anymore.

It would be easy enough to conclude that this is all sour grapes on my part, but I don’t think so. I’ve proud of the work I’ve done helping startups grow into publicly traded giants. I’ve won my share of awards, and have written hundreds of effective campaigns for household names, some of which I helped make household-y. I haven’t done much video or consumer, but I’m OK with that.

What’ I’m not OK with is writing for free. And it ends now. Here’s why:

  1. Not one single job or assignment I’ve ever received has required a copy test.
  2. Conversely, no copy test I’ve ever done has led to a job or assignment.
  3. I’ve therefore come to the conclusion that copy tests are a complete waste of time.

I mean, try to find the hole in the argument. You can’t.

I can only assume that every person who asked me to complete a copy test already had someone in mind for the role they were trying to fill, and had me do it as a way of showing due diligence. In other words, from a legal perspective, to cover their asses. And that’s it.

Copy tests, I’ve concluded, are abuse. They’re a fundamental violation of a writer’s valuable time and morale. After all, everything I do is right there on my portfolio page. Every possible variation on voice and tone, nearly every media channel. That’s me on that page.

And if you don’t trust that it’s my own work—me, a three-decade industry veteran—why should I trust you, when you have more money, more power, and more opportunities for corruption?

Look. I have no idea if Mr. Client used my copy in his real email which was frantically slated to go out the same week. Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t.

But I do know that he stole an hour from my life that I’ll never get back. And I don’t have that many of them left.

My new coronavirus-era gig doesn’t pay a dime, but it’s a total sanity saver—and I love it.

I never thought of myself as a political writer. As a matter of fact, there was a time in my life when I didn’t think of myself as political at all. For decades I’ve been in advertising, which is by nature commercial, not political.

Yet here I am, lead writer on the Shahid Buttar for Congress campaign.

If you don’t know Shahid (pronounced “SHAH-hid”), he’s running for Congress to represent San Francisco, in Nancy Pelosi’s current seat. A progressive Democrat who’s also a privacy protection attorney, he’s a veteran of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a kind of cyberpunk Justice League which successfully blocked the needless surveillance of Americans’ personal information.

It’s an uphill battle, but that’s the kind of challenge I like. Avis: We’re #2, we try harder. (Look it up, kids.)

The job is 100 percent pro bono/volunteer, and it’s taking up more of my time and energy than I anticipated. Between Slack, Zoom, and the actual writing process, I’m more drained at the end of some days than I was working for an in-house agency.

So why am I loving it so much?

Part of it is the way this work fits into my new sensibility. I was always politically aware, but as an observer, like a space alien curious about earthlings’ ways. In recent years, though, I’ve become more involved, and COVID-19, which affects an extraordinary range of life’s facets from healthcare to employment to the way we socialize, has only sharpened that involvement. (Shahid’s platform includes healthcare as a human right.)

Another part of it is that I’m just made to write. To paraphrase Twilight Zone and Star Trek writer Harlan Ellison, it’s what I’m for. Not having any assignments for a month or so should have felt like a fun break, but instead it felt like a piece of me was missing.

Finally, as a little bit of a celebrity stalker, I’ve enjoyed being on Zoom calls with minor political figures. I can’t say who they are, but if you follow progressive politics, you’d recognize their names.

Don’t get me wrong. I like receiving fair compensation for the work I do, and look forward to the day when I can do so again.

And I certainly would never work free for a for-profit company. That’s called slavery.

But with paying work hard to come by this summer, I have to admit nonpaying work is satisfying. It uses all the skills I used in advertising: Research, presentation, strategy and conceptualization, and writing itself.

Best of all, I don’t have to sit on a long train ride and go to an office I might or might not want to be in for 40 hours every week. I can just write, do virtual meetings, and have fun.

Find a cause you like and try it sometime.

You won’t believe it, but I had a funny feeling something like this would happen.

Once upon a time, I worked at a full-time corporate marketing job. I had a pretty good title (Senior Copywriter), pulled a halfway decent salary (none of your business), and enjoyed unlimited free snacks.

But every day, I left that place with a funny, nauseated feeling in the pit of my stomach.

This can’t last, I thought. Some day, it’s all going to collapse.

And now, it’s happening. On the heels of the retail and service sectors imploding, the same is now happening to white collar jobs. The tech sector will collapse last. But without support from the other sectors, its turn will come.

Now, I’m not going to tell you the name of the company I’m referring to, because the truth is, I’ve worked at several companies that had the exact same problem.

You see, it was never about the company itself. It’s about the parameters of the entire unregulated, quarterly report-crazed, market fundamentalist system, which no other developed country has.

Here’s what gave me such a stomach ache:

  • Talented designers and art directors paid to engage in repetitive, unimaginative tasks
  • Middle managers whose main job seemed to be glibly spouting platitudes and trendy B-school phrases
  • Top executives completely disengaged from rank-and-file employees
  • A strategic plan that, while never publicly discussed, seemed to consist of three phases: (1) acquire smaller companies, (2) grow to a certain predetermined size, (3) get acquired by a very large company—with all other decisions subordinate to those three steps
  • An advancement system that seemed to be based on the movie MEAN GIRLS, with endless gossip and backstabbing, no 360 degree performance reviews (or any reviews really), and no HR involvement
  • A weird and ominous quiet which permeated the office like a kind of poison fog

And here are the conditions that I believe led to this situation, which again are not unique to any one company:

  • An emphasis on short-term gain (i.e. quarterly reports and IPO fixations) at the expense of long-term planning
  • An obsessive focus on growth at the expense of customers, employees, and even stability
  • A tendency to put vaporware and PR before meaningful product features
  • An authoritarian, top-down orientation that kills insights and ideas (frequently disguised with New Age-sounding BS, to fool workers into believing it’s in their best interest)
  • A wild west mentality including “at-will employment,” which says employers can fire you at any time for any reason or even no stated reason at all

Chances are you may recognize some, or all, of these parameters. You may think, “I worked at that company.” And maybe you did. But even if you didn’t, you worked in corporate America. And corporate America, as it is, has written its own obituary.

All it took was one pandemic to push it over the edge.

Something’s got to change.

It’s time for creatives to take a long, hard look at how we got here

Why did you become a creative professional? A copywriter, designer, art director, creative director, video/film director? An ad person, in other words?

At the deepest psychological level, why would you voluntarily join such an unstable, unpredictable, unappreciated, and often scoffed-at profession?

I know why I did. And I’m not proud of it.

I hasten to add that I am proud of the actual work I’ve done over the years. Of helping to grow my clients’ businesses. Of getting paid to solve tough business problems with insightful solutions. And yes, of adding some thoughtful, well-crafted, and occasionally even funny lines to the business environment we all live in.

But between the pandemic, the insane unemployment numbers, and the continuing transfer of advertising dollars from thousands of venues to Google and Facebook, I believe it’s worth looking at how we got here, so we can see a little more clearly where we’re going.

Like all my compatriots of a certain age—like you, in all probability—I spent a lot of my formative years in front of the TV, and that TV was always trying to sell me something.

Sometimes that thing would even include a picture of the very characters I saw on TV, which seemed vaguely magical, as though the characters had somehow popped out of the TV and broken the Fourth Wall.

For example, a cartoon leprechaun would sell you cereal, and when your parents bought the cereal, there that leprechaun would be, right on the box. To a two- or three-year-old with a still-developing brain, this passed for a religious experience.

And where was those parents, by the way, when all this was happening? Either taking care of even younger kids and doing housework, or working, or attending night school, or simply finding themselves—as the TV also encouraged them to do. So they plopped the kids in front of the magical babysitter, where they then would be sold even more things that had pictures of TV characters on them.

Cut to several years later, the small child grew into a larger child and then a college student, who on some level, albeit dimly, realized the profound power and influence that advertising had held over his life.

In fact, many were the times, between parental divorces and separations and constantly changing schools and moving houses, when advertising characters had seemed more like friends than people did.

But what if that power could be reclaimed?

What if, after 20 years of advertising wielding immense power over a person, that person could turn the tables? What if they could wield that same power over not just other people, but the advertising profession itself?

And so, we learned to use Macs and design software. And brand voice and tone guidelines, and creative briefs. And video editing software. And whatever else was necessary so we could do this ourselves, instead of having it done to us.

And now, here we all are. We’ve mastered this craft which previously mastered us, so congratulations to all of us.

The problem is, it’s now a craft without a venue—just Google and Facebook. We’re like carpenters who can design and build wonderful imaginative chairs, suddenly transported to ancient Japan where everyone is expected to kneel on the floor at mealtimes.

So what do we do now?

In the short term, I imagine some of us will become Instacart shoppers, nurses, grocery store stock clerks, Amazon warehouse workers, and other essential employees. I myself made such a temporary transition just after 9/11, when agency jobs were tough to come by. I catered, tended bar, waited tables. I didn’t mind it, to tell you the truth.

But in the long term, something deeper has to happen. We need to focus on using our incredible creative potential to build something new.

Not to sell cereal, or beer, or the latest SaaS/cloud solution, but to sell ideas that change the very way we live, the way we see each other, the way we see fundamental things like money and time and human relationships and our place in the universe.

Call it anti-propaganda, or advertising in reverse.

Who’s going to pay us to do that? For a while, maybe no one. In that case, we’re going have to do it for free, building the world we want to see.

Meanwhile, to survive and support our families, we’ll do our old creative professional jobs as well as we can—for as long as they exist.

But that won’t be forever.

A whole new way may not be possible, but business as usual definitely isn’t.

This is odd: When you scroll down LinkedIn these days, about half the posts look like there’s nothing wrong. You definitely can’t tell there’s a pandemic going on. No reference at all to the genuinely weird context that we’re all working from home, and that many of us are in danger of catching a terrible disease if we go out—or, in the case of New Yorkers, even if we don’t.

The other half of the posts do acknowledge the pandemic, but in an anodyne, feckless way that suggests that if we just wait, everything will go back to normal. “We’re all in this together.” “Together, even though we’re apart.” “In these uncertain times.” “Stay safe, stay home, stay positive.” You know what I’m talking about.

In my view, neither half really gets it.

The denial crowd is hoping the tiger in the room will walk away if they just whistle and ignore it. Meanwhile, the meaningless platitude crowd thinks it will turn into a friendly pet, if they just speak nice words to it and maybe feed it a tiny bite of their burger.

Either way, I wouldn’t bet against the tiger.

This can all be explained by the class time lag. Blue collar workers like drivers, servers, and bartenders, who make up the quasi-invisible service economy, were laid off long before white collar managerial and creative professionals. Now the pandemic is starting to hit us too, but it still doesn’t feel quite real yet, even to those who’ve lost their jobs.

The only real solution, which no one wants to hear because it would involve some effort and adjustment, is a completely different approach to work and business, as well as, I believe, the role of government—both federal and state/local.

Some of these pieces are tied to each other, but some can be done by forward-thinking businesses independent of any government action, and I hope they will be:

  • Separate health insurance from employment and make it a human right for every American citizen
  • Add non-citizens too, since contagious germs don’t care who they infect
  • Ban quarterly reports, which force all business decisions to be made for pure short-term gain, and make reports annual, or even biannual
  • Require sustainability, health, and safety experts, as well as frontline essential workers, to be present at shareholder meetings and allow them to speak
  • Heavily penalize any company that violates worker health rights—the viewpoint of Amazon’s whistleblowing ex-Vice President Tim Bray, who just quit because he didn’t want to be a party to actual murder
  • Provide generous paid sick leave, childcare, and (when needed) protective gear for all employees
  • Raise the minimum wage so that one person can live on one job, including a one-bedroom apartment, and—as most developed nations have done—cap C-level pay ratios to make up the difference (right now the ratio of top exec pay to average worker pay must be disclosed, but there are no penalties for it being high)
  • Finally, and this is the overall rule that informs all the others, realize that if one worker suffers, we all do—regardless of status or pay grade—and that this isn’t some meaningless lofty platitude, but simply the way germs think

If Tom Hanks or the CEO of Morgan Stanley can be infected with COVID-19, anyone can. Next time, let’s make sure no one does.

Nostalgia is natural, but it’s hurting us. A lot.

It feels comfortable, like a favorite sweatshirt. Comforting, like a creamy cheesy winter casserole. It just feels right.

But it’s wrong.

We can’t go back to the way things were before the pandemic, because that way lies an end to everything.

We want to. Really, really badly. This has been such a disruptive experience on so many levels.

There’s the lifestyle level: Not being able to go out to restaurants, shows and clubs, not even being able to shop freely or get a haircut, being stuck in the same place.

Then there’s the more basic level of those who are laid off and suddenly lack healthcare (almost always tied to employment in the U.S., unlike other developed countries)—just when they need it most.

Some even lack money to pay their rent or even buy groceries.

And of course, for the unlucky, there’s illness and even death.

With all these changes going on, of course everyone longs to go back to simpler times. But they don’t exist, and never did.

Do we really want to go back to a time when this country had seven active civilian-killing wars going on? When Big Banks got trillions in bailouts, while regular people were thrown out of their homes and onto the streets? When there was a new school shooting every week, and a new group of promising creatives got gobbled up by hostile holding companies every month?

Or do we want to go back further than that, when American teens were being fed into the Iraq War hopper by the millions, in service of “evidence” that turned out to be a lie for Big Oil companies? Companies that now want yet another federal bailout because suddenly no one can drive, fly or take cruises?

Or even further than that, when it was routine for women and people of color to be treated as second-class citizens? When agency creatives, almost without exception, worked on cigarettes, disgusting unhealthy junk food, pollutive gasoline and gas-guzzling cars, or some other personal or planetary poison?

I don’t think any of us really wants to go back there. I know I don’t.

What we need to get to, rather rapidly, is a point where the future feels more comfortable than the past, because it’s the only real choice any of us has.

And we’re not going to get there by following big political organizations, on either the left or the right. One wants to go back to the 2010’s, so far away yet so tantalizingly close, while the other wants to go all the way back to the 1950’s. We don’t have the luxury of doing either.

We need a new way forward. And marketing needs to lead the way by:

  • Abandoning old models that don’t work any longer, such as basing all marketing strategies on short-term quarterly earnings
  • Asking questions about how our clients’ products and services fit into the new future we all face together, where we all either thrive or face extinction
  • Refusing to be satisfied with empty gestures that sympathetically intone “We’re together, even though we’re apart” while offering nothing to the increasingly large percentage of Americans struggling to make rent, buy groceries and receive basic healthcare
  • Being brave enough to call out denial when we see it
  • Understanding the difference between a brand—a promise that’s made to customers and truly kept, supported by marketing—and “branding,” a combination of logo design, trendy look and feel, and copy voice that’s meaningless except to other marketers
  • Staying aware, painful though it can be, of the inflection point we’re all living in, and making choices—in our jobs as well as outside of them—that build a more sustainable and equitable world

Marketing is dead. Long live marketing.

Once about every couple of years, marketing or advertising is pronounced dead, usually because of automation or the Internet or some other change vector everyone could see coming from a mile away.

This time feels different, though. Maybe it’s all the marketers who’ve now been laid off, even though they thought their jobs were safer than those of the restaurant workers, bartenders, and rideshare drivers they count on.

Or maybe it’s all the casualties, people who’ve actually died from coronavirus. If you’re a marketing professional of a certain age, you probably know one personally. If so, I’m sorry for your loss.

Some have said this pandemic is Mother Nature’s way of sending humans to our rooms to think about what we’ve built. I think there’s some truth to that and I think it goes double for marketers.

The standard drill for marketers is to drink a venti triple latte with oat milk, get pumped up about how great their product is, and then try to sell it through their channel of choice. But they don’t really believe it’s great. That’s why the latte’s there.

Steve Jobs famously said when recruiting John Sculley to run Apple, “Do you want to sell sugar water or do you want to change the world?” But now, everyone selling sugar water actually thinks they are changing the world. That’s a problem—even in Silicon Valley, where not every company can be an Apple including, these days, Apple itself.

I encourage my fellow marketers to spend the next couple of months—I hope for all our sakes that it is just a couple of months—asking ourselves some uncomfortable questions about what kind of people we want to be, what kind of companies we want to work for, and what kind of legacies we want to leave.

As an example, Ally Bank just announced that it would not apply any customers’ stimulus checks to overdrafts. All customers will get the full amount to spend on luxuries like, you know, rent or food.

This is a branding initiative that actually means something. It’s not just empty words, catchy slogans, or hip cool imagery, although it might be promoted with those things.

I hope my colleagues, as they sit at home drinking wine and baking homemade sourdough cinnamon rolls, will take a moment to contemplate why Ally Bank would pull such a Miracle on 34th Street type move. And even more to the point, to consider why the whole system is so tied to quarterly earnings reports that long-term, customer-first thinking like this isn’t more common.

Then maybe we can have advertising, marketing, and branding that’s actually worth the effort it takes to produce.

My super power is fighting cheerleaderism. Here’s why I do it, and how you can too (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this post, I talked about the disturbing trend of marketing stakeholders and clients reflexively responding to questions about their marketing problems with a lot of positive rah-rah nonsense that’s not only not helpful, but actually harmful to the strategic and creative process.

In this second part, I’ll list several possible reasons for this trend, a trend which invariably results in wasted money and bad marketing—and then follow them with a pathway to reversing it.

Here are the reasons why cheerleaderism might rear its ugly head:

  1. The stakeholder is in sales, or a sales-related position, and is so used to pumping up their company that that’s how they answer any question.
  2. The stakeholder has bought the fictitious line that thinking and acting positive all the time, and making positive statements all the time, no matter how terrible the situation, is the road to success. It isn’t. It’s the road to denial.
  3. The stakeholder just has a psychological need to please and impress people, even people whom it absolutely will not benefit them to impress.
  4. The stakeholder is simply not a very clear thinker. They are possibly the victim of 12-hour days, the stress of working for a volatile boss and driving in traffic and raising a family, the mental cloudiness of certain substances commonly used to alleviate said stress, etc.

Any or all of these may be true, but the result is always the same: When a creative professional asks the legitimate question, “What marketing problem are we solving here,” the response is either a blank stare or a bunch of positive-sounding but unhelpful gibberish.

Now, here’s what you, as a stakeholder, can do about it:

  1. Be candid. When a creative professional or strategist is smart and curious enough to probe, answer their questions openly. In other words, tell them what the damn marketing problem is. There must be one, or you wouldn’t have hired them. What are you paying them to fix, exactly? This is not the time to be Mr. Rogers and pretend everything’s OK when it’s not. If you’re not straightforward, you’re not “saving face” or “making the company look good” or “being a loyal employee.” You’re simply hurting yourself and hurting your company.
  2. Be proactive. If your copywriter or art director doesn’t ask you where your business is falling down, tell them. Don’t wait for the question. With some people, you might be waiting a long time. Tell them exactly where the holes are in your business model. Do you have renewal and customer success issues? Are there lead nurturing gaps where prospects show interest at first, then fail to engage? Is there a high price point that can’t be moved, so you need to show more value? Do your own homework, then be brutally frank. Remember, the first step to solving a problem is acknowledging that you have one.
  3. Be humble. This is not the time to talk up your product. You’re not trying to sell it, and the creative professional is not a sales prospect or a user. Don’t boast and brag about how your product is the greatest thing since sliced bread and creams the competition, or about all the great numbers you made last year and plan to make this year, or all the new demos you plan to crush. Instead, everything that you’re unsure, insecure and secretly freaking out about? Let it all out. That’s what we’re here for and who knows, we might even be able to help.

Dave Dumanis is a creative director, copywriter, and 25-year veteran of Bay Area advertising and marketing.

My super power is fighting cheerleaderism. Here’s why I do it, and how you can too (Part 1)

My most common question to clients and potential clients is what I always thought was a simple one: “What’s the biggest challenge you’re facing?”

It’s strange and somewhat concerning to me that I almost never get a straight answer to this question.

I mean, they shouldn’t be trying to impress me. I’m working for them, or auditioning to do so. If anything, they should be glad to be blunt, frank and forthright with me.

After all, I’m not their boss! If they tell me what’s going wrong, I’m not going to use that info to fire them. I’m going to use it to help them.

Yet time after time, when I ask a client or stakeholder about the most pressing problem, issue or challenge they face, here’s the answer:

“We’re doing phenomenally well… We’ve just merged with/acquired X company and have plans to acquire Y company… We just received X million dollars in funding… We’ve released a new version of our flagship product and it has this killer feature and that killer feature, all based on our exciting new platform of blah-biddy-blah-biddy-blah… Etc., etc., etc.”

As a creative professional, I can safely say that this information is of less than no use to me. In fact calling it “information” at all is being kind. It’s promotional boilerplate, also known as PR, also known as bullshit.

And while I understand why you might relate it to your customers and users, or even to your underlings, I’m at a loss to understand why you would give it to a copywriter or art director and expect them to do anything with it.

Our job is to find out what’s going wrong with your business, so we can use our creativity to clearly define and solve that problem. If you tell us what’s going right with it, that leaves us no better off than before, and possibly worse off depending on how true it is.

And at the end of the day, Mr. or Ms. Stakeholder, who gets hosed? You do.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where I’ll tell you where the instinct to make this huge mistake comes from, and some concrete ways to fight it.

Dave Dumanis is a creative director, copywriter, and 25-year veteran of Bay Area advertising and marketing.