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After nearly 30 years in advertising and digital marketing, I’m fascinated by how the early parts of our careers shape us along the way.
Looking for insight from the past, I began to binge-write chapters of my career from the beginning, stumbling onto lessons from each job. It’s resulted in a book, Bronze Seeks Silver: Lessons from a Creative Career in Marketing. Half-memoir, half-guidebook, it covers everything I’ve learned about selling brands, building relationships, and managing careers.
Here are five important content campaigns that stand out to me, not just for what they did for the client, but for how they still inform what I do today.
Whether it’s for advertising, content marketing, or journalism, every writer needs a portfolio that shows off your distinct voice.
One of my first portfolio entries was a spec, or hypothetical, tourism campaign for the tiny nation of Bhutan, nestled in the Himalayas between China and India. Inspired by an article in National Geographic, my approach celebrated how Bhutan was far off the beaten path, each ad highlighting a local distinction.
The first, rooted in the myth of the Abominable Snowman, was a blurred picture of a large animal with the headline: “Americans Revere Their Legends. We Run From Ours.” And since every culture brags about its own cuisine, a second ad focused on Bhutan’s century-old eating habits. Paired with a photo of a campfire: “The Lighter has Brought Bhutan Out of the Middle Ages. Now it’s Easier to Boil the Yak.” A tagline summed up the spirit that this eclectic place of Bhutan wasn’t for everyone: “For travelers, not tourists.”
Recruiters gave this content campaign high marks, which helped me land a job. They liked how I translated research into persuasive communications. More importantly, they pointed to the way I found my audience by declaring who I was for—and who I was not.
I still push my team today at Prophet to go beyond Googling factoids. Instead, they should dig into product backgrounds, talk to analysts, and review third-party information to uncover details they can regift to an audience in a compelling way.
The early Web circa. 2000 was a newsstand of brochure-rich websites, heavy on information and light on fun. Enter webisodes, a novel video format with action, animation, and volume.
My main account was the U.S. Office National Drug Policy (ONDCP), and our task was to persuade kids on the ills of drugs.
To cut through the clutter of conventional ads and be approachable to an audience who clearly didn’t want to hear anti-drug messages, we created Summit High, an online cartoon series. Taking cues from television instead of advertising, the series starred five teenagers at a fictional suburban high school. Based a bit on our own experiences as creators, each episode followed the kids as they encountered drugs.
To help you get to know the characters, we invented elaborate backstories and extra-curricular activities (basketball, music, school paper, horoscopes, skateboarding) for each one. Together they all were in a band called Bitter Hope.
The series—an early example of branded content— was a hit, extended for three seasons and, according to tracking studies, contributed to negative perceptions of drug use among teens. We even did a deal with Sony for an original song.
The burden of keeping the series going for three years was a challenge, timely today when user consumption can rarely be sated. To keep your audience interested, I recommend turning to Hollywood. We used techniques like having two plots in every episode (one major, one minor), mapping out long-term character arcs, and declaring upfront that people could expect a simple eight-episode season.
I got into podcasting during its first wave in 2005. With my team at R/GA, I helped create one of the first brand-sponsored podcasts: Download with Heather and Janelle for Johnson & Johnson’s Acuvue contact lenses.
Hosted by two teen girls from Long Island, the format was an unscripted talk show. We built a website for it, but how do you get people in listening mode to shift gears (and channels) to visit a website?
The answer was to think like a teen. Each week, in a special segment, Heather and Janelle brought on “Cute Guy of the Week,” a friend from school to interview. To see his picture, the audience had to visit to the website. There they could take a poll, click around, or get a coupon for a free trial to take with them to the eye doctor. Once we added the photo and promoted it, we saw double-digit upticks in site traffic.
What I learned is still useful today: rethinking an awareness-friendly format like audio as a potential direct response channel. We built suspect through audio, but the only way the audience could get the full visual payoff was to visit the site.
The most innovative campaign I was ever part of was also the most deceptive. While I was at Agency.com, an ambitious and creatively-driven client from LG Electronics awarded us and TBWA the brief to launch their new TV: Scarlet.
Instead of conventionally announcing a series of TVs, we pretended we were launching a television series, employing all the standard elements one would expect.
For example, LG announced that director David Nutter (known for TV’s Smallville and Supernatural) had signed on to create a new network series named Scarlet. Just as you would promote a real TV series, we shot an explosive, action-packed trailer in Thailand with a booming voiceover promising intrigue.
The trailer lived online, and we distributed news items on blogs with ads that looked and sounded like TV advertising, teasing a premiere date coming soon. My creative team at Agency.com London even developed the first web site that used eye-tracking to control navigation. Word of mouth was crucial, so the PR firm leaked information that the lead actress was possible in relationships with both Puff Daddy and Robbie Williams. We exaggerated, we reframed, but note that we never lied.
As demand grew, we revealed in Los Angeles and then Istanbul that Scarlet was not actually a new TV series, but a series of new TVs. I still can’t believe people cheered instead of booed, but they did. One magazine called it the most innovative campaign of the year.
This experience taught me two things. One, to capture imagination and engage an audience for a high-ticket item (like a TV), you need a concept rich enough with content, PR, and experience to earn their belief. And two, the answer in marketing is not craziness as much as it is courage to go big.
In 2011, the last recession was in full swing and many of my clients at Ogilvy were cutting budgets. When rereading David Ogilvy books, one of his beliefs stuck out: “We sell, or else.”
Salesmanship was a great virtue to Ogilvy, whose first job was selling Aga Cookers door-to-door in England. You’d think short-term sales would already be part of the fabric of an ad agency, but the truth was that most firms like mine had prioritized longer-term brand-building, a more intellectual goal with less immediate results.
Pressured to raise the profile of our division and build demand during this tough time, my idea was to bring the art of salesmanship back to the fore.
Mish, a colleague in corporate marketing, noted that YouTube had recently given the agency a custom brand channel, but nobody knew what to do with it. So Mish and I pitched the Ogilvy worldwide board to sponsor a contest to find the world’s greatest salespeople, using the YouTube channel as the hub. Contestants would attempt to sell something as simple as a red brick in two minutes or less on video. (If you could sell a red brick, we figured you could probably sell anything.)
Clients and the public picked the finalists, and the winner was chosen two months later on stage at the Cannes Lions, the year’s biggest marketing event. We were bringing salesmanship to the hear of commercial creativity. In addition to a free trip to the south of France, the grand prize would include a job with us at OgilvyOne.
The lessons were profound. We had to figure out the logistics of running a contest in 12 different countries (rules and fees vary!). Then there was a social media backlash from existing sales pros, which is the reason I received media training for TV, radio, newspapers, and social.
The work earned some press, awards, some praise for clients, and a discernible lift in revenue. The next year, I found myself on a jury at Cannes myself.
Content marketing may be a modern field, but many of its core principles trace back to great marketing campaigns. And who knows, the project you’re working on now may become an example for someone else in the future.
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