A Breath of Fresh Ads

What happens when you invite a bunch of people, let them sample your product and allow them to speak their mind? Let’s see…

This month marks my third year as a fulltime freelance copywriter. And if you add the 13 odd years I was an agency-employed copywriter, you can say I’ve seen many groundbreaking campaigns.

From the era of experiential marketing and digital 2.0 to current industry buzzwords such as disruptive marketing and hashtag-strategies; the ad game has evolved to the point of mutation.

But no matter what you do, people will continue to form their own opinions – be it positive or otherwise – about a product or service.

The blind ‘taste test’ for Laphroaig (don’t ask me how to pronounce it) reveals an important aspect of consumer behaviour.

They prefer to think for themselves.

We as advertisers can only mould consumers to think a certain way via a concept, proposition or message. But often have no control of how they might interpret our messaging or imagery.

In the case of Laphroaig, they embraced the opinions of their focus group – made up of people who may or may not have consumed the product previously – and went on to create print ads without filtering even the negative comments.

Laphroaig Ad Hospital
How would a burning hospital taste anyway? Intrigued I am...
Laphroaig Ad Kerosene
Yes, this is a real ad. I did not make it up...

Now, that took some balls.

Granted the product is an intoxicating beverage and there is a certain degree of creative freedom afforded.

But come on… ‘tastes like burning hospital’ as part of a headline? You got to give the people at Laphroaig some props. There are more versions of the print campaign actually, which I urge you to check out.

And the best part, the agency’s copywriter didn’t even have to think of a catchy, punchy and juicy headline; the consumers did it.

Now I want to do a focus group-inspired campaign too… anyone?

Nitty Gritty

I never studied copywriting. I mean I have learned the craft on-the-job, but have never sat in a classroom studying to be a copywriter.

In fact, I only decided to venture into copywriting towards the end of my college years. Yes, I actually stumbled into this line of work.

Now, there are few colleges churning out copywriting diploma-totting graduates raring to hit the ground running with stacks of very creative portfolio pieces.

This could seriously be a hit e-book!

Certainly, the bar has been raised, because I got into the industry knowing nuts about advertising or how to craft a clever headline. Heck, I wasn’t even worthy of a computer on my first copywriting job. I had to handwrite everything onto loose A4 sheets, while constantly referring to my dictionary.

That was a long, long time ago.

But that was the case with most people in advertising back then. We loved to draw, write, or think, and figured we wanted to get paid for it. Not many of us got into agencies willingly, and not many survived for too long either.

Copywriting graduates now though know exactly what they are getting into. At least I hope they do, because the first few years can be rather challenging, to put it very mildly.

But here’s the thing, according to Sanam Petri, an Associate CD at R/GA London:

“because today’s advertising world is largely driven by accolades and awards, many communication schools are churning out kids who think like creative directors, not kids who just love to write. Students are coming into the agency with their sights trained on one thing: being the one to come up with the one game-changing idea that puts them on the map. But what are the implications of hiring an entire generation of thinkers who can’t do?”

While we should not generalize that all copywriting graduates are useless douches, I totally agree that most of them do not want to get into the nitty gritty of the industry. It’s all about big ideas and creative execution instead of learning the ropes and honing the craft.

No wonder good, dedicated writers are hard to come by these days. Blame the colleges.

The Greatest Online Marketing Gimmick Ever?

Okay, maybe I’m slightly overstating the greatness, but I personally thought this was genius.

Watch it…

How visually captivating was that?!

Okay, bobble-head Obama wasn’t the first thing that was sent into space that way. Some dudes sent a beer can off to the final frontier about a year ago.

But originality aside, this was one of the most refreshing videos I’ve watched in recent years.

And with the presidential race heating up in the US, here’s why I think this was a brilliant idea from Obama’s camp:

  1. Voters get 3 full minutes watching Obama ascend up to space, and then bobble down to earth. More face time, means higher Top of Mind awareness
  2. The stirring, inspiring background score positions Obama as some sort of a savior. Intentional? Absolutely not.
  3. The bobble-head effect makes Obama seem light-hearted, warm and approachable. Voters are emotional beings you know?
  4. The video was done by grass-root supporters – definitely sanctioned by Obama’s campaign managers though – highlighting his popularity
  5. Depicts Obama as human, after all. Because what goes up, must come down
Up and away...
Calling all politicians...

Now, wouldn’t it be awesome if we could send some of our politicians into space, like, for good?

Ah well, just a silly thought.

Un-Creative Malaysia

Many of us in the Malaysian advertising industry always lament about the lack of creative license afforded to us by clients – including me, occasionally.

Compared to our regional counterparts in Thailand, Indonesia, India and even our ‘friends’ separated by just a waterway in Singapore; we Malaysians addies aren’t that creative to be honest.


I am not trying to blame anyone here. Whether clients give us the creative freedom or not should not be used as an excuse. It is how creatively we work within the constraints that matter.

But let’s look at it this way. Creativity is subjective; and is not the kind of waters you want to thread, especially when millions in media budget is at stake.

And the biggest question is this – even if audiences get an idea that is creative, do they remember the product?

I have friends who sometimes comment on ads they’ve seen. They will rave about how creative it was, and when asked about the product that the ad was supposed to sell, go totally blank.

So it is quite understandable when Malaysian clients take a more direct route in communicating to their target market. If a mind-blowing creative campaign doesn’t ring in the sales or even improve brand awareness; then what’s the point?

As a copywriter, I always believed creativity in advertising is a balancing act. A campaign must be equally memorable and be able to compel action at the same time.

Finding that equilibrium is where the magic of advertising happens.

Think Outside the Box! Really?

You’ve heard this before from your boss, colleagues and maybe even a client or two. But is it even possible to be able to think outside the box? No way in hell it seems.

No matter how far away from a ‘box’ you are, there are still various mental constraints that each and every one of us needs to adhere to.

You can't think outside the box...
There's no such thing as thinking outside the box... kapish?

Even if you do manage to jump out a box; you’ll find that you are in a much bigger box. And that big box is in another much, much bigger box. And the boxes just seem to get bigger and bigger.

Look around, you are probably in a box disguising as a cubicle or office space as it is. Then there’s the company culture, your boss’ preference, the politics and not forgetting your own likes and dislikes. Now we know why office buildings are often in the shape of a box – hardly conducive for innovating.

Let’s say you manage to claw your way out, then there are market constraints, client politics, consumer preferences, cultural nuances, industry practices and the hard-coded mentality of “this is how things are done”.

So is there a way to really think out of the box or is this just some slick-ass marketing term concocted to confuse clients and ourselves?

Frankly, I have no freaking idea. Look at it this way, if someone asked me to write outside the box, the copy will hardly be on point. It would be like working without a creative brief.

Let’s face it, we’re not Einsteins, so the box may well be our savior. It gives us a frame of reference, guidelines and limitations (often too much). It’s how creatively we work within these confines that matter.

So when someone asks you to think outside the box, pile some boxes next to your desk. There’s one right on my desk 😉


Why I Quit My Job

Most people think I became self-employed to make more money. But trust me, if money was my only motivation, it would have been easier to just keep working. So why did I quit? Truth be told, I had absolutely no idea, until recently.

Okay, honestly I did have a general idea. Basically it was to have more time for myself, do things on my terms and do it well, and look forward to better things than weekends and paydays. I would be happy even if I made some money; more is of course a bonus.

Manual Labour
It often felt like I was doing hard labour, even when I wasn't

But I that was before I watched a TED video by Dan Pink, which offered a fascinating insight into the science of motivation. In the video, Dan talks about an important factual discovery:

That those working in jobs that require
cognitive skills (i.e. creativity), a larger reward (i.e. more money)
leads to poorer performance

No wonder I was so miserable even when I was earning a decent buck as a senior copywriter. And that “I deserve better” feeling at the end of the month wasn’t because I wanted more money; but because I wanted to satisfy the purpose of my existence.

I know, sounds philosophical, but Dan put down 3 desires us ‘creative’ folks yearn for:

Autonomy: The urge to direct our own lives

Mastery: The desire to get better and better at something that matters

Purpose: The yearning to do what we do in service of something larger than ourselves

So if you’re stuck in a well-paying job; but still can’t seem to figure out why you find it absolutely painful to wake up in the mornings, I suggest you watch Dan’s video on TED.

Just don’t quit your job too soon. I might call you for a loan in case my self-employment thing doesn’t work out… haha!


It’s Not My Job

Have you ever seen something that was not right, and knew you could make it right, but made no attempt because it was not your job? I know I have, and I’m not proud of it.

In an ideal situation, everyone should have everyone else’s backs in an agency, especially in the studio. This is of course easier said than done in an environment with looming deadlines and unforgiving hours. But if you spot something that’s out of place or just wrong – be it in copy, design or common sense – then it becomes your duty to raise the flag.

Yes, even when it’s not your job.  Here’s an example of what can happen if you don’t:

I recently browsed the new Malaysia Tourism website, which was easy on the eyes, well-constructed and a breeze to navigate. Then I clicked on About Malaysia and everything seemed fine until I found an external link to a Malaysian government portal. I clicked on this link that promised ‘more information’ and landed on…

I was like what the 4uck?! This looks like website from the 90s that has obviously been designed put together by nitwits. What kind of impression will this site leave on a prospective tourist? And since the site was in Bahasa Malaysia by default, I looked to see if I could at least change that. So I located the language option drop down menu and clicked on it to realise that there was no other language option besides Bahasa Malaysia. Genius!

I’m sure someone noticed this glaring stupidity and decided it was not his job to mention it. This Malaysian Government portal does not serve any purpose to prospective tourists, especially it being in a language that only Malaysians can read.

The solution is as easy as unlinking the site from the Malaysia Tourism portal. Unless, it is not possible to unlink because it is an executive decision to have the link.

In that case, there’s only one thing to say… Welcome to Malaysia!


I Suck

Mmmm Lollipop
Admit it! At one time, you sucked too 😉

Yeah, I suck at over-the-top advertising. I suck at making deceiving claims. I also suck at conjuring mindless superlatives just to make my copy ‘catchy’. Heck, I even suck at advertising that decorate rather than communicate.

I suck at many things because I can’t – no matter how hard I try – know it all.

I believe advertising should be about sending right message to the right audience in the right time and hopefully with the right offer to compel a desired action.

It’s nice to be reminded about what we are really supposed to do.
Just disregard the intro music; David Ogilvy was not a king.

Because truth be told, no one gives a shit about award-winning creatives or kick-ass art direction or genius copy except for those in the ad industry.

Everyone else is just concerned about getting the best value at the lowest cost in the most convenient way possible, and I am referring to both clients and consumers here.

Advertising should be more accountable, where money spent can be justified, and less about strategic mumbo jumbo and pointless creative masturbation.

With ROI becoming more and more important to clients, creative work – or anything that happens within an advertising agency – must strive to bring more bang to clients’ ADEX.

Anything less is just not acceptable; at least for me that is. This renewed enthusiasm for advertising that sells is borne from years of watching clients spend money in big idea yet low effectiveness advertising.

In the words of the great David Ogilvy, when asked about advise on running a business:

“Never spend money on advertising which does not sell”

That’s good advise isn’t it?


Who Needs a Creative Brief Anyway?

It turns out the thing we creatives think ought to be better written, is the very thing that’s limiting our creativity in the first place. Yup, creative briefs block creative thinking.

Creative briefs are written by brand or account managers; whom are both normally analytical, tactics-driven and strategically sound. These are a bunch of people who are left-brained if you will. Their objective is to manage a project to produce a desired result while being on time and on budget.

Now a recipient of a creative brief is usually a right-brained creative director, art director or copywriter; who some say is hard-wired to ignore a creative brief. It seems the tendency to disregard a brief is actually a natural reflex, and not an act of defiance as normally assumed.

Waste paper basket
Many a creative briefs have ended up here. Blame our right-sided brain for that!

Creatives are motivated by their craft and their need to excel in what they do. They also know other creatives are watching their work and that the next awards night is just around the corner. There is this need for a creative to justify his existence in the creative department, and to satisfy his toughest critic – himself.

A well-written creative brief then comes along to put a spanner in the works.

The fact of the matter is that most creative briefs are hardly creative. They’re full of dry data, assumptions, restrictions and guidelines; exactly the kind of thing that does not get creative juices flowing. The ‘better’ a brief is, the harder it becomes to translate it into a compelling, effective and engaging communication.

So allow me to apologize to all the suits that I’ve previously chided for not giving me a proper brief. It seems we never needed it in the first place.


Google Should Be Banned…

As a creative research tool that is. In fact, Google should be banned for use when sourcing ideas, inspiration, insights, trends and pretty much everything else that have to do with creativity.

Being a copywriter, I am also very much dependent on Google for developing copy. Not because I want to but because I have to – sometimes too much for my own liking – as I commented on a previous post.

You see, the modus operandi of Google is very simple. It is basically a huge index of the entire world’s online information; a guide of sorts. That’s all well and fine, I mean I’m sure none of us can imagine a life without Google these days.

Ban google for creative research
Makes for a very 'ball'sy visual doesn't it? Errr... but Google, please don't sue me

Here’s the problem when doing creative research though. Google runs on a majority driven system, which means sites with high traffic almost always get higher page listings. A top search results page listing means that a particular site has been viewed by thousands if not millions of people.

So if you are suddenly inspired or found a great idea from a site that originated from the first page of your search result, potentially millions more could have been equally inspired too.

And how many times do we go past the first page of a search result these days. Almost never.

I’m sure Google research-inspired ideas will not cause creative stagnation because most of us creatives tend to emulate rather than imitate (I need to stress the emphasis on the word ‘most’ here). But then again, the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.

And if goo-plagiarism is allowed to continue then creative ideas the world over will tend to look or feel eerily similar. On second thought, the solution is rather simple; just navigate to the second or third page of your search result for a change.