Archive for the ‘On Writing’ Category

The 10 Essential Building Blocks of Content Strategy

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014


We spent the last few months exploring how and why great creative works. How to break through the clutter. How to recognize—and avoid—clichés and chestnuts. How to speak meaningfully to your audience. How to get them to take action.


Now we’re going to explore how you get there.

And that’s through a single, clear message.


Strategy is a qualitative expression of quantitative understanding.

It starts by knowing who you are unilaterally and within your market, what you provide and why it’s unique, how it serves your customer and why they should care.

Then based on that, crafting a single, clear, unambiguous position.

Strategy is not a headline or copy. It’s not choosing illustration over photography, using Twitter over The Wall St. Journal or doing a video over a banner ad. And  it’s definitely not just restating marketing data.

Strategy informs the creative. It’s the substance behind the headline.


I’m not saying it’s easy. In fact, it can be really scary. But the benefits are manifold.


For years I worked on Oracle OpenWorld, a huge and influential technology trade show. And for years we went into it without strategy. That meant reinventing the wheel with each new wave of communications, with each new opportunity or challenge and every time we needed to course-correct. Different groups made different claims, all expressed differently.

It was maddening, time-consuming and unproductive.

So we started developing a creative/content strategy months before the event—based on exactly the format we’ll explore here—and slowly worked it through the system. It took patience, resilience, tenacity, flexibility and a good bit of humor.

But finally it was approved. Actually signed off by all the major players.

The strategy was: Position Oracle OpenWorld as the place where you learn to get greater business value out of your IT.

And sure enough, the whole communications cycle went more smoothly. It made a huge difference, starting in creative development. During our first major creative review—the first time the design director saw creative—he commented that the work was “more firmly grounded and yet more aspirational” than anything he’d seen at that stage.


Every blog post, banner, ad, poster, email, site sign, conference guide—all of it—was based on a single strategic position. When we had to re-evaluate certain threads, add new channels and include unexpected audiences or programs (which always happens) the work was faster, easier and more consistent. Better still, early registration was up, incentive-based registrations were down and the final number of total attendees exceeded goal.


Building block #1: Know yourself.

Richard’s 10 Rules for Totally Great Copy: #10

Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

#10: Great copy can break the rules.

Of course, what I mean is that if your work works … then who cares how you did it.

You do have to observe cultural norms and manners—that’s part of communicating effectively. I could do the coolest ad in some arcane code or Martian glyphs, but who’d get it?

Juvenile, sexual, shocking, disgusting and offensive ideas certainly break through, but do they support a value proposition? History proves not.

That’s the art and craft of what we do. Content needs to break through. And the best way is to leverage or play with cultural norms. Tweak our understanding of what’s what. Make us think a little differently.

Rather than pontificating about it all, here are examples that I’ve collected:

This one just surfaced yesterday [08/05/14]. Not so much about breaking rules, but about breaking the wall between advertising and spectacle. Watch here. For TNT by Duval Guillaume, Netherlands.


No headline necessary, it’s the best possible demonstration of their product. Nobody busted the glass and apparently 3M got lots of press. I couldn’t find the agency, so if you know, please leave a comment.


I think this pretty much captures the imagination of the AXE customer. By Lowe Mena, Dubai, UAE.


They don’t have to say “don’t drink and drive.” You think it yourself. For the Association for Responsible Alcohol Use (ARA) by Publicis Johannesburg.


Normally I find sex-first ads sort of unimaginative in a lowest-common-denominator kind of way. But this ad shocked the living daylights out of the 90’s. It was called vulgar (that’s up to you) and child pornography (the model was not a child). But it did its job, got Calvin Klein a lot of attention and apparently sold a lot of underwear. By Calvin Klein in-house.


Any questions about the product? By Leo Burnett Belgium


So much more is implied than explained. We fill in the blanks. By local heroes Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners.


I’m guessing this is exactly what the Wonderbra customer expects. By Publicis Conseil, France


I don’t like ads that use violent or hateful imagery, even if their message is noble. The World Wildlife Fund often uses shocking or revolting imagery. But in this case they make their point using subtlety and even sad humor. I couldn’t find the agency that did these. If you know, please leave a comment.


And of course there, this gem for Reebok which was actually banned in the U.S. Watch it here. By Goldberg Moser O’Neill.

And setting the bar impossibly high …

I’ve showcased some of these ads before, but they’re the ones I like creatively and were successful:

This program violated every rule of polite recruiting: overt poaching, acknowledging that Cisco was popular and hot, inviting people to solicit jobs from friends. It was the first program of it’s kind of drive traffic to a web page. And it was fabulously successful. People in companies throughout the country had the full-page print ad [We know where your friends are!] pinned to their cubes, because it was true. Their friends were all flocking to Cisco. It scared the heck out of recruiters from Cupertino to RTP. For TMP Worldwide, art directed and designed by Russell Miyaki, shot by David Papas.

This is from a series of ads for O’Connor Recovery Center. Of course, the rule of such institutional—and delicate—advertising is don’t point out the problem, just the solution. That’s why there’s so much depressing “light at the end of the tunnel” stuff. But we felt this was more honest. It was super-cheap to produce and helped book their alcohol, cocaine and prescription recovery programs for months.

I’ve shown this one before. Rather than the usual threats or scare tactics, we just remind women that they need a breast exam, so why not get one free. We thought a little charm would be much more convincing than some awful statistics or whatever.

Finally, for Cambridge Technology Partners, rather than pleading with people to check out jobs, we challenged them. Maybe you’re not good enough to work here, we implied, but why not find out. It peeled candidates out of their corner offices and plum technology positions to apply for jobs. For TMP Worldwide, art-directed and designed by Russell MiyakiScott Kim created all the puzzles.

So the point of all this, of this whole 10 rules thing is that marketing communications—advertising, blogging, posting, tweeting, pinning and every other new channel that arises—is about people.

It’s not about copy points or client strategy. It’s about getting through meaningfully.

My 10 rules are not rules at all. They’re reminders about communicating. Keeping things fresh and alive and focused.

And anyone, including myself, who tells you there are rules to follow or a way to do things is full of it. Ignore them. Ignore convention. Ignore the style guide.

Nobody cares what you have to say. Yet you as the communicator need them to hear you. You must remind them of an itch and tell them how to scratch it.

Messages that say “Do this” or “Do that” or “We have this or that” or “Compare our this to their that” is not advertising at all. It’s just posting information in a commercial setting.

Great copy does much more than that. It tells something important to someone. It makes them want to know more or take action. Sometimes without even asking.

An invitation is much more compelling than a command. It makes you want to take action.

And that, I believe, is what great copy should do.

Richard’s 10 Rules for Totally Great Copy: #9

Saturday, July 5th, 2014

#9: Great copy leaves the reader understanding

I’m sure you’re thinking, “Of course the reader should understand.” My challenge is this: understand what? Because they should understand more than your tactical message. Buy this. Do that. Not good enough.

They should understand you—and why doing business with you is better.

Buyers purchase cachet not just product. They buy a brand.

Why buy an iPhone when Samsung is so similar? Because it’s cool! When I buy that iPhone I’m buying a little piece of the Apple legacy, of Steve Jobs. Damn … I want all that and I’m willing to pay a premium.

In my last post, I moaned about losing a bunch of ad samples.

Well I found a couple that make this point perfectly.

The first is by Oceanworks, a Berkeley mechanic. It was a small-space ad that ran more than 20 years ago in the East Bay Express. I’ve been inspired by it ever since.

It doesn’t say anything about rates or factory authorization. No coupons or specials. Just a sweet, simple message that conveys an idea bigger than the words.

I talked to these guys after I first saw the ad. And while the shop got booked for weeks in advance, I heard how everyone started telling them car stories. How their car speaks to them, too. And how they felt like these guys must be trustworthy based on a car’s gentle review.

Right? People took it seriously. I’m sure not literally. But what they came to understand is that this is a mechanic who cares, and that their car will notice the difference.

The next is from a campaign by Chiat/Day San Francisco for UC Berkely, by art director Mike Moser and copywriter Brian O’Neill (who went on to create Goldberg Moser O’Neill). It’s one of a series they did for alumni magazines and related media.

This may be a perfect ad. The headline is arresting, but honest, not hyperbole. We learn the science building at Cal is full of scientists who are mad at the conditions they work in. Call to action: contribute now and stop the madness.

Ad poetry.

Better still, it’s not just a whiny, institutional call for donations. It’s cheeky and wry. Helps the reader understand there are people who need my support, not just a stalwart school that wants my money.

Here are a couple of my own campaigns.

I discovered that sushi lovers all have their favorites, so this campaign focuses on that sublime pleasure. The reader understands that it’s more than just sushi—it’s the peak experience of enjoying what they love.

 The wonderful illustrations were done by Steve Lang, before he became an award-winning fine artist.


This campaign for St. James Hospital and Health Centers in Chicago was meant to remind women to get a breast exam and to remind their partners to remind them about it.

Sorry in advance for the crappy scans that follow.

This was for women’s magazines throughout Chicagoland.

This was for men’s magazines.

We could have just said, “Make your free appointment today.”

Instead, readers understand there’s more at stake than a long afternoon in the clinic. It was a bold departure because it didn’t pose a threat, but rather presented an opportunity.

It’s worth mentioning that these were presented to  a panel of nuns.


Lastly, a campaign for Oracle recruiting. I’m a little mixed about this one. After seven years working there, it’s a little hard to look at these without being cynical.

The Oracle workplace has always had a bad reputation. Oracle eats its young. Only the strong survive. Getting noticed equals getting fired. Etc. We turned those things into a positive and helped Oracle far exceed their university and professional hiring goals, even in the midst of an employment boom.

Because we helped readers understand there’s a method to the madness. That there’s something to do that’s so important, so vital that it’s worth the grind.

Semi-truth well told, I guess. These were done for TMP Worldwide, art directed by Gary Buck.

In all these cases, the net take of the ads is greater than the concept or the words on the page. They communicate implicitly that there’s something bigger, more important, more urgent than a product or offer.

Which is exactly what I think great copy should do.

Richard’s 10 Rules for Totally Great Copy

Friday, June 13th, 2014

I’m taking an editorial break from the list.

Damn. This one has been hard. This and the next post were supposed to be all about breaking rules. That communication is everything and how you say it or show it are just mental lubricant. Ways to slip ideas in-between your audience’s overwhelm, apathy and resistance.

Instead, this is a lament and a rant.

1. Lament

For years I’ve been collecting ads and other media that got my attention. Some because they were great concepts or well-executed ideas. Others just because they caught my eye: beautiful art direction, unexpected illustration, bright copy. Others simply because they took me by surprise.

There were two or three legal-sized folders with tearsheets, samples, clippings and other stuff. They were my inspiration files.

And—evidently—in a recent, frantic office purge those files got tossed. Last week I searched my office, went through all my files. My heart sank.

Because all those ads illustrated the point that great copy does something extremely important: It leaves the reader understanding.

So this copy will have to create understanding without some cherished visual aids.

2. Rant

Want the reader to understand your product? Make sure of it. Want them to understand your company? Your opportunity? Your vision? Your eco-friendly ways?

Then say it in no uncertain terms. Make sure they understand.

I was in a meeting at which someone said, “these silhouetted figures represent the underlying business issues that the customer is facing …” and I almost choked.

Had I not valued my job and professional relationships, I might have said, “A random image doesn’t represent anything,” then asked, “… and even it if did, what purpose does it serve?”

You can’t hope your prospects will read between the lines. You can’t imply it or suggest something. You have to say it. That doesn’t mean being overly earnest or artless. Of course, you can be creative about it. You should be. That’s the mental lubricant I mentioned earlier. As long as you’re making your point clearly.

Actually I found one little ad in my files—a job ad for a print business manager —that Weiden & Kennedy ran in 1991.

What does that have to do with understanding? Well, what do you understand from this ad? First and foremost, that there’s a job for a print business manager. But better still—and entirely implied but totally clear—that the people who ran it are highly confident, extremely smart, very creative and understand their audience.

If I were a print business manager, I’d have applied.

3. Conclusion

a. Don’t throw away meaningful files, even in the throes of impassioned office purging.

b. I’ll do a better job illustrating my argument about “great copy leaves the reader understanding” next week.





Richard’s 10 Rules for Totally Great Copy: #8

Thursday, May 29th, 2014

#8: Great copy transports the reader.

An ad that can transport you is very special thing. It requires creating hope and imagination that your life could be different—better—because you use a certain product or service.

You have to be picked up where you are now. Acknowledged that you don’t live a fantasy, don’t care about the advertiser and their effing ad or whatever it is they’re selling, and you don’t want to go anywhere with them. And in spite of that, still be transported.

You can’t trick someone into it.

You have to seduce them. Take them by surprise. Sneak into their awareness then set your hook.

The classic, if ham fisted, example is “Calgon, take me away!” Of course, it’s very literal and promises more than the ad itself actually delivers.

But that said, I’m guessing you knew just the campaign I was referring to. And judging by all the memes based on a 40-plus-year-old ad campaign, being taken away is a powerful desire.


You got Calgon cats


Calgon scribbles


Calgon fashion ;^)


And Calgon Commanders-in-Chief


And then there was Paco.

This campaign for Paco Rabanne men’s fragrance came out in the mid-80s. It seems so tame compared to what we see today. But at the time, it caused quite a controversy. Better still, it transported the reader.

He gets a call from his eager and satisfied lover who says she stole his cologne and plans to rub it on herself tonight when she’s alone. Yow.


He gets a call from his eager and satisfied lover who says her mother would never approve of what he and his cologne did to her. Woof!

No headline. No product description. Just the smoldering afterglow of a passionate evening.


I wanted to be that guy. I wanted to have that conversation. I bought the fragrance.

BTW, I can’t find who actually created those ads. If you know, please comment.

The shimmering icon of transporting your audience is from Mad Men. It’s Don Draper’s amazing  “Carousel” presentation to Kodak.

Back to reality

Here’s a campaign we did for Hill & Co., a San Francisco real estate broker who sold the highest-value residential properties in the City. Their clients were the wealthiest. Their inventory the most prestigious. Many of their agents were the scions of wealthy SF families.

Research revealed that elite buyers want their own bit of the City. And, of course, to be recognized for their power and influence and treated accordingly.

So the sell wasn’t about the nuts and bolts of real estate transactions or saving a few bucks. It was about knowing every inch of San Francisco. About helping you get your multi-million-dollar slice of SF with a glass of champagne on signing.


Contrary to popular opinion, there is only one hill in San Francisco.

Geography. That’s not what we’re talking about. Not a map of the City. It’s the map of your heart. The one that shows the way home, wherever that may be. There are lots of neighborhoods. Lots of houses. Lots of places to live. But when it comes down to it, to any San Franciscan, there is only one hill. A private hill. Your hill. And we’re here to help you find it.


Lots of houses speak for themselves. None sell themselves.

Ever hear that a home just spoke to someone? Ever had one speak to you? Did it say, “Haven’t you (ungh) outgrown it here …” or “C’mon … you can afford me …” We’re not here to confirm or deny the phenomenon. Just to comment that all the compelling chatter happens in a place distinctly different from the one where pricing, open houses and contract negotiations occur. That’s a place where only a highly qualified real estate agent can help you. So the next time you strike up a conversation with some residential property, remember, you don’t need a therapist. You need us.


Your house may be a lot of things. A realtor isn’t one of them.

As everyone who has sold or bought a house can attest, the house itself is what makes the sale. (Is it the closets? The kitchen?) But there are a few things even the best house can’t do. Like price itself. Or market itself. Or negotiate a contract. Or share perspective earned over 40 years of working with San Francisco’s most prestigious residential properties. Which is fine, because that’s what we do. Call us, and we’ll do it for you.


The campaign was designed so beautifully by Candice Kollar and shot by Thea Schrack. It was meant to be a bit poetic and flatter the reader.

What it did was cause a major eruption in the local real estate ad market. Everyone noticed. Everyone called Hill & Co. All of a sudden, every brokerage had to have a dreamy ad. We were interviewed by the local media and won several awards. The campaign bumped Hill & Co.’s lower-cost homes and rental business even more than the prestige business.

Why? Because the ads were knowledgeable and honest. We met the reader where they were then took them where they wanted to go. The ads transported readers to a place a bit more special than usual, but accessible enough to relate.

Which is what I think great copy should do.

Richard’s 10 Rules for Totally Great Copy: #7

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

#7: Great Copy Flatters the Reader

All advertising should say what it wants from me—or has for me—and how that’s going to help. But great advertising should elevate me. Involve and fascinate me. Flatter me.

 We once did an event for Cisco and the invitation did exactly that. We told the CTOs of top telcos they are the “Modern Masters of Technology.”

 The copy reads:

Their medium was paint.
Their palette was color.
They were the Modern Masters.
They saw what everyone else saw … in a whole new way.
Your medium is the network.
Your palette is information.
You are among the Modern Masters of Technology.
Come see internetworking technology in a whole new way.

Flattery will get you everywhere. It was spectacularly successful—100 percent participation—and won a bunch of design awards. It didn’t hurt that each invitation was hand-delivered and that we gave away Paul Klee artwork. Every hotel room had a modern art goodie-bag including a Picasso tile puzzle. I love that puzzle.

Hypocrisy 101

In general I do not like ads that tell me who I am or what I think. “You’re the kind of guy who …” or “You must be thinking …” Ugh. Just tell me what you have to say. So I guess it’s OK to speak to me collectively as long as it’s with the best and brightest ;^)

Involvement Is Flattering

Here are the top 10 of what some consider the most influential taglines of the last 70 years. The first six are focused on the customer or their experience. Only the last four are about the product. And I could argue “We try harder” really reads “We try harder to serve you.” And “Melts in your mouth, not in your hands” is about your experience.

  1. Got milk? (1993)—California Milk Processor Board
  2. Don’t leave home without it. (1975)—American Express
  3. Just do it. (1988)—Nike
  4. Where’s the beef? (1984)—Wendy’s
  5. You’re in good hands with Allstate. (1956)—Allstate Insurance
  6. Think different. (1998)—Apple Computer
  7. We try harder. (1962)—Avis
  8. Tastes great, less filling. (1974)—Miller Lite
  9. Melts in your mouth, not in your hands. (1954)—M&M Candies
  10. Takes a licking and keeps on ticking. (1956)—Timex

None of these say, “hey, you’re the smartest guy in the room …” or “damn, you’re blowing it …” or even “we’re #1.” In one way or another, they all say, “your life can improve.”

That’s pretty flattering.

Here are a few of my own examples …


Cambridge Technology Partners needed uniquely skilled, extremely high-level engineers and analysts. Research revealed their best prospects responded to games and puzzles. So we based the whole campaign on brain teasers. The tone both challenged and flattered the prospect. This was a multiple-award-winning campaign that generated excellent response plus international media attention. And yeah, we did this long before Google. For TMP Worldwide, art-directed and designed by Russell Miyaki. Scott Kim created all the puzzles.



TiVo asked us to raise awareness of the service while promoting their online magazine. Rather than dwelling on the technology or magazine content, we focused on the #1 reason anyone would ever use TiVo: To see what they want on TV. It instantly lifts both message and reader above commerce and into understanding customers’ needs and wants. This was art directed and designed by Russell Miyaki.



Failure Analysis (now Exponent) is a company that specializes in forensic disaster research. It’s a company run and staffed by Ph.D.-level engineers and physicists. What do say to someone like that? You can’t tell them how smart they are … you have to be that smart or a little smarter. This series of ads—which were extremely cheap to produce—generated tremendous response. For TMP Worldwide.

In each case, the prospect is elevated, as if they’re among a very special group of people who get it. And each time, they’re rewarded with a fun, twisted little bit of logic. In just a few words, these ads create a relationship that’s based on admiration and respect.

And that’s something I think great copy should do.


Richard’s 10 Rules for Totally Great Copy: #6

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

#6: Great Copy Makes a Clear Point

 The job of an ad—or any marketing message—is to persuade or inform.

Ads in highly competitive categories like beer, fast food and cars try to do so by entertaining. They want to leave a lasting impression, because buyers often make emotional or impulsive decisions. Technical white papers are there to provide highly detailed information to those who presumably make very rational decisions.

But no matter how the message is delivered, it better be delivered. It has to make a clear point.

It is really tempting to start listing all the examples that don’t. Advertising crimes against logic are epic. But, since I’ve committed a few of those myself, maybe it’d be better to focus on what works.

The best examples are taglines.

Here is a list of the best taglines ever, according to Forbes. I picked a few just to illustrate what I’m talking about:

BMW: The Ultimate Driving Machine

The point is clear. Behind it is nuance and subtext that makes the line work. Because it’s not just about performance, luxury, status or economy. It’s all those things. The ultimate. By Ammirati & Puris.

California Milk Processor Board: got milk?

Here’s where research, planning and creative add up. Research revealed that the single most important thing about milk was having it when you want it. Planning revealed how important it is that shoppers think about it before they leave for the grocery store. Creative tied a ribbon around the obvious. By Goodby Silverstein & Partners.

Avis: We try harder.

Remember this began as “We’re #2 so We Try Harder.” Why? Because they want to be #1. Who wins? The customer, and the customers figured that out. By Leo Burnett.

Nike: Just Do It

What else are you going to say to someone thinking about sports or getting into shape? By Wieden+Kennedy.

It’s not all about brevity.

Here’s a long ad. It’s not about the content, it’s about the idea behind the content. What happens during a car accident:

I’ve been looking at this ad a long time. I’ve never read all the copy. I will, because it feels a little silly to post something I haven’t read; but before now, never.

The thing is, you don’t have to. In about the same half-second the ad suggests, you get it. The point is clear. I couldn’t find who did this. If you know, please tell me.

Setting the bar impossibly high …

Here are two examples from my own portfolio:

IBM Nth Degree: Take Us There

IBM was having a terrible time recruiting on campus; their reputation was stodgy and conservative, even though the actual workplace was pretty exciting. Research revealed that a student’s greatest fear was leaving the wide-open spaces of campus only to be trapped in a cube and left there. So the campaign showed students that the opposite was true, that they could be their best selves and help IBM be its best.

The program delivered 130% to their recruiting goal. But better still, IBM computer sales in bookstores went up 300%, this program being the only variable.

This was designed by Dennis Mancini and art directed by Robert Gray.

Oracle: Go Green


I think most green messaging is preachy and tiresome. So when we were asked to create a global green awareness campaign for Oracle, we tried to avoid the clichés and offer a way for people to project themselves into the message. In informal surveys, employees responded that they immediately saw themselves as the one on the bike and doing the recycling. Designed by Sloan Schwartz.

So it’s not about clear copy, really. It’s about clear thinking. Rigorous concepts. That’s what gets your prospects past the words and pictures and into the idea.

Which is what great copy should do.

Richard’s 10 Rules for Totally Great Copy: #5

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

#5: Great Copy Is Simple

Simplicity isn’t the same as being simple. A very simple idea can result in a very complex execution, and vice-versa. I mean that great copy makes its point clearly and easily.

Great copy—in the best sense—should motivate and excite. At the very least, create interest, inquiry and desire.

We once did a project for a company called PowerSim. They make process-modeling software so complex that only Ph.D.-level analysts can use it.

It was promoted through academic white papers and articles in heady journals.

Which was fine, except they wanted to grow, and the C-level executives who pay for it weren’t willing to spend that kind of money on something they couldn’t understand. Or worse, that took some lab-coated brainiac to explain.

To complete a 12-page brochure, I was given about 600 pages of technical documentation and conducted 25 interviews with aforementioned brainiacs.

It took a several weeks to do all the interviews  and absorb the info, then a couple more to contextualize it. My first headlines were long, convoluted affairs that didn’t really add value, but rather just sort of explained the thing.

But I kept boiling it down, cutting, editing, shifting around thoughts and ideas. Simplifying.

Eventually (sometime after midnight, as I recall) it became clear that PowerSim simply provides a living, dynamic mirror of the business. Tweak a variable, see the outcome. As if the business itself tells you how to run it.


The headline: Your business is telling you 1000 different ways to succeed. [inside] Isn’t it time you listened. This was art directed and designed by Gary Buck.


It’s an extreme example, but relevant. And, it got their phone to ring.

As a copywriter, I’m constantly asked to take complex technology and explain it succinctly and simply. But I don’t think it’s any easier to write about Levi’s or HELOCs or job opportunities. Somewhere there are hundreds of pages of background that you have to figure out.

And frankly, there’s gold in all that. Maybe your ad is about how Levi’s are made or how HELOCs are structured. Doesn’t matter, except that the message—the benefit—is clear.

Of course the most succinct, most simple ad executions are billboards. I haven’t done many, but I have a lot of favorites. Here are a few:

Simple: DHL gets you from point A to point B. Ogilvy, Amsterdam, Netherlands


 Simple: iPod + iTunes mean lots of music. TBWA\Media Arts Lab


Simple: The Economist makes you smarter. BBDO


Simple: Wonderbra will make everyone look at your boobs. TBWA


Simple: California Cooler is the beach in a bottle. TBWA\Chiat\Day


Notice that each one communicates much more than the words explain. That’s the concept. The words and image create a message that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Also notice that each one holds a single, clear message.

Setting the bar impossibly high …

Here are a few samples of my own:

Here are a couple post cards I did for the Aikido Institute.


This was art directed by Paul Corcino, TMP Worldwide.


It’s all about communicating a lot while saying a little. The less you say, the more opportunity the reader has to come along with you, to insert their own thoughts and desires into your message.

Which is what I think great copy should do.


Richard’s 10 Rules for Totally Great Copy: #4

Friday, April 25th, 2014

This post isn't very visual, so here's a pic of me on my motorcycle.

This post isn’t very visual, so here’s a pic of me on my motorcycle.

#4: Great Copy is Conversational

All prospects want to believe whoever’s doing the talking knows them, their worlds, tools and needs.

It’s about addressing their concerns. Copy that reads like a colleague would speak. That treats them like a person.

So by conversational, I mean copy that speaks in straightforward, accessible and casual terms. Unless it’s done with clear intent to make a bigger point, you can’t brag—it’s off-putting. Or preach—it’s annoying. Or instruct—it’s insulting. Or backpedal—it’s pathetic.

Today my focus is on technology advertising. It’s easy to humanize M&Ms or the sexy new Fiat [see the Original, the Italians, the Mirage]. It’s much harder to humanize SaaS.

Here are a couple examples.

I was assigned a demand-generation email about database cloning. For anyone whose heart didn’t skip a beat with excitement at that, it’s a process for creating working-but-secure copies of entire databases for development and testing.

Here’s the copy I got from the technology stakeholders—with the note that they’d be comfortable using it as-is:

Database administrators face the challenge of efficiently duplicating their large mission critical databases to support demands for application development and testing, a challenge compounded by the fact that multiple copies are often required for each production database to support the many development, test, training, QA, and such, as well as FC/SAN arrays that lack feature/functionality to create these environments. Absent an efficient solution for cloning production databases, enterprises are saddled with substantial administrative burden that diverts attention away from more time critical support functions along with increased storage consumption and high cost.

The problem isn’t the copy itself, but that it isn’t written to read. Here’s my edit:

Cloning your databases can be time-consuming, expensive, and a security hazard.

But it doesn’t have to be.

Both pieces of copy say the same thing. Of course, we had to back it up with detail, but that stayed chatty as well. Professional. Technical and thorough. But easy.

Here’s another one:

With the plethora of new social channels amplifying the customer’s voice, peers now have greater influence over the buying decisions than traditional marketing. While marketing’s objectives—attract more, retain more, achieve more—have remained fundamentally the same, organizations must quickly adapt their approach and techniques to succeed in this more complex world.

Learn how leading brands are using Oracle’s marketing solutions to harness big data to better understand their customers, extend their marketing reach into social channels, and retain their high value customers through more rewarding customer experiences.

And my edit:

Today’s customers know and expect more than ever. And they expect a great customer experience.

That means you must deliver a consistent, relevant, and engaging presence everywhere they go: in-store and online, on mobile devices, social networks, and kiosks. Each fulfills customers’ needs. And each reinforces your brand promise.

Fortunately, Oracle has the tools for you to bring it all together.

The copy recognizes that it’s people who are reading it. And people who make the decision to act.

Somebody said the only job of an ad is to be read.

In my world, that’s really the case, because nobody is buying Oracle products based on an ad or email. Around here, a sale can be tens of millions of dollars (or more) and sales cycles can last years. It’s the aggregated messages, meetings and info a prospect receives that drives a sale. All I need to do is ask someone to click through and maybe request more info.

 Is it so hard to ask nicely?

 Great copy does just that.

Richard’s 10 Rules for Totally Great Copy: #3

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

#3: Great copy is present and active

While developing a voice for my sister’s company Claudette, we reviewed dozens of lingerie brands, campaigns and ads. The classic Maidenform campaign kept floating to the top: I dreamed I was [something] in my Maidenform bra.

It’s a genre of advertising I generally don’t like. But the women in our groups liked the ads a lot, and it’s clear why: they showcase the product in an interesting way.

Made me think.

Present means arresting.

You have to deliver a message that shatters the reluctance to be engaged. It should sustain the brand voice and push forward brand values.

The Altoids ad by Leo Burnett tells their whole story in a quick and charming way: Get a really strong mint.


This Porsche ad by Goodby Silverstein & Partners tells the story: Get a really fast car.

Active means compelling.

Great copy delivers meaningful information in an irresistible way. I chose these—both by Fallon Worldwide—because they’re headline-driven, emotional, funny and entirely unexpected.

It takes great thinking.

It’s not about copy, per se. It’s about an underlying idea and how that’s expressed.

 [Richard on soapbox]

A concept is very different than an idea. An idea is just something that comes to mind. An ad concept is a relationship between elements. Copy and visuals work together to create a message that is greater than the sum of its parts. Ideas are easy to come by. Concepts are not.

A concept involves your reader/user at multiple levels. Your audience is present because you are: you involve them in the moment. They’re active because you are: your idea comes to life in their imagination.

 Here are a few more examples.


“Fat/Fit” was a school project by art director Lauren Hom. It may look easy and obvious, but I’m willing to bet it took hours of work. It’s very skillful ad concepting.


Comedy Central, done by Grey Advertising in Argentina, reinforces their brand explicitly and implicitly.


The ad for Prince pasta sauce by Fallon Worldwide is a classic. Mona Lisa communicates Italian authenticity. The whole thing elevates the message out of ingredients and freshness and into an attitude of enjoying good food.

You don’t have to think about these things, nothing requires explanation. They work completely in that precious moment you get to engage your audience.

Again, setting the bar impossibly high …

Here are a few of my own ads that I’ve always liked for their quick read and clear relevance.

CAPS rents high-tech shipping containers. The industry was accustomed to buying and trashing single-use containers. This was art directed by Candice Kollar for Kirshenbaum Communications.



 The Oracle security ad makes it clear what security means and illustrates how it works, without technical metrics or jargon. Glen Abrahams was the art director.



This JB Hunt recruitment ad I did with TMP Worldwide ran very successfully in military media for many years. It flatters the veterans JB Hunt likes to hire and positions truck-driving as an honorable, meaningful job. This was art directed by Dennis Mancini.

Present and active.

To me that means the relationship with the reader/user is happening in real time, while they’re engaged with your advertising. Copy can be long or short. It can be serious or funny. Copy heavy or visual.

But it’s engaging. It draws someone into your ad then releases them having learned something.

It’s what makes great copy great.