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Of Magic and Marketing

Notions on persuasion

At a reception, a well-dressed gentleman, unknown to you, comes up to your circle and spreads a deck of cards, face down, from hand to hand in front of you. With a friendly smile, he says, “Take a card.” You are immediately intrigued.

But what if, in the same circumstances, the gentleman approaches you and says, “Excuse me, Ms. Linden. I apologize for interrupting; my name is Daniel Vernon.” As he warmly touches your shoulder and shakes your hand, he continues, “You don’t know me, but I’ve been asked by your host to be here today, to offer to demonstrate several curious and unusual things.”

As he says this, he raises his arm to reveal for all to see a deck of cards resting on his open right palm, which just a moment ago was shaking your hand. “Would you be interested in seeing them?”

If you were the spectator in the first scenario, you would likely leave the reception with some memories of a few neat card tricks, most of which you would forget two weeks later. Should you have been so fortunate, however, to have been in the second circumstance, you would keep for years, perhaps decades — even, possibly, for the rest of your life — a single, indelible memory: that impossible things happened right before your eyes.

It is no coincidence that when real connection is established in interpersonal relationships — be they business, friendship, or love — magic is said to have happened. This same connection must occur between client and audience for marketing communications to exist. Magic must happen.

As the late advertising pioneer Bill Bernbach said, “Getting a product noticed is not the answer. Getting it wanted is the answer.” From the perspective of those in the audience, it is the difference between merely being told or shown something, and being made to feel you are a genuine part of the communication taking place. The difference between an interesting card trick, and what we want to think of as a magical experience.

It is for this reason that — as Mr. Bernbach has also noted — communicators must always be more concerned with what people take away from a message than with what a writer, or client, puts into it. Beyond merely being knowledgeable about the product they are to sell, marketers must be students of how people read, and listen. Of how they see, and think.

Of how they, and we, simply are.

When this happens — when magic takes place — curious and unusual things may be demonstrated.
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The Art of Copythinking

There are design firms. And advertising agencies. Graphics studios, and strategic communications corporations. Digital shops. Direct mail houses. And interactive communications firms.

But there are no writing companies.

And that has always been a telling comment on the structure of our communications industry.

Back in the day, of course, it was not unusual for ad agencies to have copywriters leading the firm’s creative efforts. After all, that would be considered a perfectly natural extension of the notion — originated over a half a century ago, by Bill Bernbach — of pairing art directors and copywriters as equal and complementary partners in the quest of what was always most important in effective communications: the idea — that compelling alchemy of thought and inspiration that would most creatively (and thus persuasively) express the client’s selling proposition.

But sometime after that, the word creative began to take on a different meaning. Where the idea was once the holy grail of effective, persuasive connection (and understood to have the greatest chance of being “discovered” by a writer/art director team), in subsequent years the notion of creative became usurped by those in control of design and production. It has been a gradual, but unmistakable, devolution.

From that original “pairing of equals,” copywriters were later relegated to the role of vendors; word salesmen, not unlike a paper supplier, calling on the firm’s office manager … an idea-person reduced to providing a pre-determined number of words for an already designed page. In this world, creative, or concept — words that used to be synonymous with the inspiration that resulted from a visual/verbal collaboration — came instead to mean, simply, “design.”

Today that process has continued. The web, after all, is largely a visual and navigational medium. Marketing writers today are judged to be successful not by how much their language moves people, but instead by how much their language moves the optimization algorithm of a search engine. Where writers once wrote for people, today, apparently, they write for machines. That means writing that is straightforward and direct — the kind that doesn’t always require the expertise and nuance of an experienced communicator. Bullets? The more, the merrier … oops, sorry, no emotion. Because where once emotion was the currency of persuasion — understood and tapped into powerfully by writers — today that currency is instead the knowledge of a formula for how best to use keywords in the search for clicks.

One will argue that the idea has not gone away; that it is simply being transferred and adapted to a new medium and technology. There is truth to this, of course. And yet, it misses a fundamental point.

Despite the age-old name of their job function, copywriters are more than writers. They are thinkers; in fact, they are thinkers before they are writers. Ask any good creative person, and she will tell you that once the killer idea is found — meaning not the color palette, or the font, or the keyword — the writing that comes after (as well as the possibilities for visual treatment, for that matter), flows just like honey.

It is the secret sauce of good copythinking.
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On Technology

In which we query our descendants

One of the most challenging exercises for people of any generation is to recognize and appreciate the times in which they live. It is challenging because at any moment, we are “in the moment” — we have no future context with which to frame and provide significance to our current experiences. All we can do is try to picture in our minds what such a far-off framework might be like.

So let’s try. Imagine yourself fifty years into the future — not as an exercise in guessing what our lives and gizmos will be like, because those guesses are bound to be wrong — but for the purpose of looking back at the period in which we currently live.

The last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st have been remarkable ones, in terms of technological progress and the social changes it has brought. Indeed, if there is anything at all safe to say about the future, it might be that people in the 2050s would indeed view the cusp of our millennium as an auspicious time.

During this period, the power, if not the promise, of information technology has been uncloaked, and we have been privileged to see it, and even help shape it. For, with our backward-looking perspective, we sense that during this particular time in history (and to a great extent in one little corner of the planet), we are witness to the beginnings of social change of a potentially very large order. Only our descendants, of course, will confirm whether or not we were right.

But we have an inkling we are.

For those fortunate enough to merely be in the very buildings where new technologies are being hatched …. or fortunate enough to engage in conversation with visionaries whose ideas surpass the store of contemporary dreams and possibilities …. or fortunate enough to be asked to help communicate to the world the marvels of things heretofore unknown …. for such people — for us — these are wondrous times indeed.

May such wonder exude throughout all our works.