In Defense of Ad Agencies. 


The state of the advertising agency business is dismal.  Employees are leaving in droves and there is underemployment.  Black and brown people are nowhere to be found. If you are over 50, you had better be the CEO… and even then your days are numbered. And Google has replaced thousands of agency jobs.

I work with a number of start-ups and young‘uns starting out in the business think Google Ad Words and YouTube videos explained customer acquisition are the way to successful marketing. It’s tactics-palooza out there.  Twenty something junior brand managers are doing $30k TV commercials, using friends with iPhones (FWi?) to shoot video, sans storyboards.

I’d venture to say 15% of the advertising business – the so-called Madison Avenue ad business – has moved in-house, where craft is more likely the beer near the ping pong table than the creative product.

Cranky much Steve?

Twenty years ago there was a creative revolution: 72 and Sunny, Mother, Droga 5, BBH,  Crispin Porter. Now Accenture is the biggest digital shop. And David Droga is chief idea macher or something.

I’m a strategy guy. Where my brand strategies end up is for the clients to decide.  I like to think though, that if a marketer invests in a tight brand strategy, they’re smart enough to want breathtaking creative. The best bet for great work is with an agency. Where the disciplines collide and thinkers rule the roost.  Not where an assembly line of tyros with titles and the algorithm do the work.

Rant over.






One Part Strategy.


I may have gotten this whole consulting thing wrong.  After a recent Zoom with a business consultant who was nice enough to let us look behind the curtain, it became clear that these men and women are really smart when it comes to business.  Brand planners? Not so much.

When talking about his business proposals, it became clear that chunking it up into three parts is business-winning. Part 1 is a review of the business and situation analysis.  He conducts lots of interviews, evaluates best practices, understands success measures and establishes benchmarks. Probably lots of other B school speak and acronyms. Part 1 ends with a presentation of findings. Most notably, the findings will contain business problems impacting the bottom line. Specifically.

Part 2 of the proposal, should you decide to accept if, is outlined as more of a strategy document. It has its own price tag.  With a proper articulation of the problem, any good business person will want to go about fixing things, so they need a strategy. The fish is nibbling at the bait. Part 2, one must imagine, will include objectives, quantification of measures, strategic option reviews and projections, and recommendations. Oh, and more interviews and some quantitative research. All of which ends in a presentation. So what does that leave?

Part 3 is Operations. Now that the problem and strategy have been identified, someone has to build something. Change something. Make the magic happen. Part 3 of the consulting engagement is where the real money is spent. The beauty of this three-pronged approach is that initially the client is signed on for only one part but typically adds on parts 2 and 3 because they fit nicely together.   

What the brand planning consultant does, at least this brand planner, is collapse parts 1 and 2 and go straight to the solution. Silly me. Rather than spend up to a year laboring over 3 parts, I use agile techniques. I get to strategy fast. Straight to sausage. Oh, and at a fraction of the cost or the business consultant. Clients don’t measure me by the pound of paper I deliver but by the idea. And the organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.

I’m a one-parter. And I like it that way.


PS. And a good brand strategy is built to last. Campaigns come and go, a powerful brand strategy is indelible.



Targeting and Brand Planning.


For the brand planner targeting is everything.  But it can also be ruinous.  Finding the largest grouping of people that may be willing to buy your product or service is Job One.  Then finding a value proposition that the outsized target shares is Job One A.

I recently read that Netflix has determined there are 2,000 “taste clusters” among their viewers/streamers.  Data science can cluster people pretty finitely. But in brand planning we see those 2,000 clusters as one. Finding one commonality in taste or attitude is a challenge. But hey, that’s the job.

And no, we won’t build a brand around hangers on. People who do not care enough to commit. That would water down the target even more.     

The challenge for the brand planner is to decide whom to exclude. Once you have a sense of outliers and why they are so, you can tighten up the key value.  Let’s face it, customers deserve more attention than hangers on.

When doing your targeting and parsing that large target to determine their most sought after desires, don’t water it down and lose identity. Be tight with your value prop. Be discrete with your value prop. And be memorable.




Making Stuff.


Okay, I like strategy.  Sometimes it can be a difficult birth, but it’s such a noble profession.  Organizing.  That’s what brand strategy does. Inside the company, it organizes, the product, the experience and messaging.  Outside the company it enables creative counsellors and vendors to deliver selling brilliance, unencumbered by a blank page of intention.  For a creative person, having a blank page is hard. Really hard.  With a foot in the blocks at the starting line, facing in one direction, creatives can accelerate and thrive.

All that said, creating programs, events, campaigns and communications is what gets the blood moving. Making stuff.  Be it beautiful pictures, heart-warming cinema, a raucous consumer event — these are the things consumers remember.  (Google “brand planners prayer.”) 

I miss making the stuff that my words direct.  Watching other people make the stuff my words direct is a nice second but not a close second.  No regrets though. Advertising is a stressful business. Especially without good brand craft upon which to build.

The tagline for Lucent Technologies, a brand I worked on years ago was “We make the things that make communications work.”  That’s brand strategy in a nutshell.




Word of the Day: Aspiration.


Aspiration is a word often used by brand planners and savvy brand managers — a word I’ve used many times.  It has not taken over the brand planning oeuvre as have words like “transparency” and “authenticity” but it’s getting there.  

When I use the word aspiration, it is usually in the context of creating brand planks.  (Brand planks are the proofs that deliver consumer belief.  Brand planks are groupings of demonstrations/evidence that convey a brand claim.)

Sometimes, I must make a decision to include a proof plank that is so overwhelmingly and inextricably desired by consumers it must be included. Even if the brand is not good at delivering it. This may seem disingenuous. It’s not.  It’s aspirational. It becomes part of the brand build-out. It becomes an operational imperative.

Say you are math tutoring business and parents want better test grades for their kids. And your business is not built to codify better grade movement. Well, to compete you need to build that into your business. It’s a strategy. A means to an end. So you may not be perfect at it now but it must becomes an aspiration of the business. An active aspiration.

Another definition of aspiration derives from the word aspirate.  Something we’ve become all to familiar with since Covid. It’s the sneezing of particulates from one location to the other. Chicago Med much? That aspiration is also critical to brand planning.  We need to give consumers proofs they can share with fellow consumers. Then they become referrers. 

As poor branding and, therefore, poorer advertising infects the web and other broadcast media, word-of-mouth is growing in importance.  When someone says, Mario’s has the best Pizza in town and you ask why, people want a real answer? Proof gets aspirated.



Brand Planning Short Cuts.


I am pretty lucky as a brand planner.  It’s rare that I have an assignment where I don’t “deliver” with my first presentation. Sometimes there might be a quibble with a word in the claim but not with its strategic intent. That’s what happens when you fully immerse and toss off preconceptions. Go all in tabula rasa.  

Recently, I’ve been working with smaller startup brands as a result of some mentoring I’m doing with Asheville Elevate.  As a mentor, I don’t have the opportunity to do the big dig. I have to learn the business more with a hand-trowel than a shovel.  To make sense, I’ve had to short cut my process. Often I’ve neglected to write a brand brief. 

In a recently full monty assignment, I did the big dig and presented to the chiefs what I thought was a really winning brand claim and proof array.  It missed the mark. My neglect was to fully understanding the consumer mindset. I was long on brand good-ats but short on customer care-abouts.

My idea was born, before the brief was written.  I needed more customer interviews and I needed to work the brief.  The short cuts learned due to expediency, worked against me.

New motto: Go back to the brief.





Brand Names and Naming.


According to The New York Times “Orange Roughy, a species of deep-sea fish, was originally known as slimehead but was rebranded in the 1970s to better appeal to consumers.

Smart move. 

Words are important. Names are important. Using a name to creating positive associations for consumers is an age-old marketing pursuit. In the case of the former orange roughy, no one really wants to dine on slime. And the head of the fish is not often thought of as the most delicious part. The orange cast to the fish was smart branding. Colorful fish are more exotic and cooler to look at.  And the notion of citrus offered in the name, doesn’t hurt. As for Roughy, it probably relates to a particularly scaley body which is a simple identifier.

I’m of the school that suggests names should mean something. Imply something. Convey something positive about the product or service. If possible, they should also be fun and culturally contextual. Keep nasty names at arm’s length. Also watch out for negative words that rhyme with your brand name. After a couple of mishaps U.S. Air became U.S. Scare.

One thing I always recommend before naming is the development of a brand brief. A brand strategy. Know where you are going before your start creating names. It helps.

Clearly the fisherman who named slimehead, didn’t have a brief.



Are Taglines and Brand Strategy the Same Thing? 


Of course not. A brand strategy comprises 4 elements: a brand claim and three support planks. A tagline is a creative summation of the brand claim.  A brand claim, e.g., Coke is refreshment or Google puts the world’s information one click away, is not necessarily creative. That’s up to the agencies. To the campaign developers.

And honestly, taglines are way better than brand claims. Finger lickin’ good for KFC, was way better than any strategist’s brand claim.

But the brand claim and tagline should be synonymous. Two peas in a pod.  And obviously, all advertising and messaging works best when in sync with the claim. Outlier messages are not deposits in the brand bank.

Campaigns come and go, a powerful brand idea is indelible.





Taglines and Brand Claims.



Brand strategy claims, developed independent of an ad campaign are the way to go.  Taking a copywriter’s last sentence and turning it into a tagline is, forgive me, lazy. I can see why people do it, but its not very thoughtful. Or strategic.

I’m in the brand strategy business. The deliverable I provide to clients is a brand claim plus three brand planks, also referred to as support planks.  The claim by itself is nothing more than advertising…telling people what you are (to them).  It’s the planks that carry the water — that make believers out of consumers.  

The brand claim is strategic, not creative. That’s to give creative teams the ability to connect with culture in a timely fashion. To make ads that are more motivating and lively. Perhaps more fun and memorable.  But I’ve had a run lately of brand claims that have become taglines. Partly because they are short. Maybe offering a bit of poesy. (Not my words a colleague’s.)

While on this roll I seem to have settled on shorter claims. More pregnant claims. Even two word efforts.  And I think is may be bleeding into the area of creative, which is not my day job.

Sometimes longer and more explicit is better. So long as it is not a compound sentence or filled with conjunctions. One idea yes.  Explicit yeser.






I wrote this ad in 2012 while marketing director at TEQ.  I never showed it to anyone…until now.  It was meant to be produced as a handwritten letter from a student named Tania.  Hope you like it.   

The roof in my kitchen fell in last night.  Me and mom and my little brother had to sleep across the hall at Mrs. Junez.  Mom was so tired she fell asleep on the couch with the remote under her. I had to pull the plug on the TV to get to sleep. It took me a long time to figure out how find the TV plug without turning the lights on. Mrs Junez doesn’t like mom but she sometimes gives me molasses cookies. She always asks me if I’m doing my homework. Always.  Sometimes I fib. I don’t want to make her sad.

School makes me feel normal, but it doesn’t last long enough. I wish they had it until after dinner. I love reading and gym and recess. And Friday is churros day.

Sometimes I walk home from school and look at the buildings and wonder who made them. It all started with a piece of paper.  Who is that smart? I like dreaming like that.

My teacher sometimes says I don’t pay attention to what he’s saying. I try to. It’s hard.

I do like it when I can go to the Smartboard, though. It’s like I’m the teacher.


Everything you need to know to teach a child is in their eyes.

Teq. The eyes have it.

An Educational Development company.

Interactive White Boards, Professional Development, Usability Training

You don’t have to be  great writer to create a connection. Oh, and this ad was on strategy: Illuminating Learning.