Too much time to think about work.

I took PAL (see rant below) to Bangkok for my 3rd
regional creative directors’ conference. Our Thai hosts, creative wunderboys
Piya and Trong, thoughtfully provided each delegate with a pair of Thai boxing
shorts and a bottle of Krating Daeng (Red Bull). These supplies came in a box
printed with the words “Fight Club” and a shocking amount of blood. When I got
to the conference room, they had also stationed a boxing inflatable at the
entrance, right beside the curry puffs and chocolate

Boxing was too tame a metaphor
for what happened inside that room. In boxing, you at least get a referee. This
was more like a demolition derby. (The object of these conferences is to make
sure that Y&R is in the top 3 agencies in the ad awards circuit. To that
end, public humiliation and despair are mandatory.) I was glad several of our
ideas made it through, and I didn’t end the presentation soiling my jeans with
soggy bits of my internal organs.

Thais, as always, were soaking in praise. They are audacious storytellers. O.
Henry flair, magical realism, authenticity the heart opens to even before the
mind understands, in thirty seconds or less. One material for Oishi Green Tea
starts with a girl bidding goodbye to her sweetheart on a pier. He is sipping
Oishi Green Tea through a straw. She tells him she’s returning to Japan. A
droplet of tea detaches itself from the straw, flies through the air and hides
itself in her hair. She’s home, packing. The tea droplet has a thought balloon;
it says, “I’m going home. I’m going home.” The droplet bids goodbye to a
Japanese-looking doll. “I’ll miss you. But I’m going home.” Before the girl
closes her suitcase, the droplet hops in. She returns to the pier for a final
farewell. In the suitcase, the droplet rejoices, “I’m going home!” The boy looks
at the girl, the commercial pauses for a heartbeat, and he asks her to marry
him. In the middle of their reunion hug, her foot hits the suitcase and it flies
over the pier into the sea. Inside, the droplet’s thought balloon (with a
picture of a plane) says, “The ride’s a bit bumpy, but I’m happy I’m going
home!” (I remember it almost perfectly, I think. And I only saw it

I’m told the commercial is running
right now, and it’s a huge hit with the Thai audience. I’m sure they could run
it here, subtitled, and it would rake in the raves, as well.

Audacious storytellers need audacious
clients. In Thailand, marketers – especially local Thai clients – know they need
to entertain their audience first. A non-entertaining commercial has no chance
of being noticed, let alone being liked. They don’t do elaborate
ingredient-function-benefit constructs. They keep to strong, singular ideas and
let the narrative soar. (The Oishi Green Tea commercial, for example, really
just says authentic Japanese green tea.)

Here, the mindset is very different.
Commercials tell (often in painfully non-entertaining fashion), not show. Every
second must contain copy that somehow sells or explains or describes how the
product works, how fast, how much better than another product, on top of why it
does it and what you get out of it. You wouldn’t introduce 10 different people
to your friend in a single breath and count yourself lucky if she remembers one
name. But Philippine commercials do it all the time.

When you watch a commercial, you DON’T
want to be aware you’re watching a commercial. Predictability (problem-product
as solution-benefit shot, for example) comforts many marketers. There’s nothing
wrong with it, of course. It’s worked before. It seems to be working now. But
predictability has diminishing returns. (Sequels rarely engage the heart and the
wallet as much as their predecessors.) When we drag out the rational details
(Should we say “delicious and fun” or “delicious, colorful and fun?”) it becomes
the ad agency and the client playing poker with each other, with the consumer
twiddling her thumbs outside the room. All it will take is one brand to change
the game, be audacious, be authentic. But why should anyone want to change the
game when we’re all so comfortable with the rules?

Given enough reach and frequency, and
minimal cuteness, any commercial will be effective, in a range from mild to
good. That normally translates into one or two share points up. Again, nothing
wrong with that.

And then there is the
rare upstart brand that takes a risk, and is rewarded with wave after wave of
goodwill and market share, long after the commercial ceases to air. Sadly, the
moment the brand becomes widely successful, its guardians become more protective
of it, and in the process confuse protecting it with stifling it to death. Or,
in an attempt to keep the brand novel and appealing to fresh markets, they
abandon their strengths instead of redefining

No client worth her salt should
want just advertising that sells. Hell, the guy in the mall with the miracle
vegetable slicer set can sell. Why should a marketer hire an ad agency when she
already has a promo agency and a sales department, and can go directly to a
production house and have a director and his team come up with a commercial,
which will probably work? Advertising can and has done more than sell. It has
created and sustained legends, myths, entire cultures around brands.

The consumer is not a moron. She may be
poor, and poorly educated, but her life is as rich and full of emotion and
imagination and story, perhaps even more so, than the middle-class and
well-to-do who market brands to her, make commercials for her, and hope she buys
them. You don’t have to make it easy for her to understand; just make it easy
for her to believe. She doesn’t go for the intellectual jokes and visual puns
that often pass in this market as award-winning creative – not because she
doesn’t get them, but because they don’t matter that much to her. She doesn’t
recall a lot of copy, but she can retell a whopping good story.

Ad agencies must know the consumer in a
way research agencies with ten thousand proprietary models cannot. They must
have the skill to dig out the single most compelling idea from underneath the
pile of product information and consumer data and marketing data, and the guts
to bite down into that one thing and not let it go, or worse yet, let it be
watered down or suffocated by supporting arguments.

Most difficult of all, they must (to
paraphrase Neil Gaiman) tell the consumer the story that only the brand can
tell; in the way she least expects; in a voice she didn’t know she wanted to
hear; that will move her to tears or laughter or anger or nostalgia or
bittersweet longing, anything but bland agreement; and that will echo in her
heart, gain her trust and sustain her

Authenticity and audacity. That’s
a good start.