Flesh Out
Hardly a week goes by in the ad business when, after reviewing some initial concepts, someone says: “We need to flesh out these ideas” or “Let’s flush out this idea.” As a writer (who may be just a teensy bit OCD about language usage), I cringe whenever I hear the latter.

If you’re one of those who say that you’re going to “flush out” an idea, don’t feel too bad. According to Merriam-Webster, “Flesh out” and “Flush out” are among the Top 10 Commonly Confused Words. Here’s how they explain which should be used:

Question: “To provide more details, should you flush out or flesh out your plan?”

Answer: “flesh out”

How to remember it: Think of fleshing out a skeleton. To flesh out something is to give it substance, or to make it fuller or more nearly complete.

To flush out something is to cause it to leave a hiding place, e.g., “The birds were flushed out of the tree.” It can also be used figuratively, as in “flush out the truth.”

Though Merriam-Webster doesn’t mention it in the section above, “flush out” can also mean to clean something by forcing water through it— such as flushing out a radiator. This meaning of the word seems to have no relevance to advertising ideas. Unless you’re talking about ideas so bad they need to be flushed down the toilet.

At this point, I think it should be clear that what we do is “flesh out” ideas. We expand upon them, we pull them together and make something more complete with them. Just as an artist builds upon a sketch of a person, adding the flesh to an almost sticklike initial drawing, so, too, do we build upon an idea. We do not drive it out of hiding, or clean it out with water.

One more thing: Don’t buy into the “Oh, what does it matter? People know what I’m trying to say” defense for using the wrong term. We’re supposed to be experts at this business. That includes using the correct expression for what it is that we do.

Let me know if you have any thoughts that could flesh this out a bit more.

September 30, 2013 · Posted by in copywriting  

Light up your brain with ACT

Have you ever felt that brainstorming sessions seem to sputter out after about 20 minutes and often leave you well short of “big idea” territory? Well, maybe it’s time to give ACT a try.

Ah, but what is this “ACT,”, you ask. Some new energy drink?  Actually, no.  It’s Anticonventional Creative Thinking (ACT for short), and if you’re not familiar with it already, it’s worth taking a little time to investigate.

When I first came across an article about Anticonventional Creative Thinking, I was as suspicious as I was intrigued. Actually, more suspicious than intrigued. But after reading about how it works, it quickly became apparent that this approach has the potential to yield far more creative solutions to advertising problems than “brainstorming.”

Jeffrey Baumgartner, an author/artist/teacher/businessman/speaker and vocal proponent of ACT, has written pretty extensively about ACT and is the self-proclaimed developer of the process.  He actually has a lot of interesting articles on his website, besides the ones on ACT. But right now, you just want to know what the heck this ACT thing is all about, right?

ACT isn’t like the typical brainstorming session in which a moderator facilitates a discussion, writes down everyone’s ideas on the whiteboard, and assures everyone that “no idea is a bad idea.”  Instead, participants are encouraged to ask open-ended questions (and lots of them) about the problem at hand. Not just logical questions, but challenging and off-the-wall questions. The goal is to come up with really outrageous solutions. Oh, and there’s no holding back on criticism— anything ordinary or conventional is to be dismissed on the spot. At the end of your session, you should have a handful of really good ideas, instead of the typical wall full of dreck that someone has to then sort through to find the good ideas.

As we all know, criticism is one thing that can make people clam up real quickly in a brainstorming session. Baumgartner addresses the merits of criticism in an article that compares the opposing camps of ACT and brainstorming: “Recent tests are also demonstrating that the most sacrosanct rule of brainstorming, reserved judgment, is not effective. When participants are allowed to criticize ideas, ideation events result in more creative ideas.”  He goes on to explain that there should be three rules to this criticism:

  1. Criticism is to focus on conventional ideas and boring ideas.
  2. Criticism will always be formulated politely and respectfully.
  3. Whenever an idea is criticized, the person who suggested the idea and anyone else in the group must be allowed, and indeed encouraged, to defend the idea.

Are you still scratching your head wondering exactly how Anticonventional Creative Thinking works?  Baumgartner outlines a good example of it in this article. Although the scenario is different from a typical advertising problem, this should give you a pretty good picture of how an ACT session goes.

Interestingly, Baumgartner has actually done some research with MRI imaging, which shows that Anticonventional Creative Thinking not only engages the entire brain, as opposed to just the small area of the brain shown to be active during more conventional brainstorming, but that it also minimizes activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal and lateral orbital regions of the brain that act as the brain’s censorship bureau. He documents this toward the back of his 17-page white paper on Anticonventional Creative Thinking, which you can download for free.

As with anything as nebulous as creativity, the jury is still out on ACT, though it has a growing share of converts from “brainstorming.” Take a look at ACT for yourself and the next time we all get together to come up with ideas for something, maybe we can see how it works for us.


August 20, 2013 · Posted by in misc  

In our professional lives here at z2, we try to do work that gets people to buy/use/like our clients’ products. This rather obvious observation got me to thinking: “Have I ever bought anything because of its advertising?”

Hmmm, let me think. I’m sure there have been some coupon ads and Buy One Get One offers that motivated me to buy something or another at a grocery store or restaurant, but not counting those I honestly can’t remember anything that advertising actually got me to buy.

Despite a few bad consumers like myself, and perhaps you, advertisers aren’t giving up. A recent strategy is the use of celebrities and other so-called “influencers” in social media. They’re paid to make favorable mentions of products on Facebook and Twitter. And they’re paid very well.

Actually, it’s a freakin’ crime what some of them are paid. Khloe Kardashian, for instance, gets an astonishing $13,000 per tweet, and her sister Kim is rumored to rake in $20,000 per tweet.

I can’t decide what’s more sickening: how much they’re paid for their shilling, or the fact that they’re actually esteemed as “influencers.”

Alas, the FTC is catching on to this social media gravy train, and to protect the naïve they are now requiring celebrities to disclose that their tweets about products are not done purely out of love for said products. Among other things, they’re requiring that they add the hashtag “#ad” to all sponsored tweets.

What about you? Is there any product or service you’ve bought as a direct result of its advertising, or the person paid to pitch the product? And, conversely, is there anything you’ve avoided buying as a protest against a particular product’s advertising?

As for me, I’m putting my foot down and will not be buying any Kardashian-endorsed eos Lip Balm, regardless of how pretty it would make my pout.

July 23, 2013 · Posted by in advertising, branding, social media  

Recently, someone asked me what I do. After I told her, she exclaimed: “Oh, well I’ll bet you’ve noticed how bad the spelling and sentence construction is on so many things online!”

As a matter of fact, I have.

Actually, it’s pretty hard to miss. News stories on Yahoo! routinely have at least a couple of misspelled words, bad punctuation, or complicated sentences that don’t quite make sense. Sometimes they hit a trifecta with all of the above. Facebook posts and other social media sites are particularly rife with spelling and grammar errors. Not just the posts from your friends, either. Yes, even businesses are getting it wrong.

The horror!

So what gives? Are we getting dumber? Is the glowing computer screen numbing our higher thought processes? Whatever the reason, it’s causing an instant loss of credibility, according to Adrian Snood, a Social Media Manager & Community Relationship Specialist. As Snood notes: “A website or blog is often the first place that you go to learn a little bit more about the individual or company. So if your online content has many spelling errors or grammatical mistakes, then why should your visitors take you seriously?”

Snood speculates that part of the problem lies in the fact that even if spellcheck is used, it can’t identify usage errors such as the incorrect use of “there” for “their”, or “your” for “you’re.” He recommends reading each post ALOUD before publishing it, so you are forced to not rush through the process and so you can hear if there is anything awkward or unclear in your writing.

Of course, not everyone is generating social media or website content. But there are other written communications, such as intra agency briefs, emails and, of course, letters and emails to clients, that can always benefit from a closer look.

Whatever the context of our written communication, we would all be well served by this modern day reworking of an old adage:  “Read twice, post once.”

June 7, 2013 · Posted by in copywriting  

Years ago, I attended a lecture by Joey Reiman, then a Copywriter/Creative Director at an agency in Atlanta. One of the things that stood out most from his talk was the quote above, allegedly John Lennon’s rephrasing of T.S. Elliot’s ”Amateur poets borrow; mature poets steal” or possibly Malcolm Mclaren’s reworking of Picasso’s  “Bad artists copy, great artists steal. ” No one seems to know for sure. But that’s beside the point.

As Joey explained it, “Amateurs borrow, professionals steal” is not about plagiarizing other ads. That would be bad. Rather, it’s about taking elements from the language and ideas floating around in daily life and popular culture and using them in your work. Last week, I came across a great example of “Amateurs borrow, professionals steal.” At least as it applies to advertising.

The board here for the Chicken Scratch restaurant in Dallas is a great example of legitimate “stealing”: turning an offhand comment you heard someone say into a headline. In this case, it was something the client said. As Copywriter Dan Bull explained, the owner of the place “was talking about the challenge the restaurant faces and explained: “I mean, we’re between a trailer park and a condemned motel!” And I thought, “That would make a pretty great ad, actually.”

Indeed. That and the cool Robert Crumb style illustration.

June 3, 2013 · Posted by in advertising