Category Advertising

Hi there. I'm a Partner at Undercurrent, where I lead a team focused on helping ambitious organizations operate in ways that are beneficial to all their users.

Mediocrity Tax

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A while back, I linked to an ASYMCO post showing the graphic below:


Noah just mentioned that he doesn’t agree with the idea that advertising is an unremarkable tax.

I respect the opinion, but I’m holding firm.

Noah points to a few key roles of advertising – making the brand seem bigger than it is, appeasing distribution networks, building affinity, etc. – and while I understand that those are important jobs to be done, they’re all signals of something gone wrong. Particularly today, when those jobs can be done more effectively and more cheaply by making great products, and structuring the company so that the product gets better daily.

If you’ve got to advertise to get the distribution network in line, there’s a problem more fundamental in the system than advertising can fix.

If you’re small, don’t act big – relish the agility your size affords you.

If you need to build affinity, do it by building a community that can do the work for you…because your product is awesome.

I’ll leave these here to illustrate the point. Here’s The Internet’s interest in Strava vs. Gatorade:

gatorade vs strava

And Apple’s OPEX vs. Sales:

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Unremarkable Tax


Advertising really is the unremarkable tax.

Complex Good

There’s an idea that as time passes, media artifacts (tv shows, movies, commercials, etc.) grow increasingly complex. It’s a premise that I believe in, and one that points to an useful concept for designers of things that people use.

It’s a pretty simple idea, but one that gets overlooked with unnerving frequency: people want to figure things out.

Take for example Arrested Development: it’s so complex, so meta, so referential, that the depth of its humor only becomes apparent on subsequent watchings. Season 4 takes this idea to the limits of its applicability: it only began to make me laugh on my second complete viewing of the season.

For a less-popular example, take the recent political comedies by Armando Ianucci, In The Loop and Veep, both of which are eerily similar in style and both require the audience to pay close fucking attention to be enjoyable. You can’t pick Veep up midseason and expect it to be a good time.

Once, when discussing the lack of interesting detail contained in a client’s video, my client asked an interesting question: “What about a sense of mystery?” My first reaction – that the Internet doesn’t want mystery, necessarily, that you should reveal as much detail as possible – was partly incorrect. As a culture we crave mystery, but we crave mystery of the figure-out-able kind. The search for the Higgs boson is an example of this. Metafilter is an example. Terrible reality programming of the “Real Lives of (insert strange subculture)” variety. So are treasure-seekers with their metal detectors, sunburns and backpacks full of kit.

We’ve been discussing the idea of complex brands for what seems like an eternity in the Plannersphere, but for those who missed that boat, there’s a belief that companies that intentionally create and cultivate complexity in their presence, identity, offering and delivery will have better financial outcomes than those that do not. Before you case-study thumpers get to thumping, I’m not talking about line extensions for the sake of line extensions, overcooked design, or the willful generation of three-letter acronyms (TLAs). That’s not complexity, that’s complication. You can have complexity and sell one thing, from one store.

The problem most companies have is that it’s difficult to create natural-feeling, authentic complexity, especially in commoditized categories, or when a company has grown to a size where complexity has been engineered out of their internal environment.

For example, there’s a lot to learn about, a lot to figure out, a lot of inbuilt interestingness if you’re considering an item from Everlane. There’s less inherent interestingness in a similar, competitive item from The Gap.

Same thing goes for Red Bull, though I’d argue that this is due to their ongoing efforts as a publisher/creator than to something intrinsic to their company. They’re much more learn-able than their competitors at Monster (who seem to be content to copy everything that Red Bull does, but without the finesse).

Most makers of inherently complex things do a decent job of this when they focus on certain portions of their customer base.

For a loyal Ford Mustang fan, there is much to learn. Buying a Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic? Some to learn, but frequently the canon is focused on marketing efforts rather than on the thing itself.* And partly with good reason: the production methods are standardized, the materials are generic, and the features are common. If this is a systemic change, then automakers are in a structural pickle: generally they’re functionally and legally separated from their purchase destinations, fouling through complication what could be made interesting and complex.

And for me, the glorious thing about this confluence of pervasive Internet culture, increasing media complexity, a shift toward corporate transparency, and more considerate consumption patterns is creating segments and categories where paying close fucking attention is the norm, not the exception. More companies are packing more interesting details into their products and services, and companies that miss this trend are losing share.

*The work we’re doing on the Fiesta Movement is in line with this idea: we’re making a pretty straightforward if astonishingly complete car a little more learnable than its competitors.

On Advertising

There’s a lot of back-and-forth on the internet about the value of banners, the value of social, and whether or not it’s a good idea generally to advertise on the internet.

I’m not sure where we’ll all come down on this – ultimately I think we all understand the relative value of advertising and active brand participation on The Internet, to say nothing of essential digital business tools – but for me it comes down to the desirability of The Advertising Industry’s contribution to the medium.

TV ads can be awesome, culture-forming summations of our collective feelings about a company or product. They can also be terrible wastes of time that nobody sees or cares about, but that’s beside the point.

I don’t think digital advertisements – transmitted via banner inventory or through social channels – can make the same claim. Digital is good at things that TV is bad at, and vice versa. And that’s okay.

Ultimately if you’re fighting to save the banner ad or the social promotion, at best you’re going to be on the wrong side of history. In the meantime, you’re diverting resources from important (and usually under-nourished) parts of the digital business ecosystem.

TL:DR? Ads are great. They just make The Internet a shittier place.

Clay Shirky on Messiness

The following is from a 2008 interview of Clay Shirky that I just loved. So many good bits in it. In putting together my principles/lenses, I realized that this interview led to a belief that gets me in trouble with advertising types: that brands can loosen up a lot in the digital world. Here’s the text from that segment.

Assume that in the interactive environment, there are qualities to interaction, rather than “quality” full stop.

The advertising industry in particular has said that there is one kind of quality, and that is production values. And so everything has to look perfect, and we have to spend a bunch of money, and we need to have a special photoshoot where we go to Corfu and spend two days taking these photos, etc.

Over and over again, what we see in interactive environments is that if something looks too good, people won’t touch it. And you can do this in your own kitchen: if you go and spend half a day arranging every single thing, laying everything out just so, like it’s ready for a magazine shoot, and then you send someone into your kitchen, they will not pick up a knife. They will not help you cook. They will not touch anything, because the perfection of the kitchen says, “You don’t belong here.” On the other hand, if your kitchen looks like my kitchen on average, where the recently washed dishes have not yet been put away, and there’s some stuff around, a guest will come in and feel right at home opening up the refrigerator and helping you prep.

The messiness, the openness, the human characteristic tells people it’s okay. The marketing business has been so focused on this idea that we only have one shot to hand you a glossy photograph or a 15-second ad that we’re going to do everything we can to clean it up, right to the edges. But something that’s been cleaned up right to the edges has no space for me. And having things that are rough enough to say, “You know what we actually haven’t thought of all of this, you can come in to if you wanted” that kind of invitation isn’t something that the marketing industry is good at yet.

Why this, Bottega Veneta?

Last night I did some browsing of Bottega Veneta’s men’s stuff. It’s been notably present in my Instagram feeds, thanks to Ryan Plett (with a cool intrecciato bracelet) and Guido Wongolini (with a cool, vintage intrecciato lanyard) and part of various menswear promos. Plus, I’m missing my lost passport cover and figured Veneta had a nice replacement.

The stuff is gorgeous, a little weird, and fantastically expensive. For example, the multicolor Cervo duffel above retails for $4,250.

And even at the low end – the entry market for most luxury brands, the small leather goods category – the most plausible replacement for my passport cover, below, runs a cool $750.

So you can imagine my surprise to see this ad on Slate today. On an article about income inequality, no less.

Shop women’s wallets.

Okay, sure. Granted, I’d pay a lot for a conversion, but is a random Slate article the right place? And can a fellow get some targeting up in here?

Old Spice Genius

These are for Swagger.

And these are for Body Wash.

This one might be the best.

Continued excellence from W+K.

Nike Most Valuable Puppets Santa/Reindeer Ads

This aired yesterday during (and before) the big Lakers-Cavs Kobe-LeBrawn showdown.

It was preceded by this: Episode 4 in the Most Valuable Puppets (MVPs) series for this season.

So much right about these.

The puppets, which proved to be popular, if ill-fated during last year’s NBA Playoffs—LeBron didn’t make it to the Finals—the lyrics, the length, the cultural references that help us Gen-Y kids play along, the episodic nature of them all, and even the choices of KRS-1 (oldest of the old-school) as Santa and Lupe Fiasco (known sneaker junkie and nerdy rapper from Chicago) to take the place of a rapping Blitzen…it’s all pretty ace.

That said, I have some thoughts.

I had a bit of a hard time finding the quality embeds of these videos that wouldn’t disappear from the ether after I posted them here. It happened once with the Hyperizin’ ad that I posted before, which dismayed me a bit, and I wonder why there isn’t a link from this Nike Basketball MVPs page to their YouTube channel. That seems to be an enormous, idiotic omission from the page.

Note the lack of deep-linking to the episodes here, and the lack of a link to a place where I can share these videos.

If a video asset gets me to go online, SEND ME TO A PLACE WHERE I CAN GET (AND SHARE) MORE VIDEO. I’m going online to find a copy that I can watch again—essential for a two-minute-long ad—and to find an easy way to share something with my friends. They do have a link to a page that hocks their character’s tweets (not directly to Twitter, of course), but for me, this is a fail.

I don’t want to follow Lil’ Dez on Twitter, I want more video.

So, Nike/Wieden: keep up the awesome traditional work. But help me share your great work with my friends, yeah? Thanks.


I’m totally in love with this new music video by Wieden + Kennedy Portland, on behalf of Foot Locker and Nike. So many brands have turned to hip-hop to get their message across, but very few have done it so well and with such a nuanced, layered approach. The actual song isn’t half bad; when you’re not dealing with professional rappers, there’s no better style than early ’90s rap. The rhythm’s slower, and the emphasis is more on delivery than vocabulary/verbal trickery. And getting an actual producer from the era (DJ Quik) never hurts. Durant, Lewis, Williams and Iguodala actually sound pretty decent. I’m not a big fan of the print, but the music video’s pretty fly, and I dig the message: play with style.

Nice work, W+K.

Taco Bell Piña Colada

The dude with the timesheets killed me. I love it. And this stopped seven non-ad people dead in their tracks last night as they were leaving after dinner, so I figure it worked. Nice job, Taco Bell.

However, two things:

  1. This world would be better without another portmanteau, this time between two pretty good words: “Break” and “Vacation”.
  2. I love how that song glosses over the fact that the two characters took out ads to cheat on each other. Nice subtle endorsement of the swinger lifestyle, TB!