When I meet Jay Heyman, author of the new book, “All You Need Is A Good Idea” for lunch (which I’ve been doing now on average once a month for over 20 years) we usually avoid arguing about advertising principles and fight about something else instead. There's a reason.
We’re both advertising copywriters by trade. (Writing cranky tirades is just a sideline for me.) But we come from opposing schools of thought. I cut my advertising teeth at the atelier of the late David Ogilvy who preached, “The more you tell, the more you sell.” Long ad copy was king at David’s shop, at least in those days.
Heyman, on the other hand, seems to have learned his point of view from Mies van der Rohe, an architect, not an adman, who proclaimed that, “less is more.” Or as Heyman re-states the principle in his book, “Don’t talk so much.”
So at lunch we speak of things other than how to advertise, lest our regular meetings over pastrami sandwiches begin to resemble the final conference of, say, Sheriff Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid (I leave it to you to decide which of us is which) with pickles and cole slaw flying instead of bullets. If it ever happens it’ll be the food fight of the century.
“Burgering” the mayor
None of this should be taken to mean that Heyman’s school of say-it-quick-and-run advertising doesn’t have its notable virtues. For example Heyman, now a partner in the boutique Porte Advertising agency, coined the memorable line for his client, The Stage Deli and its famously over-stuffed sandwiches, “Celebrating 70 Years of Excess.” That just about says it all.
Heyman also got the deli to rename one of its hamburgers “The Mayor Bloomberger,” and actually got the Mayor to come to the deli and eat one, thus generating a brief storm of valuable-but-free publicity. Hey, it doesn’t work when you’re selling Rolls Royce automobiles, but I’ll bet it moved a heck of a lot of chopped sirloin.
The advice that Heyman dispenses is practical and likely to be helpful to most people whose living depends on creating or judging advertising, even if the advice is a bit basic in spots. For example, he doesn’t get into the techniques such as counting direct mail responses, gauging return on investment, recording web clicks and other measurements that you can use to determine advertising effectiveness.
But what the book lacks in tutoring on advanced technique, it more than makes up for in basic advice for small businesses and others, often couched in deliciously-written copy. Consider his warning on coming up with a klunker of an idea, “Get it wrong and you will suffer the death of a thousand silent cash registers.”
The book also contains illuminating case histories, and wonderful advertising yarns that will have most Madison Avenue veterans nodding in recognition. I’ll excerpt just one of them here, since I really do hope you’ll run out and buy a copy.
This tale, which Heyman builds around a stumble in his own career, explains how fragile a good idea is, and how eagerly “helpful” colleagues in an advertising agency will flock to kill it:
With friends like this
he didn’t need enemies
…It was a new business pitch for Drambuie, an after dinner drink that is a blend of scotch whiskies, heather honey and, naturally, a secret recipe. Lots of pressure, lots of prestige for the winning creative and therefore lots of politics in the agency. The odds of anyone other than a very senior creative (which I was not) having their work considered was, well, you know the usual story.Check out his blog, too
... I wanted to focus on the fact that Drambuie was rarely served before or during a meal. It was only served following a meal…
…I found myself with the idea of using arresting black and white portraits of famous influential historic icons. Each of them was a significant leader in whatever field they were involved with. The good idea was not just the unusual look of the page. It was the combination of words that was the headline in every ad in the campaign.
For example, you had photos of three impressive notables in one ad: Andy Warhol, Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw. Plus a headline writ large: There Have Been Many Great Leaders…But Only One Great Follower.
Next to the bottle, at the bottom of the ad, was the claim, “Drambuie Liqueur. Nothing Follows A Great Dinner Better.”
...Agreed, it was a good idea. Even top management of the agency in charge of the presentation recognized its worth and praised it. And then came what you have to beware of: Being Pecked To Death By Ducks.
The first thing that happened to my good idea was the suggestion from a high-ranking creative that perhaps it should not be famous leaders and followers. It should be famous endings, like the demolition of Ebbets Field. So that had to be worked up for him.
Then another biggie creative suggested making the leaders less formidable and more approachable so the common folk could relate to them. And be sure to include the names of each celebrity, so that the reader would never feel ignorant. Another suggestion was to just put one person in each ad. I don’t remember all the suggestions but the net effect was to dilute the idea beyond saving. Yet, I must admit I listened to them all. Partly because they had never been so involved with any of my previous work at the agency. Partially because part of me said, well they are the top hierarchy of the shop; they must be better than their comments make me feel they are.
Then came the next internal presentation. The president of the agency, who had seen only my initial idea and not the various changes, took one look and got very upset. With me! He dismissed the idea and said in effect, that I had no idea how good the original campaign was and that I had destroyed it with what I was showing him now. I looked around for support from those in the meeting who had led me down this path. I am still waiting.
The end result was that the campaign was not shown. (By the way, the agency did not get the account. The campaign recommendation, as I recall, was a photo of a man entering his home after a difficult day and saying to his wife: “Do Me A Drambuie.” No comment.)
For free samples of Heyman’s wisdom and counsel, I also recommend checking out his blog.
But just once thing: Remember that while there are times when you shouldn’t talk so much, there are also times when more copy is actually more effective.