The Number One Most Important Secret Trick to Making Great Ads Can Be Learned by Cooking Catfish for Breakfast.

Dear Students,

To make ads is boring silly work.

I won’t teach it.

If you want to make great ads.

That’s different.

Here’s what you do.


Get a cast iron skillet.

The one I use is nearly as old as I am. (we pass along cooking instruments in our family, not art or real estate)

Heat the shit out of the skillet.

Put two catfish fillets in. (marinate them in something that has the words Cajun and spicy on the label first)

You’ll hear a popping sound when they hit the hot metal because you took my advice on how hot to let the skillet get.

Now, here comes the secret number one most important trick that you’ve endured the reading of this recipe for:

Forget that you’re cooking.

Go into another room. Read the paper. Do the crossword.

The amount of smoke created in blackening catfish will tempt you, if you stand there watching it, to pull the pan off the fire before perfection has been created because you will think Gadzooks, this is not what a kitchen should look like, this is not what cooking looks like on tv.

In the same way, when you are making a great ad, the distance your mind will deviate from what seems like advertising will scare you.

Don’t give in.

Erase from your mind the thought that you are making an ad.

Even when the smoke alarm goes off don’t pull your pan from the fire.

Great ads are like great breakfasts.

They’re different from what normal people make.

Every Company Has a Problem They Are Pretending Isn’t a Problem. That’s the Problem to Go After.

Aim at that problem with the advertising you create.
The client will fight you. He wants a problem addressed that he thinks is not his fault or a weakness in his product.
The agency planners will fight you. They want the problem addressed that the client told them was the problem.
The sales managers will fight you. They have taught themselves that the words “sale” and “lowest price anywhere” must figure prominently in everything.
The audience will say (but not out loud) “finally”.


Sleep is the Most Intelligent Act a Student Can Perform After Midnight.

Dear Students,

It’s considered macho to stay up all night to finish a project.

I’ve done it.

And stood there first in line at the coffee shop at dawn certain that I’d done something cooler & harder & more valuable than what regular people had done that night.

But now I see it differently.

Now I have enough distance from the work and the situations they arose from.

To tell you it’s false.

Yes, staying up all night to work can result in your having something to turn in if you didn’t do any work up till that point.

But that’s not a victory.

It’s a defeat.

Because the goal of a superlative ad maker isn’t to get ads done.

It’s to get great ads done.

Staying awake when you need sleep makes your brain slow down.

Causing it to not make as many connections as it would at full power.

Or to access as many or widely separated cells as it would have if rested.

Which means you think s l o w e r.

About less.

And perceive its value through the gauze of “decreased bandwidth”.

It’s hard to be great.

Don’t go about trying to get there with only half a brain.


When you wake up, 10 minutes of the real you will get you further than hours spent with the gerbil cages of your mind only pretending to whirl.




In an Age of Puffery the Pinprick is King.

Dear Students,

Boil everything down.

When you have removed every impurity from the client’s product claims and research insights and social media hoopla and sales manager excitedness what you have may be small. Infinitesimal even.

Let it be. The size of truth is no predictor of its power.

Make that truth your client’s story.

Build your campaign on nothing else.

We live inside a hurricane of promotion and flimflam.

Something to hold on to that is immovable need not be large to be potent.

A short sermon can carry a lot of God.

Don’t work late at the office.

Dear Graduates,
Working late makes it look like you’re trying.
You don’t want to look like you’re trying.
Trying counts against you, not for you.
When you look like you’re trying it suggests to those watching that what you’re doing may be as much as you can handle.
It takes a lot of work to be great.
But don’t let people see you do it.
Go home.
Go to a diner.
Get out of the office.

Is Advertising Ready for Satire?

Dear Graduates,

There is room in admaking for far more than you’ve seen done.

I put before you today a tactic hardly anyone uses but which seems to me ripe for exploration.

–I’ve used it but couldn’t sell the work. That means nothing, though. Many times I have tried approaches that weren’t wrong,  just out of sync with the times–

So I suggest it now. In these newer times. To younger & more brilliant minds.


The use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices.

Is how the Oxford Dictionary puts it.

Also helpful is the American Heritage dictionary: A literary work in which human vice or folly is attacked through irony, derision, or wit.

So many ads fail to touch us because they make no effort to reach us.

The real human us full of folly and vice.

Most ads stay too close to the brief.

Which is to say they stay too close to what the client wants said.

Which is BUY MORE.

The audience quickly identifies a voice that issues from a greedy wish to profit from the actions of others. And refuses to be either moved or listen further.

But they are moved by having what’s inside of them exposed. And they will lean in to listen when something they see unfairly held above them in the world is skewered.

Satire is great for this.

Because it gives you a chance to say out loud what the true problem is that your ad is about.

Let me give you two examples which differ from each other not only in tone but in format. They are not from advertising. Ads are a lousy place to look for inspirational help in making ads.

Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal that hunger in 18th Century Ireland be abated by the eating of children was probably the finest use ever of satire.

It caused wonderful ruckus in its time.

The opening few paragraphs of Wikipedia’s entry on the essay describes it well. When it points out that “Much of its shock value derives from the fact that the first portion of the essay describes the plight of starving beggars in Ireland, so that the reader is unprepared for the surprise of Swift’s solution …” it sounds like it’s describing exactly what an admaker hopes to accomplish in an ad–shock value to draw in a reader, followed by an unpreparedness that allows what one says to the audience to accomplish the feat of surprise.

A second example is from a pop singer who mostly appeals to folks my age but whose work you would do well to examine:

Randy Newman.

He has had hit songs more famous, but this one, to me, is his best:

The way both Swift and Mr Newman are able to straight-facedly say what the audience knows they don’t mean is both powerful and unexpected.

But, better, it accomplishes what few communications from companies ever accomplish.

They treat the audience with respect.

They’re daring you not to get what they’re saying.

It is disarming to an audience when someone talking to them drives directly at their sore spot at top speed. And an audience disarmed is an audience not ducking out of the way.

It seems to me an admaker might be able to make work that satisfies by examining satire the way these two have used it.

No, you’re right, it won’t work for many clients.

Brave companies.

Or companies forced by falling sales to behave bravely.

Just a thought. Best of luck with it.

FOR PRACTICE: Write ten true statements about life and the project you’re working on. Let the statements get crazy if your mind takes you that way, or more truthful, or expand into other subject areas. Generally, by the end of a page of fast thinking I’ll have written something I wouldn’t have dared say. Which is a good place to start constructing satire. If nothing else, you’ll have a new view of the product.

Dear Public, We Think You Are Stupid. Yours Truly, Netflix and Google.

What makes most clients so bad at advertising isn’t that they’re cheap, or corrupt, or ignorant, or don’t pay attention, or have bad taste, or any of the other character defects we all of us share in.

What makes most clients so bad at advertising is a fundamental belief they seem to hold in common.

They think people are stupid.

It’s doubtful anyone has said this thought aloud. Folks smart enough to run a company are rarely inept enough to insult the family of man.

But how they act tells us how they think.

Out of a hundred thousand examples that rush to mind, let us examine merely the most recent.


… has run 16 times tonight (June 4th) during a 3-hour broadcast of the White Sox vs Dodgers baseball game I have been watching on (update: It has continued to run at virtually the same exact schedule for the last 12 days also)

The point of the commercial confuses me.

But that’s made irrelevant by what the companies’ choice to run the commercial this way suggests is in their minds about us, the audience.

What do you imagine I and the rest of the audience watching baseball think of Netflix and Google and Chrome after being importuned so repeatedly and so clumsily?


We are bored.

We are annoyed.

We have even gone beyond boredom and annoyance to remembering who it is that has so bored and annoyed us.

And a place has been created in our brains where the memory lives that the names Netflix and Google and Chrome go together with the kind of annoyance and boredom that cause anger.

It’s not news that the quality of advertising creative is down.

It’s not news that a ton of companies spend a great deal of money on advertising that makes them look foolish.

But these are two companies born in the 21st Century.

They’re not the packaged goods marketers that have treated us as if we’re imbeciles for 50 years.

These are the new guys coming at us with this crap.

Dear graduates.

What most clients need from you even more than the ads you can make is the sense you can make.

The truth you can tell them.

The attention you can get them to pay to the difference between what they are doing and what they think they are doing.

If they treat people as if they’re stupid, their business will not grow.

Does Apple treat people this way? Nike?

And in what direction have their sales been going?

All ads tell the audience who a company is and what that company thinks of them.

Even bad advertising works that way.

Start thinking about opening your own agency. Part 2

There has never before been a time when so many people–clients, agencies, the press, the schools, your friends–were willing to admit they have no idea what’s going on in advertising. Which means you’re more equal to the best in the business right now than you may ever be.

The cheaper you can live, the higher you can afford to set the standard of what you won’t do.

Nervy work gets noticed, not over-planned work. Nerves die in the presence of responsibilities. Age also doesn’t help.

The most necessary person in an ad agency is the one who can get new business. If you start thinking of opening your own agency now, you may know enough to take the opportunity to meet one of these rarities should one come along. Instead of blowing them off to play pool with your buddies. You need a partner who can make you jump. Start looking. Looking is thinking.

The time to think about doing something is before you have to, not when you have to. When you get fired your address book shrivels just as quickly as your heart does. At least start the thinking from a position of strength.

If you think about opening an agency now, when you come to actually do it you won’t have quite as stupid a look on your face. Like I did.

Until you start your own agency you will never do your work, only someone else’s. If you need a better reason than that to start an agency don’t do it.


The time to begin thinking of starting your own agency is today. Right now. Three weeks after graduation. (Part 1 of 2)

Don’t wait till you’re old enough. You’ll have a mortgage and kids who need braces then. Your knees will hurt. You’ll need income. Starting an agency is no way to generate income. Starting an agency is about loving ramen soup and driving a cheap car. Owning an agency that’s a few years old. That can mean income. But starting is for the young.  The light is green.

Don’t wait till you know what you’re doing. You’ll never know what you’re doing. No one does. It shouldn’t take you more than a couple weeks at an agency to discover this.

Don’t wait till you think you’re ready. What people wait for to happen before they start an agency happens the day you start your agency. You go to work and you find out you’re ready. Because you have to be. You weren’t ready the day before because you didn’t have to be. Stop primping. Time for the closeup.

You do not have to earn the right to start.

You maybe want to have done a campaign for a client before you start so you have something to show what you can do.

But start thinking about it now. Today. Three weeks after graduation.

(Part 2: Why Now is a Good Time to Start an Agency)

In praise of carelessness.

A high fly ball is driven towards the outfield wall.

At the crack of the bat the centerfielder is already running at full sprint.

Think cheetah.

Suddenly he stops.

The ball dives.

The centerfielder is standing.

Or is that lounging?

He does not bring up his glove.

At the last second.

He does not bring up his glove.

As he meant to do from his first step, at the end of the second half of the last second.

He snaps open his glove below his waist and closes it in one motion.

The ball inside.

Then he leans back.

Looks around.

Sees the shortstop has come out to witness his miracle.

And tosses the ball to him with an underhanded wrist flick.

As if to say.

What’s this little ol white thing doing out here?

And how’s your kids going?

Farting around.

Welcome to the major leagues.

If you’d like to play admaker at the same level there’s a lesson in this for you.

Acting like what you’re doing is as hard as it actually is and as draining as it actually is and demanding as it actually is and as complicated as it actually is not only doesn’t make for a pleasant show, it hurts your ability to play at the major league level.

A fielder making a catch, a pitcher dooking a runner into revealing his intentions, or a batter hitting a 93-mph fastball.

If they’re all worked up, they’ll blow it.

A slugger so stoked to hit the ball that his heart is thumping will swing at a pitch off the plate he should take for a ball.

That’s why ballplayers play careless.

And why you should go about admaking the same way.

If you get so all-fired-up at writing an idea you think works.

How will you respond when the client questions it?

What will be the body language that gets shouted at your creative director when he asks you to change the whale in your story from a right to a sperm?

Is it likely you’ll be understanding when it turns out the presentation will be an hour earlier?

How will you behave in the meeting when it’s clear the proposal is dead?

Will you be able to calmly state that there are a hundred other ideas that might work just as well or better?

Which is not only true.

It’s the one truth that worked-up-ness makes stick most in the client’s craw.

That keeps him from trusting you.

Play with carelessness. Play like it’s play.

It doesn’t just look cool.

It earns trust.