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How to create a brilliantly effective poster in five minutes

We’ve all seen them, the desperately sad home-made posters pinned to trees and lamp posts. “Lost cat. £250 reward. Call 0123 456 7890” Plus a picture of the hapless feline.

These are a perfect example of how posters should work. You get what they’re about in a nanosecond, thanks to the headline and picture. They have a totally clear call to action, the phone number. And a powerful incentive too, the reward. Instinctively the person making the poster knows what are the important things to focus on.

You see the same thing in the newsagent’s window. For Sale: Ikea Sofa £100 or nearest offer. Call 0123 123 1234. There’s a picture of the sofa and, bingo, job done.

And yet, when people become marketeers, or designers, or copywriters, they suddenly lose the ability to do posters as effective as this. They start trying to be clever or, heaven forfend, “creative”.

Suddenly we get meaningless headlines, obscure pictures, type you can’t read because it’s in capital letters or white type reversed out of a coloured background, and tiny calls to action.

So here’s my five minute guide to how to make a brilliantly effective poster.

Headline: What is this poster about?

What is it for? And who is it for? What is the single message we want the punter to INSTANTLY take away from the poster?

It’s probably not ‘about’ the name of your company, or a pun. What are you offering the passing customer who has mere moments, or less, to see it and understand it? Is it something free, is it something delicious to eat, is it a short-term special price?

Look at our lost cat posters. They all have the identical headline, everywhere in the world: LOST CAT. Or MISSING CAT. No more no less. In every nation and every language. What does that tell you about effective headlines? (Of course, if your lost cat poster goes on a wall full of other lost cat posters you might have to think slightly harder to make yours stand out.)

Picture: What is this poster about? The picture and headline should work together to instantly communicate the message you want to get to  your chosen audience. So use a simple, clear image that can be understood at a glance.

Body copy: ideally, a poster shouldn’t need any body copy. People passing in cars can’t read it, people passing on foot won’t read it. But if you must have some additional info, keep it super-short and super-easy to read. Opening times, location, price — the stuff the punter might want to know after her attention has been caught by the headline and image. Again, the Lost Cat poster at the top gives some extra info that might be useful, where the cat was last seen.

Call to action: what do you want the punter to do? Phone, go online, choose it at Tesco’s? Then tell them! Big phone number or big web address. Make it as easy as possible for them. (You won’t believe how often art directors and designers will fight to keep these “hard-sell” elements to a minimum because it spoils their beautiful design. Madness.)

It really is that easy. Naturally, if you’re producing a poster for something a little more nuanced than a lost cat or dog you might have to work a little harder to isolate the key message and make it stand out in a crowded marketplace. But the principles and techniques are identical. LOST CAT £250 REWARD.


How NOT to do a full page press ad

This is a real jaw-dropper. Back page of The Telegraph, full page broadsheet press ad. And it’s a brilliant case study of everything you should never do in a press ad. Look at the picture and see if you can guess what it’s advertising.

  1. The headline: it’s on its side. Why? Why make it hard to read. Can you think of any reason why it’s on its side? (I’ll bet you a million quid the team responsible said “It’s more eye-catching because it’s unusual”. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.)
  2. The headline: it doesn’t say anything of interest to me. (Or anyone else.) What is says is this: In 1925 the revolution nearly wasn’t televised. I have no idea what this is about. I have no idea who this ad is for, or why I should read it. (It’s a teaser headline, everyone will be intrigued!”)
  3. The headline: it’s in capital letters. This makes it hard to read. But as it’s also on its side this is hardly the worst sin of incompetence on display here.
  4. The eye-catching picture: oh. There isn’t one. Why not?
  5. The logo: never mind, all of the above, I’ll whizz to the bottom right and look for the logo so I can spend a split second finding out what the brand is. Oh. There isn’t one.
  6. The body copy: it’s presented in a stupid fan layout. Why?
  7. The body copy: it’s printed in rainbow colours making it really hard to read. Why?
  8. The body copy: it’s about the history of television. And how John Logie Baird’s invention wasn’t taken seriously. Oh OK, so that’s the revolution mentioned in the headline. Why are you telling me this? What is this ad about? I still have no idea what it’s selling me. (And let’s face it, I’m the only person reading this crap, and that’s because I write this blog.)
  9. The body copy: line 18, yes, line 18. It says “Next time you’re enjoying watching people watch television…”  (what???? Is this is a reference to Gogglebox? Why? Where has this come from?) “…think about the small revolution  happening the other side of the socket: the smart meter.” So finally, they get to tell us what this pitiful mess is about. Smart meters. WTF?
  10. The body copy: apparently smart meters are the ‘”clever new device that’s helping homes across the country see how much their energy is costing”. Blimey, that’s a little user benefit creeping in there! It only too til line 20 to get there. And that’s it. That’s all we’re told. No more benefits. No more reasons to buy or enquire. No clue as to how or where we might get one.
  11. The body copy: the last line is that favourite of utterly incompetent copywriters: the lame attempt at a joke. I think. “Perhaps watching your smart meter might become as mainstream as watching Scandinavian crime dramas.” Really? I mean REALLY????
  12. There is a tiny URL tucked at the end of the copy. Same size, same typeface, same rainbow colours.

I find this ad genuinely shocking. Smart meters are useful, they have a clear benefit to the user. They are a physical thing so you can show a picture of them. Lots of people will want to know how they can save money, and how much, by installing them. But this ad fails on, literally, every level. Everyone involved with it should be deeply, deeply ashamed and the client should fire the agency immediately. Except the client signed it off too.

Is your brand issue really a company structure issue?

More often than we’d like to think, what is described as a problem with a brand is actually a problem with a company’s structure. I found myself in a meeting last week where this was particularly evident to everyone but, it seemed, the company concerned.

The client (a large financial services brand who shall remain nameless) was telling us that we need to look at the brand’s messaging and its imagery and tone of voice — the usual stuff — as their website doesn’t seem to be delivering the growth they’d expect.

All the latest fashionable stuff is trotted out: how important storytelling is. How we need to revisit the brand’s message house. How we need to workshop some new positioning statements and ensure we have a firm grasp on the customer personas we’re dealing with.

Absolutely nothing wrong with doing all of the above from time to time, if necessary. But the real issue in this instance (as it often is) was nothing to do with “the brand” per se. It was entirely an issue of how the company structured its product offering.

Put simply, the company was offering two main types of financial service: protection (ie insurance), and pensions (ie savings/investments). Each had their own sales and management team. Each had their own revenue and profit targets. They even had separate buildings in different parts of town.

As a consequence of this internal structure, each had, effectively, their own website with just a shared initial homepage. Plus, each had their own advertising campaign with markedly different imagery and messaging.

In other words, each product area was pretty much a separate brand.

So the customer would, to all intents and purposes, be dealing with two separate entities. She couldn’t get a statement that showed her protection and pension products on a single document. The documents she did receive were entirely different in appearance and structure. She couldn’t manage her two products through a single online portal. She had to log in separately to two different dashboards. She received no cross-sell benefits or discounts. In short, as far as the company was concerned she was essentially two different people.

From a company perspective, this can make perfect sense. Often the structure comes about through mergers and acquisitions. A company buys another company’s insurance ‘book’ or sells off its pension business. The new bit is just bolted on to the old bit and remains a separate entity in everything but name. Why change anything other than the product’s name and logo?

Because it’s unbelievably frustrating and confusing for the customer, that’s why. And that’s bad for business.

You arrive at the website expecting a clear UX journey. You want to feel like you’re a loved and appreciated customer of The Brand. You don’t give a monkey’s that the company behind the website is operating out of two separate offices in different parts of the company and that the management of one bit rarely talks to the management of the other bit.

What you care about is being able to look after your finances simply and confidently. You don’t want to have two different logins and two completely different website journeys. You couldn’t care less that each brand has a slightly different version of the logo and a different ad campaign.

In your mind, the brand is a single entity and you want it to help you manage your financial affairs as best it can. If it’s not delivering this, you think bad things about the brand. Perhaps you think about moving to competitors who get it right?

My point is this: we must always remember that The Brand is the impression of your company/product/service that exists in YOUR CUSTOMERS’ MINDS. It’s not a logo, it’s not a TOV, it’s not your values or mission statement.

If your customers think your website is clunky and confusing, your service is sloppy, your communications unnecessarily complex and wasteful, it doesn’t matter that your advertising is sensational, your logo is beautiful and your TOV is warm and witty. Your brand is what your customers feel about you, not what you tell them they ought to feel.

Nobody’s saying it’s easy to change a company’s structure to reflect what your customer needs, it isn’t. It’s complex and expensive. It puts massive numbers of noses out of joint and, of course, can even result in redundancies. So it’s entirely understandable when the main board refuses to even consider it.

But if you genuinely believe all those customer-centric promises in your latest brand values document, you need to do it.




Remember: nobody wants to read your shit.

Just read this book and it’s a timely reminder about one of the basic facts in the marketing and advertising business: nobody wants to read your ad. Nobody wants to read your website. Nobody wants to read your email.

And yet the industry seems to have forgotten this fact. We see so much work that is, patently, very pleased with itself and has clearly been produced in the reality-free zone that is the hallmark of contemporary promotion.

Work is produced for other agency people to admire. For the client to show his boss. For the boss to show his wife.

We see endless numbers of me-too TV ads with smug 30-somethings with beards being oh-so-ironic.

And offering no reason a) to watch b) to buy.

These ads feature smug 30-somethings with beards because they’re produced by smug 30-somethings with beards.

And, as a result, they become simply TV wallpaper. Blandness taken to the next level of virtual invisibility. A colourless mush of vapid, lifestyle-based nonsense.

So often now, clients want work that looks like somebody else’s work. Not work that stands out, that demands your attention. That would be brave and adventurous.

They want work that is cosy, familiar, well-worn and unthreatening. As challenging as your favourite old pair of slippers. Work That Looks Like Advertising.

Not work that is effective advertising.

Of course, the good news is this: do something half decent and it leaps out at you like somebody poking you up the nostril with a red-hot poker.

So next time you’re some creative work, ask yourself “What can I do that will make this a must-read for my audience?”

Chances are you’ll come up with a proposition for your brief which is more focused than “Product X will make you happy”.

Chances are you might think “Hmmm, do I really need to show my target audience here? Actually, these people aren’t my real target audience anyway.”

Chances are you’ll write a headline message that offers a real benefit to your punters. And if you haven’t got one then you’re going to need an execution that captures your punters’ attention by its creative brilliance.

As someone once said: “If you’ve got nothing to say, sing it”.



Why your new brand may be doomed to failure

They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. And this is especially true in the ludicrous mixed-up world of marketing.

A few years ago, everyone who knows only a little about marketing became convinced that The Brand is everything. You had to build a brand to sell your product.

Everyone who knows a lot about marketing knows the opposite is in fact the case. You have to sell your product in order to build a brand.

And to sell your product you have to tell people why they should try it, or buy it.

Because it cleans whiter. Because it’s the sweet you can eat between meals. Because it’s the safest car out there.

In short, you have to give people a clear, focused and specific reason to buy your service or product. This is called selling. Which is now virtually a dirty word in marketing and advertising circles.

The absolute foolishness of trying to create a brand to sell your products is tragically demonstrated by the closure of a private school near me. This school has been going for over 300 years.

But last year they suddenly changed its name from The Friends School to Walden School. And a new logo popped up to support this. Hmmm, I thought, That’s odd, why on earth would you ditch a very distinctive brand name with three centuries of heritage and, one imagines, close to 100% recognition in the local area? And replace it with a name that creates instant confusion with the local Saffron Walden County High School? Which even has a similar logo.

I’m guessing the answer is a simple one.

The school was losing pupils. Revenue was drying up. Something had to be done.

But instead of concentrating on creating a great product (a brilliant school with stonking academic results well worth your £7000 a term fees) and then telling people about it as loudly and convincingly as possible, offering special discounts and making themselves generally unmissable to their target parents, they obviously picked the route that so many businesses do today…

They decided they needed a new brand.

“Yes! If we change the name and the logo the customers will come flocking to our door and our woes will be over for ever! Hoorah for marketing!”

Except it didn’t work.

Because it never does. Yet, more and more companies do it. It’s a lot easier than selling. It makes you feel cool and trendy talking about ‘brand’ rather than grubby ol’ sales.

You get to meet designers and strategists and planners who make you feel very important and write all sorts of portentous documents about your brand and the psychological power of Pantone 345.

They make you a new logo. And choose a fashionable typeface. Maybe they even write a slogan.

But do they make people buy your stuff? Nope.



Is your website broken before you even launch it?

Remarkably, I still see people launching brand-new websites that aren’t optimised for viewing and reading on mobile phones. Depending on which survey you look at, around 60% of all website visits are now done via mobiles. And this percentage is set to increase as sales of traditional PCs, even laptops, continue to fall in relation to smartphones and tablets.

Only today I was asked for some feedback on a new website, launching a new B2B product. Clearly it would have looked dazzling and beautiful on the designer/developer/UX people’s big flashy desktop. But on a regular smartphone it was illegible.

It also had a homepage explainer video packed with cartoons, captions and animated diagrams that were quite literally illegible and incomprehensible on the smartphone screen. Again, I’m sure this looked magnificent when the video team showed it on their giant hi-res Mac display, with pats on the back all round, but in the real world it was an utter waste of money.

Get this stuff wrong and it hurts your business.

Not only that, last year Google launched its ‘mobile first’ algorithm. Which means , if your site isn’t fully optimised for mobile, not only can your customers not read it, you get penalised in the search results too!

Putting ‘mobile first’ into action doesn’t just mean making sure your site works on the smaller devices by being ‘responsive’ — some people call this a ‘mobile friendly’ approach.

It means you should be thinking about the smaller devices FIRST. Write and design for the small devices then upscale, not the other way around,

And, of course, it’s the same story for any digital comms. If you’re sending out some sales emails to drive your customers to your lovely new site, you need to optimise them for mobile FIRST.

Even better, think about actually writing and designing them ON your phone. You’ll soon see whether they’ve got too much copy or an overly complicated design. Try it; it can be both shocking and liberating at the same time!

Sometimes a whisper is louder than a scream

It seems that, in order to be heard above the mindless racket that passes for TV adverting these days, advertisers are becoming more and more hysterical in their approach.

The grotesque “You’re so Money Supermarket” dancers and the once slightly wittier but now just brash and crass “Go Compare” executions are just two examples of what their creators would no-doubt declare as ‘ironic’ advertising. Actually, it’s just boorish shouting.

What is actually ironic, is that often you get more attention on the telly when you whisper instead of scream.

There was a striking black and white ad for Adele’s latest outing just before christmas, for example. In virtual silence, it focused on her eyes, which then opened to striking and memorable effect. It stood out like a sore thumb amongst the stampede of not-funny, screeching nonsense that surrounded it.

And now there’s another example of a TV ad that stops you in your tracks, grabs your attention and keeps it for the duration of its sell. (You know, the stuff ads are supposed to do.)

It’s basically just a still screen showing text messages popping up on a mobile. The only sound is the gentle beep as the latest message arrives. You have to read each one. No voice over to help you.

It’s utterly captivating and, like the Adele ad, is an oasis of communicative calm in the maelstrom of nonsense we’re so used to being assaulted by.

So, well done

The same principle applies in press and online too. Shout loudly “I AM AN AD PLEASE READ ME”, and you’re actually saying “I AM AN AD. YOU SHOULD IGNORE ME IMMEDIATELY”.

Make your ad look like editorial, however, and you’ll get that extra nano-second of attention that allows your message (if it’s clear enough, and offers a benefit) to be more clocked by your target. Suddenly your ad starts to do its job.

There’s a reason that so many online advertisers use those tacky click-bait executions (universally sneered at by hipster, bearded advertising types) rather than ‘creative’ banners. They test one against the other.

And the editorial-style click-bait ones work better. Simple.

Why Trump’s election underlines the awesome power of The Big Brand


The global airwaves and webwaves are now rammed with commentators and journalists post-rationalising why Trump got in.

You can’t turn on the telly or read a news site without finding some media luvvie telling you how half of Americans felt disenfranchised and ignored, and how, by voting for The Donald, they were making a statement about the Washington political elite. And globalisation. And immigration. And so on.

What nobody (apart from me, seemingly) has yet said is ‘Trump is an incredibly powerful brand’.

He’s built his public persona over many years. Like Kit Kat. People know exactly what he stands for and what to expect. Like Fairy Liquid. And as the ex-presenter of the US Apprentice series he is a genuine, A-List reality TV star.

And (just like Brand Boris in the UK), you can recognise Trump from his hair alone. What a fantastic logo that is. Just like McDonald’s golden M or Disney’s silhouetted mouse ears.

He’s got some brilliant brand slogans too: “Build a wall”, “Lock her up”. They’re what great slogans always are, specific, memorable and most importantly, ownable. Just like Have a Break Have a Kit Kat.

Compare Hillary’s lame offering: “Forward together”. Straight out of the bland political slogan handbook. Cooked up by a committee. Can’t really imagine people at a rally chanting “Forward together!”, can you?

Trump even created a hugely memorable  Brand Positioning for Clinton: “Crooked Hillary.” If you look at this stuff in marketing terms it’s actually close to genius.

In short, Trump has become quite simply a Very Big Brand. And big brands are what people go for. Ask Lever Brothers or Procter and Gamble.

Lever Brothers sell Marmite. Half the British population hates it (me included). The other half loves it. This division is so marked that it’s actually become intrinsic to Marmite’s brand. Their TV ads even show people spitting it out.

Lever Brothers and their agencies recognised that not everyone likes everything, and cleverly built a massive brand around the fact that lots of people hate Marmite with a vengeance. People in the UK even talk about things being ‘a bit Marmite’. How many brands have become part of everyday language in this way?

Donald J Trump is exactly like Marmite. He hasn’t tried to make everyone like him. But the people who do, love him. And the people who don’t, hate him. The people who love him forgive him his trespasses.

That’s why you’ll never hear anyone, anywhere, say, “Oy yes, Trump, he’s OK I guess”.

Large, established consumer brands can withstand short bursts of terrible PR. Their reputation can take a knock but, if they’re big enough, they easily bounce back. Smaller, less established brands can be destroyed. Again, Trump embodies this resilience spectacularly.

Contrast this with Hillary. A me-too brand if ever there was one. A white, charisma-free Obama-lite –  the own-label diet cola to Trump’s full-fat Coke.


Always remember: people WANT to buy your stuff


You see so much marketing where it’s clear that the manufacturer or business owner (or their agency) are embarrassed about their product. Or at least embarrassed about having to sell it.

You see it all the time with what I call ‘borrowed interest’ advertising. Where the person writing the ads is bored by or ignorant about the product they’re meant to be pushing and, as a result, imports some extraneous nonsense because they think it will catch someone’s interest more.

This is nonsense. And the reason is quite simple:

People want to to buy your stuff.

They really do. If you’re selling second-hand cars, people in the market for a second-hand car will want to know all about what you’re offering.

If parents are looking for something new to give the kids for tea, they’ll want to hear about your new pizzas.

If business people are unhappy with the service they’re getting from their bank, they’ll be all ears to your bank’s introductory business account offers.

The point is, not everyone who sees your advertising or marketing will be your target customer. Most won’t. But the ones that are currently in the market will listen to every detail you can provide. They’ll hang on your every word.

That’s why, time after time after time, long copy works better than short copy. The ‘experts’ will constantly tell you nobody reads long copy. (The ‘experts’ have been saying this since advertising was invented.)

But the smart marketeers who actually TEST, know that long copy always outperforms short copy. Because people who are in the market for your product are interested in it. They WANT to buy what you’re selling.

Of course, the people who aren’t in the market won’t read long copy. But these people won’t read short copy either. You’re never going to sell to them, so you can ignore them completely.

This is why, if you want to produce a successful ad, website, sales letter, you must always remember that you’re writing it EXCLUSIVELY for the people who ALREADY have a need for what you’re selling.

You’re not writing for yourself, your agency colleagues or the awards jury. You’re writing it for the people out there who are waiting, all a-quiver, cash at the ready, to buy your stuff.

Changing someone’s mind is the hardest thing in advertising. (And politics.)


If there’s one thing marketeers should note from the EU referendum campaigns it’s this: nobody listens to advertising and promotion.

We had massively expensive and media-saturating campaigns by both the Leave and the Remain teams, but did they change a single person’s mindset? Maybe one or two, but not many.

Time and time again, once the results came in, we saw people expressing almost total ignorance about the key facts that should have been important drivers for the nation’s vital decision-making process.

People said they voted Leave because all their mates on social media were saying Leave. Students were saying they voted Remain because all students voted Remain. Old people voted Leave because they still hate the Germans. People in towns with barely any immigration voted Leave because they believed there were too many immigrants in their town.

The ignorance of the real facts was astonishing to some, but not to anyone who really knows what’s what in marketing and advertising.

It’s long been said that changing someone’s mind is the hardest thing to do in marketing. And the referendum showed graphically how resistant the populace is to any information that’s at odds with their currently-held world view.

And with the news and social media channels utterly saturated with Leave/Remain messaging from dawn til dusk, the wilful avoidance of the facts is truly mind-boggling.

If an entire nation can resist campaigns of this magnitude so easily, just consider how hard it is to get your low-budget B2B campaign to hit the bullseye and work its magic.