Thursday, May 28, 2009

Musings on Creativity

At the Dawn of Advertising, a sage noted, “It ain’t creative, if it don’t sell!” As a strategy-driven copywriter and creative director, I couldn’t agree more.

In advertising and marketing communications, the bottom line is the bottom line. Period. Whether you’re selling products, services, ideas, or all three, making the sale isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. All else is window dressing, because if the cash register doesn’t ring, the creative executions aren’t worth the time, money or effort it took to create them.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you can ignore creativity in favor of communicating things in ways that would make even Bean Counters yawn. You’ve seen the kind of advertising and marcom that results from that approach. Ugh!

Remember, you can’t bore Baby Boomers into listening to your marketing messages. So, if you try to tell or sell them something using Drivel and Pablum (I think that was a Kansas City agency that closed its doors in the ’90s), don’t expect Boomers to greet your efforts with anything but disdain.

Just remember that if creativity is magic, strategy-driven creativity that actually works is genius. But to get the job done, you’re going to have to hire the most creative writers, art directors and producers around, and that’s like panning for gold.

I’ve hired many creative professionals over the past forty years, and the truly gifted ones are rare indeed. If you’re looking for creative pros who can take your business to the next level, don’t bother writing tight, logical job specs for them (unless you’re forced to by corporate fiat), because they defy description. Irrespective of education or experience, the one common quality I’ve noticed, is that their creativity never fails them. Wake them up at 3 AM, give them a tough challenge, and they’ll quickly come back with a very respectable professional solution, if not something borderline brilliant.

Managing creatives is more art than science, but it’s absolutely necessary because they tend to be so enamored of themselves and their ideas that they’ll go off on self-indulgent tangents that might look and sound cool, but are quite likely to leave you scratching your head, saying, “Where did we go wrong?”

To ensure things function efficiently and effectively, you need a strong, visionary leader who has a natural flair for creativity, as well as a deep belief in the power of a well-wrought marketing strategy. This person must have the experience, expertise and guts to stand up to the most flashy creative type and insist, “Where’s the idea?” That’s the only sure way to craft advertising and marcom that’s as disciplined to the sales function as it is faithful to creativity. The creative leader also has to have the skill to deftly shepherd the idea (and it sundry executions) from creation through the various levels of management approval that threaten to emasculate it. That, in a nutshell, is what a good creative director does.

Creative directors of the future will be required to challenge their own prejudices when it comes to communicating with Boomers. Most of the hotshots in the field are just too young to understand or empathize with Boomers, and that will be their downfall.

Boomers are highly sophisticated, media-savvy consumers who have seen and heard it all. They simply won’t tolerate advertising or marcom that talks down to them. No business can afford to try to marginalize the Boomers, because there are just too many of them. And if you get on their wrong side, they can be as temperamental as teens. The difference is that they have a lot more money, and they won’t spend it as impulsively as younger, trendy consumers, so you better be spot on with the creative approaches you take.

Fortunately, Boomers are as hungry for creative communications as anyone, but they’re the toughest audience out there, so you need a lot more experience and expertise to reach them. And you’re got to know more than just advertising and marcom, too. You’ve got to know the principles of Gerontology Counseling.

Reaching Boomers can be rather difficult, but if you have the skill and wisdom to devise and stick with a sound strategy, and if you have the courage to express it in the most creative ways possible, you’ve got a shot at getting your share of the Boomer market. Just remember, when you’re communicating with Boomers, there’s nothing more compelling than a memorable message that’s actually worth remembering.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve talked about various aspects of Positive Aging, as well as other subjects related to Baby Boomers and the graying of America. In the future, I’ll be offering tips and tidbits about what I know best: How to be creative, especially as it relates to communicating with Baby Boomers. I trust you’ll find these blogs useful.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Who Is This Guy Anyway?

If you’ve been following this blog for the past couple of months, you’ve probably asked that question, so here’s a brief overview. Forty years ago, exactly one month after graduating from the University of Illinois with a BA in philosophy (try finding work in that field, Socrates), I got a job at one of Chicago’s biggest ad agencies. That was a miracle of sorts, because I had no education or training in the field, but I did have a knack for doing ads, especially thirty second TV commercials. Maybe it was destiny. Or maybe it was in my genes. After all, my father Vincent R. Vassolo had created the Maytag Loneliest Man In Town for Leo Burnett, and enjoyed a run of almost forty years in the business as a copywriter and creative director.

So, I began plying my trade as a creative advertising professional on July 16, 1969, steadily rising from coffee-fetching junior copywriter to creative director, executive producer and, finally, director of creative services.  Over the past forty years, I’ve worked at some of the biggest, most demanding ad agencies in the world (Burnett, Y&R, FC&B, McCann, et al), as well as some of the smallest and most creative (you’ve never heard of them).  I’ve also worked as Director of Marketing Communications in corporations, ranging from rock-solid Rockwell to “trying to make it on a wing and a prayer” e-commerce start-ups, as well as high-tech companies. And, I’ve run businesses of my own, including the latest, Vim, Vigor & Vassolo LLC, an advertising agency that specializes in creating marketing strategies and communications that resonate with and motivate Baby Boomers. (We also create advertising and marcom for a variety of other clients.)

During the mid-90s, I worked at advertising by day, and at night I earned a master’s degree in Gerontology Counseling followed by a post-graduate professional certificate in the same. I branched out from advertising, because I love to learn, especially cutting-edge stuff. And there’s nothing as unexplored or unknown as the vast implications of what happens when the entire world ages way beyond “normal” expectations. In America, particularly, it represents an unprecedented opportunity for businesses to profit from understanding and meeting the needs of the biggest, richest market segment in the history of the world: The Baby Boomers.

I’m a Boomer my self, of course, and I’ve always been a believer in Positive Aging, even when I was quite young. It’s not an easy thing to embrace wholeheartedly, because life’s challenges can run from merely irritating to quite daunting. But long ago, I learned that Positive Aging is the only way to go, because living lethargically is a waste of breath.

My lifelong commitment to Positive Aging has paid off quite nicely, because it’s helped me achieve a great deal despite the fact that I’ve had Crohn’s disease for 50 years (I’ve also got 15 surgeries under my belt—literally). Through it all, I’ve raised a family, had a long, successful career, and in my spare time, I earned a 7th degree black belt in Kenpo karate, which I taught for over a quarter of a century.

I suppose I could have curled up in a fetal position, and languished, but that would have been a living death. My belief in Positive Aging has kept me interested in the possibilities of tomorrow. As a consequence, I’ve remained as fully engaged as possible with daily life, day after day, decade after decade.

So, although Positive Aging may sound like some New Age mumbo jumbo, Baby Boomers like me are going to demonstrate its real meaning through living rather than lip service. Wait and see. But don’t wait too long, or you’ll miss out on a lot of the upside.

Instead, be among the pioneers who will definitively break the chains of our youth-worshipping culture. Shed your ageist prejudices. Shape your own creative vision of the meaning of the Dawn of the Boomers. Then understand each Boomer as an individual by asking “Who is this guy (or gal) anyway?” If you listen in just the right way—with your third ear—you’ll discover that the answers often reveal the Power of Positive Aging.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

GeroMarketing™ Basic #4: Communicate Meaningfully

There are as many definitions of what’s meaningful as there are people. In gerontology counseling, meaningful communication is crucial because it deepens the therapeutic relationship and helps people understand the roots of conflict, as well as ways to resolve it.

Meaningful communication is equally important when advertising to Baby Boomers. Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that there can be no formula for meaningful communication, because each encounter that a marketer has with a Boomer is a unique experience for both. Often, you have to play it by ear—your third ear, that is. The one that’s so sensitive that it let’s you “hear” what the other two so often miss.

Of course, I have many thoughts on how to meaningfully communicate with Boomers, but I’ll offer just a handful. In no particular order then, here are twenty tidbits to consider.

1. If you don’t talk directly to the Boomers’ individualism, you’re talking to yourself.

2. Substance trumps style.

3. Authenticity puts trendiness to shame.

4. Self-awareness increases your ability to speak with conviction.

5. Humility is important because communication is a mysteriously complex process.

6. Your personal assumptions and interpretations have to take a backseat to what Boomers actually feel, believe and value.

7. Create a positive connection.

8. Find a deft way to combine emotional and intellectual appeals.

9. Don’t be afraid to challenge Boomers. They admire individualism.

10. Be creative. Offer fresh perspectives, innovative angles, new insights and provocative opinions.

11. Offer a Big Idea that Boomers can wrap their minds around and act on.

12. Be cogent. Make your message so compelling that Boomers will motivate themselves to listen to what you’re saying.

13. Be concise. Nobody likes a windbag, so don’t use two words when one will do.

14. Be clear. Revise your writing over and over and over again until your message is perfectly lucid.

15. Create a change, whether it’s in belief, attitude or emotion. Inform, inspire, enrage, educate, just don’t be namby pamby.

16. Since 1926, McCann Erickson’s motto has been “Truth Well Told.” Nothing resonates as convincingly as reality.

17. Strive to communicate in a way that makes Boomers think, “You took the words right out of my mouth.”

18. Don’t insult the Boomers’ intelligence by talking down to them.

19. Avoid stereotypes, especially about age, as if they were the Swine Flu.

20. Be true to yourself and what you have to offer.

I could go on, but it would be more productive if you made your own list to supplement the above. As you do, keep in mind that effective communication doesn’t happen by accident. Carefully assess every single thing you say and the way you say it in your advertising and marcom, and you should be able to communicate meaningfully with Boomers. And that can open the door to the Boomer Buying Center.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

GeroMarketing™ Basic #3: Use Research To Form Hypotheses About Boomers.

In gerontology counseling, the counselor’s active listening and accurate feedback enable clients to clarify issues, so they can effectively address them by using powerful inner resources, like insight and problem-solving. Before that can happen, however, the most salient issues have to be identified. Often, this is a problem for both client and counselor. To meet this challenge, counselors form hypotheses about the client’s behavior after assessing its overt manifestations and intuitively “researching” its hidden roots.

Marketers must do the same before attempting to craft advertising and marketing communications for Baby Boomers. The biggest flaw in forming marketing hypotheses based on research is that too often creativity is shunned in favor of the “safety of numbers,” as if attitudes and values can be measured like height and weight.

Instead of focusing on questions like “What are the most common characteristics of Boomers?”, or “What can we do for Boomers?,” it’s more useful to ask “How does this Boomer perceive him or herself, and what beliefs and values drive his or her motivation?” If you form your marketing hypotheses while looking through the subjective eyes of individual Boomers, you can use your creativity to intuitively connect with what drives their behavior.

The problem is that this seems dangerous if not impossible for most marketers. You can hear their despair in the common lament “I’m just not creative.” That’s a cop out. Everybody’s creative.

What separates creative pros from mere mortals is the ability to confidently and consistently tap into the imaginative power that all human beings are born with. Learn that skill, trust that power, and you’ll be able to boldly form

hypotheses about Boomers that will lead you to the Boomer Buying Center.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

GeroMarketing™ Basic #2: Listen Actively.

This is tricky, because unless you’re in a personal selling situation, you’re not actually face-to-face with the customer. That means in order to hear what Baby Boomers are “saying,” you have to rely on research. But can you depend on it? Ageism is so pervasive that you need to have the acute sensitivity of a gerontology counselor to tease out the valid from the invalid, the truth from the prejudice.

Fortunately, each of us has a third ear that allows us to hear in more discerning ways than the other two do. However, the third ear has to be trained to be useful. That’s what active listening is about.

Active listening can be traced back to Carl Rogers’s client-centered therapy. In counseling, its purpose is to listen so attentively that the therapist can reflect back to the speaker what was heard with a high degree of accuracy. It’s a skill well worth developing, because it’s very useful in countless contexts beyond the therapeutic milieu.

In fact, you can use the principles of active listening to help you develop and implement your marketing communications with Baby Boomers. Learning to use your third ear will help you see the facts and figures derived from Boomer research in a new light. It will give you a more sensitive understanding of the concepts behind the numbers, as well as the feelings associated with them. When you make a concerted effort to be aware of your preconceived notions, feelings and opinions, you can hear a more accurate kind of truth which will help you reach Boomers more effectively.

Next time you’re assessing research, be it quantitative or qualitative, review these four concepts from gerontology counseling to help fine-tune your third ear. They’ll help you form conclusions that resonate with Boomers in ways that facts and figure won’t.

o Empathy happens when you penetrate external perspectives and break through to a clearer understanding of the Boomer’s internal frame of reference. As an empathic listener, you’ll understand the Boomer’s thoughts and feelings in a way that paints a more accurate picture than the obvious conclusions you might otherwise draw from the research.

o Acceptance is empathy’s kissin’ cousin. It entails having respect for each Boomer simply for being him or herself. And when it’s unconditional, it’s a powerful relationship builder, because everyone loves to be loved for just being. Acceptance will help you avoid making value judgments about what the Boomer believes. That, in turn, will encourage the Boomer to let his or her defenses down and become more receptive to hearing what you have to say.

o Congruence is about being genuine, open, and candid. As a congruent listener, you know yourself because you’re in touch with your thoughts and feelings. Rather than pretending to be objective, you don’t mask emotions, you communicate with genuine candor. In advertising and marcom, being that real is exceedingly rare. But Boomers are good at sniffing out artificiality and insincerity, so keep it real.

o Concreteness means focusing on specifics rather than generalities. Be precise about facts, figures, anecdotes—anything you use to try to persuade Boomers to consider what you’re selling. That doesn’t mean you can’t take creative flights of fancy. You just have to make sure that ultimately you return to earth and connect with something real that resonates with Boomers. In the end, being vague is unconvincing. Reality is the only place where productive communication can grow.

Learning to listen actively isn’t easy, but it will help smooth out the often bumpy road to the Boomer Buyer Center. Make the effort, and you’ll reap the rewards.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

GeroMarketing™ Basic #1: Establish Rapport.

Essentially, establishing rapport is about making friends. In counseling, it’s the process of building a continuing relationship based on respect, intellectual and emotional understanding, and empathy. Once established, it encourages the client to trust the counselor and become open and receptive to therapeutic approaches. Without rapport, the chance that counseling will succeed is slim, indeed, although you’d never know it from the way some hyperaggressive talk show “counselors” act.

When communicating with Baby Boomers, establishing rapport is the first step on the road to the Boomer Buying Center. It’s the key to getting Boomers involved with your advertising and marcom, and it’s crucial to all the sales techniques that come after it. But be careful. It can’t be done in an obvious, ham-handed way, or it will be perceived as nothing more than crass manipulation.

Authentic rapport convincingly mirrors the values and world views of the target market, as well as their communication style and diction level. If you ignore these guidelines and try to willfully impose your message on Boomers, you’ll lose them faster than you can say, “Hey, how come that expensive glossy ad didn’t work?”

But, if you can make Boomers feel genuinely understood, they will be more apt to trust you and be open to whatever you’re selling, because you’ve shown that you truly comprehend and respect the way that they see the world. Make it clear that you embrace their values—that you’re on the same wavelength cognitively and emotionally—and you’ll establish the kind of rapport that mere money can’t buy. The bottom line is that real rapport has the power to turn Boomers into more than just friends—it can make them loyal customers, too.

Monday, May 18, 2009

4 GeroMarketing™ Basics that Will Help You Communicate More Effectively with Boomers.

Effective advertising and marketing communications depend on a number of skills that are similar to those that gerontology counselors use. They may hate to admit it, but cut through the dense academic jungle, and you’ll find that many of the most popular and effective counseling paradigms follow a process that resembles personal selling.

Of course, there are crucial differences between counseling and selling. Authentic psychosocial counseling is inevitably much more complex and volatile than the sales process, and the outcome is far more significant than dollars gained or lost. Furthermore, attempting to follow the ground rules of professional counseling ethics would quickly and permanently cripple any marketer or advertiser. Despite those crucial differences, it’s still useful to consider some of the skills that form the foundation for effective person-to-person communication.

In 1994, there was no name for the marriage of gerontology counseling and marketing communications, so I named it GeroMarketing™. Not too catchy, but descriptive nonetheless. No matter what you call it, master these four basic GeroMarketing skills, and you’ll be well on your way to reaching the Boomer Buying Center, and that can prove to be a very rewarding journey.

1. Establish rapport.
2. Listen actively.
3. Use research to help form hypotheses about Boomers.
4. Communicate meaningfully.

The next four blogs will consider the above as concisely as possible. It would be easy to write volumes about each, but a more important goal is to understand their essence, so you can easily wrap your mind around these concepts and begin to use them effectively in your advertising and marcom. If, in the final analysis, it all seems a bit too touchy-feely for you, hire someone who has a solid counseling skill set, as well as the advertising and marcom experience to help you accomplish your goals.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Benjamin Braddock, The Birth of the Boom, Part 2

The Graduate is a funny, fascinating flick that compares and contrasts the values of two warring generations and ideologies. Even in 1967, it put an exclamation point on the growing dissatisfaction that budding Baby Boomers had with the status quo. That discontent grew exponentially, as the Boomers turned away from the alienation bred by “things as they should be,” and looked inward for new and unique ways to create meaningful lives.

Individualism became the normative value for Boomers as the horrors of the Vietnam War, assassinations, and burning cities gave way to the hardcore cynicism born of the post-Watergate Era. For the Boomers, “Don’t trust anyone over 30” ultimately morphed into what might be individualism’s anthem: “Don’t trust anyone but yourself.”

Impulsive individualism was reflected in The Graduate’s final, and most telling scene, when Benjamin rescues Elaine from the all-too predictable life promised by her groom, Carl Smith. The symbolism of individuality versus conventionality is joyously portrayed as the once mousy Benjamin barges in on one of society’s most solemn ceremonies and steals the bride right off the altar just as she’s about to kiss the groom, sealing her fate. Benjamin’s passionate appeal is so convincing that she readily rejects a world that has inflicted so many unwelcome expectations on her delicate psyche.

As a last resort, Mrs. Robinson insists, “It’s too late!” Elaine answers, “Not for me!” Mom counters with a couple of slaps to the chops just before her rebellious daughter dashes off with her savior. In a final gesture of contempt, Benjamin uses a large gold cross to fend off their pursuers. He then uses it like a dead bolt on the church’s big glass doors, locking the enemy within their own little world and out of his and Elaine’s.

The newly liberated couple streaks to the nearest bus stop, two mavericks on a heady journey toward God knows where. With everyone and everything left behind, they ride off in the back of a bus, secure in the knowledge that their declaration of independence has prevailed over the forces of orthodoxy that threatened to rob them of their souls. The other passengers silently stare at them incredulously (a wedding grown will draw those kinds of looks in the back of a bus), as Benjamin and Elaine settle into their private reveries to The Sounds of Silence.

Like all good art, The Graduate was slightly ahead of its time in the way it so vividly showcased the individualism that would become the primary value that continues to drive the Baby Boomers in their decision making.

After a torrid weekend, Benjamin and Elaine probably went their separate ways, eventually marrying other people. But although they may have settled into a more conventional lifestyle than the finale might suggest, it’s highly unlikely that they ever abandoned the belief that they’re each the center of their own little universe. And, in the final analysis, living that belief is what being a Baby Boomer is about.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Benjamin Braddock, The Birth of the Boom, Part 1

If you’d like to get gut level insight into what the Baby Boomers are about, watch The Graduate again, or at least the final scenes. The last few minutes of the film offer a vivid depiction of individualism in action, and it shows just how nonrational a force it can be.

As you’ll recall, Benjamin Braddock is a freshly graduated nebbish who becomes the sex object of an alluring middle-aged adulteress, Mrs. Robinson. It’s not clear whether this man-child is alienated and adrift or just plain lazy, but he sure is horny. After graduating from college, his parents prod him, while he pokes his paramour. Gradually, he begins to grapple with the shifting sexual mores of the 60s, as well as his own feelings of guilt and estrangement.

As the film progresses, Benjamin becomes increasing conflicted as he rebels against society’s conventional customs and stifling expectations. Commitment to the “plastics” lifestyle doesn’t resonate with him, so he struggles to discover what he truly wants. As his self-absorption grows more focused, his individuality begins to poke its head out of the clouds of apathy. As a result, his post-adolescent discontent with the status quo becomes intensified and validated, at least in his own mind.

Watching this unfold is like viewing the birth of Boomer individualism, which may have developed as an easy and gratifying answer for a generation that felt confused, exploited and betrayed by “The Man.” Benjamin’s own “Coming of Age” odyssey provides no hint of where it might end up. One thing is clear, however, he has discovered that he can mollify his yearnings by exercising his independence and ingenuity, two hallmarks of Boomer individualism. For much of the movie, his rebellion is mostly an internal struggle. But when he finally takes decisive action, it’s a compelling example of the kind of mindset that gave birth to the Boomers, so be sure to come back for Part II.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Wooing Boomers: Final Step

Personalize your service. Even if all you sell is paperclips, you’re in a customer service business, so act accordingly. Whether it’s at the retail level or by phone or email, make sure that your service is fast, friendly, attentive and respectful.

Right now, Apple provides stellar customer service at every point of contact from store level through online support. That’s why so many savvy consumers pay a premium for their products.

Give the Boomers all the personal touch they crave, and chances are you’ll get a good buzz going, because Boomers like to share their experiences—good or bad. They’re a fickle group that loves to be wooed, especially by marketers. So, give them all the service they feel entitled to, and they’ll give you their business.