Bad Creative: Are you really putting your heart into it?

While McSweeney's may have the Create Your Own Thomas Friedman Op-Ed Column, it seems this proposed Friedman formula would equally apply to a lot of "on the scene" or investigative reporting and analysis, which seems to have become formulaic and predictable. As readers, we expect "good" investigative journalism to establish a rhythm: open the story with a gripping scene, introduce the reader to a passionate and concerned character and his/her community, work through the practical benefits and complications of an issue, identify the hindrances (human or mechanical, cultural or geographic) and close with a hint of morality and hope. But does this only address our needs as readers, rather than as engaged citizens?

This question was posed as "the new journalism" built speed. Here's a voice from the past, writing in a 1972 Atlantic article:

[Speaking about the NYT] If this is the voice of conventional journalism speaking to us about our world, it is likely to find an increasingly restless, disconnected audience. The voice speaks too thin a language. The world it tells us about so assiduously seems but a small part of the world that is actually outside the window—seems a dead world, peopled largely by official figures, and by procedural facts, and written about in a fashion which is doubtless intended to be clear, and clean, and easy to understand, but which instead is usually flat, and inhuman, and nearly impossible to connect to.

Of course, you could argue that Jack Kelley, Daniel Glass and Jayson Blair were in some way aspiring to meet the creative standards set by "new journalism" - but were more likely just trying to be interesting enough to keep the attention of their readers and, more importantly, their editors.

I've often heard the expression "phoning it in" used to describe a half-hearted attempt at completing a creative task. In Blair's case, this was actually true. But it's not a condition that only affects reporters. "Creatives," whether in advertising, marketing or PR, often find ourselves stuck in a creative and inspirational rut. Faced with an immediate deadline, or an afternoon ballgame, or an upcoming vacation, we might be tempted to just pull something from the files, put some lipstick on that pig, and ship it out.

Stanley Bing (who we all know is really the VP responsible for PR at CBS) talked about the affliction of phoning it in over a year ago: (sub. req.)

I asked what? So what if this week it seemed that a bunch of guys were phoning it in from Planet Mambo? What's the big deal?

I sat there for a while and thought about Sandy Weill and Jack Grubman, suspected of manipulating the rating of AT&T, the first because he wanted to rule Citigroup alone and the second because he wanted to get his tot into some snotty nursery school. How much of what we do is like that? Stuff that looks like business but is really just a bunch of guys scratching an itch? Once you start to think that way, it's hard not to phone in the activities that feel inauthentic. And when you begin gauging the authenticity of the work you do, it's a short step to picking up that psychic receiver and phoning in the whole deal.

I put on my jacket and went outside for a walk. You know what I saw everywhere? Thousands of people quite literally phoning it in, walking down the street yakking into their little handheld receivers, nowhere near a place where people do any actual business.

Fine. That's how others may want to live their life. But are there products in your portfolio (or more likely your drawer) that shout "Jesus, I could have done better than this"?

There are some creatives out there that want to remind you of your weaknesses. Take a look at iamjack: Most Advertising Sucks. You Could Be The Reason.

Approve ads that kidnap mediocrity and bend it over a fencepost. Let your agency get away with something dramatic. Something simple. A TV spot that doesn't lead with the offer and scream the phone number five times, or a print ad that doesn't have a headline. Or a stock photo. Or 5 miles of disclaimer.

Come on. You know this hits home.

And in case you're searching your memory about the "lipstick on this pig" tag line, check out this Slate article about the Charles Schwab ads of 2002.

Thanks to MarketingSherpa for the iamjack pointer.