Tag Archives: Jason Fox

The Genetics of Speed

October 9, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The family that accelerates from 0-60 in under 3 seconds together stays together. That observation holds true for at least one area father-son duo, Drs. Kam and Max Chiu. They are both radiation oncologists (Kam practices in Lincoln, while Max is completing his residency at UNMC). They both developed a love for automobiles early in life. And they both own ultra-high-performance sports cars built in Woking, England, by storied race car manufacturer McLaren.

The elder Dr. Chiu, whose love of fast cars is rooted in the hours he spent playing with toy cars at his father’s Hong Kong toy factory, kicked off this family’s mini British Invasion in 2013 with the acquisition of a McLaren MP4-12C Project Alpha. This English answer to Italian and German exotic dominance boasts 616 horsepower from a 3.8-liter, twin-turbo V-8 engine nestled behind the carbon-fiber passenger cell. The description, along with assorted industry reviews, was compelling enough to encourage Kam to make his purchase without driving any McLaren, let alone this $300,000-and-change special edition.

“I bought it off the internet…from [a dealer] in California,” Kam nonchalantly admits. He even traded in his beloved Ferrari F430 as part of the deal, not knowing if he would instantly regret the decision.

“So [the dealer] picks up the F430 and drops off the 12C, and that first spin? I take it out and it’s just fantastic,” recalls Kam. “The 12C is a lot more comfortable than the 430.” As one of only six Project Alpha cars created in collaboration between dealer McLaren Chicago and the factory’s McLaren Special Operations division, the orange-and-black 12C is a rarity among rarities.

Following his father into the world of mechanized speed was an easier decision for Max than following him into the medical field. And when it came time to dip his own right toe into the exotic market, the answer was obvious: The third generation of the MP4-12C, now christened the 720S (for 720 metric horsepower, or 710 by U.S. standards). “The 720 is definitely a lot more refined [than the 12C]. I drove it almost every day for the last month,” Max says of the 2017-edition vehicle. “But then I took it out on some twisting country roads last week…and it’s insane. I don’t know how else to describe it.”

While the doctors’ McLarens are two of only a handful in the area, they are part of a (perhaps surprisingly) thriving exotic automotive scene in Nebraska. “In a state of only a couple million, you have plenty of Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Porsches, things like that,” reveals Kam. But the pair lament a lack of dealerships or other service options—the closest McLaren locations are in Chicago and Denver.

Numerous cars have cycled through their hands over the years, and the Chius currently own a handful of other high-performance vehicles, including a rare-for-America JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) Nissan Skyline GT-R. But the McLaren magic doesn’t seem likely to fade anytime soon. “I would most likely purchase another McLaren sometime down the road,” offers Kam. “It has the substance to back up the looks.” 

Although, when pressed to pick his favorite among all the vehicles he has owned in three decades of collecting, Kam admits, “If I could only own one car ever, it would be a minivan.”

Because even in the world of cars, sometimes function is more important than fashion.

Visit mclaren.com for more information.

This article was printed in the August/September 2018 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Dr. Max Chiu between the 720S McLaren (left) and the Project Alpha 12C.

The Relentless Pursuit Of Concision

March 23, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

As an ad nerd, I love a good tagline. Think different. Just do it. But taglines (or slogans if you call pop “soda”) are tricky things. They’re easy to get wrong—easier than most everything else branding-related. They’re often too trite, too obvious, too obtuse, too clever by a turn, too forgettable, or too overstuffed with “messaging.” So, I’d like to offer some advice gleaned from two-and-a-half decades of writing more than a few taglines.

Pick one message. Unless you’re Miller Lite circa 1974, chances are you’re not going to get away with saying two things in one tagline (and I’d even argue that Miller Lite’s was a single message as neither “tastes great” nor “less filling” meant anything without the other). Yes, this forces you to define your business and its purpose in very specific terms. Remember, that one thing doesn’t have to be a product feature—it can be an emotional pull or a shared state of mind.

Keep your voice. The fewer words you use to say something, the greater chance there is of it sounding generic. That’s just how language works. But maintaining your brand voice is imperative if you want your tagline to ring true. And if your overarching brand voice is already generic (no “We’re all about…” please), now’s a good time to fix it.

Set realistic expectations. Most taglines are not destined to enter popular culture in any real way. Because it takes millions upon millions of dollars in media to accomplish this feat. Instead, understand that your tagline acts as a nice reminder of what your brand represents—both practically and attitudinally—to your customers. Better yet, a good tagline can act as a great battle cry for your employees better than any Successories-style mission statement ever could.

Don’t mess with a good thing. If you’ve managed to create a memorable, ownable tagline, don’t screw it up. Sure, times change and businesses change and consumer tastes change. But don’t change your tagline just for the sake of change. Take Lexus, for example. When they launched in 1989, their tagline was “The relentless pursuit of perfection.” Spectacular. That was the goal of their company—to never quit refining their cars regardless of the obstacles. Then, a few years later, they removed “relentless,” implying they’d get around to perfection if it weren’t too much bother. Today, it’s the hyper-generic “Experience amazing.” Which sounds like a headline from a billboard for Big Zeke’s Reptile Emporium and Gator Wrasslin’ Expo. Avoid this (both the tagline and Zeke’s).

Honestly, it is wiser to forgo having a tagline at all than to attach a mediocre one to your brand. But if you manage to craft a great one, you’ll wonder how you lived without it. As a calling card, a mantra, and a reminder of what’s important—an exceptional tagline has no equal in ad land.

Jason Fox is a freelance creative director and writer. He can be found at jasonfox.net and adsavior.com.

This article was printed in the April/May 2018 edition of B2B.

Reflections On Reflecting

November 22, 2017 by

In the last edition of The Brand Brief, I was a bit blunt in my dismissal of what I termed “overly earnest advertising.” The type of advertising that is ultra-sincere yet utterly devoid of brand personality. In closing, I opined that “advertising, if it has any hope of achieving long-term effectiveness, must reflect the personality of the brand as it sells.” Someone actually had the audacity to ask me just what in tarnation that statement means. Since that someone happens to be my editor, I feel inclined to answer.

One would think that in the wide, wacky world of advertising, finding an example of such work would not be difficult. And one would be correct. However, it is not quite as easy as flipping on the TV and refraining from hitting FF on the DVR. Because it turns out that advertising that truly reflects the personality of the brand is not so common.

Let’s take the consumer insurance industry. We happen to be living in the golden age of insurance advertising. Yes, it may only be 10K plated, but we’ve come a long way from the fear-based, we’re-all-gonna-get-in-car-wrecks-while-our-homes-burn advertising I recall from my youth. In general, the move to better advertising began with Geico. Some of their campaigns rank among my all-time favorites. But if I do business with Geico, do I expect their agents, or adjusters, or claims officers to reflect the personality of a cave man? No. A gecko? Well, maybe a little. Or just the campaign’s tone in general? Not so much. Similarly, Allstate’s “Mayhem” work is outstanding. But I’m not convinced the bulk of the company can pull off Dean Winters’ rakish charm. Perhaps that’s why they keep the more melodious Dennis Haysbert around for voice-over work.

I think both Geico and Allstate have benefited greatly by these campaigns. And I’d give the wisdom teeth I just had surgically removed to work on them. But we’re talking degrees of success here. And I think the current effort by Farmers Insurance beats the competition. Their campaign features famed character actor J. K. Simmons as the living embodiment of the brand. He’s equal parts knowledgeable, folksy, and supportive. He is never condescending. And, of course, the spots are entertaining. I can also picture them belonging to the same group, having the same motives, and demonstrating the same values as Simmons. The ads give me a sense that I might actually get a good company instead of just good marketing. And that is a combination that actually wins in the marketplace.

Jason Fox is a freelance creative director and writer. He can be found at jasonfox.net and adsavior.com.

This article appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of B2B.

Design Needs Language Needs Design

May 20, 2017 by

In 2009, filmmaker Doug Pray released Art & Copy, a feature-length documentary that, according to IMDb, aimed to reveal “the work and wisdom of some of the most influential advertising creatives of our time.” Having watched the film on multiple occasions over the years (it pops up periodically on Netflix), I can endorse that description. Even if the names Lee Clow, George Lois, Mary Wells, Dan Wieden, or Hal Riney (to cite a few) mean nothing to you, their stories of turning insights into ideas and ideas into brand- and pop-culture-defining work should be required viewing for anyone involved in marketing. But of all the interesting nuggets one can glean from this movie, one of the most important is hiding in plain sight in the title. I’m speaking, naturally, of the ampersand.

The phrase “art & copy” is not unique to this film’s title. It’s been applied to the two main components of the creative side of advertising for decades: the art (what you see) and the copy (what you read or hear). It also refers to the duos charged with creating all of those hopefully persuasive messages—the teams of copywriters and art directors that first became standard operating procedure at Doyle, Dane, Bernbach in the 1960s. The importance of the ampersand lies in its brief, blunt affirmation that it takes both design and language to create an effective ad. It is not “art or copy,” “art over copy,” or “art instead of copy.”

In a piece of work’s final form, the split between art & copy is, of course, rarely 50-50. That’s natural. Some campaigns rely more on clever wordplay or provocative statements, while others let the design and art direction carry more weight. In the industry at large, the fondness for one over the other tends to be cyclical. Some decades see a renaissance of the written word, only to be followed by a resurgence of the visual.

We find ourselves in an image-driven era. Partly due to the cycle described above, and partly due to the rise of mobile platforms and their associated apps such as Instagram, Snapchat, and whatever has taken the lead in livestreaming. Which is all well and good up to a point. As long as we don’t forget that ampersand. Enticing visuals without narrative—whether in literal copy/dialogue or in a piece’s underlying narrative structure—tend to lack weight. Their impact is alluring for the moment, but their message is forgotten the moment someone swipes “next,” turns the page, or clicks “skip ad.”

We live in a world where good design is all around us, and great design isn’t difficult to find. Not just in marketing, but also in products, publishing, architecture, and even food. (There’s still plenty of hideous design, by the way, so let us not grow complacent in fighting the proliferation of mediocrity.) But how much of that design is just proverbial lipstick on a pig instead of an indication of substance? Once your eye moves beyond the well-composed, shallow-depth-of-field shot to the accompanying text, is the message enhanced, the brand uplifted, and your curiosity piqued? Or do you wonder why it incongruently sounds like a Buzzfeed listicle only less clever? If so, it’s because the design is either dancing alone, or with an oaf of a partner.

It is not enough to merely look good. Because as soon as you, as a brand, open your pretty mouth, you will sound dumb, boring, or indistinguishable from the herd—akin to saying, “just do something” instead of “just do it.” Nor is it enough to merely sound smart (well, aside from radio), as few want to pay initial attention to the visually cluttered or cliché. No. It takes both design & language—rooted in truth, expressed in interesting, relevant ways—to create advertising worthy of its purpose.

No ifs. No buts. Yet always with an &.

Jason Fox is a freelance creative director and writer. He can be found at jasonfox.net and adsavior.com.

This column was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of B2B.

The Brand Brief

February 23, 2017 by

I have good news and bad news. The good news is that greatness is a state of mind. The bad news is that others’ minds decide your state. As with many things in life, this is true for people as well as brands. A brand is, in its most basic description, what people believe, feel, and think about a company. Companies like to think that their brand (or “brand image” if you’re old school) is whatever they’re currently telling the public it is. Which is rare. However, that is the goal. Because when what people think of you matches up with what you claim to be, you’ve hit the branding bull’s-eye.

Great branding is built on a solid foundation. This foundation is commonly referred to as a “brand platform.” Used correctly, a brand platform can act as a launching pad for your branding efforts. Conversely, it may resemble the 10-meter Olympic diving platform, except, instead of water, the pool is filled with buy-one-get-five coupons that cause financial ruin and death by a thousand paper cuts.

A brand platform defines who you are as a company in a way that everyone in the organization can understand—even Chuck in H.R.—by codifying beliefs into a framework that doesn’t change with the shifting winds of accounts receivable. The platform becomes the guiding document in how you speak about the brand and how the brand acts. It is no use marketing something and then failing to live up to those promises operationally when people finally find time to “act now.”

There is no standard template for a brand platform. Most advertising agencies that deal in branding have developed their own process and format. I prefer a classic format that defines a brand purpose (why you exist beyond making money or even your current product), brand position (who you are relative to your competition and audience), brand personality (five or six adjectives, none of which are “sleepy”), and brand affiliation (the type of people your brand wants to attract). Feel free to Google these terms. Other platforms include brand archetypes or variations on all of the above. The important thing is that the platform brings clarity, unity, and direction. So beware the agency attempting to sell you a process that they themselves don’t seem to fully understand—just because it comes with a cool infographic doesn’t make it actionable.

I do not recommend trying to create a brand platform on your own. Anyone inside the company is too close to the situation to be completely objective. Nonetheless, you should be actively involved in the process. An agency that insists on doing everything themselves before delivering a final document fait accompli is probably doing a lot of finding and replacing on a platform they first wrote in 1998.

Once your platform is in place, use it. This is not as obvious as you would think. Weigh marketing decisions against it. Use it to filter operational objectives. Spread it throughout the company so that when an employee gets asked about where they work, they give an accurate answer. Eventually, because branding is a long game, your brand will be cohesive and consistent. And all your marketing will automatically be strategic in tone and message (and media, too, if you’re paying attention).

You will still need to decide on creative directions and tactics, of course, but you won’t have to do the heavy lifting of figuring out foundational principles every time you write a new tweet. Because you will know who you are. And, more importantly, customers current and potential will, too.

Jason Fox is a freelance creative director and writer. He can be found at jasonfox.net and adsavior.com.

This article was printed in the Spring 2017 edition of B2B.

Local Need Not Equal Yokel

August 4, 2016 by

As a child of not-the-90s, I grew up watching reruns of Leave It to Beaver, The Andy Griffith Show, and Get Smart on the local UHF channel. Which means most of the commercials interrupting my quality time in the Cone of Silence were for local businesses. And while some were memorable, few were good. Every car dealer had a goofy huckster named Boots or Sonny, while everyone else had a horrific jingle (I still haven’t cleansed my soul of the USA Baby ditty “she’s having a baby and you think it’s kinda neat, but you better decide where the baby’s gonna sleep!”). But there was, at least, a half-valid reason why these ads reeked of low-budget dollar stretching—they were shot on legitimately low budgets. They couldn’t afford to shoot on 35 mm film with a 20-person crew, followed by weeks of post-production like the national brands could. And that production value gap showed.

It wasn’t just the production values that separated the local remodeling company’s commercials from, say, those of McDonald’s. Nor was this difference limited to expensive broadcast productions—it invariably extended to all parts of the brand and its marketing. (Disclaimer: I freely admit there are more than a few good local ads and more than few hideous national campaigns, but space will only permit for so much wonkish deconstruction.) Even as a nascent writer who sometimes felt like a nut and sometimes did not, I could tell that these efforts were a few steps behind the conceptual curve. It was as if the ads’ creators were content to produce something that looked like an ad without worrying about little details like effectiveness, memorability (in a good way), or long-term brand building. They were not just producing TV spots (and radio ads, and billboards, and direct-mail pieces, and telemarketing calls) that looked or sounded bad—they actually were bad.

It need not be so. Not then. Not now.

Compared to even my first days in the industry, the production budget gap has shrunk immeasurably. While it still costs actual money to produce something of aesthetic value, it is possible to get a well-made spot or video without begging the CFO for an advance on the next decade’s marketing budget. This is the easiest thing to take care of in winning the game of advertising called Who Doesn’t Want to Look Like a 1980s Soap Opera?

But before you spend the money for adequate production values (which you absolutely, positively should, regardless of which media you choose), you need to invest in an idea worth producing. Which means investing in the people capable of both coming up with such ideas and also executing them. Which means treating the creative manifestations of your brand like the investments they are instead of the expenses your procurement department may wish them to be.

Such people do exist in this town. People who can take your brand to the next level without ever once using a cliché like “taking your brand to the next level.” People who will give you a unique identity, marketing materials that do not look like they came out of Print Shop for Mac circa 1993, and ads that neither bore the viewer with marketing doublespeak nor look vacuously pretty.

The trick, of course, is finding these people and then letting them do what they do best—making your brand look good and driving sales. You cannot do that when you treat all creative firms as though they produce the same caliber or style of work. This is not a commodity industry where the lowest bidder should get the gig. The agency that says it can give you seven things for your budget will probably be less effective than the one that says it can produce four things. Judgment must be exercised.

Great ideas have real value in time frames both short and long. The good news is that, while great ideas properly executed often do cost more than lower-quality work, that cost is not nearly as high as most marketers fear. More importantly, the return on investment tends to dwarf any cost differential in the long run.

It’s up to you. You can go the standard route and show happy people, happily using your product as they happily go about their happy lives while consumers happily tune you out; or, you can invest a little more money, a little more time, and little more courage into making your brand as unforgettable and irresistible as possible. B2B

Jason Fox is the founder of AdSavior.net and the chin behind @leeclowsbeard.

Jason Fox is the founder of AdSavior.net and the chin behind @leeclowsbeard.

Your Brand vs. The World

April 26, 2016 by

Do you know who your competition is? This is not a trick question. Nor am I expecting you to answer in the negative (although if you did I’d like to interview for that CMO position you so desperately and obviously need). Rather, I would bet that you know exactly who your competition is. And not just your primary competition, either. After all, it’s no great mental feat to notice that if you’re a pizza joint, your arch nemesis is probably pushing pie as well. I’d also illegally wager that you, theoretical dough wrangler, know your secondary competition includes other restaurants, grocery stores that offer take-out, GrubHub.com, and lazy trips to the fridge for leftover chicken tikka masala. And that is awesome – because it’s hard to win when you don’t know whom you’re playing against.

But, just as importantly, do you know who your marketing’s competition is?

This is also not a trick question, although it is pondered less often than my previous query. And the answer is actually a bit intuitive if you stop to think about it: Products compete against similar products, but ads compete against everything. See, your marketing efforts don’t just have to out-hustle, out-work, out-imagine or out-think your competition – they have to be good enough to stand apart from the din of daily existence.

In some cases, like when someone sorts their not-quite-extinct physical mail, that means standing out against other self-mailing ads from disparate companies. But usually it’s more challenging than that. Much more. It is, after all, quite rare for someone to actually be searching out an ad, let alone yours. So your messaging has to be more than just something you want to say. It has to be something people want to hear, to know, to act upon. Related in such a way that they enjoy hearing it or viewing it or experiencing it. And since your ad always begins as an interruption, reading, watching or clicking on it better come with a reward – be it a smile, a laugh or a bit of useful knowledge. Otherwise, you’ve just wasted the consumer’s time and your own efforts in getting their attention in the first place.

Naturally, the idea of your marketing taking on the thousands of other brands vying for the same eyeballs can seem more than a touch daunting. And while I, as a writer and creative director, would love to tell you that a great piece of creative work will solve the problem, the truth is that it won’t. Not on its own. The creativity and wise decisions must not only flow from the final, produced pieces, but also from the media strategy, the messaging strategy and the overall marketing strategy. A great message seen by the wrong people or at the wrong time is irrelevant. The wrong message presented artfully is dead on arrival. And a fantastically viral video, tweet or Instagram will be much ado about nothing if it’s not reinforcing (and being reinforced by) a broader effort.

(And if your business is primarily B2B, don’t fall into the trap that people reading an industry publication or website take off their consumer hat when viewing the advertising. No one picks up an industry rag and thinks, “Two men shaking hands in front of columns really speaks to me.”)

Luckily for you and me and the few other folks who understand that marketing done right is always an investment and never a cost, the dearth of good strategic marketing benefits our own efforts. Yes, awful marketing may be a blight upon our inboxes, senses of good taste and culture at large, but the one good thing about bad ads is the stark contrast they provide for the great ones. So really, when you push yourself or your CEO or your agency to craft better plans and better creative, you’re doing the smartest, safest marketing of all – the kind capable of taking on the world. The kind that actually works.

Jason Fox is the executive creative director at Webster, and the chin behind @leeclowsbeard.

Jason Fox is the executive creative director at Webster, and the chin behind @leeclowsbeard.

The Brand Brief

October 1, 2014 by

Depending upon which study, source, anecdote, or observation you wish to rely, the average American’s attention span averages six to nine seconds. (So the fact that you’re even reading this sentence means you are—rejoice—above average). Whenever this statistic pops up on Twitter or in a TED talk or at Cannes (the advertising festival, not the Gathering of All Things French and/or Clooney), marketing and ad types of a certain stripe work themselves up into seven different kinds of lather. Then, nearly instantaneously, the industry produces an allegedly paradigm-shifting remedy to the public’s increasing need for the new and shiny. After many blogs are written, books promoted, and conferences spoken at, the cycle begins anew.

While I have nothing scientific to refute the Incredible Shrinking Attention Span hypothesis, nor the power to single-handedly stop the bloviating of the self-appointed marketing gurus (or is it ninjas?), I do posit that we—specifically, owners and caretakers of brands—are looking at the wrong side of the coin. The real problem is not that consumers have short attention spans. It’s that we give them so little of interest to look at.

In other words, we’re boring.

Okay, maybe we as people aren’t boring. Maybe our companies or products aren’t boring. Maybe our newest offering even has lasers. Lasers have never been boring. But our marketing too often is. Instead of telling compelling mini-stories that prod a chuckle, jerk a tear, or elicit a smile, we reformat PowerPoint slides to make the most bullet-point-intensive print ad ever. We run Twitter feeds that do nothing but push deals and make occasional-yet-still-self-serving references to winning sports teams. We pore over spreadsheets trying to figure out how many impressions a banner ad will get without giving a second thought to the type of impression it will make.

Boring is never a good adjective nor, unless you’re drilling for shale, a good verb. The only action you can bore someone into is ignoring you; therefore, boredom never equals sales. And if you really want to spend 10 percent of your revenue (the rule-of-thumb for establishing growth-oriented marketing budgets) simply to go unnoticed, I’d recommend saving up for a stealth fighter or passel of ninjas instead of blowing it on an ad campaign. The ninjas, at least, can keep Bob in accounting from absconding with all the donuts.

Too many marketers—and that doesn’t just mean CMOs or ad agency types; if you own a small business, guess what, you’re a marketer—mistakenly believe that an ineffective marketing message does them no harm. But, aside from being an absurd justification for anything, that isn’t always true. Just because a message wasn’t acted upon doesn’t mean it wasn’t seen. Whether stuck in rush hour looking at your billboard, staring at a TV in a sports bar as your commercial interrupts the game, or clicking “skip this ad” (as in yours) on their way to read an online op-ed, people often do witness boring messages. And here’s the rub: While no one remembers boring ads, they never forget how boring your brand is. So a boring campaign not only wastes time and money, it can squander whatever brand equity you already had.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. Even a boring product is no excuse for a boring ad. After all, everything serves some relevant purpose to someone. And that’s the key. What is your relevant message? Not the message you want to say, but the message your target might actually care about and respond to. It doesn’t matter if that message is the same one it’s been for the past quarter century—if it’s still relevant, just do it.

So relevance is the foundation of your message. Without it the most interesting piece of information in the world will evaporate seconds after it’s viewed, yet relevance alone does not equal interesting. That is where the artistry comes in. The combination of personality, tone of voice, skillful storytelling, and respect for the audience that keeps people from hitting the triple-speed fast-forward button on their DVRs. Or has them smiling in traffic. Or retweeting 140 characters of something with actual value to them, their followers, and you. Or even reading the copy on your product packaging because it, too, holds their interest.

The good news is that you don’t have to be Apple or Target or Harley-Davidson or Chipotle to pull this off. You do have to put in the effort to define your brand’s core characteristics, hone a personality and voice, and deliver both interesting messages and a great experience. Do this consistently (that’s consistently, not perfectly) and one day you’ll discover your brand—instead of dying the slow death of 10,000 yawns—is championed by the very people who once wouldn’t give it the time of day. Let alone their cash.

Jason Fox is the Executive Creative Director at Webster, a design and advertising agency in Omaha, and the voice behind the popular Twitter feed @leeclowsbeard.