August 29, 2004

selling out is harder than it looks

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More thoughts on "How To Be Creative":

21. Selling out is harder than it looks.

Diluting your product to make it more "commercial" will just make people like it less.
Many years ago, barely out of college, I started schlepping around the ad agencies, looking for my first job.

One fine day a Creative Director kindly agreed for me to come show him my portfolio. Hooray!

So I came to his office and showed him my work. My work was bloody awful. All of it.

Imagine the worst, cheesiest "I used to wash with Sudso but now I wash with Lemon-Fresh Rinso Extreme" vapid housewife crap. Only far worse than that.

The CD was a nice guy. You could tell he didn't think much of my work, though he was far too polite to blurt it out. Finally he quietly confessed that it wasn't doing much for him.

"Well, the target market are middle class houswives," I rambled. "They're quite conservative, so I thought I'd better tone it down..."

"You can tone it down once you've gotten the job and once the client comes after your ass with a red hot poker and tells you to tone it down," he laughed. "Till then, show me the toned-up version."

This story doesn't just happen in advertising. It happens everywhere.

Posted by hugh macleod at August 29, 2004 2:17 PM | TrackBack
Comments

"Diluting your product to make it more "commercial" will just make people like it less."

I couldn't agree more, personally, but how do you explain the fact that millions flock to commercial rubbish while just a handful, comparatively speaking, want the good stuff? Nobel Prize winning authors sell less well than commercial blockbusters. Clearly then how many you sell is the wrong criterion of quality. I presume you agree? Certainly I think that, but how can an ad-man justify that? How does what you say fit in with what you do? That's what I'd like to hear.

Posted by: Joel at August 29, 2004 5:28 PM

"I couldn't agree more, personally, but how do you explain the fact that millions flock to commercial rubbish while just a handful, comparatively speaking, want the good stuff? Nobel Prize winning authors sell less well than commercial blockbusters."

There's an unspoken assumption here, that Nobel prize winning authors could write commercial blockbusters if they wanted to, and vice versa. I'm not sure that's actually true. If the Nobel prize winners tried to make their work more commercial, there's a good chance they'd just end up with sludge.

There's also an unspoken assumption that the Nobel Prize winner's work will still be considered "better" in the future. Remember that Shakespeare's plays packed the Globe night after night, and people stormed the docks to get the latest installment of Dickens' serials.

Posted by: Katherine at August 29, 2004 5:52 PM

There's no unspoken assumption that I see, since I hold no such assumption. I doubt very much that authors of literary fiction could write commercial fiction as required by today's publishers and agents, since it is by definition formulaic. However, there is certainly a crossover where literary fiction may prove popular with the masses and some commercial fiction may actually be quite well-written.

Posted by: Joel at August 29, 2004 6:40 PM

They may flock in their millions, Joel, but never for long.

Depends how long a game you're playing.

Posted by: hugh macleod at August 30, 2004 1:31 AM

In theory, you're right Hugh, and I tell myself similar things. In practice, though, it doesn't seem to be the case. Crap sells well consistently in the long term, it's just the packaging that changes.

Posted by: Joel at August 30, 2004 4:54 AM

"I doubt very much that authors of literary fiction could write commercial fiction as required by today's publishers and agents, since it is by definition formulaic."

By definition, formulaic writing is something anyone can do, like following a recipe in a cookbook. But my point is that commercial writing and literary writing are equally difficult, and diluting your work to make it more appealing to either sector is unlikely to work.

But anyway...

The most successful commercial writers of our era invented their own formulas. No one was writing technothrillers before Tom Clancy. Stephen King's horror practically killed the genre for anyone else. J.K. Rowling single-handedly yanked fantasy out of the genre ghetto and into the mainstream. I'd bet money that at least one of those three will still be read a hundred years from now.

While the Nobel Prize winners mostly do break new ground, anyone who thinks "average" literary fiction isn't formulaic hasn't read very much of it. Small press editors can be just as prone to fads and whims as big press editors, but at least the big press editors have to listen when the market tells them they're wrong.

Posted by: Katherine at August 30, 2004 5:48 AM

The terms "literary" and "commercial" fiction are mostly used by the industry to convey the kind of print-run they might be able to shift in hardback and whether or not to have gold-blocking on the cover. For myself the former means "potentially worth reading" and the latter "certain to be unreadable rubbish". But there's plenty of "literary fiction" I find equally unreadable, so how useful the terms are I don't know.

Perhaps in 100 years people will indeed still be reading the three authors you mention Katherine, but what does that say? That people in 100 years will still have a taste for rubbish writing?

I agree with Norman Mailer, who said, in reference to Stephen King: "The popularity of bad writing is analogous to the enjoyment of fast food."

Posted by: Joel at August 30, 2004 8:12 AM

But when it comes to advertising, isn't it true that those that score high on the creativity awards often score low on effectiveness based on things like brand recall?

Posted by: Mark at September 1, 2004 8:11 AM

Yeah, Mark, the word "creative" in the standard advertising context is pretty meaningless, for reasons you just stated ;-)

Which is why I never enter award shows. They invariably have their heads up their ass.

Posted by: hugh macleod at September 1, 2004 1:20 PM

High-profile mediocrity doesn't come from creative people who manage to "tone it down"; it comes from dull people that can afford to hire an army of professionals to give their shit a glossy sheen.

Posted by: AcouSvnt at September 28, 2004 2:20 AM