Now that’s how to sell

September 20, 2017

Want to watch an entertaining video? It’s an infomercial for Chatbooks. I had nothing to do with it; US agency Harmon Brothers made the ad. They claim it’s had 75 million views and 467,000 shares. The version I saw on YouTube had only 16 million views. Even so, that’s a figure you’d expect of a music clip or a hilarious kitten video, not an ad. And, as YouTube content, it’s free advertising.

There are lots of boring ads around that you wouldn’t want to sit through, let alone share. So what makes this one, long at almost four minutes, so compelling?

The script is clever. The presenter draws you in by gaining your empathy. Any parent can relate to her situation. The advertiser then starts selling to you like crazy, connecting the different product points with a string of gags. The ad starts funny and stays that way pretty well to the end.

Now compare that with the average TV commercial or practically any pre-roll YouTube ad. We don’t choose to watch those. We’re forced to view them, at least the first few seconds, until we turn away from the TV or press the skip button.

The makers of those ads forget we all watch to be informed or entertained. What marketers have to say about their products isn’t of interest to most of us. It could be though. By engaging our emotions with humour or drama – entertaining us, that is – they might just get us to stick around for what they really want us to see and hear. With wit and charm (the honey that helps the medicine, or selling proposition, go down) they could turn what would otherwise be an annoying, interruptive ad into something we’d gladly watch – like Chatbooks’ spiel. And while we may not be their target audience when we watch their ad, we might well be potential customers tomorrow. So it makes sense to attract as many viewers as possible with entertaining content.

The Chatbooks ad probably wasn’t cheap to produce. With free media (YouTube) though, those 16 million potential customers were pretty cheap to reach. It reminds me of a quote from a famous American adman, back in 2010:

“Marketing in the future is like sex. Only the losers will have to pay for it.”

That future is now. And there are lots of losers with their boring ads in paid-for media. And there are also winners, or at least those who are losing less, with ads like this:

Chatbooks infomercial by Harmon Brothers


When you’re trying to solve a problem, do you just work on it flat out, come up with a solution, then move on to your next challenge?

Probably not if you’ve got time. If you’re not under pressure to crack it, you’ll think about it a bit. Then put it to one side while you work on something else. Then come back to it later.

Why? Because you know that, given more time, you’re more likely to come up with a better solution.

It’s the same with creative work, whether that’s producing concepts for an integrated marketing campaign, or just writing copy. Whoever you give your brief to, the more time you allow them, the more chances they’ll have to create a brilliant solution. That’s been my experience either when creating my own work or watching others create theirs.

But giving your creative people more time means greater cost to you, doesn’t it? Not necessarily. It just means planning ahead.

Here’s what’s currently happening

Cash-strapped marketers and agencies are briefing creatives at the last moment to produce work quickly. So they book us for a set amount of time – two weeks, for example. The work begins almost immediately. And the days worked are almost always consecutive.

Here’s what would be better

Book your creatives for the same amount of time, or same project rate, but spread the booked time over a month. Let them work on your project in bits, between their other jobs, and you’ll see better results. It’s during the breaks from your assignment – the time you’re not paying for – that the magic happens. After your brief has been knocking around in the depths of their subconscious minds, your creatives will come up with some of their best ideas. And when your copywriter revisits your copy-in-progress after time away working on something else, they’ll be more likely to improve it. They’ll create a more striking tone of voice, a stronger headline, or a more effective way to describe your product.

I saw it work like that last summer. A beer client, Lee, asked my creative partner and me to come up with more ads for an existing campaign. We agreed to spend three days working on the project and give him at least three ads for a set fee. Lee also agreed to let us spread the work over one month. During that time, we came up with many good concepts. In the end, one particular concept stood out as the best – the very last one we came up with, after almost 30 days.

Clearly, if you plan projects to give your creative people flexibility with deadlines, you’ll get stronger work at no extra cost.


Isn’t there a lot of talk about storytelling these days? Marketing gurus stress its importance. Apparently, 80% of UK adults want brands to tell stories as part of their marketing. There are now annual surveys of the Best Storytelling Brands. And a recent forecast on Campaign Live, The Year Ahead in Creativity, predicted that, once again, ‘the best story wins’.

So what’s new? Brand advertising and DM copywriters like me have been telling stories for decades. All the best commercials have a narrative structure. Many are like a good joke: an intriguing story followed by a surprise ending.

What seems to be driving the talk about storytelling is the proliferation of online content. We are all overwhelmed with information. And the best way to stand out in this sea of content, and interest your audience, is to weave your facts and figures into stories – narratives that involve people, contain drama, and touch emotions.

Shinola: a fascinating story in a rather dull sector

Some friends of mine are preparing to launch a clothes brand, and they want to make their start-up story the best it can be. So I recommended they study a company that’s done a great job telling theirs: a watch manufacturer called Shinola. Now, there are quite a few watch brands, aren’t there? And unless you’re a real horophile, they tend to blur into one big mess. There are exceptions, such as Rolex, which runs all those ads about famous rich people who own one. And Patek Philippe, which has a long-running and, in my view, excellent campaign about its watches being heirlooms that are passed down through families. Also, last year Apple launched its watch, which is fundamentally different from traditional watches that just tell the time. By and large though, not many watch brands left an impression in my mind until I heard about Shinola.

In essence, Shinola’s story is this: a mechanical watch made in Detroit. Now, there’s something that stops you and makes you think. Detroit is, of course, famous as the city that used to be America’s car-making capital, Motor Town, but went into seemingly terminal decline. In recent years, we’ve heard of attempts to revive the city. Still, Detroit isn’t a place you’d expect watches to be made. Which makes Shinola interesting. It draws you in to find out more.

Watch Shinola’s inspiring story below:


Now you can understand why President Obama was proudly showing off his Shinola watch to reporters last week – in itself another fascinating story:

President Barack Obama points to his watch as he leaves a tour of Shinola, a domestic manufacturer of watches and other goods, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, in Detroit.

President Barack Obama points to his watch as he leaves a tour of Shinola, a domestic manufacturer of watches and other goods, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, in Detroit.








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