Let’s get the white table* in The White House

It’s a sign of the times when the most eloquent and elegant points of view in American politics this year have come from chocolate packaging. A new range of confectionery from Design Army of Washington DC and choclatiers, Hill McGraw has served the only sweet things in a bitter war of undignified words.

Choose your chocolate from 6 candidates called Red State, Tea Party, Left Wing, Filibuster, Flip-Flopper or Taxation without Representation.designarmy_political_b

Let’s hope some of this is on the white table in The White House to remind the next president to show some style.

*For those that don’t know, The White Table is a trending cultural phenomenon from the media and advertising world. It’s what The Water Cooler once was. It’s an unofficial forum. It’s a centre for conversation. Instead of watering yourself, you put a home baked cake on it or sweets you brought back from holiday or business. Then you share with colleagues in a civilised manner. Try it in your open plan or oval office.designarmy_political_e

What I made you think


David Hare once said that the engine for all art is metaphor. It’s talking about one thing as a way of talking about something else.

Often it’s talking about something small to talk about something big. Like writing about a family feud as a way of talking about America falling apart.

Or you could talk about something big as a way of talking about something smaller. Like writing about an intergalactic war between mutants as a way of talking about fuck-knows.

The trick is giving the reader a job to do. Have them complete the communication circle: you spell it out so much and they make the mental leap.

In advertising theory there is something similar – a 90/10 rule. You spell out 90% of what you want they say and the reader infers the final 10% in their head.

Why do that? Because the thought you have yourself as a reader is more persuasive than the thought you are told. It’s how we make the reader think what we want them to think: ‘Smoking causes cancer’ is nowhere near as powerful as ‘Cancer cures smoking’.

But just how much can we make the reader work? 80/20? 70/30? 60/40? Is there a law of diminishing returns as you up the ante? Or do people love a crossword?

Let’s have a look. I’ve gathered some examples – that I think ‘work’ – that go as far as 50/50.




Conceptual image. Take-no-chances line. I’d say it’s a 90/10.


Again: a bit of work for the reader with the image, no work with the line. A DM piece from 2006. 90/10 I reckon.



From fat to fit. Simple. The ‘A’ and ‘I’ are clear, but maybe some people would need a second look. So 80/20.

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He so dominates the Tour de France they named the country after him. They show you a map spelling that out. But the copy is all in the image – your eye might search for a proper headline and not read the image on first lance (get it?). So 80/20.



No doubt this is portfolio work – not live work. But I’ve seen this kind of stuff win at D&AD so let’s keep the lie going. I give it 70/30 as after you ‘get’ the image you still have to ‘get’ the point of the ad. In your mind’s eye you almost have to see a strapline beside the logo of the sentiment ‘Explore your imagination’.



First one is ‘quicker’. You don’t cut corners with safety equipment. But while every parent wants the best for their kids, every parent also complains about how needlessly expensive kids’ stuff is. What’s that you said? That’s just a single poor execution? Shut up. 70/30.




They’re real. D&AD winners. Ran in UK newspapers. ‘So boring it’s intriguing’, ‘so plain they’re pretty’ seems to be the approach. It makes you work for the topic – and even the point – so it’s a 60/40 for me. But I think they get away with it.


Wolf in sheep’s clothing is clear. But what’s the claim exactly? The car looks like a family runaround but has some sporty features under the hood? Something like that? 60/40.



The thought is great: it’s so packed full of fish, and nothing but fish, fishermen would actually fish in a giant can of it. But a little slow for OOH (OOH D&AD winner in 2001). So I reckon it’s a 50/50 or thereabouts.


Jesus Christ. I Googled it. W=win. D=draw. Meaning L=loss. But there are no Ls when it comes to Arsenal. A firm 50/50. Then again, I call football soccer.

In Praise of Dialects


Glenarriff Forest Park, Northern Ireland

Before I went ‘over the water’ to find fame and fortune as a copywriter in London, my grandfather gave me some advice: ‘You should put lots of wee Irish phrases in your adverts.’

As diverse as our clients are, I’m not sure his favourites – cheugh as a wuddy and quare an’ thran –will come in all that useful, though I’ll be leaping on the first chance that I get to use them. Translation attempts on a postcard addressed to the Dept. of Words, please.

Chances to use dialects in national advertising are rare, and when they are used, they’re often reduced to punchlines, like in this advert for Hotels.com.

The joke revolves around the incomprehensibility of the Geordie dialect. Which is, I suppose, the reason why you don’t hear more of it in adverts. Dialects are necessarily exclusive, so they leave some people out. And you don’t want to muddy your copy with words that people won’t understand.

But the other side of the exclusivity of dialects is that they bring people together. They’re a response to the intricacies and nuances of a social and geographical environment. Where ‘standard’ English fails, dialects swell to meet the challenge of getting things just right. In that respect, they have more in common with copywriting than it might initially seem.

So, even if national campaigns aren’t always the place for dialect, then it’s worth getting an ear into some places that are.

Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks contains glossaries of British and Irish dialectical words for landscapes, some of which are arrestingly lovely – to thaw in Northamptonshire is to ‘ungive’, and an icicle in Hampshire is a ‘clinkerbell’ or ‘daggler’.

I have a particular soft spot for Seamus Heaney, who was fully alive to the joy of regional Irish speech, and to its detractors.

I tried to write about the sycamores
And innovated a South Derry rhyme
With hushed and lulled full chimes for pushed and pulled.
Those hobnailed boots from beyond the mountain
Were walking, by God, all over the fine
Lawns of elocution.

The entire poem, brimming with what Heaney described as ‘the speech of Northern Ireland: rigged and jigged and rhymed for effect, the kind of flotsam and jetsam that blows in one ear and out the other in every childhood, but that finally ends up lodged between the ears of the adult’, can be found here.

Blogging on

Back in the day, the only way to hear directly from some of the best creatives around would have been to actually work in the same agency as them. Or better still, find out which pub they preferred to work from.

But even if you were talented and lucky enough to work alongside the greats, the chances are they’d have barely acknowledged you. The egos, like the budgets and pay packets, were considerably bigger back then.

They certainly wouldn’t have shared their thoughts, anxieties and insights with you on a daily basis. Except maybe in that pub, just before closing time.

But fast-forward to now and things are very different. While those creatives might still be as unforthcoming in the flesh, look online and it’s another story.

Today, ad blogs give you weirdly intimate access to all sorts of people with all sorts of different experiences and perspectives.

And because they’re usually by copywriters, the blogs tend to be very well written. Some of them are even funny.

Here are the ones I keep up with:

Stuff from the loft An anomaly on this list, I think: this is a blog written by an art director. The stories he digs out and the people he features are often amazingly good. He’s not at all prolific (maybe because he’s busy being the Head of Art at JWT), so it’s always a pleasure to click on the bookmark and discover a new post has appeared on the site.

Round Seventeen A grade-A grump who lives in LA and often pumps out two posts a day while doing the rounds as a busy freelancer. Definitely the funniest blogger on this list.

Dave Trott Having been a successful CD for ages and ages, he’s now become one of the most accomplished ad bloggers around. Often fascinating and pithy, the blog is written in that single-line highly digestible style. The stories are often so good, it’s one of the few ad blogs that would probably interest people outside the industry.

If this is a blog… An English creative who did well over here and then went over there to be a creative director at Apple’s in-house-agency-thingy. He was the CD behind the Shot on iPhone 6 campaign. The blog covers all sorts of subjects with an unusual degree of thoughtfulness, plus there’s always a Friday round-up of weird and wonderful links.

Ad Aged A self-confessed old guy from the old school, clearly less than enamoured with the way advertising has developed. But it’s not all whining and wailing about an industry past its sell by date. Just recently, he linked to some of the best things I’ve seen in a while. Firstly, this lovely film about the VW ads of old. And then, a link to the new VR app for the New York Times. Have a look for yourself – download the app to your smartphone and then watch the VR film about Fallujah. It really is a disconcertingly direct way to experience ‘the news’.

Ad Contrarian Probably the most celebrated and influential ad blogger out there. As the name suggests, he’s a spiky bugger who loves picking fights – and loves it even more when he’s proved right. The success of the blog has helped him build a new career as a conference speaker and consultant on some of his pet topics – like the idiocy of blowing every marketing budget on young people when it’s the older generation that’s sitting on all the lovely cash.

Ad Teachings Many of the above are jeremiads – complaints from older guys who’ve been there, done it, and have a pretty good take on why things aren’t what they used to be. But Ad Teachings is a different kettle of fish. It’s written by a woman for one thing. And rather than exploring all the ways we’re going to hell in a handcart, this blog simply posts good examples of ads around the world that students and young pros will find useful and instructive. Guess what? Not-so-young pros find it useful and instructive, too. And a bit heartening as well.

So them’s my top blogs. Any to add?

Doing the unnecessary, with love.


Walking down Portobello Road last week, I saw an old man selling an enormous variety of hand-made teddybears. Amongst the hundreds of beasts on display there was one that stood out.

A toddler-sized grey bear in a traditional Scottish outfit, complete with tam o’ shanter hat, knee-high white socks and a sporran.

Much of the outfit could have been made from various household items, including tea towels or a particularly heinous bedspread. But the little sporran impressed me.

It was hung around his waist on reigns of tooled, black leather, with feathers and thistles painted on in gold. It looked so professional that I began to wonder if this item had been specially purchased.

I imagined a factory, somewhere in Uxbridge, that was dedicated solely to the production of these little sporrans. Perhaps they even made flyers that read – “Come to Graham’s Grotto for all your plush bears’ accessories!”

Probably not. Much more likely that this man had spent a couple of hours sourcing the right kind of straps – from the Highlands, perhaps – and had maybe even learned how to paint. I imagined him getting up at 7am every day, in order to capture that particular thistle variety, and get the detail just right. Doing the unnecessary, with love.

The picture above is of a drain cover I recently spotted on Petticoat Lane. Its humble purpose is to cover the entrance of a sewer, but despite its simplicity, there’s evidence of the metal worker’s skill – the intricate linear design, the precision of the broaching.

What’s also interesting is the star in the middle, which looks a lot like the Star of David. As Petticoat Lane used to be the old Jewish quarter, this probably isn’t a coincidence.

After a spot of Googling I discovered that once upon a time construction companies used these covers as a way to advertise their services, and London is apparently littered with these lovely little concrete advertisements, although most of the companies don’t exist anymore.

The simplest of objects. And no detail is really necessary for something so functional, but it’s all the better for it.


Apparently ‘Drainspotting’ is somewhat of a Thing. In Japan, municipalities are allowed to design their own manhole covers and different areas compete to come up with the best designs. As a result there are now almost 6000 hand-crafted covers throughout the country. Here’s a rather nice collection of the finest specimens. http://www.demilked.com/manhole-covers-japan/


My favourite thigh-slapping, foot-stomping, head-shaking strapline

A great slogan can be an enormously powerful thing. Like the catchiest tune, they worm their way into our brains.

Write a good one and you’ll be the envy of all your copywriting chums. Write a brilliant one and you’ll be drinking from crystal glasses that ping for a long time after you pinged them. There have indeed been some belters. Check out the advertising slogan Hall of Fame. The numerous quizzes. And there’s even a website where you can click a button and make your own.

Clearly the world loves sloganeering. So it’s weird that these little gems have fallen out of favour. The death of the strapline may be overstating the situation, but there’s a growing school of thought that considers them as bygone marketing relics. There’s certainly evidence that taglines have diminished in importance. When you see classics such as the Stella Artois “Reassuringly expensive” making way for #BeLegacy you sense you’re witnessing a dying craft. But the fact is, a great line will still instantly separate a brand from the competition, and enable it to grow a lot stronger than any hashtag.

There are two key ingredients if you want to pen a corker. First, of course, is clarity. Second, and much more of a challenge, is memorability. Only the best really stick in the mind and that’s why the first strapline that I remember still towers above the rest. Ladies and Gentlemen, please pay your respects to: “Lipsmackin’ thirstquenchin’ acetastin’ motivatin’ goodbuzzin’ cooltalkin’ highwalkin’ fastlivin’ evergivin’ coolfizzin’ Pepsi.

Back in the 70s when it first appeared, this epic line blew everything else out of the water. It was long. It was mad. It was stupendous. For me and my classmates it was a line that we all loved. We memorised it until each and every one of us could rattle it off by heart. We had it daubed over our exercise books. Up our arms. Across our plimsoles. ‘Lipsmackin’ became our chant and the last word was always hissed PEPPPSSSSSSSSSSSSIIII.

Now as a copywriter myself, I’ve always wondered how a line like that happens. It’s not something you just stumble upon. And there’s been nothing else like it since. So where does something as fresh as ‘Lipsmackin’ come from?

In fact, the line was penned by the legendary Creative Director Dave Trott back in 1974. At the time he was a junior writer at BMP. Not so long ago, he took to the internet to explain how it came about.

“It was pretty much my first ad at BMP.

The brief was so long with so many things to say: refreshing, modern, young, energising, delicious, bubbly, stylish, I couldn’t get them all in one line.

So I thought what if it was one huge long line ¨Then I remembered Tom Wolfe’s book “Candy coloured tangerine flake streamline baby.”

Then I remembered a DJ on pirate radio (Emperor Rosko on Radio Luxemburg) who used to talk about a record as “A real knuckle-cracking thigh-slapping foot-stomping head-shaking toe-tapping rocker”.

And I just put the two together, and my boss, John Webster, loved it and made it all happen.”

Sorry. What’s the f**king question?

I thought I’d get topical this week.

Because the Olympics is plastered all over the telly-box, you may’ve noticed.

And with televised sport comes the obligatory post-event interview.

Stuffed with the same old platitudes, it’s rare these interviews provide any insights into anything.

All I’ve been able to gather so far is where each athlete grew up, and I can only do that by listening to their accents.

Let’s face it, a lot of these Olympians seem markedly inarticulate.

And I used to be a little smug about it.

To make up for my sense of inadequacy, I would secretly think:

“For all that athlete’s fame and perfectly toned abs, he’s a bit of a rambler isn’t he…a bit tedious. Not like me.”

Was my smugness misguided?

Yes it was, and I’ll tell you why.

Because TV sport interviewers don’t ask questions any more. They make statements.

And as a result, sports men and women look boring and clumsy when they’re forced to spout banalities in response.

If you don’t believe me, listen closely to a post-event interview from Rio this week, and count how many times you hear one of the following words:

Is; Are; Am; Was; Were; Will; Do; Does; Did; Have; Had; Has; Can; Could; Should; Shall; May; Might; Would.

These are the words you need to make a question.

And I bet you won’t hear many.

Instead, you’ll hear the interviewer state the bleedin’ obvious, and then just press the microphone into the athlete’s face.

So the poor athlete has just one option: say “Yeah definitely” then garble the bleedin’ obvious back.

And because there’s no focus to the interview, they feel compelled to just carry on talking….and talking.

They’re lucky if they get interrupted. But usually the monologue is allowed to simply waft and flutter to a close. End of interview.

Now I know what you’re thinking: “Writer-O is getting a bit worked up about this isn’t he. What’s his problem?”

Well I’m venting, because in my own small-fry way, I’ve had personal experience of this.

You see, that smugness I described was dashed to pieces on the one and only occasion I was interviewed by BBC radio after a rugby match.

I’m no Peter Ustinov, but I’d never considered the business of putting one word in front of another as a weakness of mine.

However in that interview, I sounded like a fucking numpty.

And while my friends and family took the piss, I listened back and realised that it was an interview without any questions.

At one point the journalist even said, “So the front row then…the ‘dark arts’…” then just thrust the microphone under my nose…and off I went.

From then on, I started noticing the same thing on every sports programme I watched.

You may be sceptical, so I thought I’d bolster my argument with some evidence from the world wide web.

It didn’t take long to find examples.

That’s why I decided to create a little compilation, just for you.

Roll VT!

Watch out for the same thing in Rio. I guarantee you’ll notice it now.

The ad Olympics

I was in the US last week so I watched the Olympic opening ceremony on NBC, which apparently stands for ‘Nothing But Commercials’. 

While the rest of the world watched live, US viewers got a one-hour time lag. You could tell because after each ad break (and there were a lot), the opening ceremony would resume exactly where it had left off, as if the leotarded dancers had been obediently freezing in place.

To be honest the whole thing was a bit of a cynical exercise with none of the circusy atmosphere of Superbowl ad breaks. But there were some good spots among the bombardment, so here are my verdicts on which ads deserve to ‘podium’ and which deserve to break their tibias in shocking style.


The link between sporting endeavour and the product is made so poorly you can hear the voiceover artist’s embarrassment.


Perfectly competent but pretty predictable. The creatives (or the client) need a dunk in the Rio rowing lake.


Folksy schmaltz. I didn’t get that the boy is the girl’s dad on first watch, but the message of ‘Our food is slightly less ethically and nutritionally terrible than you think’ will probably do the trick in breaking down tired parental defences.


“The best a man can get isn’t always pretty. But it’s always worth the chase.” Feels like a confusing pile up of end lines to me, especially in the version of this that aired, which was much shorter than the one above.


I was drawn in by this one at first but I reckon Dick’s Sporting Goods Co needs to have a think about its brand. Should a company with a name like that be making such grandiose films?


American agencies have got the genre of the funny and self-aware sales pitch down to a fine art. Here Joel McHale from Community does the ‘here I am in different situations and costumes delivering a voiceover’ shtick, but with a flashy yet simple visual device to hold it all together. This gets ten bullet points of information across in 30 seconds without you even noticing you’d been sold to. Impressive efficiency.


I didn’t realise before this how flexible the ‘Shot on iPhone’ campaign could be. Here Apple has made an earnest, emotional brand film that feels every inch Apple, but that also functions as a product demo from the first second to the last. Reciting Maya Angelou in a phone ad pushes my pretentiousness meter into the red, but your reaction may differ and the strategy is very smart.


One measure of an original ad is, ‘Could you have thought of this?’. The brief for this spot was probably, ‘The new Samsung phablet is the best at making you productive’. From there W&K have taken two creative leaps. One is to fix on the idea that Americans are the most productive people on the planet. The second is to make the pitchman a European who starts off scorning the American work ethic but quickly persuades himself that Americans are the best after all (a la ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?‘). Add in great casting and pacing and this was possibly my favourite 90 seconds of the entire NBC broadcast (interpretive dancing included).

A lyrical listicle

Cheese guitar

Despite what Writer-C believes, I think a world without music would be far worse than a world without cheese.

And because songs contain words, I reckon I can get away with writing a blog post about great lyrics.

So here are a few of my favourites, in the easily digestible style of a Buzzfeed listicle…

‘I guess I should’ve known
By the way you parked your car sideways
That it wouldn’t last.
See you’re the kinda person
That believes in makin’ out once
Love ‘em and leave ‘em fast.’

Little Red Corvette

‘There’s a club if you’d like to go.
You could meet somebody who really loves you.
So you go and you stand on your own.
And you leave on your own.
And you go home and you cry
And you want to die.’

How Soon Is Now
The Smiths

‘This beautiful blend
I knew her through a mutual friend.
She was a work of art
part of my heart
from back then.
A brown skin singer
with a knack for acting.
And her attraction
was just fractionally
based on…

The ‘Notic
The Roots

‘Idiot wind.
Blowing every time you move your mouth.
Blowing down the back roads headin’ south.
Idiot wind.
Blowing every time you move your teeth.
You’re an idiot, babe.
It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.’

Idiot Wind
Bob Dylan

‘A heart that’s full up like a landfill.
A job that slowly kills you.
Bruises that won’t heal.
You look so tired, unhappy.
Bring down the government.
They don’t, they don’t speak for us.
I’ll take a quiet life.
A handshake of carbon monoxide.’

No Surprises

‘Now I’m thirteen
Smokin’ blunts, makin’ cream.
On the drug scene
Fuck a football team.
Risking ruptured spleens
By the age of sixteen.
Hearing the coach scream
Ain’t my lifetime dream.’

The Notorious B.I.G.

I bear more grudges
Than lonely high court judges.
When you sleep
I will creep
Into your thoughts
Like a bad debt
That you can’t pay.
Take the easy way
And give in.’

The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get

‘When she’s gone I’ll miss our slow easy walks
Playing scrabble with the chimes of the grandfather clock.
I’ll even miss the times that we fought.
But mostly I’ll miss being able to call her and talk.’

I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love
Sun Kil Moon

‘Please don’t get me twisted, I’m far from a heathen.
This is just a simple song of basic rhyme and reason.
It’s not my meaning to demean or blaspheme.
But most things in the Bible ain’t as plain as they seem.
Can I trust King James to translate these papers?
Do I need a middle-man to link with the creator?’

Sinny Sin Sins
Roots Manuva

‘Mother, mother
Everybody thinks we’re wrong.
Who are they to judge us
Simply cause we wear our hair long?’

Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)
Marvin Gaye