Blank Pages

Blank pages are – ironically – pretty conflicting.

On one hand, when you sit down to begin a project, you feel the excitement of starting something new and are buzzing from the endless possibilities of how it will turn out. On the other hand, you can’t pin down exactly how you will get to the end result you desire, or even what exactly that end result will be. It is the action you take in this very first moment that largely determines how a project will go, and that can be daunting.

The first thing I do when beginning any project is research. That way, when I get to my blank piece of paper, I already have thoughts floating around in my head about what other people have done in the past, what solutions I like, don’t like, and so on. This is similar to how Twyla Tharp fills up her boxes before beginning work on a dance. Some of this research is specific to the problem I’m solving or question I’m answering, but some of it is my every day consumption of pop culture, blogs, pictures, music, video, etc. Some of my favorites include Seth Godin’s website and an RSS feed I set up curating content from over 30 blogs. I also do things to keep my creative muscle sharp, like participating in the CreativeSprint challenge.

Next, and this is specifically for when I’m working on a written project, it is all about getting words on paper. After thinking for a few minutes and staring down the blank page, I just let whatever comes to mind first flow. I write and write until I don’t have any more words to spit out. Then, I go back through and read what I’ve come up with. I delete the parts that don’t quite work, and embellish the ones that do. I find that looking at whatever content I have helps me to define and solidify my opinions and ideas.

After going through the words a few times, I’ll return to the research to make sure there aren’t any ideas that I wanted to incorporate but left out. I’ll listen to some music to get my brain flowing again (this article says that music can inspire you, put you in a good mood, and increase your focus!) , and maybe have a snack. Then, the only thing left to do is edit and edit until I’m happy with the finished product.

While this creative process is specificially for writing words, the same applies to when I am writing music. The major key here is having something to work with. Getting a few lines of lyrics on paper (or chords on sheet music) is the first step for me. From there I can refine my work to satisfaction. What is your creative process?

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The Buying Experience: Make-Up

The make-up buying experience is way more involved for someone like me who cares deeply about the products I use on and around my face. As a student of advertising, I often forget to study the consumer I know best: myself.

When I enter a store to buy make-up, I’ve already done my research online. Beauty bloggers and YouTube make-up artists are some of the reliable sources I’ll consult. I know which bloggers have similar skin tones or complexions to me, and whose reviews I trust the most based on past purchases. I also know to take product reviews and beauty hauls with a grain of salt, as many influential people are sent products to try. But, I’ve found bloggers who I know I can trust to give an honest review, even if they received the product for free.

Bloggers give many details in their reviews about packaging, price, availability, and ingredients. When I get to an aisle, I’ll already know what I’m looking for and where I should be able to find it. While online reviews are helpful, there is nothing like actually holding the product and taking a look at it first hand. This is when I’ll determine if the colors are true to my expectations, and if the price is right.

Once I have the product at home, I’ll test it out. This is the ultimate factor deciding my satisfaction with a product. In the end, the process of selecting and buying something is fun, but ultimately worthless if I don’t end up liking the product.

The bottom line here is this: the decision of which make-up product to buy is pretty much set before I ever step into a store. Therefore, marketing strategies for make-up products could be more successful by focusing on the customer journey leading to the point-of-purchase. The product needs to be available and easy to locate on shelves, but more importantly, the product needs to be on consumers’ minds before they leave their homes.

Want a real-world example? Ipsy founder Michelle Phan (who got her start by being a very successful beauty blogger) said her brand is investing heavily into expanding its 10,000-person network of amateur beauty vloggers because she has seen firsthand the power of online testimonials. “”[The vloggers] just have to make a few videos a month that are Ipsy related; the rest is up to them,” Phan says.” Her plan reflects the shift from in-store beauty consultants to online pre-purchase persuasion.

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The documentary “Briefly,” created from interviews with six really great advertising professionals, explores the relationship between creative briefs and the end products they birth. There are many great take-aways and quotes from this documentary that I agree with, and that explain some of the thinking that has guided to where I am today and where I want to be in my career.

“This is about creating emotional work so you can still create beauty in this world.”

Many people ask me what I like about advertising. This quote sums it up perfectly. I believe that everyone has strengths and talents that they bring to the world in order to make it a more beautiful place. While I am not a painter or a sculptor, I hope to bring beauty through my work in advertising. Part of why research is so important in advertising is that it allows us to uncover human truths that explain why we feel the way we do. As an AdWeek article said, “All humans seek to find significance and meaning in what we see, and there is absolutely a universality to how we react to common situations like a loss of someone, a drive to do better, a desire to gain more.” Celebrating raw human qualities in an advertising campaign unites us as humans.

“I don’t believe in briefs, I believe in relationships.”

I think this really illustrates the difference between real world work and the work we have done in classrooms. We complete assignments based on briefs that we are given by professors, or even by clients, but we don’t get the experience of getting to know the people on the other side of the brief. That is what this quote really gets at, and its what I’ll finally get to experience when I begin my career in an agency. Knowing the people you are working with and getting a glimpse into their world powers you to create the best work you can. When you see their motivations as your motivations, you become partners.

And finally, a few other take-aways:

  • A brief is inspirational: it should give the creative team exactly what it needs to run wild (in the right direction, of course).
  • A brief is short: say what you need and be done. Like Doug Kleeman said in a guest lecture, you should answer the essential questions and leave out the rest.
  • You come out in every project you do. Yes, you start with a brief, but you bring something original to that, and that’s what makes each advertising agency unique.

Rethinking the Way We Ask

A blog by the Wall Street Journal said that “Studies show we tend to hit our questioning peak around age 4 or 5, and then ask fewer questions as we get older.” Why is that? Maybe we think that by asking questions, we are demonstrating a lack of knowledge. Or maybe, we just don’t spend the adequate time coming up with thoughtful questions.

When doing research in advertising, you ask questions that will unearth the data and insights you need to build a campaign. Whether conducting a focus group, survey, or interview, you want to make the most of your time with the participant by asking questions that get deep into the heart of the matter at hand.

Here’s an exercise. I’ll take the following questions and turn them into two better questions that I can ask instead.

Have you ever sent a text message while driving?

  • What do you do when you receive a text message or phone call while driving?
  • When you are driving, what things distract you?

Would you say that you travel abroad frequently?

  • How often do you travel abroad?
  • How would you describe your travel habits?

Do you post a lot of pictures on Instagram?

  • How do you use Instagram?
  • How would you describe your posting habits on Instagram?

Do you prefer to shop at big boxes or locally owned stores?

  • What kinds of stores do you prefer to shop at?
  • What do you consider when selecting a store to shop at?

How often do you eat sweets?

  • What are your habits when it comes to eating sweets?
  • How would you describe your diet?

Do you tend to buy things that are on sale?

  • How does a sale influence your purchasing decisions?
  • What effect does the price of an item have your decision to purchase it?

Do you like to eat wheat bread?

  • What kind of bread do you like to eat?
  • When buying groceries for the week, what would be in your cart?

Now, by looking at this exercise and the new questions I came up with, you can see that open ended questions are much more interesting and have the potential to lead to much broader conversations. I want to caution that to get at a very specific answer, you may need to follow up with probing questions. But, from the discussions that follow these questions, you might also discover a new topic that you want to explore more than the topic you had originally chosen.

I learned a very important lesson about question-asking in an interview roleplay setting where I was challenged to conduct an employee’s review. I thought I was being thoughtful and productive by doing my homework and coming up with questions that got at the root of the problem in the situation. However, I realized that by asking yes or no questions, I was dominating the conversation and leading the other person to give the answers I thought I was looking for. It was very frustrating for the other person because they felt like they were unable to speak for themselves and tell me what they really wanted me to hear.



By asking open ended questions, you can really listen and understand the truth of what the person is saying. In the end, open ended questions will give you better answers that lead to better insights.

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Facts & Insights

In a recent brainstorming strategy session, I found myself and my classmates oscillating between getting excited about a new idea, spitting it out, then deflating as we said in unison “fact.” Sure, we were coming up with some cool ideas, but none of them could drive an entire strategy or inspire a campaign.

So what is a fact? Merriam-Webster would say that a fact is “a true piece of information.” In my own words, and in terms of advertising, a fact is something that you say and then the next person responds, “So?” Facts can give you a very important piece of information, but may not get to the root of the thing you are analyzing. Often, facts don’t include the “why.”

Facts by themselves are great. Each fact says something important. But when you gather multiple facts and weave them together, that’s when you find something really interesting – the thread that unites them all – the insight. Tony Zambito refers to an insight as “the edge. When you have it, it is powerful.”

Arriving at the insight can be very difficult, especially if you can’t figure out what they have in common. Advertising professional Julia Vanderput shared a formula for insights that I really like.

Fact + Fact + Fact = Insight

When I use the formula, I write the three (sometimes more or less) facts on a piece of paper. Then, I arrange them into an order that seems logical. Usually, at that point I’ll be able to see the natural progression of thought that leads to some insight. Here’s an example:

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This formula is also helpful for presenting an insight or campaign to your audience. You don’t need to lay the facts out in order with the plus signs, but thinking about this formula when crafting a story will help your readers reach what feels like a very natural conclusion.

Campaign Crush: California Avocados #BigGameAdd

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California Avocados showed good sportsmanship during Super Bowl 50. While they did not purchase a video spot, they certainly got a return on others’ investments.

For each of the major food/beverage advertisements, California Avocados tweeted a Tasty-esque video teaching viewers how to make a recipe combining California Avocados with the ad’s featured food/beverage. Here are a few examples:

They even made a video in collaboration with Avocados from Mexico – their competitor!

Avocados from Mexico made a huge mark when they purchased a spot during last year’s Super Bowl. But this year, California Avocados showed that there was room for more than one avocado in this game.

The #BigGameAdd campaign really shows the power of social media and how a million dollar Super Bowl spot is not the only way to get recognized on the big day. AdWeek spoke with the campaign’s agency, MullenLowe, whose executive creative director, Margaret Keene, said “It’s way more fun being a challenger. We all know brands will be doing social campaigns on Sunday. Smart, scrappy brands find ways to piggyback on big-brand hashtags and conversations, but honestly, we just wanted to come up with something fun that people could actually make and talk about during the game.”

While a social media campaign won’t get you the same results as a Super Bowl spot, I hope this will be a testimonial to the creative opportunities social presents.

Campaign Crush: REI #OptOutside

When I think of Black Friday, I immediately think that there is no way anyone could possibly come up with a fresh new deal, promotion, or offering. Attempts at innovating Black Friday have resulted in a complete take over of Thanksgiving day itself, and in some deals starting weeks in advance! How could anyone out-ad the other stores who are all debating for a minute of your hectic shopping day?

REI did it. REI found the one thing (insight) that made you go, “Oh, of course – that makes perfect sense.” Closing their stores on Black Friday is almost a no-brainer when you consider the REI brand, but it was also so taboo and unheard-of. As a retailer, you couldn’t not participate in Black Friday – you’d lose so much money! Right? Not necessarily. REI is all about being adventurous, going outside, exploring, physical activity – all things that contradict a whole day dedicated to shopping in a mall – and this campaign allowed them to boldly stick to their brand values.


To reach this insight and campaign idea, I would imagine that the planning team took a deep hard look at the REI brand and its consumer. What does REI mean to its consumers? What do their consumers love to do? Is Black Friday an event that their consumers normally partake in? And, I’m guessing that what they found is something like this:

Fact: It is almost impossible to stand out on Black Friday as a retailer.

Fact: Shoppers are fatigued by the bombardment of ads/promos that occur on Black Friday.

Fact: REI shoppers love the outdoors.

Insight: Celebrate your love for the outdoors on a day filled with consumerism.

#OptOutside resonated with me because of the unique interactive experiences it offered consumers. Consumers could “pledge” themselves with REI by sharing a photo and the hashtag #OptOutside. The result was a beautiful website featuring images of people doing the things they love and basically becoming ambassadors for the REI brand. Another fun aspect of the microsite was the feature for finding places to #OptOutside. Simply enter your zipcode, and the website pulls up trails near you! A cool feature, and it eliminated an excuse to not #OptOutside.

As with all campaigns, I think there are many people out there that this brand communication is not for – I mean, it’s Black Friday! Even if people thought it was a cool idea, there are certain people for whom Black Friday shopping is so ingrained in their traditional Thanksgiving celebrations that there is nothing that could have converted them. However, I think this brand communication was successful even if consumers did not decide to pledge themselves to #OptOutside. The campaign went on for weeks prior to Black Friday, giving ample time for buzz and interest to grow. From a brand awareness standpoint, I think this campaign was a success in a variety of audiences.


Five Things Your Competitors Can Teach You About Social

I know, I know – the last thing you want to do is add to your competitor’s follower count on Twitter, be one more view on their YouTube video, or admit that you stalk their Instagram. But here is a list of five things you can learn from your competitors’ social presences that make it worth it:

  1. The appropriate tone and voice for your industry. This first tip is especially key if you are just beginning to build your business’s social presence. Have you ever noticed how some brands Tweet like a playful human? I’m thinking of Pizza Hut and for this one. If you are also in the food industry, you can take a look at accounts like this one and see how people are responding to that type of voice. Do customers engage with it? Do they like it? Do they think it is appropriate? This can either give you the go-ahead to adopt a similar style on your social accounts, or tip you off that maybe staying more conservative is a good idea. Note: DO NOT plagiarize your competition. Being a copy cat is bad. Learning from others’ mistakes/successes is good. Social is a grey area that provides you with the opportunity to push boundaries and try new things – seeing others’ experimentation can help you brainstorm your own.

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    Retrieved from Twitter.
  2. Industry #hashtags. One way to increase your views and followers is to use hashtags in your social posts. Look to your competitors to see what hashtags are trending in your industry and join in the conversation. Don’t just let them do all the talking!
  3. What platforms are relevant to your consumers. If all of your competitors have a YouTube channel, you might want to get one too. This may be a sign that your customers are looking to find their information there.
  4. Competitors’ branding strategies. Social media is a platform that provides brands with the opportunity to creatively express who they are. When entering or expanding your reach within a market, it is important to see who is already there. How are competitors positioning themselves to reach the people you want to talk to? Aka – what seat at the table is already taken?  Being aware of others can help you build a unique brand persona that will diversify you.
  5. What customers actually think of your competition. One example that immediately comes to mind for this one is Zappos. Just by taking a quick glance at Zappos’ Facebook page, you can tell that customer service is their priority and that people think highly of the brand because of it. The example below is just one of the many conversations that Zappos has with customers on their Facebook page. They take the time to show that their customers are a priority, and clearly, this is paying off! This would tip you off that if Zappos is your competition, you better fight hard to win over their customers because they ain’t going easy. The inverse of this example is that if your competition is doing a poor job, people will make it known on their Yelp, Twitter, etc. Complaints can tell you a lot about what your audience is expecting out of a product/service, and you can use that information to meet their needs in ways that the competition currently isn’t.

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    Screen caption from’s Facebook.

“Feel the Real”

I had a really interesting experience while driving on the highway yesterday in Winston-Salem. A billboard, similar to this one, caught my eye. “This Ad is Real” it said, with the url “” on along the side. Of course this caught my attention and I hurriedly went to the url on my phone. My boyfriend was driving – so don’t worry, I was not typing and driving!

The website had a lot to say about OOH – or Out Of Home marketing. I had heard of this before, and I knew that it, along with experiential marketing, was trendy.

The website contains statistics about the amount of ads that are eaten up by bots, and the amount of money that advertisers waste for similar reasons. The website also has a quiz that allows you to determine how “real” you are. I clocked in at a disappointing 45% real. The next page allowed you to read articles on how technology is destroying our relationships with people and our ability to interact in human ways. One of the articles I remember looking at mentioned how people were now taking classes to learn how to ask someone on a date.

While I see the point this website was trying to make, and while I think their execution (in terms of catching my attention) was incredible, I’m not sure that I’m convinced that technology is inherently bad for human interaction. It definitely changes the way we interact with each other, but I’m not sold on the idea that this is a bad thing. Rather, I’m still looking at both sides and in need of much more scientific evidence before I’m a registered pessimist.

Either way, this site is worth a look. It was a cool moment for an ad nerd like me.

Check it out at