CMYK first discovered Danny Nathan back in the mid 2000s when his work for Broan trash compactors was published in CMYK’s 34th issue (produced while attending the University of Texas at Austin). CMYK recently caught up with Mr. Nathan to find he had become a vocal advocate of breaking the mold of traditional advertising. Today he furthers his cause as a “creative project lead” for POKE in New York where he fulfills a multitude of roles: ideator, copywriter, designer, art director, UX designer, social media strategist, developer, outreach agent, account guy, project manager, and recruiter. Nathan has also taught at the Miami Ad School, UTA and was a guest lecturer at Pratt Institute. We decided to get Nathan’s feedback on what exactly is wrong with advertising in its current state, and how it can be fixed. This is what he said…
[What’s Your Beef with “Traditional” Advertising?]
Simple … Nobody wants to be advertised to.
Nobody wants to flip through a magazine and see hundreds of print ads. Nobody wants to have their favorite TV program interrupted by commercials. Nobody wants to be inundated by billboards every time they drive down the highway.
Not to mention that most advertising is downright insulting. Just because a company spends a million dollars making a 30-second spot doesn’t mean that I’m automatically gonna care about what they have to say. In my mind, if you can’t make a commercial that people—not just the advertising world—will actively seek out because they want to watch it, you’ve failed. Miserably. And you’ve wasted an obscene amount of money in the process.
And if you are going to try, the least you could do is be entertaining—or engaging—about it. All in all, advertising is an interruption. It’s boring and it’s usually trying to convince me to buy or do something that I don’t have the slightest interest in. Advertising is like a perpetual bad date that you can’t get away from.
[Big Mistake(s) Companies Make Where Their Marketing Is Concerned]
Entire books have been written about those mistakes; I’m not sure I can really do them justice in a short discussion. There are a few that are touched on here: trying to substitute marketing voodoo for a great product; ceasing to view people as people; assuming that speaking from a soapbox makes people want to listen.
Another that has gotten under my skin lately is an inability to say “enough is enough.” When companies are so focused on wringing every last dollar out of people that they lose their ability to see what’s good and what’s right, the world suffers for it. Blind capitalism at the expense of humanity is a scary thing.
[Are Traditional Marketing Habits Obsolete?]
Not in the slightest. They’ve just been twisted into unintelligible drivel. In fact, not only are the most basic, most traditional marketing ideas NOT obsolete, they should serve as guiding principles for everyone. Just not in the way that we’ve learned to talk about them.
Who needs “the four P’s” of marketing? (Or was it five? Nine? Whatever …) Traditional marketing is simple: First, make an awesome product that people want. Second, treat people well, regardless of whether they’re complaining about that product or praising it.
I can’t help but believe that if companies spent 90% of their current marketing budgets making their product better, the remaining 10% would be more than enough to cover their marketing needs. And their products would sell themselves. Isn’t that how marketing got started in the first place?
[Today, What Is Meant by “Creating Useful, Valuable Marketing Solutions”?]
The distinction between “marketing” and “product” is gone. That’s the issue that most corporate organizations still don’t understand: The two are inextricably bound. Divide your marketing department from your product development team and you’re pretty much doomed to fail. But build something useful that adds value to a person’s life and that product will largely market itself. If people are excited about your product, they’ll go out of their way to extol its virtues to others who will share their excitement and enthusiasm (and so on and so forth down the line).
In case I haven’t been clear, I don’t much like to create “advertising.” Advertising is made to live for a limited time and then disappear. That is the very flaw in creating “advertising campaigns”—they’re intended to disappear in a month or so. Why pour your energy into something that’s been created from the get-go to interrupt someone’s life and then disappear? In contrast, when you think of design, you expect something that’s been created to stick around—something that is intended to be valued and shared, and to endure.
That’s the idea behind designing useful things that advertise.
[Define “Thinking Small”]
Everyone is so focused on “the BIG idea.” Every school teaches it, every agency lauds it. And yet, the reality is the simple, smart ideas (the small ones) have the most opportunity to take root. Sure, a simple, smart idea might eventually grow into something powerful and pervasive. But if it does, it’s probably because the idea started as something that everyone could understand.
If you can explain your idea in an elevator pitch or a press release and it still engages people, then you’re onto something. People gravitate toward, and like talking about, simple, valuable, and entertaining interactions. They’re willing to forgive (and even embrace) branded messages that come with them. That’s a win-win for everyone, and it doesn’t come from visions of grandeur.
[What about Your Design Education Helped Prepare You for “The Real World”]
I don’t actually have any formal design education. As an undergraduate, I pursued dual majors in theater and marketing. Following that, I earned my master’s degree in advertising. (Trust me, ad school is not design school, not by a long shot.) I never went to design school along the way.
What I have come to realize, though, is that I was brought up as a design thinker. My mother pursued architecture for a while and has one of the best eyes for spacial relationships and layout of anyone I’ve ever met. My aunt was a potter, painter, and internationally known interior designer. (She designed all the public spaces in the World Trade Center buildings.) All of their teaching added up to the best design education anyone could ask for.
In addition, my years of theater study were helpful too. Not many people realize just how much design goes into a theatrical performance: How do you convey emotion as an actor? How can you create tension between people? How do you compose a scene on stage? How do you craft the experience of a play for the audience?
[Describe the Importance of Assuming Multiple Roles/Titles/Duties as a Modern-Day Creative]
Bringing a creative venture to life requires the input of a variety of roles. In a traditional agency setting, those roles are splintered across a bunch of departments where multiple experts are involved in very small aspects of the process. Strategy is separated from creative ideation which is separated from the actual creation process. It’s design-by-committee the whole way through. How can true collaboration possibly happen in that environment?
But there’s nothing to say that these roles have to be individualized across a bunch of different people. I interview a lot of people from a variety of different backgrounds. Those who catch my attention, and the people who sit around the table in our office, tend to have one thing in common: They’re Swiss Army Knives. If you can’t think both strategically and creatively, you don’t have a place among us. If you can’t come up with an idea and have the know-how to bring it to life, you don’t have a place among us.
Having an idea is the easy part. Making it happen is where the true talent lies.
[Where Does That Leave Print?]
Print is fine for showcasing ideas or products when time is not critical. I’ll be the first to admit that I have a stack of magazines on my bookshelf, many of which are dog-eared or bookmarked. But for information that people want to share instantly, print is no competition for the technology. Let’s face it, we’ve become a society built on instant gratification.
[What Is a Strong Example of Your Kind of Marketing/Advertising?]
There are plenty of brands out there, both big and small, that are accomplishing some amazing things and making truly utilitarian products that have social built into their core (and therefore advertise themselves). The Nike+ running system is one of my favorite examples of a social product. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an ad for it, and yet since its launch in 2008, Nike+ runners have accumulated nearly 400 million miles and have challenged each other to more than 18,000 races.
A number of other brands are truly committed to both making money and doing good for the world. Through unique business models and a healthy dose of “we live here too” attitude, these companies are successfully establishing themselves as brands for good. For example, Tom’s Shoes and Warby Parker have both adopted a 1-for-1 initiative to give shoes and glasses (respectively) to people in need around the world.
Another one of my personal favorites is a brand called Nau, which designs all of its products with an eye toward “social, material, and aesthetic sustainability.” Nau donates 2% of every sale to their Partners for Change program, they source only sustainable and recyclable materials, and they don’t skimp on design or quality. Even the way they choose to talk about themselves sets them apart from other brands: “We’re stuck on an idea: to redesign fashion and to redefine business so that each becomes a powerful force for change. One small step toward unfucking the world.”
[What Are the Prime Elements of “Nimble, Effective Communication”?]
In this day and age, I think these are questions are inextricably bound. You can’t create nimble, effective communication without following the rules of engagement. Here are some of the rules that I encourage clients to live by:
Be human. Yes, you’re a company. But you’re made up of people, and you’re interacting with people.
Create something useful and valuable. An amazing product designed around your consumer will advertise itself.
You are what they say you are. In spite of all the money that companies pour into advertising in an attempt to define their brand to consumers, the simple truth is this: You can try to tell consumers what to think of you, but in reality, your brand is defined by consumers’ perceptions. You are what people say you are.
We live here too. Together, we all share this big, bad world. In my experience, the brands that people choose to make part of their lives are those that exhibit an awareness of the world around them and the people within it, and those that demonstrate an ability to become a part of that activity and conversation in a meaningful way.
Think about what you have license to publish. What does your brand stand for? What current issues and ideas align with your brand? Those are the things that people will look to you for advice on. Those are the things that you have a license to talk about. When you stray from those ideas, you’re likely to appear out of your element. And your explanations may not ring true.
Take an active role in the conversation. Once you’ve determined what your brand/company stands for, make yourself a part of the discussion—not just to sell, but to be heard and to help people. Answer questions, offer opinions, be part of the solution, or just acknowledge your presence and say hello.
Be aware of social etiquette. You’re at a cocktail party. People are looking at you. They’re judging you. Everything from what you wear to what you say will become a part of how people perceive your brand.