blog-header

Archive

see all

Michael Powelson

Michael is a Creative Director whose career began with words, veered toward moving images, and now resists choosing between the two. His work has been featured in publications like Luerzer’s Int’l ARCHIVE, Print, HOW, Campaign Brief and BEST ADS ON TV.
Find me on:

Recent Posts

posted by Michael Powelson Feb 15,2017 @ 02:46PM

My Left-Hand Man

(Or, How Fatherhood Taught Me To Stop Explaining and Love the Brand)

IMG_1058.jpg

 

 Parents are a greedy lot.

And us newbies can be the worst offenders. By the time he was six months old, nearly every aspect of my son Charlie had been spoken for.

His chin? Mine.

Eyes? My wife’s.

We claimed his laugh to have once belonged to my mother and that a certain restlessness was all Maria’s dad. Even the name we’d chosen wasn’t truly his, but a derivative of his great grandfather.

On the surface, this seemed normal and harmless. But somewhere in that six-month delirium of cortisol and dopamine, Maria and I lost our grip. Charlie became not so much a baby, but a blank screen on which his parents could project a lifetime of family pride, doubt, vanity and loss. At every stage of development, each new wrinkle he showed was an invitation to fire up that projector and retrieve an old slide carousel from the hall closet of our memories.

It was heartwarming. And self-indulgent. And more than a little ridiculous. Fortunately, I had something to keep my sappy, sleep-deprived mind from completely scattering to the winds of nostalgia.

 

---

 

For months I’d been working on a client project that was finally coming to fruition. It had begun as a purely theoretical effort — an exercise to show a non-profit, community hospital how broadly their brand might define itself. The goal was to prove to them just how unique they were. In today’s healthcare climate of corporate consolidation, their independent, indigenous spirit made for something bigger than a series of loosely connected service lines. They were doing more than mending injury or fighting disease. They were providing a real, omnipresent sense of support and security for a close-knit community.

Hokey as that may sound, it’s the God’s honest truth. Which always increases the pressure on a creative team to do that truth justice. As such, scripts were written with great care. A subtle, symbolic story arc emerged that blurred the line between caregivers and community members, showing how this place and its hospital are inextricably linked.

Preparing the presentation, I realized how attached we’d gotten to the concept and, for the first time, regretted that it was only an exercise to show our partners what could be. A shame that it would never be produced, I thought.

Enter the first link in a chain of surprises.

“We love this,” the marketing director said. “More importantly, we need this. Let’s go.”

So we went.

Locations were scouted, shooting boards prepared; FAA airspace was granted and a helicopter commissioned. The creative team’s vision was set to become reality.

Then reality decided it had something to say about the creative team’s vision.

Prior to the shoot, our client began to question the amputee athlete we’d centered the narrative around. They acknowledged this was more exception than rule where their patient population was concerned and felt more comfortable casting a weekend warrior who’d recently received physical therapy for hip pain. They then decided against using professional talent for other key scenes, opting for real patients instead.

Soon after, Hurricane Matthew buzz-sawed the Carolina coasts and chewed through the largest autumn watermelon farm on the eastern seaboard — nixing one of our most anticipated setups.

And on day one of production, a shrimp boat we were to film ran afoul of the tides and was prevented from entering the harbor.

I phoned my wife late one evening, midway through the shoot. She picked up on the third ring.

“Charlie’s a lefty,” she offered in place of ‘hello.’

“Huh?,” I said.

“I think he’s left-handed. Every time I give him a Cheerio he switches it to his left hand before lifting it to his mouth.”

“Hmm.”

“Yeah. Crazy, right? So how’s it going down there?”

“Eh. Okay I guess.”

“Real convincing,” she offered sarcastically.

“I dunno. It’s not exactly what I imagined.”

“That’s normal though, right? Organic approach and all that?”

“Yeah. But the scripting was pretty intentional on this one. I knew how the dots connected on paper. I could explain it. What we’re shooting — I just don’t know.

“Could be a good thing.”

“We’ll see."

 

---

 

We started to see in the edit suite a few weeks later. Yes, some of the beats had morphed. And several of the scenarios had to be adjusted to accommodate a cast with no acting experience. But all in all, the spot began to hang together.

It’s been running for a couple weeks now. The audience response has been overwhelming. And I’d be lying if I claimed the concept’s evolution wasn’t a big reason why.

The truth is, allowing the vision to evolve and finding ways to make the changes work produced a more telling reflection of the community. The audience responded because we had offered it a mirror, not a projector.

In a song for his young son Sean, John Lennon famously wrote that “life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” The experience on this spot leads me to think the same can be said for brands. Brands arise organically. Advertising doesn’t create them, it simply amplifies them in the direction of an audience. Marketing is a means, not an end.

As creatives, we can (and should) research and strategize and concept and script and explain until we’re convinced we’re offering clients the most insightful, dynamic work possible. But it's all for naught if we don’t recognize when to get out of the way and let the essence of a hospital, or a community, or a 6-month-old shine through.

 

---

 

Two months later, Charlie’s still fielding his Cheerios on the left. And while Maria and I tried to find precedent for this on both sides of our families, we could not. He is the only southpaw for at least three generations. Which makes it damn near my favorite thing about him. On Saturday mornings, I like to grab a cup of coffee and pull his highchair into the living room where I can watch him eat. And wave. And conduct imaginary orchestras like only a baby can.

I know the more time passes, the more ways he’ll find to defy our explanations. “Who will he be?” I wonder. At six? Or 16? Or 22? What other wonderful things will he show us that we can’t account for or lay claim to?

We’ll see.

As Lennon said, “I can hardly wait.”

 

- # -

 


 

 Special thanks to Greyhawk Films, our production partner on this spot.

posted by Michael Powelson Oct 26,2016 @ 08:18AM

A political ad you can learn from (believe it or not)

Everyone hates election season. But I’m not sure anyone hates it more than advertising creatives. In addition to the usual indignities that put most all of us off our respective lunches, political campaigns subject the ad professional to a host of more specific crimes. They inflate the price of media. They stoke public cynicism to a point that it can carry over onto even the most ideologically neutral brands. And then there’s the simple fact that political ads are, as a rule, terrible.

Grating, unimaginative, and insulting to nearly everyone’s intelligence, most campaign commercials defy all principles of creativity. They shout. They pander. They lie. They take shortcuts no self-respecting brand would dream of because, unlike brands, they have only short-term objectives and media war chests large enough to bludgeon audiences rather than doing the conceptual work of winning them over honestly. And we all get dumber in the process.

That’s why my vote for Biggest October Surprise goes to the fact that a senate candidate in Missouri has made one of the best spots, political or otherwise, I’ve seen all year.

Take thirty seconds:

 

 

Yes, this may be the last post I’m permitted to write in this space. Not only did I just encourage you to view a political ad, I just encouraged you to view a political ad about guns.

Easy now. Rest assured, I have no interest in your opinions on gun control. Nor does this piece have any intention of advocating for either side of that complex issue. As proof, I need only confess my own convoluted stance — one that I’m sure both camps would find equally contemptible. On the one hand, I own a handful of rifles and shotguns for sporting use and a handgun for home defense. On the other, I’d sooner join the Church of Scientology than the NRA and see no reason why a civilian such as myself should be able to possess the type of militaristic weapon that Kander poses with in his ad.

None of that is particularly relevant. But hopefully it ushered the ideological elephants out of the room so that we can get to the real point. What Kander’s ad can teach us has nothing to do with its content and everything to do with its execution.

Kander felt that an opponent had mischaracterized his relationship to firearms simply because he supports background checks. But rather than counter with the usual hallmarks of the category (blood-and-thunder voiceover, overwrought imagery), Kander fights back in a calm, confident voice. He speaks straight to the camera, albeit with one unique twist: He faces the lens through a blindfold while expertly assembling the AR-15 he carried as a lieutenant in Afghanistan.

The performance is at once understated and unforgettable. His words are simple, finely sharpened nails. His action, a hammer that echoes long after the thirty second mark.

The takeaway for marketers illustrates what good creative directors have preached for decades. Kander didn’t tell viewers who he was and where he stood. He showed them.

Ad Yoda Luke Sullivan likens this distinction to the advice of Miss Manners who famously noted, "It is far more impressive when others discover your good qualities without your help."

Where Kander’s good qualities begin and end is not for me to say. I don’t know anything about Missouri politics. I don’t know if he should be in the Senate. I don’t know if he’s a good guy or just a good actor. But I do know I’ll be thinking about the standard his commercial set for every project our creative department works on in the near future.

Next time a communication opportunity arises for your business, (be it on TV, the web or social media feed), remember Kander. Push yourself and your team beyond the single dimension of telling and into the impactful territory of showing.

After all, customers vote with their dollars. And no business can afford to leave them undecided.

 

#

posted by Michael Powelson Jun 13,2016 @ 09:24AM

Boxed in? The stakes of commercial activism in local business

As I type this, the internet radio says they’re burying Muhammad Ali.

For twenty years, some of the fiercest men on earth failed to put Ali on the ground, and now a handful of heartsick ones will put him in it. Time is, indeed, the conqueror.

It’s been decades since time and illness scored their first victory over the former heavyweight. Parkinson’s disease, doing what opponents, critics and even the United States government could not, silenced him in the mid nineties. And this is perhaps the larger shame. After all, so much has been made of the fighter’s verbal brilliance, his unique ability to speak truth to power and an unflinching will when his principles demanded great risk.

Call it another crown in time’s trophy case: the ironic twist that all the things which made Ali a pariah in the mid sixties — the unapologetic autonomy, social activism and conscientious objection — are precisely the reasons he’s now one of the most inspirational sports figures in history.

But it’s not the sporting, or even the cultural context of these triumphs that interests me here. It’s the professional one. You see, in 1966, Muhammad Ali wasn’t just a prizefighter or folk hero. He was also a business. Big business.

 

138E-36_.jpg.CROP.original-original.jpg

 

Behind the championship belts and mesmerizing interviews, there was an enterprise. It employed people. It supported families. It provided a living that soared beyond the wildest expectations of a black man from the Jim Crow south who barely graduated high school.

And yet Ali proved willing to lose it all for his convictions.

In response to the Justice Department denying his conscientious objector status and sentencing him to five years in prison, Ali said, “I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars…So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”

I can not think of a contemporary parallel.

Yes, we live in an age of greater corporate social responsibility. Today, firms all around the world, including my own, believe it’s imperative to do good in addition to doing well. And this is clearly a positive evolution in what it means to be a decent business. But risking everything it is not.

Yes, Target, Starbucks, General Mills and many other national brands have enacted internal policies or consumer facing communications to promote a more charitable, tolerant and just society. Some have even faced resistance from the fringes of their customer bases. Still, I’m doubtful that any such actions were taken before cost/benefit analyses and public opinion polling showed the reward outweighed the risk.

Please don’t mistake this for criticism. I don’t believe good works are any less good when they also happen to be good business. I’m simply curious about the times they’re not. What do smaller organizations in markets like ours do when they feel compelled to right a perceived wrong, but lack the scale to weather a backlash?

Recent history has offered no shortage of cultural flashpoints. Flags. Bathrooms. Background checks and marriage licenses.

What business are these of our businesses? And, regardless of your stance on any of them, where is the actionable tipping point for you? When does something become important enough to risk everything?

I like to think I have an answer, but I’d be lying if I told you I was one hundred percent certain.

What I am certain of, however, is the hope that you and I and every other businessperson never have to find out. That we’ve learned to respect one another and work together to find equitable solutions to the differences we face. I hope no one reading this is ever forced to risk everything for the ability to live with themselves afterward.

But I also hope that those who were, and did — “The Greatest” among us you might say — are forever championed.

Time the conqueror be damned.

#

This piece first appeared in the June 13th edition of the Columbia Regional Business Review

posted by Michael Powelson Nov 24,2015 @ 08:00AM

Smart brands embrace a human rhythm

They are the very first sounds you hear on the record. And if the story surrounding them is true, the man responsible may still cringe every time he listens.

afbook6_2.png

In 1982, Kenny Aronoff was a classically trained percussionist who’d declined posts with prestigious symphonies to back up a stalled rock-and-roller with a phony last name. In the studio to record the singer’s third, and possibly last, album, Aronoff was struggling with perfection in a very rare way:  He’d attained it, and it was ruining everything.

Years of regimented instruction had turned Aronoff into a metronome, his sense of timing so impeccably precise that it now sounded artificial to his boss. This is when John “Cougar” embraced his inner Mellencamp and gave a seemingly ridiculous order.

“Put the hi-hat on the left,” he told his drummer. This completely reoriented the percussionist’s tools in a way that intentionally put him at a disadvantage. Aronoff, who’d been right handed his entire life, was being told to play lefty.

Listen to the first six measures of “Hurt So Good” and the result is a visceral one.  How else should a salute to youthful indiscretion begin? The song is recklessly alive before a single melodic note is struck, and it’s because Aronoff has been pushed to the edge of his abilities. He’s simply trying to hang on, and the resulting tension sparks a current of wild abandon that surges all the way through American Fool. The album will go on to sell more than five million copies and change the lives of all involved. It isn’t perfect. It’s indelible.

As someone who makes his living leading a creative team in developing memorable, unexpected brand communications, I find some valuable lessons here about the benefits of stretching beyond your comfort zone. But for other business leaders, I think the takeaway of authenticity might be the larger pearl.

That’s because the most common mistake I see business communicators make doesn’t stem from a fear of pushing themselves or trying new things. It comes as a result of their attempt to be perfect.

Moreover, the marketing industry isn’t doing a lot to help them. Turn your attention to the nearest commercial break, corporate website or glossy print ad and odds are you’ll run smack into messaging that strikes utopian chords few of us living in the real world can identify with. Still, the biggest problem with feigning perfection isn’t disbelief. It’s boredom. As anyone who’s spent time in a coloring book or romantic relationship knows, perfection is hopelessly dull.

Why? Because human beings are drawn to things they relate to. And no matter how aspirational we claim to be, flawlessness isn’t one of those things. It’s no surprise that the most successful businesses are those that have stopped trying to be everything to everyone. Or that the brands making some of the biggest strides are the ones who have dropped the Stepford act, resisted Madison Avenue’s default conceit and allowed themselves to be exactly what they are: well-meaning, imperfect, contradictory, temperamental human experiments. In other words, mirror images of the customers they hope to attract.

So, be it on a website or in an elevator, the next time you communicate on behalf of your business, consider putting the hi-hat on the left. Lose yourself a bit. Speak from the gut. Be passionate. Be vulnerable. And trust that if you show your audience something real—that less-than-perfect, honest-to-god essence of your brand—they’re a thousand times more likely to see themselves reflected in it.

Remember, people want a heartbeat, not a metronome.

-#-

 

posted by Michael Powelson Sep 02,2015 @ 12:23PM

Circa 1995

Three to five years.  That's the current lifespan of the average client/agency relationship. I'm not here to bless, bemoan or belabor this. It is, as we so poignantly say now, what it is.

But it's also a telling lens through which to note a remarkable milestone for one of our most remarkable clients.

Last Friday, First Community Bank celebrated its 20th anniversary. What began in 1995 with two banking offices, has grown into a publicly traded, multi-state entity that tallied more than 800 million dollars in assets last year.

20th_anniversary_poster

Such growth has been achieved, in large part, by remaining steadfast to core principles. Sound fiscal planning. A commitment to relationships. And most importantly, a focus on, and loyalty to local businesses.

Including this one.

You see, last month also marked our 20th year as First Community's marketing partner. In all that time, they've done more than change the way we think about banking. They've shaped the way we think about business. First Community's insight and inspiration bleeds into just about every other account we work on. For their achievement, we could not be more grateful, nor they more deserving.

To Mike, Robin and the hundreds of other diligent and talented individuals that have made this anniversary possible, we offer the most heartfelt of congratulations.

Here's to you and all the homes, communities and businesses you've made better.

Including this one.

--#--

First Community's first ad, circa 1995:
First Community's first ad, circa 1995
Twenty years later:
 

 

billion+_ebook

Flickr

By the numbers

youtube is 2nd largest search engine