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The most important truth in advertising I learned from Prof. Mark Fenske.

This is Fenske.

This is Fenske.

These days, Mark Fenske, is a bad-ass professor of advertising at the Brand Center at VCU in Richmond. But back when I was in the ad biz, Mark was a copywriter at Wieden + Kennedy and he was bad-ass then, too.

(Digression #1: And when he wasn’t being a bad-ass copywriter, he was being a bad-ass music video director. His piece for Van Halen’s “Right Now” won the “Video of the Year” at the MTV Music Video Awards; I mention it here to show how fresh and original the dude is. Back in 1992 when Mark wrote and directed the piece, all hard rock music videos were exactly like comedian Patton Oswalt described them: “They had all these guys with long hair, in vests and no shirts, and they’re sweaty and rockin’ out in these factories that apparently manufacture sparks – that’s all they made there: sparks.”)

Anyway, Mark and I have met only a couple of times. And both times he lent me his coat.

(Digression #2: The first time he lent me his coat was when we were judging an ad competition in Aspen and I hadn’t brought one. The other was when we were hanging out in Atlanta and I was about to get on a plane to go to Helsinki – in the winter.)

Okay, that was the last digression. What I came to say today is this. The best thing Mark ever gave me wasn’t a coat, but a quote:

“What is the truest thing you can say about your product or brand?”

Unlike the two coats I returned, I am never giving this back. To this day, it’s the first and most important thing I teach my own students.

See, here’s the thing. Most students, when they sit down to come up with ideas, base them on some sort of advertising claim. And so, unsurprisingly, they end up with ads. But when you start with truth, you end with something meaningful. I’ve baked Mark’s lesson into all my lessons and have also included it in the fifth edition of Hey Whipple, Squeeze This: The Classic Guide to Creating Great Advertising.

What follows is an excerpt from the 5th edition, available for pre-order on amazon.

Hey Whipple• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
Uncover the central human truth about your product.

Veteran copywriter Mark Fenske says your first order of business working on a project is to write down the truest thing you can say about your product or brand. You need to find the central truth about your brand and about the whole category – the central human truth.

It’s unlikely the truest thing will be mentioned on the client brief. But you can hear it being talked about on blogs or read it in the customer reviews on Amazon. Sometimes the truest thing is what the client wants to say; more often, it’s not. Products are the clients’ children and it’s no surprise they want to talk about its 4.0 GPA and how it’s captain of the football team.

Bringing truth into the picture, however, is the single best thing an ad agency can do for a brand. The agency can bring an objective assessment of a brand’s strengths and weaknesses and if it’s a good agency, they’ll discover a brand’s most relevant truth and then bring alive for people.

This is not a science and we all see different truths in a brand, but more often than not, we’ll agree when someone hits on a real truth. Here are four brands and my personal perspective on the truest things about each one.

  • Krystal burgers: I’m not sure it’s food, but I want 24 of them.
    Crocs: The client will say “comfortable.” Correct answer is “ugly.”
    eHarmony: “If anyone finds out we met online, we will both just DIE .”
    Canadian Club: Isn’t that the old school rotgut that dads drink in the basement while watching hockey?

Here’s the weird part. Clients will spend massive amounts of time and money to uncover these brand truths and then – frightened by the results – proceed to cover them all back up with B.S. (“Let’s put some lipstick on this pig.”) But marketing sleights-of-hand are kinda like the garage mechanic coming out to tell you, “Well, I couldn’t fix the brakes so I made your horn louder.”

Clients will often deny these truths and cling tenaciously to what they want you to believe about their brand. The problem is they don’t own the brand and they don’t own the truth: customers do. So it isn’t surprising what happened, for example, when Las Vegas tried to rebrand itself as a “family-friendly” destination in the mid ‘90s – huge fail. Fortunately, R&R Partners came along and helped the client tell the truth: the city is One Big Bad-Ass Party. And “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” came to life.

There are ads to be written all around the edges of any product. But we’ll be talking about getting to the ideas written right from the essence of the thing. In Hoopla, Alex Bogusky was quoted, “We try to find that long-neglected truth in a product and give it a hug.” Notice he said they find this truth, they do not invent it. Because nobody can’t invent truth. The best ideas are truth brought to light in fresh, new ways.

Remember, we’re talking about truth here, not what a client or a creative director wants you to say. Amir Kassaei, CCO of DDB Worldwide, put it this way:

Our [industry’s] only reason for existence is to find or create a relevant truth – and, to be honest, not only to the people we’re talking to and want to sell something to, but to ourselves. Great ideas that change behavior happen only when they’re based on a relevant truth. That’s when they make an impact on societies and cultures and add value to people’s lives. But as people get more connected and live a more advanced lifestyle, they’ll be more critical of bullshit. People know more than ever, faster than ever. And that is a great thing because it will force us to be more critical of bullshit. As an industry, we have to stop falling into the trap of phoney ideas, of superficial gloss that looks great in an awards jury room but does not matter in the real world.

So there you go: that is one of the smartest things I ever learned about advertising. Interestingly, getting to the truest thing is essential in any kind of creative enterprise, whether you’re making a painting, an ad, or a music video. But I digress.

Thanks, Fenske. I owe you one. Three, if you count the coats.

8 advertising predictions for 2016, only one of which will likely happen.


  1. Content-Schmontent. Yes, the smart brands will continue to produce content that is helpful, beautiful, engaging, and useful. But content can be clutter just like ads and just posting cool content on the site-of-the-month probably isn’t going to be enough to break through. Brands probably ought to reallocate some of their massive digital budgets to plain ol’ advertising — to drive viewers to all that cool new content.
  2. Just because the media world has gone kaleidoscopically-fractal, brands do not have to follow suit. For some brands, it may pay to set up camp at one or two of the emerging media and just call it home for awhile.
  3. More and more magazines will start focusing on long-copy, deeply researched articles. Personally, I can’t lean into a laptop and read anything for more than a minute. Lean-back platforms like tablets and smartphones help a little bit, but then the screen size or the re-flowing can fragment my understanding of articles of length or substance. I find myself having to scroll back and forth. I guess I subscribe to the idea of subscriptions, you know — good ol’ magazines the mail. I’m digging the new Newsweek with their two longish articles per issue. I also love FastCompany and Harper’s. The paper versions.
  4. Influencer marketing is gonna get crazy bigger. I just read on that 25% of all branded search results is user-generated. Not brand-created, but from bloggers and YouTube stars. My friend the super-smart Emily Sanders, CD at 360i, just gave a cool presentation showing how businesses are getting back something like $6 for every $1 spent on influencer marketing. As the venerable David Ogilvy once said, “Dat be cray.”
  5. I haven’t got the iPhone 6 yet. (I’m holding out for iPhone 28.) I am however looking forward to using Apple Pay and my guess is that ’16 will be the year mobile payments go nuclear. I remember in the ‘90s it took years for people to trust putting their credit cards on file with the Amazons of the world. The shift to mobile wallets may not take as long.
  6. Speaking of Apple, I worry about my Apple. They aren’t nearly as hot as they once were, but perhaps it’s too much to expect year-after-year breakthroughs from any company; even Apple; or Pixar (remember Cars 2?). I’m hoping they add something massive and cool to the Apple watch to make it the breakthrough product it could’ve been.
  7. Have I mentioned how crazy I am about my Nest thermostat? Obviously, other connected objects are coming, but more interesting will be seeing who figures out the “iTunes of connected objects.” Otherwise, by the time I get my iPhone 28 I’ll have to scroll through pages and pages of apps: one for the coffee maker, one for the fridge, the TV, the security system.
  8. My final prediction for 2016 is that sometime in January – maybe around the 16th or so but I’m just guessing, okay, don’t hold me to it, what am I, Kreskin? – but sometime in January of 2016, the fifth edition of Hey Whipple, Squeeze This will be released. I predict it will feature tons of new material as well as a smart new contributing author, Edward Boches (late of Mullen, now a student-favorite prof at BU).

Like I said, probably none of this stuff will happen. Except #8.

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