All posts by Axel

I’m getting too old for this shit

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When Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel turned down a $4 billion offer from Google in 2013, I remember thinking he was mad as a box of frogs. As I’m writing these words some three years later, Snapchat is valued at around $20 billion and I wouldn’t be surprised if by the time you’re reading this, it has doubled in value again. I have tried to understand what the Snapchat fuss is all about. How it works, why it’s so popular and how you get that rainbow tongue thing to appear in your videos. I failed on all accounts. What I did learn is that I’m losing touch with the Millennial generation. There’s no more denying it. How someone named Pewdiepie can make 7 million dollars a year by yelling at a computer screen is beyond me. Nor do I understand what the attraction is in watching a total stranger bake pancakes live on Periscope. And now driving the dagger home, is Pokemon Go.

Pokemon Go – and I had to look this up – is an augmented reality game in which you have to use your phone to find Japanese cartoon creatures hiding in the real world. Since its launch last week, it has been installed on Android phones 7,5 million times in the US alone. That’s more than Tinder has managed to amass in five years and it’s well on its way to overtake Twitter. Apart from sending the world into a gaming frenzy, it has catapulted Nintendo’s stock through the roof, boosting its market value by a whopping $8 billion and raking in $ 1.65 million of revenue a day. Incidentally, it has also led to the discovery of dead bodies and been used to lure people into ambushes.

I believe it was David Ogilvy who warned advertising professionals that the only thing we have in common with our target audience is that we are both carbon-based organisms. When I look at the explosive rise of Pokemon Go I couldn’t agree with him more. Advertising is a young man’s game and there are few things sadder than middle-aged marketeers trying to prove they’ve still got street cred with the youngsters. So to all grown men and women running around town with their phones looking for Pikachu – don’t. Sometimes it’s perfectly fine to admit you’re getting too old for this shit.

* Written for Amsterdam Adblog

It’s a trap

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I need a vacation. My last one was in May, last year. I only know this because I stumbled upon pictures on my phone with me in them on a Balearic beach, dated May 2015. But other than that, I have no recollection of it at all, much like I don’t remember the last time Coldplay wrote a decent song. It’s just way too long ago to possibly remember. Instead of taking time off, I’ve spent the whole year working. Now if you’re reading this and have a permanent job with 25 vacation days per year, this is probably the part where you want to slap me in the face and tell me to stop whining. But for every full-timer clicking me away right now, I’m pretty sure there are just as many freelancers understandingly nodding their busy overflowing heads.

Let me go on record here and say this isn’t a complaint. Not only am I grateful for work coming my way, I’m also wilfully bringing this all onto myself. What it is then, is the trap every freelancer steps into with eyes wide open. When I started out, I remember thinking I could make a very decent living working two to three days a week and have the rest of the week to myself. But then as business begins to pick up, a tiny Gordon Gekko appears on your shoulder and plants a diabolical seed of greed in your brain: what if you would work four days a week? Or five? Or seven plus nights? How decent a living could you make then?

As a freelancer, the first six months of the year is sort of where it’s at. If you’ve consistently hit your targets come July and don’t buy a new car every time it runs out of fuel, you should be able to ride out the remainder of the year relatively stress free. But then you buy a house, your car breaks in half or Apple releases a new laptop that you simply cannot do without. And so you take on more work and in the end you find yourself doing the exact opposite of why you started freelancing in the first place: you work all the time. And ironically enough you genuinely believe you’re buying yourself peace of mind by working like a madman, but by doing so you have everything but.

But back to my original point: I need a vacation. Anybody have any good tips for Santorini in May?

*Written for Amsterdam Adblog.

Live to die another day

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They say moving house is the second most stressful experience in life, right after the death of a loved one. Being in the middle of a move right now I can relate. I haven’t seen the official Most Stressful Life Experiences list, but if you ask me ‘work’ cannot possibly be on there anywhere near ‘moving’. And yet when you look around your office right now, I guarantee you can see at least one empty desk where a colleague used to sit, who’s been home for months mumbling haiku poems and knitting sweaters just to make it through the day.

Now if we were air traffic controllers or dentists – the two professions with the highest stress – and therefore suicide rate (the air traffic controller I get, the dentist not so much) – we might have a reason to lose a few hours of sleep over our jobs. But we’re in advertising, a profession that should not be on the distressing end of the professional scale like being the frontman of a bomb squad should. In fact, there was a time when people wouldn’t even call what we do work at all. Had I written this post in the eighties, I’d be writing it from the agency’s beach house on Barbados, being massaged by the bikini models I cast for a shoot because that dishwashing liquid commercial couldn’t possibly do without scantily clad girls frolicking in the shore break of a palm lined beach. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t be writing about this subject at all, because my biggest worry would be which five-star resort to stay at during my next shoot on Mauritius. Sadly though, I’ve missed out on the golden age of advertising. Today, all work and no play seems to be the industry’s motto and people burn up like meteorites in the night sky left and right. When you find yourself writing emails at 0400 in the morning just to be able to go back to sleep, you know you have to start being a little careful. Believe me, I’ve been there. But now I’ve found the solution. Just flick the switch and stop worrying.

I know this sounds way too easy to actually work, but it does – at least for me. Accept that you won’t be able to finish everything today and realise the world will not come to a grinding halt if you don’t. I’m by no means selling the concept here that everything is relative and that when compared to helping refugees in Greece, what we do doesn’t matter (which it doesn’t), but I do think it’s crucial to place things in perspective. For most of us, a mistake on the job won’t result in a 747 carrying 350 passengers colliding with a cargo plane in mid air. If you are in fact an air traffic controller, this column doesn’t apply to you and I wonder how you sleep at night at all. But for the rest of us – relax, it’s just work. This doesn’t mean you should be indifferent about your job though. Care about it, be your best at it, just don’t be consumed by it. Work to live, not the other way around. Life is simply too great to spend it worrying and not enjoying all the goods it has to offer.

And if you ever find yourself on the verge of hurling your phone against the office wall every time it rings, just remember whatever it is you think you’re stressed about cannot possibly be more upsetting than trying to explain that a permit is not a Muppet frog to builders who seem to speak every language in the world but yours.

* Written for Amsterdam Ad Blog

Smoke and mirrors

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I have no idea what to write about. Which, for someone making their living as a copywriter, probably isn’t a good thing. Back in the day when I was still an account director, I remember rolling my eyes at creatives who whined about how you can’t summon creativity at will. How creatives aren’t slot machines you can just feed a coin to and expect Cannes gold to come out the other end. Oh, how I rolled my eyes indeed. And look at me now. I’m faced with less than an hour to come up with something worth reading and I’ve got nothing.

But isn’t that part of the job, if not its very essence? To captivate an audience, even when you really don’t have a lot to say? And I’m not just talking about the end product of our industry here, but about the process as well. Take the kitchen review for example. Arguably a legitimate touch point with the client to assess whether you’re headed in the right direction, but more often than not a cunning diversion from the fact that after two weeks of concepting, all you’ve got is some doodles and an award-winning idea for a TV commercial when all the client has asked for, is a wobbler.

We are paid to make people believe they want things they didn’t even know existed five minutes before. It’s just a matter of getting their attention and then dazzling them with big words and flashy keynotes until they start buying what we’re selling. What’s that you say? A plastic watch that looks like it was designed by Woody from Toy Story, that does exactly what my iPhone can do and it’s only € 349? Please, tell me more.

The good thing is that people are suckers for marketing. I once bought a Nike Fuelband, simply because the store clerk told me they were the only shop in the world selling them. He couldn’t have made a more compelling argument had he told me it came with a complementary Batmobile. Nevermind the Fuelband is as useless as a DVD rewinder, because sometimes all it takes is a little distraction from the fact that what’s on offer, isn’t offering very much to begin with. And if you don’t agree, then consider the fact that at the beginning of this column I told you I was going to write about nothing at all, and yet you’ve read it through all the way to the end.

* Written for Amsterdam Ad Blog

 

The Top Gun Deliverance

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If like me you grew up in the eighties, chances are you either wanted to be a fighter pilot when you grew up or a prostitute falling in love with Richard Gere. I wanted to be the former. I figured there couldn’t possibly be a better job than tearing up the skies in an F-14, Goose in the back, buzzing the tower on the way back home. Then by the time I finally outgrew my Top Gun phase at the age of 18, I decided I wanted to be a banker on Wall Street. I could totally see myself cruising through New York in my 911, suited up and on my way to closing another multi-million dollar deal. Never mind I had never been to New York. Or to a single class of economics for that matter. The latter became painfully obvious when I enrolled in Economics at the University of Amsterdam, where the only numbers that resonated with me were the shockingly low grades I got for the most basic of financial courses. So after a year of pulling sheets of bank notes over my eyes, I gave up my dream of Wall Street fortune and switched to studying Communications – which at the time was generally acknowledged to be the laughing stock of the academic world. Then one day as I was breezing from class to class, I stumbled upon a post-it on the university notice board of a small ad agency looking for an intern. And just like that, I became an ad man.

The reason I’m bringing up my rocky career road, is to spread a message of hope. Hope for those who might find themselves stuck in a job they hate, because they don’t know their options or that they even have any. Unless you were born the reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara, there is no such thing as a predetermined career path – especially not in a fickle industry like ours. Even though I’d like to believe I’m the master of my own destiny, I fear a big part of it is, quite simply, completely random. The choices you make early on in your career do not determine where you will retire. Having your bike stolen and ending up sitting on the tram next to the recruiter of a big agency does. Which can happen tomorrow, next week Tuesday or in ten years from now. Baz Luhrmann said you shouldn’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. That the most interesting people he knows didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. That some of the most interesting 40-year -olds he knows still don’t. And he’s right.

Will I still be a copywriter in ten years time? I have no idea. It all depends on the opportunities that knock and the inspiration I’ll find in the people I meet, books I read and movies I see. Did someone say they’re making a Top Gun sequel? It’s never too late to change.

* Written for Amsterdam Ad Blog

Am I evil?

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Last week, I received a phone call from my downstairs neighbour. It seemed an indoor version of Niagara Falls was coming down her kitchen wall. As it turned out, the waterfall originated somewhere in my bathroom floor. And so I did what any man with the DIY skills of an earthworm would do and called a plumber. He had a quick look, mumbled something unintelligible and then without having so much as glanced at a wrench, handed me an invoice for an amount for which I could have had someone assassinated. Just as I was about to force-feed him the invoice, I realised something important. That this man provides a very necessary solution for a very pressing problem – albeit at a price bordering on extortion. Which made me think about what it is us advertising folks do. Or more specifically, what it is we add to the world.

You see, a plumber adds value. His work prevented me from crashing through my bathroom floor and onto my neighbour’s kitchen table the next time I would flush the toilet. That’s value. Whereas we make things people wrap fish in, consider the perfect opportunity to go to the loo or install apps for to block what we’ve spent weeks to create. The difference becomes painfully clear when talking to real good-doers. I once tried to chat up a pretty girl in a bar who then told me she had just returned from volunteer work building schools in South Sudan. Panic instantly grabbed me by the throat, because it was only a matter of time before she would ask me what I did for a living. At which point I would have to tell her that I was in fact a mercenary of Beelzebub, happily advertising booze, cigarettes or assault rifles if the pay is high enough. When moments later she did pop that dreaded question, the fact that I was slightly drunk and therefore answered with a minor slur made my performance as a walking talking advertising cliché complete. Shortly thereafter, the pretty girl went to the bathroom and never came back.

Does being in advertising make you a bad person? Of course not. Although sometimes I wish we would make a little bit less of this and a bit more of this. But it’s up to us – the advertising community – to give brand communication and the brands for which we work value. Whether that’s value through entertainment, utility or by doing what advertising was invented to do in the first place: telling people about some great new product they’ve never heard about. Nothing wrong with that. Do I like my job? Very much. Am I ashamed of what I do? Only when talking to those damn Good Samaritans.

* Written for Amsterdam Ad Blog

Euro sign of the times

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I bought a Bitcoin. In fact, I bought two. For those of you having lived on the moon for the last couple of months: Bitcoin is a digital currency that isn’t regulated by any government, pretty much untraceable and therefore used primarily by bad people for buying guns, drugs and other shady merchandise. Have I descended into a crooked life of corruption, without morals or principles? Yes, but that was when I landed my first advertising job back in 2000. But it’s not the reason why I have bought Bitcoins last month. They also happen to be a very lucrative commodity. Over the course of 2013, its value has exploded from € 9 in January to € 900 in November. That’s a 9,900 % value increase. Even if – like me – you know as much about financial markets as you do about the mating rituals of stick insects, you must understand that’s a big rise. And so lot of people made some serious money off of Bitcoin last year. Sadly I’m not one of them, but I’d like to believe I could still catch the second wave.

I got in right after the market crashed, only for it to bounce back with a vengeance ten minutes later. In two hours time, I had made a 40% profit. And just like that, I was hooked. As I’m not in the Bitcoin game for short-term gains, I haven’t sold any of my digital dough just yet. Not when it skyrocketed right after I bought it. Nor when it free fell when the world’s largest Bitcoin exchange managed to lose € 350 million worth of coins as if they were a set of car keys. Luckily, my two precious coins weren’t among them, so I am still patiently awaiting the next boom.

Though none of this has got anything to do with advertising, the Bitcoin phenomenon is a fascinating sign of our times. In an age where our lives have gone all but completely digital, money is one of the last remaining strongholds of the analogue world. But as much as we like to blame banks for the deepest crisis of our time, very few people are closing out their accounts and stashing their life savings in an obscure currency that might not exist anymore by next Tuesday. Not yet, that is. But if Bitcoin got enough traction and became slightly more stable than the canister of nitro-glycerine in a washing machine it is today, it just might give the banks – wait for it – a run for their money.

I wish could tell you I got on board as a protest against the system. That I believe greed is destroying our society and therefore I refuse to be part of it any longer. But the simple truth is I’m trying to make some easy money. So far I haven’t though. In fact as I’m writing this, the market is imploding again and I’m beginning to think my Bitcoins are about as valuable as a parachute in space. But you know what they say: what comes down, must go up. I hope.

* Written for Amsterdam Adblog

What would Walter White do?

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For anyone looking to try life as a freelancer, there are certain basic principles to adhere to. Ground rules that can turn you into a raving success if you stick to them or a hopeless failure if you choose to ignore them. As I only started freelancing about two and a half hours ago, I won’t pretend to have all the answers to help you get started. That’s why I’ll resort to a much more inspirational businessman that has made it big in his particular field. Of all the entrepreneurial role models, who better to look up to than Breaking Bad’s Walter White?

Granted, Mr. White has made some questionable business decisions along the way (choosing meth as his core product to name just one), but at the end of the day he has managed to build a multi-million dollar empire based on the fact that he consistently delivered a product better than anyone else’s. From the very first batch cooked in the scruffy RV in the desert, to the high-tech lab hidden below the laundry complex, he refused to settle for anything less than his very best. Translated to the (slightly) less dubious world of advertising, this means you should never submit any work for review that isn’t close to being 100%. If it’s not the best you can do, go back to the lab and cook up something better. Quality is the first thing clients look for. Everything else is secondary.

Once you’ve got your product sorted, the next step is to let people know who they’re dealing with. Something Walter White – or more specifically Heisenberg – has always been particularly clear about. Though I’m not proposing you strangle a rival freelancer in your basement or blow up your main contractor using a disabled suicide bomber, the lesson here is this: apart from quality, clients also pay for clarity. When people tell it like it is, there are no surprises even though the truth may not always be what clients want to hear. The New Mexico meth scene knew not to cross Heisenberg, because they understood they’d end up dead. Heisenberg wasn’t liked any better because of it, but he was respected all the more and business boomed as a result. In the (marginally) less cutthroat advertising world, being respected doesn’t have to go hand in hand with being disliked. If you manage to be both valued professionally and liked personally, you’ve got freelancing gold on your hands.

So assuming you’re good at what you do, clients can rely on you and you’re a hoot to work with, then like Walt you may want to look into hiring a storage box to stash your cash. But beware: the single biggest pitfall for nouveau successful freelancers is going on a spending spree. If you’re anything like me, then you can perfectly relate to Walter buying his son a brand new Dodge Challenger – just because he could. But unless you’ve been in the freelance game long enough to know the work will keep coming in, saving up is the way to go. After all, it’s the very reason why Walter got into the meth business in the first place.

But the real question is of course not what Walter White would do, but what he will do – in next week’s finale with that M-60 in the back of his car. Like any resourceful entrepreneur faced with adversity, I know he’ll find a way out.

* Written for Amsterdamadblog

No Cannes do

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Everybody back from Cannes? All tanned, hung-over and suitcases stuffed with Lions? Good for you. And yes, I mean that as sarcastically as it sounds. Because like every year, I planned to go but then put it off for so long the only flights left were either € 500 or departing from Eindhoven. Sometimes both. So like every year, I ended up staying in Amsterdam while the entire who’s who of advertising laureled the year’s greatest work and themselves under the Mediterranean sun.

Luckily, the sulking home front gets to be updated in fivefold via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine and LinkedIn on all the fun they’re missing out on. Preferably using clever punny captions like Yes we Cannes, Cannes not wait or Cannes’t believe this party! Amidst this barrage of overexposed pool & underexposed party pics, I also spotted the occasional brilliant campaign.

Of course I wanted to be in those pictures too, sipping on gin ‘n juice in an infinity pool or spinning records with Diddy. But the fact of the matter is, I was also on a job last week. As a freelancer, the trade off is very simple: do I go to the Riviera for two days and obliterate a small fortune and my liver, or do I take on a project and actually make some money? Last year I had already even booked my flight and decided not to go after all because of said dilemma.

This year, I was once again torn between showing my face at the many sun-drenched parties and churning out some work in the faint glow of my laptop screen. They say you’re only as good as your latest work, but the abundant networking galore in Cannes got me thinking: is your perceived worth based on the people you know or the projects you do? As a freelancer, is it better to go to Cannes and mingle or can Cannes and work? And with this dilemma that makes me sound like the Carrie Bradshaw of advertising, I’ll let you get back to work. Hope to see you next year!

* Written for Amsterdamadblog.com

K is for copywriter

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I wasn’t going to write about the Koningslied, I really wasn’t. But apart from making me want to stab myself in the ear with a rusty screwdriver, it also made me think about something in our industry that’s been bothering me more and more lately. Before I go on, let me give the international readers a bit of context: the Koningslied – or King’s Song – is the official song composed for the upcoming investiture of King Willem Alexander. It was released last week and to say it was badly received would be like saying Muammar Gaddafi wasn’t very popular anymore at the end of his rule.

This isn’t the podium to comment on the song’s musical qualities or excruciating lack thereof, but I will seize this opportunity to make a case for something close to my heart. Something that’s being increasingly neglected in our business, and that is linguistic proficiency. The King’s Song is riddled with grammatical errors. The kind my five-year-old nephew stopped making three years ago. This is outrageous by any standard, but particularly because the song has been sanctioned by the official National Investiture Committee. That means hundreds of fancy officials have read the lyrics and found nothing wrong with them. Sadly, a similar thing is happening in the advertising industry. Fewer and fewer people seem to know how to put an idea or a story down in words without heartbreaking spelling and grammar mistakes. The art of the written word has somehow been reduced to something Spell Check was invented for – even by copywriters. I’ve come across copywriter creative directors in my time who rake in a small fortune each month for coming up with funny ideas, but who couldn’t produce a grammatically sound sentence to save their lives. ‘Isn’t that what account managers are for?’ It’s not. They’re there to put the copy into the agency template, but that’s not important right now.

What is important, is the fact that writing – and by writing I mean proper long copy writing – is a dying craft. These days, too often the copywriter in a creative team is just the one who’s not as good at Photoshop and InDesign as the other guy. But just because you’re a bad designer, doesn’t mean you’re a good writer. In an industry where content is the undisputed king, you simply cannot afford to call yourself a writer and then not know how to spell it. Just like the composers of the King’s Song cannot claim to be musicians and then produce the worst piece of music since Jenny from the Block.

I guess the point of this rant is that if you’ve got the title on your card, make sure you have the skills to back it up. Read, write, and then read and write some more. It’s a great place to start to make sure your work never unintentionally ends up on a t-shirt.

PS I checked, double-checked and then checked this column again for grammar mistakes. I hope to God there aren’t any in there.

* Written for Amsterdamadblog.com