How to make your communications 19 1/2 times more successful

I’ve created millions of dollars of brand value for clients with nothing more than creative ideas.

Here are 44 things I’ve learned along the way.


1. Universal truth. Communications is an art, not a science.

People first make decisions emotionally which they then rationalise logically. Putting logic before emotions in any communications puts the cart before the horse, the media buy before the idea.

Despite recent upheavals in media, people all over the world across every demographic want what they’ve always wanted - love, acceptance, beauty, health, nutrition, community, social status, relief from suffering, transcendence.

Ease up on the technology. Go for the humanity.


Photograph of an Apple Store at dusk to show how it was probably the best ad Apple ever did  

‘The Apple Store was probably the best ad we ever did.’ Lee Clow


2. Everything is communications. Advertising, public relations, corporate affairs, marketing, branding, design, etc. It’s all communications.

Every way your brand interacts with people is an opportunity to communicate successfully. Or not.

Many brands trigger their own communications problems by saying one thing in one media, claiming the opposite in another and then doing something else entirely. Every problem is a communications problem.


3. Brand personality. Every piece of communications should contribute to the complex symbol which is the brand personality.

Ninety-five percent of all communications is created ad hoc. Most brands lack any consistent personality from one year to another. This breeds scepticism and distrust.

It’s the personality that people buy. Whoever dedicates their communications to building the most sharply defined personality for their brand gets the largest share of the market.


4. Most important decision. I’ve learned the effect of your communications depends more on this decision than any other: How should you position your brand?

Should you position Qantas as an airline or the spirit of Australia? Should you position Lexus as a luxury car or an idea in pursuit of perfection?

The results of your campaign depend less on how I create your communications than on how your brand is positioned. It follows that positioning should be decided before the communications are created. Research can help. Look before you leap.


5. Large promise. The second most important decision is this: What should you promise people?

A promise is not a claim or a theme or a slogan. It’s a benefit, clear and simple. It pays to promise a benefit which is unique and competitive. And the brand must deliver the benefit you promise.

Most communications promise nothing. It’s doomed to fail in the marketplace


Photograph of Seth Godin urging us to make better promises

‘Make better promises.’ Seth Godin


6. Big ideas. Unless your communications are built on a BIG IDEA, it will pass like a ship in the night.

It takes a BIG IDEA to jolt people out of their indifference. To make them notice your communications, remember it and take action.

BIG IDEAS are usually simple ideas. BIG SIMPLE IDEAS are not easy to come by. They require genius and midnight oil. A truly big one can change a company’s fortunes. Like Apple’s THINK DIFFERENT campaign.


7. How to recognise a big idea. According to David Ogilvy, it will help if you ask yourself these five questions:

Did it make me gasp when I first saw it?

Do I wish I had thought of it myself?

Is it unique?

Does it fit the strategy to perfection?

Could it be used for 30 years?


8. How Aristotle recognises a big idea. According to the father of Western philosophy, you ask yourself these three questions:

Is it lucid?

Is it pleasing?

Is it strange?


Photograph of Japanese Buddha sculpture to remind you to be careful of the power of words

‘Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.’ Buddha


9. Words make all the difference. There’s a magnitude of difference between good and bad communications.

John Caples has seen one advertisement sell 19 1/2 times as much as another. Same size, same image, same copy. Different headline. A handful of words can make all the difference between success and failure.

Think of words as music. Consider beat, tempo, timbre, rhythm, phrasing, harmony, melody, etc.


10. Medium is the message. Context is king. How your message appears says more than you think.

When BHP runs a quarter-page advertisement in the Australian Financial Review for its “Think Big” campaign, it’s actually thinking small. At best it negates the message. At worst it triggers cognitive dissonance and seeds distrust.

Rather than scatter eight of these small advertisements across the newspaper for reach, it would be far more arresting (and far more effective) to think big and buy a large double-page spread.


11. Positively good. How do you stand out in a world of product and service parity?

Don’t slam the competition, don’t get down in the muck. Convince people that your brand is positively good. Dial down the hyperbole, dial up the honesty.

Don’t insult people’s intelligence. Put your best foot forward.


12. High-quality. It pays to give most brands an image of high-quality.

I’ve been conspicuously successful in doing this for Ford, Levi’s, Nike, Porsche, Qantas, SBS and others.

If your communications look ugly, people will conclude that your brand is shoddy, and they’ll be less likely to buy it.


13. Don’t be a bore. Nobody was ever bored into paying attention. Yet most communications are impersonal, detached, cold and dull.

It pays to involve people.

Talk to them like a human being (not an algorithm). Charm them. Make them smile. Make them hungry. Get them to participate.


14. Be first. Be a leader. Start trends instead of following them. Communications which follow a fashionable fad or are imitative is seldom successful. It pays to innovate, to blaze new trails.

You may not be right every time. But you’ll be leading the way. Onwards.


15. Psychological segmentation. Any good communications agency knows how to position brands for demographic segments of the market - for women, for young children, for farmers in Far North Queensland, etc.

But I’ve learned it often pays to position brands for psychological segments of the market.

I’m fond of positioning high-quality brands to fit nonconformists who scoff at status symbols and reject pushy appeals to snobbery.


16. Burr of singularity. The average person is now exposed to thousands of communications a day.

Most of them slide off their memory like water off a duck’s back.

Give your communications a flourish of singularity, a burr that will stick in people’s mind. One such burr is the MNEMONIC DEVICE, or relevant symbol - like the triple drumstick logo I devised for Triple J.


17. Don’t bury news. It’s easier to interest people in a product or service when it’s new than at any other point in its life.

Many brands have a fatal instinct for burying news. This is why most communications for new products or services fail to exploit the opportunity that genuine news provides.

It pays to launch your new product or service with a loud BOOM!


Photograph of the Milky Way in the night sky

‘When you reach for the stars, you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.’ Leo Burnett


18. Go the whole hog. Most communications campaigns are too complicated.

They reflect a long list of marketing objectives from well-intentioned committees. They embrace the divergent views of too many executives. By attempting too many things, they achieve nothing.

It pays to boil down your strategy to one simple promise - and go the whole hog in delivering that promise.


What works best in commercials


19. Avoid irrelevant celebrities. Testimonial commercials are almost always successful if you make them credible.

Either celebrities or real people can be effective. But avoid irrelevant celebrities whose fame has no natural connection with your brand or people.


20. Problem-solution. You set up a problem that people recognise.

Then you show how your product or service can solve that problem. And you prove the solution.

This technique has always been above average in gaining attention, and it still is. But don’t use it unless you can do so without cheating. The viewer isn’t a moron.


21. Visual demonstrations. If they’re honest, visual demonstrations are generally effective.

It pays to visualise your promise. It saves time. It drives the promise home. It’s memorable.


22. Slice of life. These playlets are corny, but they’ve been known to get actors re-elected as President of the United States.


23. Show don’t tell. Make your pictures tell the story. What you show is more important than what you say.

Many commercials drown the viewer in a torrent of words. You can create great commercials without words.


24. On-camera voice. Commercials using on-camera voice do significantly better than commercials using voice-over.


25. Musical backgrounds. Most commercials use musical backgrounds. But musical backgrounds reduce recall of your commercial. Very few creative people accept this.


26. Stand-ups. The stand-up pitch can be effective if it’s delivered with straightforward honesty.


27. Animation. Less than five percent of television commercials use cartoons or animation. They are less persuasive than live commercials.

The viewer cannot identify with the character in the cartoon. And cartoons do not invite belief (unless you’re talking to children).


Photograph showing the illusion that communications have taken place

‘The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.’ George Bernard Shaw


28. Salvage commercials. Many commercials which test poorly can be salvaged.

Faults revealed by the test can be corrected. I’ve doubled the effectiveness of a commercial simply by re-editing it.


29. Grabbers. I’ve found that commercials with an exciting opening hold their audience at a higher level than commercials which begin quietly.


What works best in headlines


30. Branded headlines. On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy.

So if you don’t include the brand in your headline, you’ve wasted 80 percent of your money. That is why most of our headlines include the brand name and the promise.


31. Benefit in headlines. Headlines that promise a benefit are more effective than those that don’t.


32. News in headlines. Time after time, I’ve found it pays to inject genuine news into headlines.

People are always on the lookout for new products and services, or new improvements in an old product or service, or new ways to use an old product.


33. Simple headlines. Your headline should telegraph what you want to say in clear, simple language. Readers don’t stop to decipher the meaning of obscure headlines.


34. How many words in a headline? David Ogilvy found that headlines of ten words or longer sold more goods than short headlines.

In terms of recall, headlines between eight and ten words are most effective.


35. Localise headlines. In local communications, it pays to include the name of the city in your headline.


36. Select your prospects. When you advertise a product which is consumed only by a special group, it pays to flag that group in your headline - ART LOVERS, GOING TO EUROPE?


What works best in copy


37. Yes, people read long copy. People read what interests them as long as it’s well written.

While readership can fall off rapidly up to fifty words, it drops very little between fifty and five hundred words. (This page contains 2,353 words, and you’re still reading it.)

I’ve used long copy with notable success for Nike, Orica, ANZ, Qantas and others.


38. Story appeal in words. I’ve achieved significant results with copy structured as a story.

People are naturally drawn to a universal narrative sequence that puts them at the heart of a story that overcomes challenges, defeats failure and leads to transformative success.

Brands that make themselves the hero of the story miss the point entirely and waste everyone’s time. No one likes (or believes) a braggart.


What works best in design


39. Story appeal in photographs. Create photographs that suggest a story.

Enough of a hint that people want to read the copy to find out what’s going on. All it takes is a little juxtaposition, an unexpected visual twist. Something no one’s ever seen before.

The more story appeal you inject into your photographs, the more people look at your communications. It’s easier said than done.


Photograph of a Rolling Stone trade press campaign that supercharged the publisher's fortunes

1980s trade press campaign that repositioned Rolling Stone as a magazine not for poor hippies but rich yuppies. Publisher Jann Wenner said as soon as the campaign ran, it was like a truck full of cash backed into the office and tipped money in. Print ad revenue increased 47 percent in the first year alone.


40. Before & After. Before & After advertisements are somewhat above average in attention value.

Any form of visualised contrast seems to work well. Such contrast reduces drama to its most elemental.


41. Photographs vs. artwork. I’ve invariably found that original photographs work better than drawings or illustrations.

Original photographs attract more readers, generate more appetite appeal, are more believable and better remembered. Stock photography? Not so much.


42. Use captions. On average, twice as many people read the captions under the photographs as read the body copy.

It follows that you should never use a photograph without putting a well-written caption under it.


43. Editorial layouts. I’ve had more success with editorial layouts than with trendy layouts.

Simple, non-fussy editorial layouts get higher readership than conventional advertisements.


44. Simple brand assets. Create consistent, constantly-used, easy-to-remember brand assets which over time will create distinctive memory structures.

These sensory and semantic cues will refresh and reinforce memory structures and keep your brand top of mind. Avoid unnecessary changes.

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