Columns / Advertising

We Are All Martians

Ernie Schenck

Andy Weir, on the off chance you’re reading this, I’m sorry. I know your book, The Martian, was a huge bestseller with millions of fans all over the planet, including director Ridley Scott, who thought enough of your novel about an American astronaut marooned on Mars to turn it into a movie. All the more reason I feel so… guilty.

Looking back, knowing what I know now, I’m ashamed that I couldn’t get past the first few chapters. There. I said it. Even worse, Andy, I tried three times. I mean, I had so many friends telling me I was insane, that there had to be something wrong with me, bailing out on a great story like The Martian. Great story? All I could see was a botanist on Mars rattling on about growing potatoes so he wouldn’t starve to death. Trust me, Andy, I love science—but seriously, potatoes? Not exactly on the same level of excitement as cloned dinosaurs, if you know what I’m saying.

But then something happened. My daughter—who’s not the biggest admirer of sci-fi, by the way; for reasons I still can’t get my head around, she loathes 2001: A Space Odyssey—called me one night to tell me how blown away she was by the book version of The Martian. Clearly, she was seeing something that I wasn’t. “Oh, it gets a lot better once you get past the potatoes,” she explained. 

So I went back and gave it one last try, and then bam! There it was, the amazing story I never would have found because I couldn’t get past all those damn boring spuds.

I know you’re not an advertising creative, Andy, but let me tell you, this business of mine is filled with potatoes, brands that, at first blush, seem as electrifying as an oatcake. Insurance. Banking. Enterprise servers. That sort of thing. You’d sooner put a flame-thrower to yourself than risk frying a single brain cell trying to do great, inspired work for something so obviously resistant to it.

This business of mine is filled with potatoes, brands that, at first blush, seem as electrifying as an oatcake."

To be certain, I’ve had my share of potato moments over the years, and I eventually learned how to deal with them. And not surprisingly, I’m not alone, as my recent Facebook survey will attest. Here’s what some of my fellow potato farmers had to say.

Greg Hahn, chief creative officer at BBDO Worldwide, says: “I kind of dig those types of projects. If anything, the bar can only be raised. It often comes down to the art of self-delusion and selective memory. You have to tell yourself, no matter what has happened in the past, no matter what everyone else is telling you, this time it’s going to be different. And, unlike the battered spouse syndrome, if you believe it to be true, it often is.”

And Edward Boches, Boston University communications professor and former Mullen chief creative officer, says: “Look at Droga5’s work for Prudential. Or Mullen’s for Century 21. They broke with tradition in two dreary categories and did great work.” Boches says the approach with these projects is threefold: (1) don’t start with the category; (2) try to find a real insight; (3) try a mind map or some other approach that takes your focus away from the category and moves it to customer motives and needs.

“I like to make two columns,” says Paul Laffy, a senior creative director at BBDO. “One is a list of facts about the industry, and the other is a list of human truths/insights related to that industry, based mainly on gut feelings. Then I look for connections and try to glean something meaningful from them. But the key is to dig, dig, dig.”

And how’s this for some serious potatoes? “Accounting was the best category I worked in, and I did some of my best work,” David Wecal, founder and creative director of Spring, tells me. “My first impression was that it was dry and difficult, and the clients were so critical about everything. Then I realized that I was writing and thinking about how the world worked. I also tried to add a little bit of humanity and intimacy to the work. I looked at the client as an opportunity to learn something. I also tried to take the category to a different place creatively.”

So, Andy, I should have known better. As you can see from some of my advertising friends, one thing we often confront in this business is the hump. The potatoes. But I promise that next time, I’ll do better. Your biggest (belated) fan, Ernie. ca

Ernie Schenck (ernieschenckcreative.prosite.com) is a freelance writer, a creative director and a regular contributor to CA’s Advertising column. An Emmy finalist, three-time Kelley nominee and a perennial award winner—the One Show, Clios, D&AD, Emmys and Cannes—Schenck worked on campaigns for some of the most prestigious brands in the world in his roles at Hill Holliday/Boston, Leonard Monahan Saabye and Pagano Schenck & Kay. He lives with his wife and daughter in Jamestown, Rhode Island.

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