I make meaning, you make meaning, he makes meaning, she makes meaning, wouldn't you like to make some meaning, too? (The Ad2 Presentation)

On Tuesday evening, I had the opportunity to give a presentation to the Ad2 club of Portland. A huge thank you to them for inviting me to join them, as well as for the beer! I think any presentation where you can sit around and drink beer is a great presentation (I will make a note of this for future presentations). Below are some of the images and full videos (I had shown some edited clips) used in the presentation, as well as a brief summary of what I said (or maybe what I wish I’d said…).

Note to those of you who don’t like long posts: this is a long post. It’s summarizing about 20 minutes of discussion. So… you can either read the whole thing, just watch the videos, or scroll toward the end and read the “bottom line.” Your choice.

The presentation, or really, the conversation was about making meaning. It’s a term used in Guy Kawasaki’s book, “Art of the Start” (referenced later in this post) . That’s been our main goal at Substance. But my presentation wasn’t so much about how our company makes meaning, but how we, as designers, marketers, advertising folks – communicators – need to communicate meaning for the brands we work with in order to have conversations with people instead of transactions. It’s about going beyond the tech specs or the special deals, and to the heart of the matter, the emotional core. It doesn’t need to be all mushy “I love you” kind of emotion. It needs to talk to the emotional wants and needs of people in order to create a relationship. Like this Apple ad:

They’re not trying to sell you a computer. They’re challenging you to change the world. That’s making meaning.

In November 2004, I read Adam Morgan’s “Eating the Big Fish.” (Buy at Powell’s / Buy at Amazon)

Eating the Big Fish

I was on vacation and had no cell phone and no email, just time to read and think. When I was done with this book, I grabbed my sketchbook and wrote page after page of ideas and ways I wanted to help our clients, and create my own Challenger brand.

Years past. Then, in October of 2007, I saw this video.

It’s a presentation by Guy Kawasaki, based on his book, “The Art of the Start.” I came across it on a Top 10 Presentations list somewhere online. I had loaded this on my iPod before a trip and watched it on the plane. I couldn’t wait for the plane to land so I could forward the link to as many people as I knew. Incredible presentation, and worth watching for anyone starting anything. (Or if you’re one of them reading types, you can get the book at Powell’s or Amazon.)

In January 2007, we started Substance. Everything that Guy talked about in his books “Art of the Start” and “Rules for Revolutionaries” (Powell’s / Amazon), plus a lot of the thinking in the books referenced in the Substance Library (links in the sidebar and at the bottom), resonated with the core of what we wanted to accomplish. We set a goal: create great digital brand experiences, and do it better than anyone else. We started by making meaning for ourselves and our company (you can read about that in our declaration and in the About section). Then we set out to help our clients communicate their meaning. But, as communicators, we understand that no matter how much meaning we make, the audience can and will create their own meaning. Like this Comcast video:


Comcast didn’t have to pay someone to make this video for them. They probably wish it never existed. I heard that at one point it was the #2 Google search result for “Comcast.” Comcast wasn’t making meaning, “DoorFrame” was making meaning. And telling a lot of people the story.

Same goes for Diet Coke and Mentos. “EepyBird” was telling a story. Maybe not a story with much meaning, except Diet Coke mixed with Mentos makes a big mess. But “EepyBird” told their story to a lot of people.

I seem to remember Diet Coke creating a microsite in order to get people to contribute their own videos (can anyone verify this?). Um, yeah. It’s okay for EepyBird to make these videos, but if Diet Coke asks you to make the videos, then forget it. That’s not making meaning. That’s just making something for the MAN.

So how about when there’s “nothing” to make meaning of? Like John Cage’s “Four Minutes and Thirty Three Seconds.” (Video introduced to me from Noel’s blog.)


Is the composer making meaning with it? Is the conductor and the musicians? Is the audience making meaning, since they are actively participating in the performance? Side note: feel free to download a mp3 of Substance performing John Cage’s “4:33”

So, if communicators (advertising, marketing, interactive) and people are making meaning, who are they making it for? That’s right! Each other. A relationship is born. It isn’t the technology that’s creating the relationships, it’s the meaning that’s creating the relationships. For example, my home improvement blog. It doesn’t have meaning for most of you. But for my wife, family and relatives, it has DEEP meaning (it means there’s a guest room to stay in, or there’s no worry of electrocution anymore because the drywall is up, and/or it means we were crazy to have bought this house).

In turn, something like Nau’s blog makes meaning for people that are concerned about the planet, how they live a sustainable life, and the love of outdoors. Not about clothes, but about meaning. So the relationship is based on shared interests; the clothes become totems of the tribe.

Or the Portland Trail Blazers setting up a Twitter feed to communicate about the upcoming NBA draft. It’s a way fans can stay in contact with the Trail Blazers, either online or via their mobile devices. Does it make meaning for everyone? Probably not. But for those fans that can’t wait to see who the Trail Blazers draft, and the days leading up to the draft, it definitely does. It creates that relationship around building and supporting the team. It isn’t about the technology, it’s about a smart way for the team to communicate.

Bottom line: everyone makes meaning. But the meaning might not be for everyone. That’s okay. Make sure as a company you’re making meaning for the people that will care. As a person on the other side, make meaning in order to let companies know what you’re thinking and feeling. Occasionally, the smart ones will listen. Our job on the agency side is figuring out the best ways to create and facilitate conversations, not campaigns.

Some references I mentioned… looking for other books and ideas that have inspired us? Check out the Finding Substance Library on both Powell’s and Amazon. (And yes, we need to update them with new books. We will soon. Really.) Also, we subscribe to tons of blogs, many of which aren’t listed in our sidebar. If you’d like us to send that to you, email “info (at) findsubstance.com” with a subject line, “I want to read blogs” and we’ll get that back to you shortly.

p.s. My first animation experiment (circa 1996), and my first YouTube post. I could say it was an artistic metaphor for how we communicate, and how our words and meaning become blurred as they travel over wires… but it was really just using some blur effects in Photoshop and exporting a bunch of jpegs in a sequence.

Another side note: I’d never seen those side arrows and thumbnail images on the YouTube video before. Apparently those arrows to go to the “next” video, whatever YouTube decides is relevant. Eventually they disappear. Can’t decide if this is cool, or annoying.

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