Chariots for Hire

We here at Ministry of Imagery have been on a bit of an exercise kick recently. This was brought about, as most things are for us, by something that we read. In this case it was an issue of Runners World that Simon found on the plane back from Oklahoma. After reading the books Once a Runner and Born to Run over the winter (which is the perfect time to read books about physical exertion) he was pretty into the idea of barefoot running, ultramarathons, and the theory that he could rely on only his legs to get from place to place. But other than skateboarding, riding his bike, and catching the subway, movement has been pretty much confined to the essentials for the male member of MOI. For yours truly, exercise is the only way for me to prevent sounding like I’m at a coke party. My general nervous demeanor, coupled with the clarity of mind that comes with sobriety, leads me to be enthusiastic in even passing conversations, cramming more words in a single sentence than are contained in a Gideon’s Bible. Blowing off some steam in sneakers and sweatpants is a natural way for me to reign in my energy level and keep from vibrating. I have enough trouble sitting still.

That said, I don’t run. After competing at State level as a sprinter in high-school, running is the only activity I won’t indulge in, similar to golf. But living with someone who just got bitten by the running bug, it’s hard not to get twitchy. There are the conversations about pronating, the debate about whether or not to buy running shoes, the endless stream of running documentaries and shows like Eddie Izzard’s Marathon Man, not to mention the glow and endorphin high that I get to witness every evening when he gets back to the apartment. It’s hard not to be jealous. And, as is the case with the two of us on most things, competitive. So I put on my sneakers and got to work.

Part of the draw of participating in an activity that only requires legs is the fact that it can be done anywhere and for cheap. The fitness manufacturing industry in this country nets $3 billion a year, with the top five companies in the field accounting for over 50% of the revenue. This means that whoever sold your gym the rowing machine you’re sweating on is rolling in enough money to make a river of solid gold. And just in case you don’t have a gym membership, look down. The US athletic shoe market alone is a $13 billion-per-year monolith, selling more than 350 million pairs of kicks annually. Those are some well-heeled numbers, considering that the first rubber sole sneaker to be produced hit the market as recently as 1917. Those shoes were canvas-topped, rubber-bottomed, foot-friendly pioneers known as Keds. Yes, those Keds. You can thank the U.S. Rubber Company for dreaming up the stealthily-named sneaks back in 1892. Twenty-five years after the first brainstorm, they entered the market, now, nearly a hundred years later, they are what I pair my khaki shorts with, for a sexy summer look that screams "preppy lesbian hooker." 

Before Keds there were plimsolls. Rubber-soled, but crude as hell, these puppies had no right foot or left foot. Considering the way that fashion is going, I expect American Apparel to begin marketing plimsolls – along with bustles and bonnets – by next spring. Seriously. I mean, bloomers are back.

Running is also cool because it’s one of the few things man has always done. Though it probably began for a reason other than wanting to look hot in skinny jeans. Like to escape being eaten. Or to catch something like a wild beast made out of tempeh. Pheidippides, otherwise known as That Greek Dude Who Started the Marathon, ran 150 miles in two days in order to request help from Sparta after the Persians descended upon Marathon. (The place in Greece, not the town in Florida or the race.) Then he ran 25 more miles from the battlefield to Athens to announce the Greek victory over the Persians. When he got there he shouted a single Greek word, Νενικήκαμεν, which translates into "We won!" and then he died from exhaustion. Inspiring.

While the idea of a marathon sickens me (I get exhausted watching the news coverage of the races,) I think that there’s something to be said for partaking in an activity that wasn’t invented in some laboratory/gymnasium in order to sell sweat-wicking shorts or special shoes. Pharaohs and other rich men in ancient Egypt used to have runners who’d sprint out ahead of their brigade to announce how important their masters were, and ancient Greeks took self-congratulations to the extreme, allowing the winner of a race to erect a statue of himself in the middle of his city. He’d write his name, the event or events that he’d won, and a short quote at the base of it, probably something like, "Eat my dust." In Sparta, both men and women were commanded to run in order to maintain their strength and agility.

All of this trivia aside, running has a few physiological and psychological benefits that tiny copywriters looking for work could use. Running increases muscle mass, which will make our bedroom tussles that much more interesting. It also improves cardiovascular health, which might quell the dizzy spells I suffer from when on conference calls with clients. Consistent running regiments have been associated with an increase of HDL levels, which reduces the risk of heart disease. (Yet another nasty health issue that runs in my family, along with enough cancer to fill out the horoscope in every women’s interest magazine since the dawn of print.) Probably the most exciting physical boon of running is that it can slow or reverse the effects of aging. I’m starting to see some crows feet creep below the corner of my eyes. I’m hoping that if I log a few more miles they’ll disappear like I’m starring in an Oil of Olay commercial. Of course running also can lead to weight loss, which isn’t exactly something that two people living on a tight budget need. But, hey, if we wind up looking like mid-90s Calvin Klein models, at least we won’t take up much room on the subway. And I suppose we could always just buy two fixed gears and declare ourselves hipster royalty.

Psychologically, running has been used as a method to combat depression and addiction. As an alcoholic, I can say that the "runner’s high" that people report feeling does exist and it is pretty awesome. Granted, for me it happens after I finish, when I realize that I can finally stop running.

Professional runners generally don’t make a very good living, but they often get their gear for free. Distance runners make as little as freelance copywriters, and what’s worse, unlike building a portfolio, once they reach a certain level of professional success, their earnings are completely contingent upon whether or not they can stay that good. One of the highest salaries for distance runners that I could find a record of was for Dathan Ritzenhein, who is a twenty-seven year old, Nike-sponsored long distance badass who makes roughly $250,000 a year. Other than that, if you’re looking to break into the world of professional running, you need a good agent, a good story, and tremendously good competition times. Even those don’t guarantee you a salary. I read about one young man named Todd Reeser,  who apparently was doing very well around 2000 and 2001. Even though he was well beyond college age, he was living at home with his mother just to get by. His manager, John Luther, said that Todd had lived off of 5K (money, not distance) a year for several years just to try to dedicate all of his time, energy, and focus into being a professional long distance runner. Luther said, "He’s lived the life of a pauper, like most distance runners, and has been at or below the poverty line for several years. His mother’s helped him out tremendously, and we have a couple of corporate sponsors for him. Hopefully after his performances this fall, he’ll get a nice shoe contract." That was in November, 2000. I couldn’t find a scrap of documentation about Todd – no race times, injury information, nothing – dated beyond early 2001. I wonder where he is now and what he’s up to, though it kind of frightens me to think too hard about it.

Of course, Simon and I don’t want to be professional runners. We want to be the kind who might just go for a mile and a half jaunt during a downpour after eating way too much Ethiopian food and vegan ice cream. (No joke. This actually occurred last Thursday.) And although I can’t say whether or not we’ll stick with this current workout plan, it is fun to read about running and to see what our bodies can do. We also bicker a lot less when we’re physically exhausted. Perhaps this will all end in an Hamilton-Burr-esque deul, only with the two of us sprinting to the death. Unlike that fateful stand-off, I just hope that if it does take place, it doesn’t go down in Jersey.

To follow our suffering, you can check out our profiles on RunKeeper or Daily Mile. Both contain the same pathetic information about how pitifully we’re clomping along. If you’re a runner with an iPhone, RunKeeper is a nifty application that allows you to log and track your workouts. It also lets you see your stats without having to fiddle with the iPhone controls. I like the Daily Mile website better, mainly because it looks like another bubbly, cheerful social networking outlet, only one that broadcasts how much pain my calves are in.

Simon’s RunKeeper profile & Ainsley’s RunKeeper profile

Simon’s Daily Mile profile & Ainsley’s Daily Mile profile

Also, probably the best running-related blog on the ‘net is Feet Meet Street. Even if you’re a three-toed, couch-dwelling sloth, Nitmos’ writing will make you crack up. And probably inspire you to never leave a supine position again. 

Simon would also like for me to state that he tried to read Murakami’s book on running, "but it’s terrible and I hope his body of work gets dropped in a volcano."

 

Team Work

I think I’ve finally found my calling. I believe the job that would suit me best is Wife of a Sports Agent. Why such an obnoxious and anti-feminist pursuit, you ask? Because marrying a sports agent would likely be the only way I could be fully entrenched in two fields I find interesting: marketing and sports. And also because I think I’d get free tickets.

Really, I’m not going to struggle to link this post to my quest for a paycheck by writing for a living. The real reason I got such a flare in my panties to write about athletes’ endorsements is because I am watching a shit-ton of sports. This is pretty much the sweetest time of the year for me. There’s usually pretty significant rainfall, girls (and boys) are wearing skimpier clothing on the New York streets because of the rising temperatures, and both the MLB and the NBA are at points in their seasons that demand I eschew all social engagements after 8PM. I’m a born-and-bred baseball fan. (Guess the team? We’ve beaten yours.) And, admittedly, baseball is linked to my heart because of my family, I associate watching games with both my long-deceased grandmother and my dad. But the NBA has me by the clitoris and the adrenal gland, and both of those are far more important to me than my heart.

Sports fan or not, there’s one thing you know about televised athletic events, and that’s that they come with commercials. Lots of commercials. Cars speeding down winding, rain-slicked streets. Greasy burgers squished between foam-soft buns. Insurance for your home against flooding, insurance for your car, insurance for your erection. Advertising rules television. But the reason why I won’t pony-up for a DVR (other than the cost) is because I actually enjoy the commercials…some of them. Namely the ones with recognizable celebrities of court and field.

 

No one can really measure the impact that celebrity endorsement deals have on a brand in dollars. There are many factors, between sales of sneakers to stock prices, that are difficult to gauge. What keeps companies forking over ridiculous sums of money is the "halo effect," the idea that when an average person sees a celebrity using a product, they’ll be more inclined to buy it because they’ll want to imitate a role model, pop icon, fallen golf hero. A bevy of companies hang their reputations on the halo, and celebrities and sports stars build brands out of their names because of it. Nike alone features more than seventy-five athletes in their advertising, Gatorade showcases more than twenty-four. And while I’m no more likely to swig Gatorade just ’cause I saw Jeter do it (I think Gatorade tastes like cow urine and it’s full of sugar,) I really and truly get off on watching the way that agencies have scripted, shot, and serialized the intermingling of athlete and advertisement. That, and if one features a topless LeBron James, I’ll happily be watching it repeatedly.

So, in honor of ESPN, TNT, FOX, and all of the other networks that get paid to promote gods and goddesses of the sports world, I present some of my favorite examples of advertisements featuring athletes, and why I think they work or fail. To the geniuses at W+K, TBWA, Element79, and all of the other agencies that create the spots that give me goosebumps and make me want to work up a sweat, I salute you. But I still won’t drink any Gatorade.

Go Suns! (Please don’t get swept, please don’t get swept…)

Training Day

Steve Nash threw 30K of his own money at this video, produced it, and hired Lola Schnabel to direct it. Sure, it’s inspiring and makes you want to train hard to watch sports on your couch, but the real gem is seeing Nash dribble a basketball while skateboarding around New York. Note to Nash: if you do that again in my city, I will track you down and hug you, leaving a slug-like trail behind.

 

Outtakes from the Charles Barkley and Dwayne Wade T-Mobile campaign

In general, I find T-Mobile commercials irksome. This could be because my favorite phone was my Sidekick ID (yes, I still like it more than I like my iPhone) but T-Mob’s service sincerely fucked everything up, so now I use a way too fancy device whose keypad sucks so hard it creates its own vortex. And Charles Barkley can’t really sell me much, other than possibly a chin. But for some reason seeing the outtakes makes me appreciate the Charles/D Wade commercials a little bit more.

 

Gatorade: "Stealin’"

I don’t really know how I feel about Derek Jeter as an ad guy. He’s trying to sell me a Ford Edge, he’s trying to sell me razors, he’s trying to sell me this idea that he’s not being fellated by A-Rod. But this Gatorade commercial works for me. Featuring Harvey Keitel, it’s just clever enough to make me think that chemical-tasting sports drinks aren’t just something that inactive people drink to feel closer to being fit.

 

Seattle Mariner Alex Rodriguez covets some wood

Wow, A-Rod. You’ve sure come a long way from this ancient Eagle Hardware commercial. You sure look cute in that Mariners uniform. I bet Derek Jeter would say it brings out your eyes. (For the record, I am a Yankee fan and I am making these jokes. That’s how obvious their love affair is.)

 

Guitar Heroes?

Tony Hawk looks awkward in anything with buttons. Alex Rodriguez still needs to take a piece of plywood to the butt. Michael Phelps has the douchiest face ever and should only be seen like this. And yet this commercial could be the only thing I actually like seeing Kobe Bryant do, other than losing. It might not be as sexy as the Guitar Hero ad that aired during the Superbowl, but I prefer it, as it doesn’t give my male friends erections in bars.

 

Adidas: It’s On Me For We

Holy cow, Tim Duncan can actually smile. But Duncan, whose interests include Renaissance Faires and Dungeons & Dragons, cannot sell me shoes. This commercial isn’t very effective, unless the shoes split me into five different Ainsleys that could write this post, walk Snack, whip up a vegan casserole, and make-out all at once.

 

Nike: Chalk

Lil’ Wayne might be slightly played out, but this ad for Nike is still pretty solid. Anything featuring children, donuts, and a rap star’s sneakers getting dirty I’ll happily watch. It would be better if Bron were topless, but whatever. In case you were unaware, King James had a 90 million dollar contract with Nike in 2003, prior to even playing his first game in the NBA.

Here’s an example of bad advertising. If you’re watching the lead up to NBA Finals, you’ve probably seen it. McDonald’s doesn’t stop to think:

 

Ineffective advertising at its core. LeBron and Dwight Howard wouldn’t know who Larry Bird is? That’s as likely as either of those guys having the bodies they have and eating that shit on the regular.

 

Time Force gets in Rafa’s face

Here’s a totally awesome Spanish-language commercial for Time Force watches, featuring ridiculously-attractive tennis star Rafael Nadal and the Lakers’ Pau Gasol. In it the two guys have to pass the same test as William Tell (or Guillermo Tel, as I believe his name is in Spanish) in order to score the timepieces. Granted, Pau getting hit in the face would be sad, but considering that he looks like a character from The Land Before Time, I don’t think it would have done too much damage.

 

vermeiden Sie Drogen

Here’s a German anti-drug PSA with Dallas Mavericks’ power forward Dirk Nowitzki. I have no idea what’s going on, but I will continue to say no to drugs, smoking, and sweating teenagers.

 

Nike: "Fate" – Leave Nothing

Nike once again brings out the big guns by hiring David Fincher to direct the story of Pittsburgh Steelers’ Troy Polamalu and the Jets’ LaDainian Tomlinson growing up to the point in their careers where they careen into one another on an NFL field. Featuring the same heavy-handed heartstring pulling of all the other top-dollar Nike ads, I’d like to pretend that I didn’t get a little wistful when I watched it the first time, but I’d be lying. Perhaps it’s just Troy Polamalu’s hair. Speaking of, if you haven’t seen his fifteen-second spot for Head & Shoulders, you really should. Brilliant.

Polamalu, who is known for being the most badass Christian since lion-braving Daniel, enjoys growing flowers, building furniture, and playing the piano. Pretty awesome that such a low-key guy agreed to star in the remake of one of the most well-known Coke commercials to ever feature an athlete.

Here’s a link to the original Mean Joe Green Coke commercial, followed by the Polamalu remake for Coke Zero.

 

 

Someone reminded me of this clip the other day, and it’s possibly the best example of how an endorsement deal can lead to a professional athlete doing something extremely removed from their sport while still bolstering their brand name. Nike has Kobe Bryant selling Ankle Insurance while on a horse. An NBA player getting in touch with his equestrian side might not surprise some of you who saw Charles Barkley ride a pony for Rite Guard in 1992.

 

 

If that doesn’t make you believe that athletes and advertising aren’t a good match, I don’t know what will. Now get out there and buy some shoes.

 

Taking the “Folly” Out of Portfolio

Soliciting clients is not like dating, no matter how badly you want it to be. You may wish to be engaging in a slow seduction, showing a little skin and giving a coy giggle and a wink. You can even convince yourself that it’s like courting, that the client is getting to know you, warming up to the idea of committing. But really it’s more like prostitution.

We’ll do anything for money. And we just try to make it clear, up front, that there’s nothing they can ask for that we haven’t already done, no kink too taboo, no position too uncomfortable. We are the ultimate working girl.

Our online portfolio was severely neglected for a year. If it had once been a domesticated housecat, by now it’s a feral tom on the street, rummaging through garbage bins and trying to impregnate every critter with four legs and a collar. So what’s to do with this grimalkin? After nearly a full rotation of the Roman calendar, we’ve submitted an entire portfolio overhaul to our web dev friend to fix ‘er up over the course of the next month, but this week we nearly learned that it could have been too little too late.

Building up a portfolio isn’t a science like baking, though it feels as though it should be. It’s an art, more like cooking a delicious risotto, only you never know if your potential dinner-mate has Celiac or is a vegan. We were asked by a big-name potential client to provide two additional samples on the spot because they found our online portfolio unimpressive. Gasp! (That was a sarcastic gasp. We’re unimpressed by it, too.)

The two impromptu pieces may have worked more in our favor, since the client got a chance to see how we would write directly for their website and they eventually went with us for the job. But it was a wake up call. Not every company gives you that kind of chance, especially if there are several writers clamoring for the chance to pen their words. So we’ve had to reevaluate how to build a portfolio that sings to every potential client, without alienating anybody or pigeonholing ourselves.*

We try to make it clear when hunting for clients: there’s no type of work we won’t do. But without the aid of a tailored cover letter, the only thing the public has to go on is our website. Back in the day, before the Innerwebz were the main mode of introduction, copywriters had portfolios made of paper and plastic, bound in leather or leather-like synthetics. They were large and wieldy, like a photographer’s portfolio or the diary from that really weird girl in high-school. High-quality print outs of your work were kept inside, and organized according to what was the most impressive. It was useful to separate the copy that was used for print ads from the copy used on radio, television, or mass mailings, which is similar to how many copywriters compartmentalize their online portfolios today.

The benefit of working with tangible portfolios, the kind that can actually give you papercuts and require a crazed bike messenger or hot FedEx guy to deliver them, is that you can tailor them for each firm that you’re contacting. Ideally, even in this virtual world, when you send samples to a potential client you’ll know about the job or their company, but often we find that we’re referred by word-of-mouth. This results in potential clients only seeing our website before they contact us or, at best, they’ll see our site along with the work we’ve done for their friend or colleague. That means that if they’re a sneaker company, for example, they don’t really see anything that convinces them that we could write for their foot-friendly campaign. They might see some stuff they like, either the tone from a prior job or a brilliant tagline from another, but they would really have to suspend their disbelief and give us a shot based on little more than hope and hearsay. And while we’d love to think that’s enough, coupled with a desperate and witty email from us, it isn’t guaranteed to seal the deal.

When revamping our portfolio, we had to keep a few things in mind that are helpful to any writer who is looking for some portfolio guidance:

  • Prove that you have experience with large clients, just like any of the other, more voluminous agencies out there.

We’ve been lucky enough to work with some pretty heavy-hitters since the last time we updated our portfolio. By putting these jobs at the forefront of our site, we guarantee that a potential client will at very least be impressed. Or so we hope. Don’t be bashful, put your most prominent job out front. That way you can get it in the face of your site’s visitors and show that you have experience working with clients who have industry clout. Way back when, when portfolios had handles and zippers and shit, the advice was to put your best pieces on the first few pages. It seems obvious, but sometimes copywriters get fooled into thinking that if they don’t draw attention to the bigger names they’ve worked with, it’ll seem like they work with those larger names more often. Kind of like how not bragging on a date can make the subtle dropping of "Oh yeah, and I have a private yacht" or "Steve Nash is my brother" seem even more impressive. We remind you once more: this is not dating. Put your crown-jewel conquests out in front.

  • Highlight your diversity…

…and we don’t just mean the fact that we’re each half Jewish and I used to be fluent in Spanish. Possibly the most important thing that your portfolio can do is demonstrate that you aren’t a one-trick pony. The problem with our site as it exists now is that we have a lot of whimsical, badass creative copy up, but it’s thin. It doesn’t show how we can write for a predominately female audience, or how we can adapt our tone to be more reserved and professional. What’s more, it doesn’t showcase the types of jobs we can do. It’s essential for potential clients to see that you can write for an iPhone app just as readily as you can write a bio. Your ability to absorb information and transform a company or brand regardless of its field or focus is key. Make sure that your portfolio is as well balanced as your diet. That means you’ve got to be full of more than just chocolate-frosted donuts with sprinkles.

  • Tell, don’t just show.

Our portfolio didn’t do a very good job explaining what we did in each job. Sure, each section had a blurb and a screenshot or link, but there were no pull quotes, no in-depth breakdown. It’s vital that each piece of your portfolio explains who the client was, what you were assigned to do, and what the end result was. Why was the project difficult? Was there a specific reason why it was assigned to you? What did it entail? In our text overhaul we’ve tried to mention everything we’ve done, from conference calls to brainstorming social networking ideas. It shows the potential paycheck…I mean, client, that you do more than just write nifty snippets. You’re willing to work one-on-one in any capacity to get their copy job done. Also, don’t simply rely on screenshots, links, or pretty pictures of your work. Of course the client wants to see proof that you actually did the job, and they’d like to familiarize themselves with what the outcome of actually hiring you will look like, but a well-written, concise explanation of each project not only illuminates what you’ve done, it proves you can do it for yourself.

  • Accentuate the positives, even if you can’t sing like Bing Crosby.

Although our parents will always brag about the awards we’ve won or accolades we’ve garnered, it’s important for us to gently brag about them, too. For every piece in your portfolio, make sure that you have a positive spin at the end. Sure, not every gig will get you a certificate of awesomeness as deemed by an international ad council, but if your web text increased the client’s site traffic, state that. If your last project launched a product that increased the company’s sales by a third, put that out there. Your potential clients have the right to know that hiring you will only bring them a fantastic return of investment. Even if it’s something small, like just restating the positive elements of the company who previously hired you, it’s enough to show the benefits of working with you, and how both parties benefited. 

pig

The most important piece of advice is to update your portfolio every six months. I repeat, update your portfolio every six months. If you don’t have a wide variety of work, do pro-bono projects, collaborations, or write unsolicited samples. Make sure your contact information is updated, and, if possible and appropriate, send out a notice to previous clients about the work that you’ve been up to and direct them to the updated site. Remember that the only thing that stands between you and the entire client pool is your website. Be your own pimp, and let them know that you’re worth the money.

* The term pigeonhole comes from the tiny nesting boxes that the birds live in when housed in a pigeon loft. The saying was first recorded in 1789, back when pigeons weren’t known as letter carriers or rats with wings, but as dinner. By the 20th century it was being used as a verb, meaning to put aside or to categorize. Although I think that housing birds is pretty lame, especially if they’re pigeons, supposedly they like small, cramped, dark spaces. It apparently minimizes their stress level. Perhaps literal pigeonholing might be the next thing Ministry of Imagery tries to assuage our ulcers and stress headaches. We’ll add it to the list, right below transcendental meditation, Bikram yoga, and a visit to a sensory deprivation chamber.