Show, Don’t Tell: A “Help Provided” Prose Poem Campaign

Show, Don’t Tell: A “Help Provided” Prose Poem Campaign

In my desire to “Show, Don’t Tell,” and to chronicle the prelude to my third career act, I’ve been writing prose poems about my career, the communications industry, and some of the philosophies that guide me.

I published more than a dozen of these prose poems on LinkedIn. Now, I’m offering eight of the poems in one package here.


According to the Poetry Foundation, a prose poem is a prose composition, while not broken into verse lines, that demonstrates other traits such as symbols, metaphors, and other figures of speech common to poetry.

Poetry Is A Clear Point of Difference

As someone who writes ads and marketing copy for clients, I like the idea that poetry and art can be used to inform commerce. I also like the idea that poetry can be a point of difference for me in my search for meaningful work.

When looking for work, you’re looking for people. In my case, I am seeking to connect with business and community leaders who need help communicating their marketplace value.

There are marketers in the world today who believe they can simply state their offer and win—no personality, charm, creativity, or strategic planning necessary. I’m not looking for these marketers and they’re not looking for me.

I’m a good fit for marketers committed to pursuing a clear point of difference in the marketplace. A clear point of difference starts with the product or service and moves from there to how people inside and outside the company talk about (and think about) the product or service.

To make a brand culturally relevant today, and to give people something to talk and think about, we often infuse brand communications with arts and culture. Lowbrow. Highbrow. It’s all up for grabs.

When I work with clients on a brand communications problem, I reach back to my training like everyone else. I was trained to read and write poems, stories, essays, and news.

Today, I believe in the use of poetry and poetic frameworks to advance the objectives of a business, cause, or political campaign. To get an idea to stick and to get people to share it, there has to be a short powerful punch of words.

To tap one legendary line, “Where’s the beef?” … it is not poetry. It’s advertising that benefits from poetic construction.

Leo Burnett, Ad Legend

Leo Burnett, Ad Legend

Leo Burnett studied journalism at the University of Michigan. His dream was to become the publisher of The New York Times. He graduated in 1914 and his first job was in Peoria, IL, where he worked as a newspaper reporter on the crime beat.

Burnett soon thereafter moved to Detroit and went to work on the client-side at GM. Burnett edited a publication for Cadillac dealers called Cadillac Clearing House. His mentor and boss at Cadilac, Theodore McManus, a fan of long copy, was a legend in his own right.

Burnett eventually joined the agency business in Indianapolis where he worked at Homer McKee on the Lafayette Motor Car Company account for most of the 1920s. The Great Depression disrupted all that. Homer McKee lost accounts and Burnett moved with his wife and three children to Chicago to find work.

He found work and new creative partners. On August 5, 1935, Leo Burnett, who was 42 years old at the time, opened the Leo Burnett Company in Chicago. The agency started with eight creatives (no account people) and $12,000, which Burnett raised by selling his house and hocking his insurance policies.

He took BIG risks to open his agency. He was brave.

Burnett Wisely Used Narrative Archetypes and Agrarian-Based Myths in His Work

Burnett was trained as a storyteller. First, as a journalist, then this practice was furthered at GM. It was this framework that naturally led Burnett to create his own timeless characters for packaged goods brands—Tony the Tiger, the Jolly Green Giant, the Marlboro Man, Charlie the Tuna, and the Pillsbury Doughboy.

Yesterday, I pulled up an old tv spot from Burnett’s reel. Push play and hear me discuss the elements of this ad, and why they continue to matter today.

The friendly giant overseeing the safety and well-being of the farm is also an effective means to a difficult end: getting kids to eat their vegetables.

Burnett Was A Good Boss

Leo Burnett left an amazing legacy and the agency with his name on the door continues to be a powerful force in the industry.

Significantly for the time, Burnett put women into creative positions of power and let them fight it out with the “boys.” He also railed against ageism in advertising. He once wrote a memo to the staff about it, declaring that the business was not the prerogative of the young. Instead, it belonged to those who worked the hardest.

He Knew Where To Look and How To Solve

Burnett worked hard to see inside the problem. He looked deep inside the product, the company, and the experience that customers had with the company. He searched for the inherent tension in the product story. It’s something he learned years earlier from McManus and continued to deploy throughout his career.

To look inside the product counters the idea that the creative solution is out there somewhere waiting to be discovered. Burnett believed that the magic was inside the product and that advertising’s job was to magnify the product benefits in a larger than life way. I find this approach comforting because it helps immensely when you know where to look for answers to creative problems.

Apples All Day

Since the start of Leo Burnett the ad agency, a bowl of red apples has been part of the welcome that staff and guests receive upon arrival.

Speaking of arrivals, Chicago in 1935 was not the perfect place for a future Ad Legend to be. Or so said a Windy City journalist at the time. “It won’t be long ’til Leo Burnett is selling apples on the street corner instead of giving them away,” the man wrote. Journos can be such windbags sometimes.

I love that Burnett’s bowl of apples is both a vehicle to express generosity and a symbol of defiance.

His Name Remains

When Burnett retired, he also left his agency teams with a speech to top all speeches. In the speech, Burnett specifically calls for his name to be removed from the premises, if/when the place no longer cherishes ideas and the people who have them.

The man describes several conditions of decay that could ruin everything he’d built. This is the core of his concern right here: “When you begin to compromise your integrity, when you lose your humility, and when you stop building on strong and vital ideas and start a routine production line…”

Based on those three conditions, one might argue that Leo Burnett’s name should have come off the door years ago. Burnett’s agency and all agencies with a global footprint are, at least in part, routine production lines.

The “lonely man” who Burnett wanted to see protected from the incessant and unrealistic demands of today’s clients is not. Today’s lonely men and women have Tweets to write, influencers to influence, and so on, so there’s little time to build on strong and vital ideas. There’s just time to produce more content for the always-on content parade.

Where Will Bravery Take You?

Burnett was a bold thinker, but unassuming in his demeanor and ruffled in his appearance. Today, we think of him as a standard-bearer, but I want us to stop doing this. He was a rogue, a troublemaker, a questioner, and a never-settler. When breadlines wrapped around city blocks in Chicago, and things looked bleak in every direction, Burnett brought optimism and a new vision forward in advertising. By doing so, he changed the business forever.

With Leo B. as a guide, let me ask, what will you help to create in this new economic downturn?

What needs to be disrupted that you and your team can properly fix? My bet is there’s something right in front of you to rework.

Let me know how it goes and how I can help.

Hal Riney, Ad Legend

The year was 1956. The city, San Francisco. The agency, BBDO. The job, Mailroom clerk. The future advertising legend, Hal Riney.

Riney was born in the depths of The Great Depression in Washington, a fact of his life that influenced his later work, including “It’s Morning Again in America” which helped re-elect Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Riney majored in art and minored in journalism and advertising at Univ. Of Washington. He served as a press officer in the U.S. Army and then joined BBDO. At first, he wanted to be an account exec. “I wanted to be an account man,” he said. ”I thought these were the guys who were the real ad people.”

Thankfully, Riney became an art director at BBDO, and within 12 years was promoted to vice president and creative director.

In 1976, Riney opened the San Francisco office of New York agency Ogilvy & Mather. Legend has it that Ogilvy “found” Riney at Reno’s, a bar in San Francisco, where he was sipping Jim Beam while writing ads for Oregon’s Blitz-Weinhard Brewing.

Nine years later, in 1985, Riney purchased the Ogilvy & Mather office and renamed it Hal Riney & Partners.

Riney’s Place-Based Brand Narratives Are American Folk Tales

If this was an art history class, what would we call this ad? How would we classify it? Pastoral realism.

Here we also have personal identity wrapped around a brand pitch. Like “The Hathaway Man” and “Commander Whitehead” the brewer is seeking a certain type of person, in this case, a blue-collar Pacific Northwesterner. No product is for everyone, and Riney understood this.

This beer ad is lifestyle marketing with an emphasis on place. The tagline is, “The best country in the country deserves the country’s best beer.” So much pride.

Along with DDB’s “Daisy” for LBJ, this ad is considered to be one of the best of all time for a political candidate. Unlike “Daisy,” this ad is not scary. For Riney, reality was scary enough. He sought to offer his client’s customers another, more comforting, vision of America.

Hal Riney created the Saturn campaign, centered on the town of Spring Hill, Tenn., where the car was manufactured. This car was not made in Detroit, and the commercials wouldn’t be made there either.

The tagline was “A different kind of company. A different kind of car,” and it was the most successful new model introduction in GM history.

What’s the inherent tension in this story? Riney identified a key moment of truth in the car buying experience—all the way at the end of the narrative arc’s downslope—and he successfully dramatized it.

Hal Riney’s Legacy Continues To Play Out Today

Hal Riney started something in San Francisco that continues to play out today in a big way. Andy Berlin, Jeff Goodby, and Rich Silverstein all worked for Riney before heading out on their own.

Riney liked to use pop music in ads, not just jingles. He painted a complete picture for viewers, one that they could imagine themselves in, and happier in. And like Leo Burnett and David Ogilvy, he created brand characters (Bartles & James) endowed with cultural relevance.

Lee Clow said, “Hal Riney was one of our fiercest competitors and, personally, one of my greatest inspirations. The man was truly a genius. His voice for storytelling and his art changed the way we think about advertising. His work will continue to inspire us.”

Hal Riney is one of the ad legends featured in “The Ad Legends: The People, Creative Movements, and Legendary Work That Shaped the Modern Craft of Advertising,” a live workshop I first presented at Signal Theory in Kansas City and Wichita, on December 11 and 12, 2019. 

Hal Riney illustration by Jason Walton.