I recently came across this post on Joss Whedon’s 10 Tips for Writ­ers and thought that the tips applied equally well to adver­tis­ers and ad writers.

If you’re ask­ing your­self “Joss who?” — you’re miss­ing out! Joss Whe­don is the script doc­tor that worked his magic on Toy Story when the whole movie was in jea­pardy of fail­ing. He’s also the cre­ator of Buffy the Vam­pire Slayer, Fire­fly, and Seren­ity. But if none of that really strikes a bell, then you prob­a­bly will rec­og­nize him as the direc­tor of the block­buster Avengers movie.

At any rate, I found his writ­ing tips to be thought­fully on-target, so here’s my advertising-centric trans­la­tion of Whedon’s 10 Tips:


In business/entrepreneurship this means “Ship,” as Seth Godin would say. But to stretch it past that a bit and into the realm of adver­tis­ing, I’d para­phrase David Ogilvy and say, Don’t buy a ticket half-way to Europe — fin­ish the jour­ney.

From a brand­ing per­spec­tive that means don’t mess around with 12 dif­fer­ent plat­forms, cam­paigns, and media; com­mit to one cam­paign, one pri­mary media and buy enough rep­e­ti­tion for a long enough time to fin­ish the job you started.

From a direct mail per­spec­tive, actu­ally mail out the let­ter — fin­ish that job, for sure — but also com­mit to a series of mail­ings, or a mail­ing fol­lowed up by a sales call, rather than a one-off postcard.


To quote from Joss Whedon’s orig­i­nal advice: “Struc­ture means know­ing where you’re going; mak­ing sure you don’t mean­der about.” In small busi­ness that means hav­ing a grip on your busi­ness model and your goals and not falling prey to bright shiny object syndrome.

From an adver­tis­ing per­spec­tive it means work in cam­paigns. Don’t move and mean­der from one unre­lated ad to another unre­lated ad; have a cam­paign and an over-arching mes­sag­ing and brand posi­tion that you stick with. Know where you’re going and have the dis­ci­pline to get there. Note that adver­tis­ing one sale after another auto­mat­i­cally con­demns you to mean­der­ing with­out structure.


Again, to quote from Joss Whe­don “This really should be num­ber one.” If you’re pay­ing to be on the air with radio or TV, or you’re pay­ing to mail a mes­sage to some­one, you really need to have some­thing sub­stan­tive to say. It doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily have to be a Unique Sell­ing Propo­si­tion (USP), but you should have:

  • an offer to make,
  • a value that you stand for (or some­thing you stand against),
  • and an advo­cated posi­tion around your business/industry that you’ll stand behind.

And, really, just like in writ­ing, hav­ing some­thing to say IS the #1 thing about advertising.


I don’t care if you’re the brand­ing equiv­a­lent of Apple, Harley David­son, and Jack Daniels all rolled into one: your role in the lives of your cus­tomers is at the far periph­ery. Your rel­e­vance and inter­est is extremely lim­ited. Keep that in mind and fig­ure out those con­texts in which you are rel­e­vant to cus­tomers. Tie your prod­uct or ser­vice back to the things that really do exist at the cen­ter of customer’s lives. Don’t let your adver­tis­ing pre­sume that your busi­ness is impor­tant to peo­ple out­side of those nar­row con­texts in which you can help them with an imme­di­ate prob­lem or concern.

As a corol­lary to this, real­ize that for most prod­ucts and ser­vices, adver­tis­ing through mass media means that 98% of the peo­ple see­ing (or hear­ing) your ad are NOT cur­rently in the mar­ket for what you sell.

Some peo­ple see this as a bad thing, but the truth is that speak­ing to peo­ple who aren’t (yet) in the mar­ket for what you sell is really one of the best things about broad­cast media.


Because the best time to con­vince peo­ple of how won­der­ful you are is BEFORE they need you. The idea is to have these peo­ple enter into the mar­ket — to start their use-case sce­nario — already biased in your favor.  You don’t want them typ­ing your busi­ness cat­e­gory into Google and mak­ing a deci­sion based on search results. You want them typ­ing your busi­ness NAME into Google, hav­ing already (largely) made their buy­ing decision.

But if you take this approach, you must real­ize that you’re talk­ing to peo­ple who aren’t inher­ently inter­ested in your prod­uct pre­cisely because they are not yet in the mar­ket for it. That means you must give these lis­ten­ers a rea­son to pay atten­tion anyway.

In other words, you have to seduce and enter­tain peo­ple into pay­ing atten­tion.  Make your ads more inter­est­ing and enter­tain­ing than the thoughts cur­rently run­ning through the minds’ of your audi­ence. And do it in a way that strength­ens rather than obscures your sales message.

Being both enter­tain­ing and on-brand and per­sua­sive is tough, but it’s what sep­a­rates the pros from the ama­teurs in the adver­tis­ing game.


Clients will often be so enam­ored with things they love and that they feel the prospec­tive cus­tomer should care about, that they’ll insist that you put it into the ad. Some­times the cus­tomer does (or can be made to) care about it too. Then you’re in luck.

Unfo­tu­nately, it’s more likely that the cus­tomer will remain totally apa­thetic about your client’s pet obses­sion no mat­ter how much he “ought to” care about it. And that’s when the busi­ness owner (aka your adver­tis­ing client) has to fol­low the advice to “cut what you love” and focus on what’ll actu­ally move the needle.

And of course, as a copy­writer, you often have to “kill your dar­lings” (aka cut some of your best lines) in order to strengthen the over­all ad copy — espe­cially when you’re run­ning short on time for that 30 or 60 sec­ond script!


If the idea is to talk to the dog, in the lan­guage of the dog, about what’s in the heart of the dog, then that means you’ve got to:

  1. Under­stand what’s in the heart of the dog — what the prospec­tive cus­tomer really cares about, and
  2. Have a sense of the lan­guage of the dog — what kind of words, atti­tudes, phrases, etc. your cus­tomers really use when talk­ing about their desires and frus­tra­tions and needs.

You can’t know or do any of that with­out lis­ten­ing to the cus­tomer. And these days, a lot of lis­ten­ing is done through your eyes by search­ing through reviews, forums, and social media com­ments. Lis­ten to how peo­ple talk and what they talk about so that you can talk to them in your ads about the same things they care about, using the same lan­guage they use.


This one goes along with “Lis­ten.” You’re goal is to emo­tion­ally con­nect with your audi­ence. You want your ads to cause them to think of you first and feel the best about you when they DO finally need what you sell. That way they come to you as a pre­ferred provider and rec­og­nized expert — some­one wor­thy of pre­mium pric­ing. In order to do that you have to sep­a­rate out the effect you intended your ads to have from the effect they actu­ally have.

Some­times the fea­ture or ben­e­fit or the line of copy or brand­able chunk that you think will really con­nect with peo­ple doesn’t, while some seem­ingly “throw-away” phrase or line res­onates in a way you never antic­i­pated. If you’re track­ing the audi­ence mood, you’ll be able to do more of what res­onates and less of what falls flat.


This means write cin­e­mat­i­cally and visu­ally. This is easy to under­stand for TV, but it applies equally well to radio. It always amazes me the amount of peo­ple in radio who talk about “The­atre of the mind” but don’t really under­stand what the phrase means or never write ads that cre­ate that kind of cin­e­matic response in lis­ten­ers’ imaginations.

So regard­less of whether you are cre­at­ing TV Ads or Radio Ads, write your ads like a movie rather than an ad. Don’t just talk about your prod­uct or ser­vices ben­e­fits, dra­ma­tize them. Sear the men­tal image of that ben­e­fit onto the imag­i­na­tions of your audience.


Yes, I know: this con­tra­dicts Tip #6. Stick with me a moment and it’ll all make sense.

When your ad has impact and can’t be ignored, and espe­cially when such an ad is aired with the proper fre­quency to make a dif­fer­ence, you’ll get com­plaints. An ad’s abil­ity to attract is inex­tri­ca­bly linked to it’s abil­ity to repel; if nobody hates it, nobody will love it either.

So when you’ve got an emo­tion­ally pow­er­ful, un-ignorable ad on your hands, pre­pare your­self (and/or your client) to get com­plaints. Expect the com­plaints to come, and then don’t lis­ten to them. Apple’s “I’m a Mac” cam­paign got a TON of com­plaints, from all kinds of peo­ple who thought the cam­paign was mean spir­ited or smug or what­ever. Good thing Apple decided not to lis­ten, huh?


The real­ity of the cus­tomer expe­ri­ence has to match the promises made in the ad. This has ram­i­fi­ca­tions for both ad writ­ers and small busi­nesses. For ad writ­ers, it means don’t sell out by tak­ing on clients who run bad busi­nesses and who can’t deliver on what your ads promise.

For busi­nesses, it means to guard against let­ting the cus­tomer expe­ri­ence slip as you grow. Instead do the oppo­site: rein­vest in mak­ing the cus­tomer expe­ri­ence bet­ter and more closely aligned with the brand.

This also means occa­sion­ally allow­ing your­self to get “called out” on your brand promises, often in unrea­son­able ways. If you’ve got the guts to plant a flag and make a stand, some­one will test you on it sooner or later. And you can bet that that “some­one” will more than likely be unrea­son­able about it.

For exam­ple, some­one will lik­ley abuse your life­time guar­an­tee, or your “no sur­prises” guar­an­tee. Then you can be like LL Bean and write off the abuse as a cost of keep­ing your guar­an­tee, or you can refuse the unrea­son­able request, quib­ble over your guar­an­tee, and add fine print to your promises. If you quib­ble, you sell out. And then word will get out. If you stand and deliver (even in spite of the knucklehead’s unrea­son­able­ness), word will get out on that, too. And the reward for that will exceed the cost by a fac­tor of 10X, at least.


And there you have it. Ain’t Joss Whe­don great?


  1. allantopher on 03.25.2014

    10 Adver­tis­ing Tips from Joss Whe­don http://t.co/kzsi2mBbWx

  2. mahanay on 03.25.2014

    10 Adver­tis­ing Tips from Joss Whe­don http://t.co/NwecrT80Qv — via @JeffSexton

  3. TDAllonsy on 03.26.2014

    10 Adver­tis­ing Tips From Joss Whe­don — http://t.co/h5uGHdr9VK

  4. houseofkaizen on 03.26.2014

    10 Adver­tis­ing Tips from Joss Whe­don http://t.co/QtKUqfvCRn #Dig­i­tal­Mar­ket­ing #Advertising

  5. kmattson on 03.26.2014

    @josswhedon is such a renais­sance man that I’ll bet even he didn’t know he’s an expert in adver­tis­ing, too! http://t.co/9CqYzYYseS

  6. ScLoHo on 03.26.2014

    10 Adver­tis­ing Tips from Joss Whe­don http://t.co/4ANY6tPLmK

  7. JWinstonC on 03.26.2014

    10 Adver­tis­ing Tips from Joss Whe­don | Jeff Sex­ton Writes” good read http://t.co/AWpAjTrWD9

  8. AntDina on 03.27.2014

    Thanks @JeffSexton for 10 Adver­tis­ing Tips from Joss Whe­don http://t.co/BYOP17ZEgl

  9. bigdaydj on 03.27.2014

    An ad’s abil­ity to attract is inex­tri­ca­bly linked to it’s abil­ity to repel; if nobody hates it, nobody will… http://t.co/MrFb27FrNA

  10. virtualgo2 on 03.28.2014

    10 Adver­tis­ing Tips from Joss Whe­don http://t.co/94Qp385Aux — had to post this — huge Joss Whe­don fan!

  11. virtualgo2 on 03.29.2014

    10 Adver­tis­ing Tips from Joss Whe­don http://t.co/15ndlA9ItC — had to post this — huge Joss Whe­don fan! http://t.co/vAON3l2ut8

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