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To: Agency Re: Gang Bangs

Much cheering has gone out for a resurfaced 1994 memo written by the legendary UK adman, David Abbot (Abbot, Meade, Vickers) proclaiming contempt that his agency could take part in the practice of “gang bangs.” Lest ye shudder at the onerous term, in Adland gang-banging means throwing numerous creative teams at a single project, thereby pitting colleagues against one another, in hopes of winning a pitch or retaining a client. The idea is based on a simple truth: Shoot many arrows at a target and you are more likely to hit it. All agencies do it, some more so than others, particularly if the stakes are high.

Abbot’s piece is, of course, a fine piece of writing – witty, philosophical, and even brilliant. He writes:

“We have always believed that one creative team should own a project until they have either completed it or have been taken off it by the Creative Director… We do not believe in internal creative shoot outs or ‘gang-bangs.’ They are inefficient and more often than not de-motivating.”

The entire type written memo can be found here. I urge you to read it. It’s good stuff.

However, I did not come here to praise Caesar. I’m going to take the other view, primarily for the reason stated in my opening paragraph. More arrows mean more chances. Philosophically, I agree with the old man but realistically I cannot.

Though Abbot builds a failsafe into his argument (the bit about a Creative Director being able to make a switch), in many cases that would be too late for most clients, especially now, where so many of our engagements are projects rather than based on long-term relationships.

Rightly or wrongly, the vast majority of clients don’t have the patience. If a creative team owns an account and is struggling (and struggling happens) we must be in front of that at all times. Seldom do we get a second chance to get it right. And I do mean seldom. For even if we are blessed with a reprieve, the cliff’s edge haunts us from then on. Therefore, we hedge our bets when we put other teams on a project. It also makes our clients feel better. Again, I use the phrase rightly or wrongly.

Seven Arrows
More arrows, more chances…

Most clients want options. To count on one team for several different but equally exceptional campaigns is not just naïve; it’s absurd.

In terms of pure capitalism, it also makes sense for multiple teams to work on a single project. They bill their hours accordingly and the agency gets paid more. I don’t like it but there it is.

Finally, and this is the reason I appreciate the most, some accounts are just too good to only allow one team a crack. From a creative perspective, not all clients are equal. An agency is lucky if they have several accounts that typically ask for and approve excellent work. The fact is many clients have rigid marketing formulas they adhere to or are run by people with (and I’m being kind) a very specific vision. If there are but one or two gems, as a Creative Director I feel it is imperative I give as many of my troops as possible an opportunity to mine those gems. To not would be “de-motivating.”

For seven years, I was Creative Director on the award-winning juggernaut of Altoids (Leo Burnett 1995-2002). I built a creative group around it. Not only did I have to curtail writing copy for my beloved account so that others might, I also had to allow everyone in my large group to work on it. Actually, I didn’t have to do anything. I wanted to. For me, it just seemed fair –the right thing to do. To only let myself and/or a select few create copy for Altoids, while others toiled on less sexy accounts, seemed bogus to me then and still would now.

If my partner and I refused to open things up resentments could form, eroding the personal and professional integrity of the entire group. In addition, I wanted everyone to have something golden to put in their portfolios. Altoids was by far our most lucrative mine, if not in the entire agency. I don’t think gang-banging Altoids made anyone miserable. Frankly, I recall many awesome Fridays, when the entire group would paper the walls of my office with Altoids’ posters. We all talked about which ones we liked the most. The work speak for the results.

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“You’s gonna let us work on dat -or else!”

In my view, what my partner and I did is a crucial part of the Creative Director’s job. I’ve worked for CD’s who cherry pick assignments and people to work on them. That sucks and they suck.

In his memo, Abbot makes all kinds of good arguments against the practice of gang-bangs but none, in my view, override those above-mentioned.

I won’t pretend to be the Creative Director David abbot was but I am disputing him. Yes, gang-bangs are imperfect. Yes, they can be ugly. But I believe in a meritocracy (best idea wins), which usually starts with some form of democracy. Sometimes gang-bang means just giving everyone a chance.

scienceandreligion
Intelligent design is divine!

Did you know there are proofs of God’s existence? Neither did I. That is until my daughter informed me at dinner the other night. Camille is a student at Marin Catholic High School. Therefore, in addition to a standard curriculum she is also taking a theology class. It is one of her favorite courses. I’m not surprised. Whether one believes in God or not, religion and spirituality are fascinating subjects.

And so, when I’d remarked, somewhat cavalierly, that all religions are based entirely on faith my daughter was compelled to interject. There are so-called “Proofs of God,” she said. Among the most commonly cited examples is the notion of “beautiful design.”

The “Design Proof” suggests that our world is too perfectly engineered to be a happenstance of nature. Turns out it wasn’t just her teacher saying so… Peter Kreeft, a Professor of Philosophy at Boston College makes the “argument for design” as follows:

“The universe displays a staggering amount of intelligibility, both within the things we observe and in the way these things relate to others outside themselves. That is to say: the way they exist and coexist display an intricately beautiful order and regularity that can fill even the most casual observer with wonder. It is the norm in nature for many different beings to work together to produce the same valuable end—for example, the organs in the body work for our life and health.”

It is summed up nicely on the UK website, Philosopher.org:

“Is it possible that such an intricate mechanism, from the orbits of planets round the sun to the cells in your fingernails could all have happened by chance? Surely, this enormously complex mechanism has been designed, and the being that designed it must be God.”

Bringing it all down to earth, my daughter suggested baby animals are cute because God made them cute. Interesting notion. Why are babies adorable looking? Science suggests it might be to ward off predators. I don’t know. Baby seals are pretty darn cute and sharks love ‘em to death. Are cuteness and beauty God-given?

cute-baby-seal
Cute by design?

I have long been familiar with “Intelligent Design” as a faith-based take on Evolution. As a matter of fact, on glass-half-full days I believe it. But the argument for design as proof of God sharpens the point. As a creative professional, I’ve long valued design more than most aspects of our business, even copywriting. After all, good design mitigates bad copy far better than stellar copy saves crap design.

In a God-like way, designers make things beautiful. Steve Jobs certainly agreed. For him, and his company, design was God. Apple’s millions of obsessed devotees more than support the notion. The company inspires cult-like behavior because of its product’s impeccable designs. Period.

Is good design a proof of God or just a lovely coincidence? Yes, I first wrote about this last year but I continue to wonder about it now. Truly a fascinating subject…

images-11
She’s surprisingly hard to find…

In the latest issue of GQ are hundreds of fashion ads featuring hip, trendy people and not one of them is interacting with a smart phone or tablet. And yet, in reality that’s all these people do. I was taken by this dichotomy between the idealized world and the real world.

If technology is so NOW then why isn’t it conceptually a part of these ads targeting the very people who most want to be seen as hip, sexy and cool? I Tweeted the question and wasn’t surprised by the interest it created. There’s something very telling going on here. But what exactly?

Here’s my theory. It’s simple but also unsettling. Despite (or because of) our addiction to smart phones and computing, we don’t want to see ourselves that way. At least not through the mirror of advertising. GQ has page after page of young, beautiful people NOT interacting with technology. Instead they are rowing boats, camping, driving convertibles, kissing… In other words, doing all the things we aspired to do before we fell into our iPhones.

Walk down Chicago’s Magnificent Mile or NYC’s 5th Avenue and what do you see? Real versions of these same people tethered to ear buds, faces buried in their smart phones. Girls walking and texting is so rampant they should put up signs.

I’m no exception. I spend so much time at my computer it causes family problems. Seeing all these fashion-y people not on their computers was like an epiphany. We are still in denial about our addiction to technology.

The ambivalence in my lead is based on mitigating factors I will get to. First some praise. These new GE commercials are more than TV spots they are truly short films, carefully and wonderfully produced. Every element has been rendered at the highest level of craft. Listen to Beck’s score, for example, how it gently but persuasively pushes our buttons, keying in on what is humanly relevant and even profound. Making us feel the message.

Not to be a shill for GE or its ad agency, BBDO but I could easily rhapsodize about any aspect of these commercials. The casting. The writing. The cinematography. Like them or not, anyone who knows anything about production will recognize the obvious care (and cost) that went into making these commercials. BBDO has long been known for it’s prowess in making exemplary TV campaigns, and these will do nothing to hurt that reputation.

Tonally, both commercials remind me of certain odd, brave feature films that, like them or not, are deserving of praise. Spike Jonze’s award winning film, Her. And the decidedly more flawed but fascinating Luc Besson feature, Lucy. Vaguely unsettling but ultimately heart-wrenching stories of technology, people and the mysteries of life are what propel those films and these commercials.

The comparison is more obvious with Her. Its quirky yet deeply intimate style is, in my view, exactly what the filmmakers of the GE commercials were going for. I chose Lucy because, despite a dubious concept and being silly around the edges, it shoots for the stars and damn near gets there. Lucy is fresh and interesting film. It’s not boring. It tried hard to rise above its genre and B-movie pedigree. Morgan Freeman and Scarlet Johansson certainly helped.

Likewise, these commercials try harder than most. Way more.

That said I am struggling with how similar the GE Scary Ideas film is conceptually to the attached German commercial for Epuron, The Power of Wind, which won countless awards in 2007-08, including top honors in Cannes. You can’t tell me BBDO’s savvy creative leadership were unawares. I’m certain they not only knew about Wind but likely set about emulating it. I’m not sure how I feel about that. Ten years ago I would have called it plagiarism. Now, I’m not sure the term even applies. Is it iteration or a rip off?

Yet, whatever quarrel we may have conceptually or otherwise, we all need to appreciate a client and an agency that tries and unequivocally succeeds at doing something interesting. Period.

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Portrait of a young man as troubled copywriter…

How many times have we in Adland heard variations on the following comment regarding a member of the creative department: “Jack has talent… if only he wasn’t so negative.” Or: “Sally does good work but her negative attitude is holding her back.” The admonishment that creative people are by turns cynical, jaded and petulant –in other words, negative- is as old as creation itself. But is it a fact of life or an overblown stereotype?

Yes.

Negative emotions have always been linked to artistic expression and therefore ability. The cynical writer. The moody painter. The depressed poet. These are but a few of the many common expressions linking negativity to creativity. For perspective try switching adjectives. The cheerful poet? I rest my case.

Rather than dive into the deep ocean of thought on how and why negativity and creativity go hand in hand (pain and suffering being catalysts for art, ego and inferiority, constant rejection), let’s explore what it means in the modern advertising agency. First off, it accentuates the unofficial divide prevalent (to varying degrees) at every agency on earth. While many an account person has been called a jerk or worse, precious few of them earn the moniker moody or melancholic. No sir, that’s our job!

In weird but totally understandable fashion the jaded creative department rolls its collective eyes at the cheery frat boy/sorority girl account exec. And the uber-cheery AE’s roll their eyes back at us. I cannot count all the times I’ve seen a creative person called out by an account executive frustrated by his or her bad attitude.

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Negativity & Creativity

Conversely, I cannot count all the times when a creative has bitched about an obsequious account person. The personality divide defines and disrupts most agency cultures daily. Kind of like yin and yang. Only for us it can become toxic. If we let it. Rather than expecting tigers to change their stripes I believe the solution is mutual respect and acceptance. Live and let live.

Interesting to note (for me anyway) is the typical response a creative person offers up for being so negative. These tend to fall into two very opposite camps. The first type comes off as profoundly indifferent. “Whatever. I don’t care about the shit I’m working on. I’m sick and tired of trying.” Or some such. The second (somewhat thankfully) response is that the man cares a great deal about his work but has become defeated by the dimwitted autocrats running the show. He blames his attitude on others, who thwart his ability to “do good work.” The first is sick of trying. The second is sick of dying trying.

I refuse to editorialize. To me the above paragraphs are like photographs, capturing things as they are. While neither attitude is pleasant to behold (or likely very healthy), both situations are commonplace. Negativity cohabitates with creativity. To some degree we must accept this reality and at times even respect it.

As time goes by most petulant creatives grow out of it. (I like to think I did.) Maturity, hard work and luck all play factors in the lessening of the darkness.

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Who can tame a wild creative?

Finally, there is the irony that negativity actually aids creativity. It is a paradox but the miserable creative is often an inspired one. Therefore, we must embrace edginess, cleverness and cynicism the way a cowboy appreciates a fresh horse. “That pony is mean but man is she beautiful.” The wise account executive learns how to bridle this animal but can never do so completely and not without occasionally getting bucked.

In turn, the rogue pony comes to understand that if it ever wants to leave the corral (i.e. get anywhere) it will have to accept the bridle of professionalism. Either that or get made into glue.

Author’s note: I published a version of this story a while ago. I beg your pardon. Work has been busy!

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