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Beats taking the subway…

I won’t lie. Today was not a banner day at the office. I’ve been struggling with a couple super tough briefs. (I guess that’s why they call it work.) I’ve no doubt we’ll crack it. I have never missed turning in a homework assignment and I’m not about to now. But until I do: pain.

My workload has necessarily interfered with my ability to create a fresh post for this blog. That is rare for me. I beg your pardon.

Sometimes, when I’m feeling especially frustrated I make a gratitude list. I know it sounds corny but it really works. In times of stress I can forget how good I’ve got it: a healthy family that loves me, a good job in a fantastic city, a clear head and fit body and on and on. So many blessings! I feel better already. You should try it.

On that note, last week I rode my bicycle to work. I live in Mill Valley, which is about 15 miles from my office in San Francisco. The trip isn’t easy but it’s well worth the effort. The hilly ride comprises some of the most breathtaking (literally) scenery in the world. Coming home that evening I stopped along the iconic Golden Gate bridge and took these photographs.

And so how can I not feel like the luckiest man in the world?

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The unbelievable view (No Instagram necessary!)

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No place like (this) home!

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The pots and pans say I’m domesticated…

For an internal agency thought piece, I was asked to provide words of wisdom to me as a 22 year-old, just starting out in Adland. Others in gyro management were asked to do the same. These pearls would then be circulated throughout the network. Mostly just for fun.

But lessons are lessons and this seemed as good as way as any to give and receive them. As part of the exercise we were also asked to dig up photographs of ourselves from that time period. This is harder than you might think, especially if you, like me, were 22 before the advent of digital photography. It’s amazing how few photos I have of myself as a young man. I found the above winner and reluctantly submit it for your amusement.

Therefore, my first piece of advice: take more selfies! Kidding. Besides, I know you’re doing that anyway. So, other than telling my 22-year old self to buy gold coins and stock in Apple what would I suggest?

First thing: Be curious. Do not shirk learning in favor of seeking pleasure. Better said, seek pleasure from learning. Then, figure out what you’re good at and become really good at it. You might not achieve greatness but you won’t suck either. Thankfully, despite my careening ambition I carried my childhood love of learning into adulthood. I also chose writing as a “path” and, despite all manner of distractions, never stopped doing it.

The harder question: What new advice would I tell my younger self?

For starters, I’d tell me not to be so uncomfortable not knowing something. “I don’t know” is a perfectly good answer, especially if it’s the truth. As a young man, I thought I knew so much… that I was hard wired for being right. I was wrong. Curiosity is a great virtue. By definition that means having questions. Not answers. Amazing how long it took me to figure that out. So, to all the 22 year old creatives out there (and anyone really) my biggest piece of advice is to ask bigger questions.

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Old me enjoying a cigar…

Here’s another. Stick with the winners. At work (or anywhere) seek out people who have a gift, be it a skill you covet or even a big heart or both. Chances are they will not be unwilling to share.

This may come off as superficial but a great piece of advice I’d give my younger self is to dress better. Unless you’re Mark Zuckerberg, wearing sweatshirts and faded jeans every damn day is not a key to success. Working in a creative department has always meant come as you please but I bet I would have been taken more seriously and sold more work if I would have looked a bit more put together. Probably would have had more dates, too.

Finally, I wish my younger self had been nicer. Like a lot of twenty-somethings in advertising (then and now) I was, at times, a sarcastic and overly competitive SOB. So unnecessary. Begrudging my fellows to get ahead was foolish at best and likely a detriment. Working at a big agency, as I did, created tribes. We often competed on briefs. I’m all for healthy competition but I could have done without the snarkiness.

Alas, I doubt I would have listened to older and wiser me. Some things must come the hard way. Karma is real.

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“if you go chasing rabbits…you know you’re going to fall.”

“What’s your wild rabbit?” is the enigmatic question posed in Hennessy’ ad campaign from revered agency Droga5. I’ve seen these ads for some time now on marquee billboards, in national magazines, even as films. And while I admire agency and client for going all-in with a high concept (clients typically insist on showing drinkers drinking) I don’t get it. Not really.

Yes, of course, on a poetic level I know what the copy is saying: that the “wild rabbit” is a metaphor for your passion. And, because liquor ads are never wrong about these things, we’re supposed to find ours. Masculine icons like filmmaker Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver) and fighter Manny Pacquiao reveal what their wild rabbits are. In some ads the body copy overtly describes what the “wild rabbit” is: “It’s the voice that keeps you up at night…lurking in the corner.”

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Yikes! Given all that lurking who wouldn’t need a drink?

Joking aside, I cannot salute this creative flag. (I want to. For its chutzpa alone.) Yet for me this is a well-hit ball that just goes foul.

Chasing rabbits seems like pipe dreaming. It evokes the notion of big plans gone to seed. Of men sitting in dark corners getting hammered and talking about tomorrow. But tomorrow never comes, does it? Just despair. That’s what I get when I take in these melancholy photographs and the dark prose. Are we not taught to avoid going down rabbit holes?

In the famous movie Harvey, Jimmy Stewart plays an alcoholic with an imaginary rabbit for a friend. He’s found his wild rabbit and it leads to the booby hatch. Some years later Grace Slick warned us about chasing rabbits in her iconic song White Rabbit about a bad acid trip. In the context of booze advertising, don’t rabbits seem wildly inappropriate? In addition, every time I hear the phrase “wild rabbit” I think of Wild Turkey bourbon. That can’t be good for business.

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I’ll have what he’s having. -From Harvey

Maybe I’m missing something. After all, Droga5 seldom botches. When I was researching this campaign I found a nifty piece on a blog called Breaking Copy.The author is gung-ho about the campaign but I don’t buy his analysis. He writes the campaign “feels familiar, tapping into a shared cultural memory of Alice In Wonderland and the woodlands of Old Europe. It’s also a little bit sexy — after all, what are rabbits known for?”

The blogger mentions two other well-known references –which are fair. The first being Alice in Wonderland. It’s been a long while since I read the fable but, to my memory, Alice gets into a world of trouble chasing her wild rabbit. I believe the negative phrase “going down a rabbit hole” stems from her massive tribulations down there. Still, Wonderland is ultimately a magical place where creativity, imagination and personal freedoms are celebrated –perhaps to a fault. In any event, I’m willing to concede getting stoned on cognac can be a wonderful experience. Was Droga5 trying to tap into that? As in Lewis Carroll’s story maybe the indirect homage to inebriation is intentional. After all, liquor ads cannot go there directly (that’s why they are so hard to do). But then why the prizefighters and movie directors, this idea of “bringing something into the world?” It’s muddy.

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“Can we see some ID?”

His second “a little bit sexy” reference relates to bunny rabbits’ affinity for reproduction. I suppose on one level getting drunk and chasing “tail” is akin to “breeding like rabbits” but I’m very certain this has nothing to do with Hennessy’s message, even on a subliminal level. What do you think?

The blogger ends his discussion by stating the campaign’s intent can be summed up in six words: “Getting white people to drink Hennessy.” He actually may be on to something, albeit possibly racist: that white folks will appreciate the brand’s enigmatic approach more than black people. However, this takes me back to my original concerns about the campaign. Namely that rabbit holes, imaginary drinking pals and the Jefferson Airplane paint pictures most Anglo Saxons would find upsetting. They may be reasons to drink Hennessy but they strike me as the wrong ones.

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“Radio lies and apologizes at the same time. Just like my husband!”

Driving my daughter to school the other day she became perplexed by a commercial on the radio, specifically the hurried voice over at the end of it. You know what I’m talking about. The legal copy advertisers are obligated to run warning consumers about certain claims, mitigating the ancient notion of caveat emptor (buyer beware). Here, the voice over is noticeably sped up to fit all the information into as small a space as possible. Like you, I’ve become jaded by this chip monk-sounding gibberish. Sometimes I don’t even hear it.

Naturally, my children are more curious. And I don’t blame them for laughing. The sped-up VO is patently ridiculous, helping neither the advertiser nor the consumer. It’s an industry practice started some time ago, likely mandated by a government consumer watchdog. For all I know Ralph Nader is to blame.

“I don’t get it,” my daughter said. “Those men at the end of the commercial are forced into telling us the commercial isn’t telling the truth?”

I nod. “Something like that.”

“And that’s what forced the people who made the commercial to make the guy talk so fast in the first place. So nobody could understand him?”

“Yes… Sort of.”

“But that’s crazy, Dad!”

“Try reading the microscopic type they use in print ads. It’s even worse.”

My daughter crinkled her nose, as if smelling something disagreeable. “Wouldn’t it be better if nobody lied in the first place?”

“Of course,” I stammered. “But advertising is different.” Immediately, I hated my answer. But I had nothing better. Thankfully, music returned to the radio. I turned it up and we drove away from the question.

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Driven to write…

A couple years ago, Pastor John Buchanan of Fourth Presbyterian Church Chicago (now retired) gave a terrific sermon on the rite of baptism, which I had the privilege of attending. Earlier he had performed the sacrament on two babies. And so later spoke of names, identities and how they relate to God’s plan for us. Interesting stuff. Especially for a borderline agnostic like me.

While there was much to glean from his sermon, I want to focus on one thing in particular. Buchanan referenced a book he’d read by Sister Joan Chittister (The Gift of Years) that struck a nerve with him. It did the same for me. I think many of you will relate to it as well. We define ourselves by our work. It becomes the Who, What, Where, How and Why of our lives. Can you deny it?

In our society, introductions to people almost always include asking what the other person does for a living. I do it all the time: “So, Phil, what do you do?” Big deal. It’s a good way to find common ground.

But what happens, the pastor asked, when ‘what we do’ is over with or, worse yet, taken from us as in layoffs or job eliminations? Do we lose our identities? Do we become nobodies in the eyes of our peers and ourselves? Buchanon suggested living by such a self-absorbed credo devalues us as human beings, often causing serious anxiety and depression. In America, our identities are inextricably tied to ‘what we do’ versus who we are or what we believe in. Take away that and we’re left with… what exactly? Given the current recession and myriad job losses, his sermon was especially poignant. Yet, even in good times the ‘what we do’ credo is troubling. For one thing: what happens when we retire?

Uh oh.

I have always unabashedly identified myself as a writer, be it of copy, editorial or fiction. To wit I wrote and edited my high school newspaper (The Lane Tech Warrior). I did the same for both student papers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (The Daily Cardinal and Badger Herald), not to mention scribing for an independent publication, The Madcity Music Mirror. I started my career as a copywriter at Leo Burnett and continue to do so at gyro in San Francisco. I’ve written three novels and dozens of short stories, some of which have been published. I wrote two screenplays. I write and maintain Gods of Advertising as well as The Rogue’s Gallery, which, as some of you know, was originally intended to be a forum for copywriters to showcase their writing.

So, yeah, for me it’s all about the writing. The point I’m building to: What happens when all that ends, as one day it surely must? I get paid to write and creative direct copy. This also gives my blog a modicum of credibility. Take away my job and then what do I do? Relax? Hell, I barely do that now. How am I supposed to do it 24/7?

According to Buchanan, if we are spiritually fit we are more content and serene, regardless of our employment status. But getting fit means letting go of intense personal ambitions. Self-centeredness must slip away. Easier said…

To me writing is a very selfish act, even if for clients. It has a narcotic effect. I not only get off doing it; I can’t stop. There is always another brief, another story, another presentation. Writing takes me away from my family, friends and other obligations. Buchanan suggests it also takes me away from God.

His point isn’t that writing is a despicable act (even ad copy!) but that putting it before others and God potentially is. Similar counseling is given to alcoholics: ‘Get outside of your head,’ we are told. ‘Think of someone other than yourself!’

I promise. Just as soon as I complete this post, rewrite that presentation, and edit some copy…

(Special thanks to friend, Anne Ross for reacquainting me with this post and Buchanon’s brilliant sermon. It is a lesson I have yet to master.)

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