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.
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.
Yesterday, I overheard a copywriter of a certain age kvetching about some of the younger staff working beside her in the creative department. It wasn’t my place but I suppose it could have been. The lady was upset, so much so, she’d taken the matter up with HR. Apparently, the young hooligans in the creative department loved to punk one-another and regularly launched objects and f-bombs over the cubicle walls. The distraught copywriter told how, for fun, the rascals threw salt at her, yelling: “You’ve been assaulted! You’ve been assaulted!” For what it’s worth I give the gag a “C-” but I don’t find it very offensive either unless, of course, you’re allergic to salt.
Be that as it may, the person complaining about it was genuinely upset. The matter got me thinking… While I am closer in age to the upset copywriter, I also remember, back in the day, being a total jackass in the creative trenches at Leo Burnett. And I wasn’t the only one. Not by a long shot. I don’t know how much creative energy we expended coming up with pranks and smartass crap but if we billed hours against it, it probably would have been our biggest client.
Of all the stupid shit I did, one thing stands out…
Get in the hot tub time machine! For it happened pre-Internet, in the days of memos, dictionaries and copier machines. One day, I happened upon an innocuous memo written by an account person, whom I sort of knew. Didn’t matter the person. But the memo she’d written was an absolute gem of bad writing and crappy ideas. Words were misspelled. Sentences made no sense. It was as if this MBA hadn’t taken a single English class.
Anyway, delightful child that I was, I decided to edit her memo and post the marked-up copy on the bulletin board by the coffee and vending machines. Soon, other creatives began adding their own edits and comments. Within a week the memo had become a shrine to bad writing and a cause celebre’ in the agency.
You know where this is going: me in HR’s office apologizing to one distraught AE, as well as to both our superiors. We moved on. Nobody got fired. But to this day I still think the writer of that god-awful memo had no business working at Leo Burnett. Yet, I also think I was total asshole for humiliating her, especially so publicly.
Hearing a women complain about similar antics had me on two sides of the issue as well. Buck up I wanted to tell her. As well as “I’m sorry.”
In a past column, I likened most creative departments to Romper Room, full up with youngsters coming up with stuff productive and otherwise. Others have called it a frat house. Either way, what is it about creatives that make us –at times- so juvenile? Even with all manner of corporate rules and protocol we sometimes can’t help ourselves. We are silly. Obviously there is a line not to be crossed, racial and sexual insults are unacceptable. Putting a rubber cockroach in the candy dish at reception? I say go for it.