“Behold, my creation!”

Lately, ny agency has made a slew of creative presentations. Two or three a week. Likely your agency is experiencing something similar. It’d better be. Like sharks, creative agencies don’t do well sitting still. We must hunt as vociferously as we farm, if not more so. The days of long-term relationships are so damn over I feel like it almost goes without saying.

Create. Present. Repeat.

For obvious reasons, most creative departments are built focusing on the talent piece, finding the right people, nurturing them and tweaking when necessary.

Typically, we hire folks based on their credentials. That and a couple of meetings. Barring a disastrous interview, if the copywriter or art director or designer, et cetera has a good book and solid references we hire ‘em.

Alas, the presentation aspect of the candidate’s game is almost always underestimated. What choice do we have? Other than first impressions how can one really know if a creative person is tight when it comes to facing a client? I ask a guy if he’s good at presenting and 8 times out of 10 he’ll answer affirmatively, claiming he likes the adrenaline rush, and is a pretty decent closer. “I can always get better,” she might say, earnestly. “But, you know, my main focus is on the work.”

The proof is in the pudding, as they say.

Well, forgive my frankness, but most creative people aren’t very good at presenting their work, let alone someone else’s. Often a man might think he is; after all, who wants to believe otherwise? Being a charismatic and articulate advocate is so tied with self-esteem. It takes a very honest soul to admit mediocrity. Most of us end up fronting. Unfortunately, cocksureness is no substitute for a compelling presentation. Often it is detrimental. Few things gall as much as the defensive and preening creative. Even a kiss-ass fares better.

Because most agencies can’t afford to treat a single presentation as ‘practice’ a vicious cycle develops. ‘Show talent’ does not get properly developed. While the same two people end up presenting over and over again. Couple that with the fact that by definition people are crummy at public speaking until they’ve done it dozens of times and we end up with creative departments long on craftsmen and short on showmen.

The straight dope is one must really pay attention to his or her presentation skills, either making it a point to demonstrate improvement or be resigned to letting your hopefully more capable boss or partner do it. This is not unwise strategy. At first. But eventually you’re going to want to speak up, especially if you have designs on becoming a creative director.

Rest assured. The cycle can be broken! What does success look like and how do you get there? That’s the subject of my next post. (Hint: you won’t have to go to Toast Masters or take some weird class in a strip mall.) Until then, here’s a fairly recent piece I wrote on the very same subject.

From my morning run in Berlin…

I’m not going to lie to you. This post is likely to be scraggly. That’s because I’m in the 11th hour of a painfully long journey home from Europe and my mind is running on reserve power. I believe I’m over Colorado now. California is but two states away. I think. My biological clock tells me it’s 4:30 AM.

Focus, Steffan! The people don’t give a shit about your high-class travel problems. They’re not interested in the fact that you can’t sleep on planes and no longer even try. They don’t want to hear about all the movies you watched. (Believe it or not, Bad Grandpa is not so bad.) They most certainly don’t want to hear about the old German crone sitting behind you wet coughing like a turning zombie. (I swear to God I almost shoved my little white airplane pillow in her festering mouth. Sick bitch.)


I was in Berlin for a 2-day conference of Executive Creative Directors from all the offices in the gyro network. We call it the Creative Front. Dubai was there. London. Singapore. Madrid. Chicago. New York. Several others. And me: San Francisco.

Aren’t we a cliched bunch? Night of the Living ECD’s.

Without getting into particulars, the theme for our gathering was transformation, specifically as it pertains to our creative product. Relative to the holding company behemoths, gyro is young and growing and has something to prove. We talked about doing just that. Creating more and ever-better proof of our philosophy and positioning.

But, like I said, that’s proprietary information.

The big reason we chose Berlin to have this meeting was because of the seismic transformation that took place there 25 years ago, when the wall separating East and West finally came down. I think that synergy is pretty cool. And since I’d never been to Berlin I was pretty keen on being there.

Like a little New York!

Hip but sweet, hotel coffee shop

Though we all were sequestered in our hotel’s meeting space from morning to night I was able to run every morning and see this funky, ersatz city in a way that only pedestrians can. Berlin is like a non-pretentious hipster. There is a genuine sweetness to its creative vibe. Like New York without the assholes and scariness. A bit messy and unkempt, Berlin grew on me. It was and is a great metaphor for the creative department.

I don’t have a clean ending. My hands are trembling from fatigue. My brain is a caffeinated jellyfish pulsing in my skull. Time to watch Thor: The Dark World.

“With great passion comes great responsibility.”

Recently, I was asked about my creative philosophy. Namely, do I have one? Seems like a reasonable question. Seems like something an Executive Creative Director ought to have.

Well, I’ve had many. Which, if you think about it, is as it should be. As creative professionals, we must remain open-minded and forever teachable. For us, one-way streets are typically dead ends.

Look at the term, “creative professional.” It’s almost an oxymoron, isn’t it? There’s tension there. The right brain (creativity) and the left brain (professional). But that’s the gig. That’s what we do. Therefore, any philosophy we have must strike a balance between passion and responsibility. Said another way, we are both craftsmen and salesmen. We’ve gotta do both.

Both ends burning…

Your exact philosophy will be a function of percentages. I’d say my current philosophy is 60% passion to 40% responsibility. Those numbers change over time. Back in the day, I’m sure my split was more like 80/20. But then I started facing clients. I had to mitigate my obsession with winning awards and other personal achievements. I had to compromise. I had to listen. I became responsible-ish.

It is important to note that while passion is the fun part -and closer to what people think about when they think about creativity- it is often destructive in too large a dose. Without empathy for the business, even the most brilliant creative person will be stifled… often by his own hubris. Obviously, I don’t need to discuss the unduly “responsible” creative. They are hacks. To me, mortgaging one’s passion to the hilt is both sad and unmanageable.

While percentages vary, I’m a big believer in “responsible passion.”

In my next post, I’m going to talk about staying creatively fit and remaining relevant, which, in my view, is a critical precursor to any creative philosophy.

All righty then, let’s make ads!

A while back a guest writer on AdAge, Lauren Warner took some heat for an essay she wrote about the briefing process. Among other things, she claimed one should address “creatives on your shop’s team like they’re in kindergarten.”

Others may have been offended but the story made me smile. I recall an evening spent at my children’s school, meeting their teachers, discussing the upcoming year. During this visit, I became aware of how “creative” so much of my daughters’ curriculum really is. Colette’s science teacher explained how “experimenting and taking chances” shapes her powers of intuition. Lily’s drama teacher rhapsodized about “connecting to the inner fantastic.” She used the word “connecting” over and over again. “At this age,” she said, “the creative gene is ready to explode!”

I couldn’t help but think of all the “connecting” strategies I’ve puzzled over as a copywriter and creative director. “Connecting people” is the default strategy for all telecommunications, personal technology, and, frankly, just about everything people use in their waking lives. Connecting folks is Coca Cola’s uber-strategy. “I’d like to buy the world a coke.”

Even more interesting was this business about creativity “exploding.” I believe the teacher was saying that our creative muse is born in these opening years of life. That stimulated and nurtured, we begin to understand and respect our intuitions. Kindergarten is a creative department. Experimenting with ideas on the stage, colors on paper, sounds in music class… That’s what I do!

Or that’s what I prefer doing. Much of my day, however, is spent lawyering on behalf of ideas. Defending them. Subjecting them to all manner of worries and concerns, making them more appropriate, more coherent, more on strategy. It’s inevitable. It’s my job. But it’s also like killing the butterfly in order to appreciate it.

“Use you imagination!”

The older I get the more I realize how important it is to stay “connected” to my “inner child.” The best creative people do not grow out of it when they grow up. We remain inquisitive like children. Lovers of fun. You see it in our bicycles in the hallway. Our dubious wardrobes. Our playlists. Our silly snapshots on Facebook. Alas, you also see it in meetings, where we become pouting and defensive, wilting under criticism, frustrated by the grown-ups ruining our fun. I know we can be insufferable. Imposing MBA logic in Romper Room is bound to create problems.

But our muses shouldn’t be stymied: the ability to ideate, to find that “inner fantastic” is necessarily petulant. What’s regrettable is marketing’s obsession with guaranteeing results…or else! Research. Testing. Groups. I say Bleh! Intuition, if cultivated and nurtured, is the most important tool the creative department. The old saw is wrong. Ideas are not children. We are.

Author’s note: I reworked this post from a previous one. Please don’t send me to the principal’s office.

photo copy 10
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.

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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