Delightfully tacky stock photo of a “difficult client.”

Had coffee with another soldier in Adland. “Why are client’s so difficult?” he asked, rhetorically.

Those of us in creative departments have asked the question so many times it has become rote. Clients are difficult. Period. Especially with regard to buying and approving work. We expect them to demand changes to the concepts, to the script, to the voiceover, to the scene, to the CTA, to the size of the logo and so on.

We have become uncomfortably numb. We expect our work to be criticized. So much so the creation process has “revisions and changes” baked right into it. Furthermore, we are told –indeed, I’ve said it myself- if we were in our client’s shoes we’d do the same thing. To use the ultimate cliché “it is what it is.”

But you know what? That’s bullshit. I am far from perfect but I am usually a damn fine client. When I hire someone to do a creative job –be it a director or an architect or whomever- I never give him or her the kind of scrutiny that is typically given to me and/or my team. An interior designer shows me some designs I tell him which one I like, we discuss time and money, and I pay the man. This even when things are late and over budget, which they invariably are. Once in a while I have a question or an honest mistake has been made. We address it. Done. On to the next. Even though it’s my thing and my money I am seldom a dick.

Chances are you’re the same way.

So, why are advertising clients so difficult? Why all the concerns, tweaks and rejections? Like most things in the negative pantheon, I think the answer is fear based. CMO’s and their get are terrified (sometimes understandably) of losing their jobs. Often their counterparts at the agency feel the same way. Every tree we plant better bear fruit. Or else! With all that pressure (much of it self-imposed) it makes me wonder how they (or we) even get up in the morning.

Yet the resulting behavior –hacking at the tree or chopping it down- absolutely guarantees the tree will be barren. Or its yield will be paltry. In the end death by a thousand cuts is no different than doing nothing at all. Either way, the very thing one fears happening happens. The team is blown up. Another CMO is brought in and in turn another agency. The process begins all over again.

Creating campaigns is thrilling. Yet, their potential is and always will be unknown. Hence the thrill. No one can be sure how an audience will react to a thing until the thing is out there. What makes a client nervous might be what makes the thing truly great. We all know the story behind the world’s greatest advertisement, Apple’s “1984.” When it was screened to dealers everyone except its creators and Steve Jobs hated it. The agency, Chiat Day was asked to fire-sell the media, which happened to be two slots on the Super Bowl. One insertion was not sold. And the rest is history. Granted the follow-up commercial, “Lemmings” was an abject failure. Still, was Apple really hurt by it? No. Being reckless and cavalier has never hurt the brand. Failure can be the most excellent teacher.

Follow up to Apple’s “1984″ was considered a failure. So what?

So put it out there. Instead of ‘why are we so afraid?’ let’s ask ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ If it doesn’t work as planned we try something else.

Were it that simple, right?

Timely piece in AdAge on the virtues of failure.

Virtues of being “unpopular” from Tedx presentation.

Tears of joy…or relief?

Over the years, I watched Jerry Rice catch an awful lot of touchdowns and so on Saturday night I watched him give his induction speech at the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton Ohio. Many people consider Jerry Rice to be the best who ever played the game. I wanted to hear what motivated the best of the best.

Like a short screen pass, Jerry got right to it. He said it was “fear” that got him where he is today. “Fear of failure,” to be exact. He was scared to let his father down. He was scared to let his coaches, teammates and fans down. Not the fastest guy in the NFL, Rice claimed no one could catch him because he “ran scared.” The remark got laughs but they were nervous ones. He correctly added that this fear factor flew in the face of most sports psychologists’ theories of winning strategy. So be it. Rice understood the idea of letting go one’s fears but, apparently, he just couldn’t do it. Or wouldn’t do it? Hard to tell from the speech he gave.

I worry and wonder about that. Typically, I find fear to be a defect of character, maybe the worst one there is. Yes, fear is what keeps us from bodily harm. It’s what makes us get off the subway when a bunch of gang bangers get on it. Fear also prevents us from doing stupid things, like jumping out of airplanes or swimming in shark-infested waters.

Jerry Rice & Eddie Dibartolo -NFL Hall of Fame ceremony, Canton, Ohio.

But obviously that’s not the fear Jerry Rice was talking about. His fear was more interesting and, frankly, worrisome. By his own admission his fears kept him from enjoying himself. It was like living with a gun to his head 24/7/365. Yes, he went on to become perhaps the greatest NFL player in the world but instead of exultant tears of joy, he stood before his peers, on national television, looking more relieved than anything else.

So, was it worth it? Was Jerry’s fear-driven path to greatness a good one to take? If we take him at his word, the best answer is… maybe. For how can it be anything more definitive? Fear of failure is strong coffee. I think too much and you become miserable. And chances are you make those around you miserable. People driven by fear are sad spectacles and worse. They can infect their families with it, causing loved ones to cower or eventually resort to the only reactions possible: fighting or fleeing.

The same thing happens in companies, ad agencies being no exception. I’ve known several people whose fear of failure drove their every move at work. God forbid we shared meetings. Evaluating creative in an environment of fear is awful. Risk taking goes out the window. Creative recipes quickly become mashed potatoes. The only thing worse is trying to create something when one is scared. Frankly, I’m not sure good creative, let alone great, is even possible if and when the creators are scared.

That said we are all driven to some extent by fear. As it was for Jerry Rice, it can be ambition’s coal. While I loathe the fear Jerry spoke of I cannot deny how ever-present it is –in my business, in my life, in me.

I admire Jerry Rice for his many, many honors but I also can’t help but feel sorry for him. His candid speech made me sad. Every morning and night when I say my all-to brief prayers I almost never fail to ask God to take away my fear and anxiety. Unlike Jerry Rice, I’m no good to anyone, especially me, when I’m scared.

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“I don’t know why sometimes I get frightened.”
-Split Enz

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
-Franklin D. Roosevelt

It’s spring. Time to turn on the fear.

I’ve been writing a lot about fear. Fear of being left behind –in work, in memory, in death. Like it or not, fear is the ultimate bogeyman. None of us our immune to it. Certainly not me.

Healthy fear is a good thing. We cross the street when we see trouble. We brace ourselves for bad weather. Fear protects us from harm, as it has since the beginning of time.

What I worry about is unhealthy fear, the feeling in your gut that something bad is going to happen (usually to you) even though there is only circumstantial evidence to support it, sometimes not even that. This, my friends, is dread.

Let’s look at how dread manifests itself in the workplace. Specifically, our workplace. The economy blows; we all know that. Advertising is dying, or so we have been told…a thousand times. Maybe we’ve had a few bad meetings. Maybe the agency lost an account. And there it is: dread. Suddenly, our feet feel not so firmly planted on the ground. The air gets thinner. We begin to worry about our position within the company. Our future. So instead of doing the things we should do (focus and work harder), we become quarrelsome and defensive, pointing fingers, looking for scapegoats. Some of us hide, choosing to isolate. Because we feel things are falling apart we no longer feel a part of things. Sound familiar? Sadly, this is as natural as it is unhealthy. In the midst of fear, we react instead of act. We do what the primitive DNA commands. Fight or flight.

The effect on the creative department is obvious. Our minds close precisely when they should be opening. We cannot collaborate as well. We cannot create. We shut down. Like it or not, most creatives are sensitive, even the tough looking ones with tattoos and ripped jeans. No match for a culprit like dread.

Yet, I see fear boggling all of us to some extent. Even in good times, the specter of it looms. After all, what is given can be taken away. What goes up must come down. I used to think free floating anxiety was my curse alone. But now I know better. Still, there it is: unhealthy fear.

I know it’s spring, the days getting longer and warmer. No place for topics like fear and dread. Yet, now is a time of great upheaval. Lakes turn over. The ground heaves. Dead wood is exposed. New life replaces old. Change comes to advertising agencies, too.

What to do? For starters, try doing the very opposite of what your instincts compel you to do. (I know this sounds like an episode from Seinfeld but, if you recall, it worked.) Instead of fleeing, be present. Instead of fighting, offer to help. If you have an assignment tackle it. If you don’t, ask for one. Let go of the past (bad meeting, lost account). Stop sweating the future (getting fired). An old proverb states if one straddles the past and future, he invariably pisses on the present!

Find a way to do what you do best. And do it. Start writing. Open up that file and rework your layout. Again. Success in areas we can control mitigates fear of the unknown. This is the great lesson of the Serenity Prayer. It works like a charm.

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Do You Realize – that you have the most beautiful face
Do You Realize – we’re floating in space
Do You Realize – that happiness makes you cry
Do You Realize – that everyone you know someday will die

-Flaming Lips

Do you realize one of the few remaining topics still off limits in general conversation is death? It may be the only one. The other inevitability, taxes is talked about all the time, especially with President Obama promising more and more of them. The subjects we are not supposed to bring up at a dinner party, religion and politics are ranted about with passion and impunity. And sex? Please. Our society has become so hyper-sexualized I can’t feel my dick anymore! The Internet, reality TV, and social media (not necessarily in that order) have not just opened doors of communication they’ve kicked them down and burnt the splinters. Nothing is taboo.

Except death. In particular our death. Save for the occasional funeral, none of us ever talk, text or tweet about death. Not with friends. Not with peers. Not even with our own family. It just doesn’t come up. It doesn’t want to come up. Sure, we can relate to death in the movies and news stories but not in our own lives.

Is that because it’s a downer? Well, so are the Chicago Cubs but we LOVE talking about them. I think it’s more than just being depressing that keeps all of us off the topic. I think our ignorance of death is just too profound to talk about. Ever.

More specifically, our fear of death is too profound. Even the most spiritual among us can’t say with any certainty what happens after we die. Heaven? Reincarnation? Fertilizer? No one knows. Nor will anyone ever know until it actually happens -which it will. And that’s just too scary to think about, let alone discuss. At least openly.

Death is the ultimate common denominator. There is no cure. No one can avoid it. It’ll happen to you. All that other stuff (sex, religion, politics) is inherently debatable. Those topics, if once politically incorrect, now electrify us. In addition, the ability to hide behind online personas makes us impervious to any sensitivity.

But pseudonyms are no protection from the Grim Reaper. Nothing is. Not God. Not even social media. Ashton Kutchner may have more Twitter followers than anyone on the planet but in fifty or so years he and they will all be dead. (You can’t tweet death!) Then what? Oh, I forgot…we don’t want to talk about that.

Check out this dark and lovely video about death by The Headlights (film courtesy of Daily Planet in Chicago.

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images3 “Tell me I’m special”

Fact is creative people are an insecure lot. I’m not ashamed to admit it. We crave validation from our peers, bosses, clients and everyone else (also known as consumers). There are so many masters to please, so little time. Then, sadly, if you’re like me (having worked obsessively to please these masters), you end up spending what little downtime you have at home in the doghouse.

Yikes, no wonder we covet awards! As “commercial artists,” we are forever at someone’s beck and call. And our patrons are seldom benevolent. So, we bust our butts at work while mortgaging our lives at home, in both cases craving adulation and respect that we’re likely not going to receive.

Am I being melodramatic? Make the jump and find out:

Creative Insecurity


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