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An account strategist for Ogilvy & Mather in the Philippines died at his workplace, sick from pneumonia but apparently unwilling (or unable) to leave. I don’t want to comment on this particular man or his firm. It’s a tragedy and I’m sure everyone feels bad about it. Especially the man’s family. Yet, I’m pretty sure the root behavior won’t change. Not at that agency or all the sweatshops like it.

Here’s why: Fear. Be it of a losing a pitch or one’s job, fear of not getting what you want (raise, promotion, attention) or having it taken away, is insidious.

Fear is a powerful motivator but it comes at a tremendous price. (Look what it is doing to our country.) When fear creeps into an agency’s culture, it is always toxic and usually incurable. Fear makes people do bad things to other people and to themselves. Fear creates an environment of hostility and mistrust. I’ve seen it and felt it and have been hurt by it. Likely so have you.

The occasional all-nighter to win a pitch is NOT what I’m talking about. This is a good thing, bringing people together to win a glorious prize. However, when such activities become an expectation the bonding soon becomes bondage.

Mocking the so-called trend to “work from home,” people are afraid to leave at a reasonable hour, aware of the critical eyes upon them. The creative director who wants to see work at 10PM quickly turns from hero to heel. Yet, he or she is likely afraid of not calling the meeting as well. Probably because the agency’s managing director is expecting to see work first thing in the morning. If the presentation is not perfect then the MD will blame the CD for not working harder and longer. The cycle gets repeated. The virus of fear spreads.

While literally dying on the job is thankfully an ultra rare exception, there are far more commonplace consequences that are lethal. For example, each affected human is in turn hurting his or her family. Continuity at home becomes hopelessly disrupted. Marriages suffer. This makes everyone resentful and bitter: the employee to his boss for not giving a shit and to his spouse for not understanding. Resentments at home and office fester. The bitterness may lead to isolation, anxiety and depression. Alcoholism and “acting out” thrive in these conditions. Finger pointing. Blaming. Misconduct. People become the crappiest version of themselves. All because of fear.

But so what? Sweatshops work. For a period of time results are wrought. But it never ends well. For the individuals and eventually the agencies. Like an over-watered plant, the tips look good but everything below becomes rotten. I once worked with a guy who wanted a sweatshop more than life itself. He got his wish. I left that job. And he his home. Everyone loses when fear takes over.

For fearless creative hit me up: https://steffanwork.wordpress.com/

Here’s to the Crazy Ones…

I admit it. I’m crazy. And for the most part I’m okay with that – not that I have a choice. Ever since I can remember I’ve been aware of my, shall we say, unique perspective on the human condition – or my condition anyway. I wasn’t like the other kids. And I’m not like the other men. And while that can prove irksome at cocktail parties, or at times to my wife, it is simply reality.

Fortunately, I was able to forge a very successful career in advertising, where tempered crazy mixed with hard work is called creativity. Finding compelling ways to persuade people into believing in a product, brand or service requires more than a sound strategy; it demands a unique intuition. Crazy good ideas are hatched from crazy good minds. On good days I was crazy.

Like a lot of crazies, I ran into trouble “augmenting” that reality with drugs and alcohol but those days are thankfully over. I accept the way my mind works, even relish it, and am “aware” in ways no artificial stimulation can simulate.

Going deeper, I’ve come to the conclusion that for a great many of “us” being crazy is merely being more wholly aware than most so-called “normal” people. I am aware of my demons and defects and, for the most part, have learned how to live with them and even play with them. They can be muses. Pandora’s Box can be opened and shut. Yes, depression and anxiety are a part of it. And this is not always a small price to pay (see the preceding paragraph). So be it.

Looking at the world, we see chaos. In religion. In politics. In every other Instagram feed. Millions upon millions of people acting crazy but not identifying as crazy. Speaking and voting and even killing and not aware of it as crazy. Are the multitudes normal or just in hopeless denial?

We crazy ones know the difference. That doesn’t make us “better than” or “less than” but it makes us saner.

(Author’s note: The above anthem is the never-aired version with voice over by Steve Jobs. In retrospect, I prefer it to the read given by Richard Dreyfuss.)

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The glittery potential for every brand…

According to Zen, one’s serenity is inversely affected by one’s attachment to things. The more you live the more you realize it. Obviously, you can’t take anything with you but I wonder why it takes us so long to figure that out? On some level, we all accept the spiritual truth in this idea but on a day to day basis most of us don’t “go there.” We are too busy acquiring things, building things, starting things and ending things.

When I began this blog a decade ago I titled it the way I did for irony’s sake. As if there could be Gods of anything, let alone advertising. Ha! I also gave the blog a subhead: “We Make You Want What You Don’t Need.” Even then I felt the low-level hum of tension inherent to making a living in Adland. I’m an agnostic (mostly leaning on belief in a higher power) but I’m also a realist (leaning on skepticism). Still, I knew and know that making people covet brands was a form of idolatry. Obviously, I’m not talking about selling a car on Craigslist. I’m referring to branding. Big “A” advertising: Nike, Apple, McDonald’s, etc…

As brilliant as Nike’s historical marketing story is (and precisely because of), there is a tension to it. When Air Jordan’s came out with its iconic marketing (the jump man and the swoosh and “Just Do It”), all hell broke loose. People who could least afford them wanted them the most. And, well, bad things happened to realize those aims. People stole for them. Harmed others. Or more casually frittered away resources. Nike had become a religion. It is believed God can walk on water. And so, as all of us are lead to believe, with a pair of Air Jordans, can we.

This is an extreme example and not typical of most branding efforts. Yet, that is not because we don’t try to achieve those results. We do. Therefore, in theory and sometimes practice, we are efforting to “make people want what they don’t need.”

Admit it, copywriters. When you’re drafting a manifesto for a product or service or company (it doesn’t much matter what the thing is) don’t you feel the power at your fingertips? There, at your desk, you are creating a myth. Our words are like sparks and we want them to ignite. We are toying with Pandora’s Box and it is nothing short of thrilling. For me it is.

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As far back as 2008, I made a presentation at Cannes (at the Palais no less!) sharing some of the above ideas. I recklessly compared coveting Gold Lions to the Israelites worship of a Golden Calf. Needless, to say I was not invited to give that speech again. Ever.

Who doesn’t want their copy to go viral? To be shared. To spread like, frankly, a disease. If it does, we are blessed with silver in our paychecks and Gold Lions at Cannes. With powerful alchemy, we will have turned people into consumers. Into Believers. We will have become GODS OF ADVERTISING!

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“I know – Let’s put this shit in a can!”

A while back I was tasked with developing campaigns for a caffeinated malt liquor. It shall go nameless. The idea for this heinous concoction could only come from the minds of a large brewery desperate to appeal to young people. Very young people. Probably south of legal drinking age. After all, who else would drink it besides kids who a) want to get really drunk and b) want to stay upright?

“You can sleep when you’re thirty,” was one of our headlines. “Go Long,” was one of our taglines.

Regardless of your opinion of said creative, that was the strategy. Oh, we tried to make the advertising as cool as possible. Designed the hell out of those headlines. Made them look like graffiti or tattoos. Can you say Ed Hardy?

Fact is, we were doomed before we even left the briefing. It was all so messed up. Selling rocket fuel to young douchebags simply sucks. The best we could do was try to tell the truth and be funny. And because the truth is inherently gross the joke was on us.

Some products are like that. Their DNA is so strong in a bad way that its stink cannot be overcome. Taco Bell continues to churn out gut melting travesties of Mexican food and we wonder why, with a few exceptions, the advertising turns our stomach. That the chain is sometimes successful has more to do with marijuana than marketing. Broke and stoned teen-agers gotta eat.

Take this new campaign for something called “Lime-a-Rita.” In the commercial, an art gallery is transformed into a party after two young ladies are served. A statue comes to life and starts boogying. Oy.

Of course this ad is lacking. The product is. Starting with its name. I don’t even know how one begins to tell the truth about this goo. It’s Z-grade tequila (and only a little) mired in green soda pop. I’d rather just pour Cuervo in a glass of Mountain Do. If truth be told, I did a lot of that back in the day. One of many reasons why I don’t drink anymore.

Kids will be kids. They’ll mix shit with shots. The problem is when brands try to do it for you. Red Bull and Vodka is popular but not sold that way. Some drone in sector G of the brewery want to create a caffeinated beer and sell it at 7-11, the agency is going to give him exactly the advertising it deserves.

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I am excited to find a new job. A permanent one as well as freelance. Here are my credentials. However, to prove my chops as as elegant persuader I’m going to sell you on the idea that God exists using purely rational arguments. No psychic mumbo-jumbo. No beatific platitudes. No doctrine. I won’t apply one single faith-based point in my brief argument. When I’m done you may still not believe in a higher power but you will be closer to Him, Her or It than you were before.

Ready?

First a proposition: If anyone can definitively prove God does or does not exist I will give them all the money in my bank account. Non-believers and agnostics crave proof of God’s existence and, of course, it never comes. But why is it we rarely flip the question and demand proof that God doesn’t exist? It’s just as impossible.

Therefore…

Let’s go totally left brain and talk numbers. Percentages to be exact. Bearing in mind the above proposition, one must concede there is a 50% chance that God does not exist. However, that means there is a 50% chance that God does exist. In other words, after all is said and done, it’s 50/50 whether a divine entity or Creator exists. Now if you had those odds on the lottery –or anything really- you’d take that bet. You’d be a fool not to.

Yet, so many of us are ambivalent about God or even the idea of God. Why is that? Because we can’t see him? Well, you can’t see gravity either. “That’s different,” the unbeliever claims. You can prove gravity. There are equations.

Okay, smart ass. Do you “believe” in love? For your children? For your wife? Of course you do. Prove to me that love definitively exists. Of course you can’t. You feel love or not depending on your circumstances but you’ll never see it. Therefore, if you can believe in love why not God? They are both faith-based concepts with no rational foundation. Why is one different from the other? It isn’t.

Do you covet money, prestige or status? Are you addicted to drugs or alcohol? Have you ever been? What about chocolate or coffee? Or your boyfriend? We often make higher powers out of people, places and things. The alcoholic knows this all to well. When she wakes it’s all she can think of. The addict’s drug of choice brings him to his knees every night. They will put spirits ahead of everything else, including jobs, loved ones and personal health. Even the sanctity of human life will not deter the devoted from blindly worshiping. That’s fanatical. That is what ISIS does.

Yet, God forbid we believe in God. No one is more cynical than me. But I believe –even know- that God is a 50/50 proposition. Have I moved you even five percent closer to believing in a higher power?

So, how about that freelance?