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Some years ago, I had the pleasure of conversing with Alex Bogusky before he became a demi-God of Advertising.

We were at a vendor-sponsored pool party in Cannes. Unlikely as it seems, both of us were not really digging the scene. He seemed to prefer a quiet discussion versus living it up in the shallow end. I was more torn on the issue but also more than happy to oblige him.

For the record, later that week, Alex and his namesake agency would win handfuls of Lions, including the Grand Prix for a charming spot from Ikea called Lamp. Crispin Porter and Bogusky were in the middle of an epic run making them perhaps the most famous ad agency on earth.

But Alex wasn’t interested in talking about prizes.

images-1.jpg Bogusky / file pic from that period

Like a lot of executive creative directors (myself included), he’d come to Cannes simply because he could. However, he now admitted to being unsettled by the attention he and his agency were getting. He confessed that this would likely being his last time at Cannes.

“Steff,” he said, “we’ve got plenty of swimming pools in Miami.” (This was before CP&B moved its main office to Boulder.) Then he added, “I find that I like doing work more than celebrating it.”

I’m paraphrasing from memory, but this was my favorite bit. Ironic commentary coming from the man who would later write Hoopla (a book about fame in marketing), and probably win more Lions than any other person or agency in the United States.

Yet, to me, Bogusky’s ambivalence about all of it seemed indicative of a higher power beginning to work in his life: that making work, really good work, was more important than drinking champagne and toasting about it.

Bigger picture Alex was also discovering the persistent headache and clashes of conscience that hedonism invoked. Lessons I would learn the hard way.

Later that year, Alex resigned from his agency to pursue other interests. Now he’s taking back the creative reigns at his namesake agency. Prodigal son returning or is something else going on? I know I’m not the only one who looks forward to finding out!

Author’s Note: A version of this story appeared previously in ReelChicago

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Left side of my tank…

I maintain a 180-gallon reef aquarium in my home. Try to anyway. The coral reef is the most complex, delicate and beautiful ecosystem in the world. Lighting. Filtration. Water parameters. Flow. Everything has to be calibrated and monitored in order to even passably mimic a real coral reef. One or two miscalculations and your reef crashes. Suffice it to say, this is not your father’s guppy tank.

Still, or maybe because of the challenges, I am an addicted reefer. I can easily spend two hours in twenty-four with my hands in the tank and even more online doing research. Nothing tweaks my nerd DNA more than scouring websites, gaping at corals, bidding on equipment, or contributing to a forum. Reef porn is real.

An ad agency has a lot in common with my reef. Though it can be more polluted (joke), the hallways and cubes of an agency ecosystem are populated by equally diverse and complicated organisms. Some species, like the showy creative, can in fact be very sensitive. While others, the account director for example, can be very aggressive. Given the two must live together the experience can be challenging. Certain aggressive species torment smaller creatures, nipping at their work, crushing them. Biting criticism takes its toll. The wounded creative hides in his cave, camouflaged by earphones, avoiding the persistent predator. If the biggest fish in the tank is a bully, everyone suffers. When the tank becomes mired in territorial disputes, the whole thing crashes. Sound familiar?

It doesn’t have to.

Last night I observed my cleaner shrimp nibbling parasites off a troubled yellow tang and I realized that there is wonder here. When all these myriad creatures work together, giving and taking in harmony, the results are truly breathtaking. The solitary superstar flashes brilliance. A school of darting Anthias shows the awesome power of collaboration. If the tank masters accept the occasional skirmish, providing nourishment to all, then the ecosystem will flourish.

Author’s Note: A version of this story was published in Reel Chicago

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My last post was about “responsible passion” as creative philosophy. I wrote that whatever the philosophy a creative professional has, it must strike a balance between passion and responsibility. We are craftsmen as well as salesmen. To do the job right, “you’ve got to do both.”

Now I’m going to talk about staying creatively fit and remaining relevant, which is a critical part of any creative philosophy.

I believe in what I like to call the “creative athlete.” He or she is creatively fit, physically and mentally. He relentlessly works at his craft. She takes classes and workshops. They are students of the game.

Are you a “creative athlete?”
Are you a “creative athlete?”

They are also switch hitters, in that he or she thinks about their agency from every skill position and can play there if necessary. A good copywriter is a planner. A good art director knows how to interface with clients. All are good salesman, when called upon.

The creative professional may prefer working alone or with a partner, but he or she is also a competent and enthusiastic team player.

When I was coming up at Leo Burnett, I totally related to the founder’s screed regarding the “lonely man” — a romantic figure who wrote into the wee hours. As I grew older, I had to adapt my game to accommodate the many others who ultimately affect a project.

When creative athletes become creative directors, they remain active in their core skill. They get better at the other ones. They remain teachable and open-minded.

I firmly believe in the player-coach. If I were to stop writing I would lose the ability to judge writing. I would also begin the not-very-slow fade into irrelevance.

A writer writes…
A writer writes…

Remaining relevant is, in itself, a creative philosophy.

Honestly, I don’t know how a creative director can do the job well if he or she isn’t banging away on every other brief at the agency. I suppose some do but that’s not how I roll.

A writer writes. Right?

Being fit creatively is both mental and physical. I think a good salesperson looks good doing it. They are pumped to be working one of the coolest jobs in the world. I’m not talking about jackets and skirts. Lord knows I don’t adhere to any dress code. Just don’t skulk.

Finally, I believe in the basic tenants of a liberal arts education; in that a good creative professional is knowledgeable about our culture in all its forms. He or she is a consumer of it as well as a creator.

That means we must have a working knowledge of TV shows we don’t like and music we don’t listen to. For example, I loathe The Bachelor, but I’ve seen it. I cannot stand gossip magazines, but I read my wife’s copies. And so on.
We go to movies. We make videos. We Tweet. We read.

Know your crap
Know your crap

The creative professional who hates pop culture and avoids much of it cannot possibly serve our craft. Losing interest is tantamount to giving up and, as with any good athlete, giving up is unacceptable.

Know your crap.

I hope these last two posts have been helpful. While I am hardly the consummate teacher I have done this job for over 20 years. I know a thing or ten; many of them learned the hard way.

Whether or not one agrees with me on all matters isn’t critical. Your creative philosophy can and should vary. Just as long as you have one and that you are open to changing it.

Author’s Note: A version of this story was published last week on Reel Chicago

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The other night I got to thinking about a debating class I once took at the University of Wisconsin. An article on the ages-old conflict between the Arab nations and Israel spurned the memory. Like gun control and abortion, the Middle East is a debating class chestnut.

It dawned on me how important that debating course was in shaping my career as an advertising copywriter. The ability to create a compelling and fresh argument from tired tropes is paramount to good copywriting. For most clients, the benefits and solutions within their respective categories are extremely similar, if not identical. Therefore, practicing our skills on classic debating topics is highly worthwhile. (By the way, most of this paragraph has been constructed in the form of a syllogism (if/ then/ therefore), a term and concept I learned in debating class!)

I recall one assignment in particular because of how it forced me out of my comfort zone. I was asked to compose an argument for the opposite side on an issue I felt strongly about. Though I believed in a woman’s right to choose I had to argue on behalf of pro-life.

It was an infuriating exercise, inflaming my youthful passion in so many ways. Which is also why it was such a valuable lesson. Forcing me to argue on behalf of something I was ardently opposed to was and is great preparation for a career in advertising.

Since then, I’ve had to write persuasively about countless products I know nothing about or will never use –everything from enterprise software to feminine protection. At Leo Burnett, I created numerous campaigns for Phillip Morris, selling cigarettes. I worked on a pitch for an online gambling entity. I don’t drink alcohol because it nearly killed me but I’ve written national campaigns for Johnnie Walker and Anheuser Busch.

Scenarios like these are not uncommon. For many of us they represent just another tricky day in Adland. Putting aside one’s moral compass may be harder for some than others but either way the value of classic debating skills is obvious.

Final aside: Now more than ever I think the above debating exercise would benefit everyone who took it, teaching empathy. Sadly, I’m guessing many would refuse to partake calling it emotional terrorism or some such.

Author’s note: a version of this article ran last week in Reel Chicago – If you have a writing project you’d like to discuss, by all means hit me up!

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Those of us in the creative department have asked the question so many times it has become rote. The best answer is not an answer. Clients are difficult. Period. Especially when it comes to approving work. Therefore, we expect our work to be criticized. Revisions and changes are baked into the scope. It is assumed there will be rounds of creative. We are told that if we were in our client’s shoes we’d do the same thing.

But you know what? That’s bullshit. I am far from perfect but I am usually an accepting, flexible and even grateful client. When I hire someone to do a creative job –say an architect- I never give him or her the kind of scrutiny that is always given to new marketing campaigns. For example, a contractor shows me some designs for a room addition. I tell him which one I like, we discuss time and money, and I pay the man. Once in a while I have questions or a change is required. We address it in real time, during construction. We move forward. Even when it’s my money and my house I am seldom a hard ass.

Chances are you’re the same way.

So, why are advertising clients so freaking difficult? Why all the concerns, tweaks and rejections? I think the answer is fear. CMO’s and their get are terrified (sometimes understandably) of losing their jobs. Often my counterparts at the agency feel the same way. Every tree we plant must bear fruit. Or else!

Yet, endlessly hacking at the unplanted tree virtually guarantees a fruitless outcome. Death by a thousand cuts is no different than doing nothing at all. After months of revisions, the concept either dies in a meeting or, produced, it has been so severely compromised as to be ineffective in the marketplace. Everyone gets fired anyway. Another CMO comes in. Another agency. The process begins all over again. This is the definition of insanity.

Creating campaigns is thrilling. Yet, their yield potential is and always will be unknown. Hence the thrill. ROI is as possible as it is not. No one can be sure how an audience will react to an idea until the thing is out there. What makes a client nervous might very well be what makes the idea 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 hated it. The agency, Chiat Day was told to fire-sell the media, which happened to be two slots on the Super Bowl. One insertion never sold. So the spot ran. The rest is history. The follow-up commercial, Lemmings was a failure. Still, was Apple really hurt by it? No. Being reckless and cavalier has never hurt the brand. Frankly, Apple could stand more bravery.

It’s 2018. Why is everyone still afraid of new creative? If a concept doesn’t work merely try something else. The “brand” will be fine. Belaboring over the blueprint is an old idea. And a bad one. The digital age is about iterating. Swipe right. These days, fear and inertia are scarier than any new idea.

Author’s Note: A version of this article ran last week in Reel Chicago On that note, I am available for select writing projects.  Love to help. Let’s talk.