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Becoming a monster to defeat the monster

 

After watching the brutal second-to-last episode of Game of Thrones I turned on a news channel to alleviate my discomfort. What was I thinking? Bear with me, I’m going to start in an unusual place…

I’m troubled by the vilification of highly literate and educated people, labeling them “elitists.” Once upon a time, the most learned among us were undisputed and logical choices to run companies and govern nations. Regardless of their privilege and pretense, cultivated individuals were valued above all else. After all, didn’t we want the smartest people running things? Fallible wisdom is better than uncontested brutishness.

The populist agenda would have us believe otherwise. Higher education is for entitled liberals and rogue progressives. Such elitists don’t care about hardworking Americans, they say. Professors and scientists live in ivory towers. They are so out of touch. Learning is thusly framed as a luxury i.e. elitist. Only snobs have the luxury to care about esoteric things like Truth and Beauty.

There are kernels of truth in such notions; that is why they become popular in the first place. Yet, it’s paradoxical. We all aspire to be successful geniuses even as we relish dismantling those who are. The rich are evil. Yet everyone plays the lottery.

We reap what we sow. Populism has become the new normal. Any satisfaction seeing a Washington elite lose the 2016 presidential election has been replaced by something far more depressing and sinister. We have a dumb-ass for a President. And when absolute power is given to a dumb-ass we all get screwed.

That said the other side has taken the bait of outrage, fomenting extremism. As the POTUS has gone low so, too, have they. To fight the monster they have become one, unwittingly or otherwise. The insidious political correctness demanded by the “smart” and “woke” has made speaking one’s mind a minefield. God forbid you do not walk and talk a certain way. You will be shunned. You will be fired. Or worse. The outraged have become an angry mob. Journalism is no longer objective. Media channels are mouthpieces for one side or the other, both equally repugnant. I am as sick of CNN as I am of Fox.

In this crucible of correctness socialism feels like a reasonable idea, an antidote. It is neither. Power to the people is merely a bizarro form of populism, a ploy fronting as a bold idea. At first the Mother of Dragons was the Breaker of Chains, freeing the oppressed and punishing their captors. She was a good idea, too. Spoiler alert: She isn’t anymore. Give anyone absolute power and invariably all goes to shit. An angry mob created this government. Now an angry mob wants to take it out. What is the common denominator? An angry mob. Brandishing their hash tags like Valyrian steel.

I want my leaders to be literate and temperate. I want them to be smarter than me, vastly so. So that they have the courage to forsake righteousness for compromise, to ask for help in difficult matters, to be able to say the three bravest three words of all: “I don’t know.”

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When I was in college, I took a course on rhetoric and debate in 20th century America. In it, we looked at numerous famous speeches made by famous people: Lincoln, Jefferson, King, etc. Learning from great persuaders how to fashion a rational and emotional argument would later become useful as a copywriter and presenter. During that semester, no document we studied was more powerful than Martin Luther King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail.

I am not being glib when I say Letter from a Birmingham Jail is one of the finest pieces of long copy ever written. No question Equal Rights was and is a big idea. I like LFABJ better than King’s more famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Not because of content (both are awesome) but because of circumstances. King was alone in a jail cell when he wrote it.

On this, the anniversary of what would have been MLK’s 90th birthday; I think it a fine thing to reexamine this seminal document. An excerpt follows. The full text is linked below it.

“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

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The “science” behind the creative.

One of the things I’ve come to disdain about our business is how damn serious we take it. Not the craft itself — creating, curating and choreography — but the extemporaneous crap we built around it. Stuff like process and proprietary tools; the things we fill our slides with to make people think we’re methodical and scientific.

Whether we make ads or websites, we have complicated what we do beyond what is necessary to do it well. That is why briefs are no longer brief. That is why Cannes has become a cluster f—k. That is why I am writing this post.

Planning and strategy are the progenitors of creativity. The agency gets an assignment and we formulate a team. Left-brains give us facts and insights. The right brains turn them into ideas.

In a healthy agency, the two sides work together. Part of this is collaboration. Part of it isn’t. Each assignment predicates a different balance of both. Inviolate in this are the people. The better the people the better the outcomes. Yet, as obvious and true as all this is, agencies insist on codifying every step we take.

We call it ‘our process.’

Process is how agencies mitigate the fear involved with taking risks. We create the illusion of proof to support an idea. This insight divided by that challenge equals a solution. Ta da!

Reverse alchemy occurs when an agency justifies its creative after the fact. So many ideas are the result of divine inspiration yet that’s hard to package and pitch. Cool ideas need to be scientific case studies, for award shows as well as client presentations. Therefore, we manufacture smart sounding bullshit to appease the decision-makers.

Every agency I ever worked at romanticized their data … a lot. It’s just what happens when mythmakers and bean counters work together: Collusion!

Food for thought next time we pray at the altar of agency process. We have made our agencies into churches of organized religions but divine inspiration often has nothing to do with it.

Author’s Note: A version of this story first appeared 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!