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In absence of full time employment, I’ve been working my tail off. If this sounds contradictory it is not. As any freelance writer will tell you, the hustle is as crucial as the creation. Unlike fat and maybe-happy FTE’s the freelancer must work to get work before he can work.

Ah, the hustle. It’s like the fisherman who has to both catch fish and sell them. Two jobs. Both with distinct roles and responsibilities. He rises early to fish. Stays up late to sell.

Same for me. Work the phones in the AM. Write into the wee hours. Get up and do it again. Call it hustle and flow. I’m not complaining. Just saying.

Though I am also primed for full time work, I do find rogue satisfaction in being a grinder. The hustle keeps one alert. My sonar is on. Even the glimpse of silver beneath the waves and I turn to it. Lowering my bait. Jigging for a nibble.

The writing part I know well. Am good at it. Adore it. But after composing a manifesto for this client and writing content for that website, I’m just too fatigued to tend to my blog.

I trust you understand. And if you’re so inclined, hit me up. I will most certainly deliver. Spoken like a true hustler, right?

My portfolio: https://steffanwork.wordpress.com/

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A few 24 hours 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. However 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 perhaps 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 & 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.

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Alex Bogusky, 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 home office to Boulder, CO.) 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), not to mention win more Lions than probably 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 clash of conscience that hedonism invoked.Lessons I would learn the hard way.

Later that year, Alex resigned from his agency to pursue other interests.

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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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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. The first word in ECD is “executive.” Therefore, any philosophy we have must strike a balance between passion and responsibility. Said another way, we are both craftsmen and business people. We gotta do both.

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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.”

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Lion gets drunk jumps shark…

In a funky, charmingly meandering essay for the Wall Street Journal, the legendary San Francisco adman, Jeff Goodby takes the Cannes Advertising Festival to the woodshed, albeit the long way, calling it more of a “plumber’s or industrial roofing convention” than a celebration of the “big and famous and mind blowing.” He acknowledges that he is a “willing junkie for ingenious content delivery systems” (really, Jeff?) but clearly misses the good old days when ‘everyone knew who was doing the greatest shit in the world.’

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Ad Lion, Jeff Goodby rattles his cage…

His point is a valid one, which can be gotten to through many doors. Let me take a crack at a few. First off, about 10 or 15 years ago, in a vainglorious attempt to be modern (aka digital & social) and (obviously) to make tons more money, Cannes began adding myriad technical categories some so intricate they defy explanation. Applications. Emojis. Banners. Widgets. Tools. The kitchen sink. All of it, said Cannes, has the possibility of winning a Lion –be it bronze, silver, gold, glass or titanium. In addition, the festival created massive new groups, including public relations, healthcare and social causes. The advertising categories were still there, of course, and you could enter them six ways to Sunday, depending on budgets and other criteria.

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Your Titanium Grand Prix winner at Cannes: an emoji

For agencies and the like, entries became an advanced class in spending money. Take a look at these numbers, made even more conspicuous because they were tallied during the recession.

While this was going on the typically blatant corruption bloomed like algae. After all, all these new categories required evermore judges. Most if not every judge also has stuff in the show. So many shoulders rubbing together is bound to create mutual back scratching. And stabbing. It got so bad a couple years ago the creative leader of one holding company accused another holding company of “killing” the competition, among other voter schemes.

In the end, you get a bouillabaisse so big, deep and full of oddities one wonders if it means anything to anyone. Anyway, Jeff wonders. How can you not? Let’s look at some of the biggest prizes awarded in 2015. A fish-shaped lead sinker is deemed the greatest design in the world. A slew of iPhone pictures garner the Lion for best outdoor advertising in the world. A pizza-shaped emoji wins for best whatever-it-is in the world.

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The winner for best design: a lead fish

Funny. Folks used to joke that WPP’s big boss, Martin Sorrell got his start, not making ads, but selling widgets. Well, he gets the last laugh. Because it now appears that’s what this festival is all about.

(Full disclosure: Every agency I’ve ever worked at has participated in Cannes. I’ve been to Cannes seven times, four drunk, three sober. I’ve entered a bunch of work at Cannes. I’ve even won a few Lions. Twice, I’ve given speeches at Cannes. So, yes, I’ve bowed before the Golden Lion. I’ve played his Game of Thrones.)