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At a recent all-hands meeting, I was asked about my “creative vision” for the company. I’m not sure I provided a good answer. Not a concise one anyway. Big picture my vision is the same as any sane employee: to grow, to succeed, to become prosperous -as an agency, as individuals.

This is not the first time I’ve been asked about creative vision and philosophy. Typically, my answer lined up with whatever mantra the agency I worked for was advocating. For example, at Leo Burnett it was to create brand believers with big ideas. At Euro RSCG (now Havas), it was to make creative business ideas (not just ads). At Gyro, it was to create humanly relevant ideas for B2B and technology clients. At R2I, it’s to help accelerate connections.

Whatever the hoo-ha, the common denominator is always ideas. Specifically, I want to divine the organizing principle out of every legitimate creative opportunity we have. If/when a client comes to our doorstep with inherent gravitas, social currency or the ambition to achieve those things I would expect our creative solutions rise to that potential. Put another way: Wouldn’t it be nice if we could actually talk to our friends and family about what we made at work without their eyes glazing over?! Creative that makes a statement and leaves a footprint. I want us to do that. I want us to be seen.

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Before I was offered a new job, I visited a lot of agencies. Typically, I met with people representing the management team. It was a gauntlet. But I always expected a positive reception, from both the interviewers and myself. However, that was not always the case. At one agency, a number of the folks I met were down on their company and told me so. There were politics. There was unfairness. Dead weight permeated the company. One interviewer asked: “Steffan, do you know what you’re getting yourself into?”

Sad but true.

Complaining is common in Adland. Granted, usually not as part of a first impression but typical nevertheless. It’s not a good look. Seldom is it useful. Startled, I told the above-mentioned complainer a parable, the best thing I could think of at the time. Here is part of it:

Every day a group of men set out to forage in the desert by their village. They ventured far in order to get to the forest and its abundance of resources. At the half way point of their journey was a lone, large tree in which they took a break to rest and eat lunch. “A shame this tree,” one man said. “It has no fruit for eating.” The others agreed. “And its wood isn’t suitable for building either…”

And so on they complained. What the complainers failed to realize was the great benefit the tree provided. In fact, the old tree was a refuge. Seemingly barren, it provided shelter from the noonday sun without which their journey would have been infinitely more treacherous. This critical benefit was lost on the men. As was the unity this resting place fostered among the travelers. All was taken for granted to spite the obvious.

I recall a company meeting at a previous place of employment, a long time ago. We’d had a tough year. Morale was low. The employees were skeptical about their agency’s future. Many used the setting as a forum to voice their complaints: Management was inept, they cried. Our clients are bound to mediocrity. Woe is us!

During my turn to speak I told the story about the old tree. Our agency was beleaguered but I wanted us to appreciate all that we had: jobs, community and a place to voice our grievances freely and without fear of reparations.

In some respect I was talking to myself. Though I harbored many of my fellow’s misgivings I wanted healing words. Not apathetic ones. We’d had plenty of those already. Change was needed. And change would come. But on that day I needed gratitude. We all did. I worked for one of the greatest advertising agencies in the world. It had been hobbled but it was still there. Despite our weakened position, so were we.

Author’s note: I published a version of this story some time ago, while I was looking for my next job. Having found one, I am filled with gratitude. Here’s to never forgetting what matters…

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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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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.

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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