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Left side of my reef, featuring the big Sailfin tang I call “Moose”

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.

I am now available for writing projects and/or a creative leadership role. Please contact me directly @ Steffan1@rcn.com or via Linkedin.  I look forward to engaging with your ecosystem!

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Regarding advertising and creativity, I’m exceptional at three things: copywriting, creating big ideas and presenting them. Even my detractors, bless them all, would grant me that. If pressed they might also tell you I’m efficient and have never missed a deadline; that I curate my work and put it into cohesive and winning presentations, always with options.

This is what I do well.

I’ve been told I have a bunker mentality. I believe in healthy competition. Best idea wins. Sometimes you have to break a few eggs to get there. Which is fine. As long as the client gets a world class omelet. That’s been my experience.

After presenting work, the best outcome is when your audience (peers or clients) argues about which campaign they like best. If the work is fantastic then who cares what they choose? I believe in options. And so does every client. You never want a meeting when the outcome is ‘we need another meeting.’ Make damn sure you know the horse will drink the water. Some creative directors think good work is its own reward. That has not been my experience.

So, if you want to win a pitch, save a client, or simply demand fantastic work you can actually sell please hit me up. I’m available for consultation, freelance or long term projects. I’m fluent in new media and know how to reconcile data. Adept at even the trickiest verticals, in B2C or B2B, i.e. enterprise software, healthcare, life sciences, etc. Flexible in terms of pay and logistics. References upon request.

May we have a conversation?

Steffan1@rcn.com

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The Three “C’s”   

Work

 

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Be it agency or client-side, creative leadership has meant different things to different people in different types of organizations. The following is meant to clarify what an experienced CD, GCD or ECD (aka me) could mean to your company right now and moving forward.

The primary purpose of creative leadership is to enhance the creative reputation of the agency, to be a creative advocate for the agency (and its clients), and to help the agency win new business and to grow organically. Any challenge threatening the above, I should be enlisted. Secondarily, but no less important, I assist in the development of strategy (conceptual and tactical) and welcome the collaboration.

Another way of looking at my process. Specifically:

Organizing Principle. I am interested in creative business ideas that drive our client’s business; what I call an organizing principle: a melding of strategy and hyperbole that puts a stake in the ground, demonstrating the power and potential of our client’s offering. An OP usually includes a manifesto that brings it to life, a poetic and powerful story that sets up the problem and delivers the solution. For every OP I expect proof of concept in formats relevant to the engagement, i.e. home page, product and solutions, advertising, templates, trade show booth, etc…

The Three C’s: Creation. Curating. Choreography.

  1. Creation: As a player-coach, rely on me for high-level concept development and first order copywriting.
  2. Curation: Finding the best work and making it better, combining and marrying assets to tell the best story.
  3. Choreography: Putting work together so it flows with the rest of our content and delivers maximum impact.

Pitching. As a creative face for the agency, I should play a significant role in pitches – not just creating the work in the room but also delivering it effectively.

Strategy. Ideally, I contribute on strategy (conceptual, digital, tactical, media) and look forward to helping pre-strategy and in the development of creative briefs.

Integration, Alignment & Resources. Helping to determine best fit for creative resources from the available talent pool.

If your organization (be it agency or client-side) is looking for a creative director and/or content creator, please contact me directly. I am available for contract, freelance or full time engagement. Let’s have a conversation! Steffan1@rcn.com

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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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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