6679087467_6334f3f761_z.jpg

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…

Advertisements

800px-Debate_Logo.svg_.png

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!

ROMPER01-01-768x553.jpg

A while back a guest writer on AdAge, Lauren Warner took some heat for an essay she wrote about the briefing process. Among other things, she claimed one should address “creatives on your shop’s team like they’re in kindergarten.”

Others may have been offended but the story made me smile. I recall an evening spent at my children’s school, meeting their teachers, discussing the upcoming year. During this visit, I became aware of how “creative” so much of my daughters’ curriculum really was. Colette’s science teacher explained how “experimenting and taking chances” shapes her powers of intuition. Lily’s drama teacher rhapsodized about “connecting to the inner fantastic.” She used the word “connecting” over and over again. “At this age,” she said, “the creative gene is ready to explode!”

I couldn’t help but think of all the “connecting” strategies I’ve puzzled over as a copywriter and creative director. “Connecting people” is the default strategy for all telecommunications, personal technology, and, frankly, just about everything people use in their waking lives. Connecting folks is Coca Cola’s uber-strategy. “I’d like to buy the world a coke.”

Even more interesting was this business about creativity “exploding.” I believe the teacher was saying that our creative muse is born in these opening years of life. That stimulated and nurtured, we begin to understand and respect our intuitions. Kindergarten is a creative department. Experimenting with ideas on the stage, colors on paper, sounds in music class… That’s what I do!

Or that’s what I prefer doing. Much of my day, however, is spent lawyering on behalf of ideas. Defending them. Subjecting them to all manner of worries and concerns, making them more appropriate, more coherent, more on strategy. It’s inevitable. It’s my job. But it’s also like killing the butterfly in order to appreciate it.

The older I get the more I realize how important it is to stay “connected” to my “inner child.” The best creative people do not grow out of it when they grow up. We remain inquisitive like children. Lovers of fun. You see it in our bicycles in the hallway. Our dubious wardrobes. Our playlists. Our silly photos online. Alas, you also see it in meetings, where we become pouting and defensive, wilting under criticism, frustrated by the grown-ups ruining our fun. I know we can be insufferable. Imposing MBA logic in Romper Room is bound to create problems.

But our muses shouldn’t be stymied: the ability to ideate, to find that “inner fantastic” is necessarily petulant. What’s regrettable is marketing’s obsession with guaranteeing results…or else! Research. Testing. Groups. I say Bleh! There are no guarantees. Never were. Never will be. Intuition, if cultivated and nurtured, is the most important tool the creative department has. The old saw is wrong. Ideas are not our “babies.” That job belongs to us.

Author’s note: This post originally ran as guest commentary on Reel Chicago

I am available for copywriting and creative direction and I will behave like an adult: Steffanwork/CV

Very_Angry_Emoji_7f7bb8df-d9dc-4cda-b79f-5453e764d4ea_large.png

Your kids call it “triggered.” When someone or something sets one of them off. It happens a lot. Snap! Snap! Snap! Teenagers. Sometimes it seems they are moving through mousetraps. Yet the genius of it is that they are not caught up in any one trap. The trap goes off. They yelp. Maybe lash out. Then let go. Maybe they return the insult. Maybe they shrug it off with a benign curse. Where are the seething long-term resentments that plagued you when bedeviled by others?

You held onto such pain, letting it fester, cultivating revenge fantasies and, whether acting on them or not, made it infinitely worse. One sprung mousetrap was all it took. The howl in your head echoed too long. Such was your pathology. An addict and introspect you could never let go. Like diabetes of the soul, your psychic wounds took forever to heal. You still remember slights from high school, about your weight for example, or lack of fighting skills. That girls didn’t think of you the way you thought of them. Such disturbances shaped your life. If only you had a word like “triggered.” Then you could have called out the bad feelings and smashed them like the mosquitoes they were. A bit of blood on the skin and some itching afterwards.

But no. You turned every bite into a bloody scar, scratching until your flesh was ragged, picking at the soar for weeks, trying to prolong its presence in your life. To this day you relish the occasional scab for the distraction it brings. You floss your teeth overly hard, drawing blood. Pleasure and pain intermingle -the physical as well as psychological. You understand cutters.

You don’t envy your daughters or any young person. Their world seems vapid and idiotic – an endless slew of You Tubes and disappearing dick pics. You must explain almost every reference to the 20th century. They do not read for pleasure and barely for school. If it’s not on their social media feeds they aren’t consuming it. Yet, you do envy their paradoxically thick skins. Their ability to “shake it off” is remarkable. Moving through the minefield of mousetraps with ease you find breathtaking.

Does a glib term like triggered render life’s brutalities benign? For all the very real talk of bullying and its fatal consequences, those maladjusted loners shooting up high schools, your children seem blissfully immune.

I’m delighted to help you with writing, content creation and creative direction! Find me: https://steffanwork.wordpress.com/

th-2.jpg

I’ve been thinking a lot about “identity politics.” The whole country has. Or should I say the whole country is, because I don’t know that a lot of us are thinking at all. We have become so reactionary it is terrifying. In America, who or what you stand for has taken precedent over measured consideration, empathy, seeing an issue from both sides. There is no more happy medium. You are either one thing or the other. And, honestly, neither thing is good thing.

Be that as it may, I wonder how this impacts brands. Do consumable goods have politics? Should they? Do we attribute identities to cars and toothpaste and everything in between? Yes we do. And no we shouldn’t.

By way of example, let’s start with the obvious. The media. CNN is considered left wing, liberal and Democratic. Fox is right wing, conservative and Republican. Each of these brands wears its identity on their sleeves. Each side brands the other. Both networks are worse for it.

But what of other media? Is Twitter Alt Right because Donald trump loves using it? By extension, is the President/#notmypresident alt right because members of that group seemingly endorse him? Is Facebook liberal because Mark Zuckerberg is? You can see where I’m going with this. Attributing political identities to things is a dangerous game and we are all playing it, now more than ever.

What if all brands of pickup trucks were deemed red state and racist because they are beloved by cowboys and hunters? Those groups like guns and are white so you do the math. Conversely does that make every driver of a Prius and Tesla a liberal Antifa supporter? Sadly, it would appear so. That means if I buy a Ford Pickup I will be identified accordingly… and incorrectly.

This is nothing new. To some extent we have been judging people by their purchases for years. Brands have taken advantage of it. Chasing young people. Courting African Americans. Yet, I think in the last decade, in the age of social media, brands have been increasingly victimized by identity politics. Profiled. The CEO of a fast food franchise has overt religious beliefs, is mocked for them on Facebook or wherever, and suddenly everyone who buys a sandwich there must believe what he believes. Likewise, if a company keeps a low profile and focuses only on doing what they do are they in turn deemed unsympathetic monsters?

It goes on. And we all play a part. What is the end game? Goods and services that cater to one only identity or another? Messaging and Badging their products to appeal to one group but not another. “Welcome Liberals!” Or: “Conservatives Your Money Not Wanted Here!” That’s not a free market. Can we leave the labels for ingredients?

If you identify with my writing, hit me up. I’ll do it for you: https://steffanwork.wordpress.com/