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You’re boxed in behind a slow driver. Cars speed by you on either side, making it difficult to pass. You bang your hands on the steering wheel, cussing. You flash your high beams. Honk. The driver in front of you continues as he was, probably listening to a favorite song on the radio, or maybe chatting with one of his children on speakerphone. In that moment he is an unfit driver, quickly morphing into your nemesis and all that is wrong with the world. Finally, you see an opening and tear by him, raising your middle finger. Fucking idiot! It all happens in the span of a minute. If only you could see yourself. Raving.

Fortunately, this is not you, not today anyway but rather a passage in Daily Reflections, a small book in the lexicon of recovery literature. The chapter’s title: Levitation.

Being able to view yourself from above, in a moment, in general. This is what the reading means by levitation. Seeing what is really happening versus the way it feels – perspective over pandemonium. With it, maybe one doesn’t go off at every provocation. Maybe nobody does.

Is the lack of patience human nature, besetting the entire species? No other creature stops crawling to get up and walk. Then to drive, fly and eventually break the sound barrier. Tom Cruise in Top Gun: “I feel the need… the need for speed.” Original Sin begot this defect, upon Adam and Eve’s rebellion in Eden. They could not wait. With each passing generation the concept of gratification has grown, and now the right now is all that matters. Instant gratification has zoomed past the virtue of patience like the driver from the story, adding a vulgar gesture.

The vast majority of technology and innovation is defined by speeds and feeds, not creating something new but making which already exists even faster. From primitive fire to unseen microwaves, from handwritten letters to messaging Apps, the world keeps shifting into higher gears. You want your fast food faster. Forget drive-through, there’s an App for that. And the human race races forward. You just read on the Internet (not in a magazine or newspaper) that Starkist tuna is suffering profound financial losses because today’s consumers are unwilling to use a can opener. Suddenly this tool, a mainstay in every kitchen on earth, is now obsolete. It makes sense a turn crank no longer has value but the wider implications are scary. If one of your daughters is hungry and discovers a can of tuna in the pantry, she will be clueless how to acquire its contents. She will look at it as she would a novel. No way I’m opening that. Why bother?

This is not a diatribe on the ignorance of new generations. Your children are not stupid. Rather they are lazy and impatient, as much as any addict, and you cannot blame them. Indeed, you haven’t opened a can of tuna in years. You too prefer a quicker solution for your hunger. No surprise the once iconic can of tuna is dead in the water.

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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…

A new role…

September 9, 2018

I have news.

I am excited to announce my new role as Executive Creative Director for R2integrated, a full service digital marketing agency. R2i has several offices, including Silicon Valley (home base) and their headquarters in Baltimore, where I will also be spending time.

As of this writing, I’ve had one official meeting, so I can’t really comment on the agency’s work or philosophy. The people I met during the interviewing process were certainly impressive. They are hell bent on elevating R2i and its clients to new heights. I am humbled to be joining their ranks in this effort. Needless to say, we are all hopeful and confident it will be a fruitful adventure.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. I’m a creative. You know how fragile and precious we are. Seriously, I have been kicking in my stall the last few weeks, waiting to begin. R2i has a diverse array of clients, both new and existing, representing all manners of business. They (I mean we) look forward to adding even more. Being able to create content for so many different businesses and their audiences is manna for the creative professional. I feel like a bee descending onto a field of wild flowers. Well, sort of anyway.

Finally, I am grateful for the time I spent as creative lead at Jumbo Shrimp. It’s easier to say thank you than goodbye. Robert, Greg & Shane you guys are the best. We will stay close, I’m sure of it.

Meantime if anyone out there has some good karma lying about send it my way. I’ll pay you back, I promise!

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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