Do you know where you’re going to?

That’s the signature line from the Theme from Mahogany by Diana Ross. A lovely number, back in the day it was a sensation. But that line. Well, as tuneful at it is it also happens to be wrong. As a sentence it’s grammatically incorrect. Ask any 7th grader. it ends in –or should I say ends with- a preposition. Spell check will tell you the same thing. That “to” is tacked on. Technically, the line should be, “Do you know where you’re going?”

However, the correct line would also be the wrong line. Without that tiny,”incorrect” word the song may very well have failed. Theme from Mahogany might not have even happened.

Which got me to thinking about copywriting. How many times have we also used poor writing (grammatically speaking) to deliver stunning creative results?

“Think Different” anyone?

It’s what we do. It’s what we’re supposed to do. Good copy takes poetic license with the written word. And sometimes that means ending a sentence with a preposition. Or starting one with one. Or repeating words like “one” to make a point. To stand out. To shine. That’s the same reason I just used two phrases as complete sentences, even though spell check implored me not to. And look at that. There’s “to” at the end of another sentence. For that matter there’s “that.”

I realize all this may seem quaint in the age of social media and texting. Never before has the written word taken so much abuse by such a mass audience. Brutal spelling, abbreviations and the like have manhandled the world’s languages into grotesque shorthand.

But that is how people choose to communicate. We like it. And for the most part, any and all marketing communications must adjust accordingly or risk dying off like big words and good manners.



It’s only a metaphor… It’s only a metaphor…

I don’t know if every agency has this double-edged sword slicing through it but every one I’ve ever worked for has. I’m talking about one conspicuously large client that takes up as much space as all the others put together. Obviously, this “problem” has its upside. Namely billings. Giant clients bring agencies money. And, well, the importance of that cannot be underestimated.

Ironically, it is often underestimated. Budgets have a way of shrinking. Like any client big ones change their mind. First quarter projections are seldom realized. Half way through the fiscal year agencies are typically chasing a number. It’s never quite what it once seemed. Sometimes it isn’t even close.

In theory, big clients provide numerous big creative opportunities. But that has not been my experience. Why? Big clients are big companies. And big companies are layered, rife with politics. Marketing is no exception. Indeed, it is often the department most challenged by bureaucracy. Marketing is divided into silos. Each silo has a group head. He reports to a marketing director, who, in turn reports to the CMO. The CMO must deliver results to the CEO. The CEO is beholden to her shareholders. Getting work in front of him or her who matters is a merciless gauntlet. Risk aversion is the result. Decisions are made by committee if they are made at all. Really smart people become less so. Fear permeates these ecosystems, obvious as algae on coral. In these conditions, saying “no” becomes the easiest option. This translates into endless, futile presentations, where your audience is mostly worried about what his many superiors will think. Kicking the can is what happens. And that can is creative.

Alas, this is only the tip. Monoliths dominate an agency, changing it, dividing it. There are those who service the big client… and everyone else. A house divided takes its toll on everyone. Resentments develop between sides. The money is over here but the creative opportunities are over there. Some staff work harder than others, logging grueling hours on thankless tasks. When certain individuals get to go home for dinner and others never do, it’s patently unfair. Or the opposite happens. Those not working on the “important” client feel left out, less than. Rightly or wrongly, they may wonder why no one in management cares about what they’re doing. Perception is reality and the perception ain’t good.

The ‘us and them’ scenario is very common in Adland but that doesn’t make it okay. Agency culture, the thing so many of us like to wag about, becomes agency dysfunction. Often the two sides separate, forming agencies within agencies. This works until it doesn’t. Before you know it these kingdoms grow weary of sharing resources. The strong tire of helping the weak. The poor turn bitter from subservience. I give you Game of Thrones.

While the holding company model is often rightly criticized for this very thing I’m saying it can and does happen at any agency, regardless of affiliation. The whale –a dream come true for every agency- can quickly become a nightmare.

What’s the solution? I can assure you it isn’t rejecting big clients. Having been through the looking glass numerous times, I can only offer these suggestions. If camps are inevitable do not allow fences to go up. Smash them wherever you see them. Be open about what is happening but refrain from judgment or cynicism. Rather, think about what the other is going through. Appreciate their value even if you question it. This goes for everyone in the company. Newer recruits must respect the complexities of management and management must remain sensitive to what everyone in the company is experiencing. Easier said than done. But trying to remain right sized in an unbalanced boat is paramount to staying afloat.

Where to next?

September 2, 2015


After almost 4 years, my agency and I are going through a conscious uncoupling. No tears. It happens all the time. Besides, four years in Adland is a good, long ride. Still, I loved that agency and I believe it loved me back. We were good. The admiration and fondness I have for my former colleagues cannot be understated. In particular, my creative team. You’re the best.

So, in the most sincere sense of the word: Good-bye!

I try (and even succeed) at being a glass half full type person. That means no looking back with squinty eyes. And why should I? My former agency got me to the Golden State and the gorgeous Bay Area. I have been smitten ever since.

That job also got me deeper into high tech than most people in Adland ever go. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that many of the clients we worked with are changing the world. And we presented to them! Of course bringing creative business ideas to highly technical companies is a daunting job. But when you click, man is it ever rewarding.

Let’s do it again.  Or something like it. Perhaps we can build the creative capability inside a technology company. That is the new normal. Media companies are looking to evolve the same way. Let me help. Sure, it would be a gas finding my new home in a traditional advertising agency. Like going home. But I’m open-minded.  As anyone in my field ought to be.

So, Hello!


Creative Portfolio


Walt Whitman

When I was a teenager, I worked one summer at my Grandfather’s can factory on the Southside of Chicago. Dominic was not my biological grand parent but I grew up knowing only him on my mother’s side. Dom was fierce, funny and a very loyal man. He treated me like blood.

His can company, called (for a reason I forget) Wisconsin Can was a line factory. Each person occupied a spot along a conveyor and did one menial but critical job. The end product was an aluminum can, usually for cookies or candy.

A log-haired, pot smoking dreamer, this was not my fantasy gig. I wouldn’t have lasted a week if not for Dom’s patience – if that were the right word. He would call me in to his office constantly to reprimand me for doing a half-ass job. During those sessions he’d also throw in various criticisms toward my liberal upbringing, castigating my parents for divorcing and other bon mots.

Yet, I actually preferred his berating me to working on the line. Partly because it took me off the line but also because it made me feel good –somehow- to be in his presence. In his own way, the man loved me.

Once, when I dared question him on the sanctity of factory work he told me something I’ll never forget, even if I don’t agree with it. He said, “Steffan, work isn’t supposed to be fun. Why do you think they call it work?”

Much later, I got into the advertising business. And I had fun. But I also knew I possessed a skill and that I was getting better at it. Unlike sticking a wrapper on a can, writing was (and still is) something I can sink my teeth into.

Yet, as we all know, this business is not always fun. Pressures mount and fears take hold. Work can become a trying experience, like a factory. Or worse. A factory that doesn’t make anything. I think of my grandfather during those times.

I know he had a point. One must earn a living. So, maybe “fun” isn’t the right word. Let’s try some others. If one feels “useful” and “purpose-driven” then that is better than fun. Wouldn’t you agree? Suffice to say, I wasn’t feeling either on the can line.

Give me this. Working in our business should at least aspire to be fun. Data be damned, creativity will always be more art than science. And art is about passion and, yes, having fun! When a creative is feeling it there is no better feeling. It’s like your Walt Whitman singing the Song of (Your)self. It’s glorious.

So, here’s to feeling it and being of maximum usefulness to your company, your clients and, most of all, yourself. May all of you find that happiness. It does exist.

Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”


Not the image Subway was looking for…

By now, everyone is familiar with the lurid story of Subway’s ex-pitchman, Jared Fogel. By his own admission, he is guilty of crimes involving sex with underage girls and distributing pornography celebrating the same. I am not here to pass judgment on the guy. Nor to make jokes. Plenty of that going on already.

However, the incident made me curious about other disgraced pitchmen. Who were they? What happened? Where are they now? Oddly, I couldn’t think of any pure-play spokespeople guilty of malfeasances. Of course, I’m aware of countless actors, athletes and musicians who also happened to be pitchmen getting into trouble. That happens all the time.

But Jared the public figure was purely a Subway phenomenon. He had no public persona prior to his affiliation with Subway. You know the tale. An obese college student in Indiana loses a bunch of weight, in part, by only consuming Subway sandwiches. He gets featured in a regional ad pitching Subway as a healthy alternative to fast food. The campaign resonates with the public and Subway takes the message and Jared national. The rest is history. Jared and Subway enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship for over 15 years. Until it all came crashing down a few weeks ago.

Who else? Even the inevitable (and creepy) online lists of disgraced celebrities disclose few pure play pitch people. Madonna, Bruce Willis and Kate Moss all lost advertising gigs due to scandals. But these were very big stars without the advertising. And stayed stars after.

In the early 2000’s a young man named Ben Curtis became the “Dell Dude” for the giant computer company. Even though Ben came off as a young stoner on TV, Dell shit-canned him for allegedly selling weed in Manhattan. The ShamWow infomercial guy fell from his decidedly chintzy pedestal for allegedly battering a prostitute.




During my time at Leo Burnett, I wrote several commercials for Maytag, featuring their iconic “Lonely Repairman.” At the time Gordon Jump played the character. Jump was a complete gentleman. And while I’d heard tales of the original Maytag Repairman (Jesse white) having had serious problems with alcohol they weren’t substantiated, it wasn’t illegal, and his job was never in jeopardy.


Lonely men but never guilty…

Back in the day, when pitchmen were far more common, I’m sure a great many of them had episodes of regretful and illegal behavior. But short of murder, these “mishaps” were covered up to preserve the status quo. Good luck doing that nowadays. And while much of the world has become tolerant of numerous previously scandalous topics (infidelity, alcoholism, homosexuality), pedophilia remains understandably exceptional. In addition, I find that a vast majority of brands have zero tolerance when it comes to scandal.


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