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“With great passion comes great responsibility.”

Recently, I was asked about my creative philosophy. Namely, do I have one? Seems like a reasonable question. Seems like something an Executive Creative Director ought to have.

Well, I’ve had many. Which, if you think about it, is as it should be. As creative professionals, we must remain open-minded and forever teachable. For us, one-way streets are typically dead ends.

Look at the term, “creative professional.” It’s almost an oxymoron, isn’t it? There’s tension there. The right brain (creativity) and the left brain (professional). But that’s the gig. That’s what we do. Therefore, any philosophy we have must strike a balance between passion and responsibility. Said another way, we are both craftsmen and salesmen. We’ve got to do both.

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Both ends burning…

Your exact philosophy will be a function of percentages. I’d say my current philosophy is 60% passion to 40% responsibility. Those numbers change over time. Back in the day, I’m sure my split was more like 80/20. But then I started facing clients. I had to mitigate my obsession for winning awards and other personal achievements. I had to compromise. I had to listen. I became responsible-ish. Regrettable but inevitable, the metamorphosis did not come without pain.

Yet, it is important to note that while passion is the fun part -and closer to what people think about when they think about creativity- it is often destructive in too large a dose. Without empathy for the business, even the most brilliant creative person will be stifled… often by his own hubris.

Obviously, I don’t need to discuss the unduly “responsible” creative. They are hacks. To me, mortgaging one’s passion to the hilt is both sad and unmanageable.

While percentages vary, I’m a big believer in “responsible passion.”

Author’s Note: A version of this article was published earlier on Reel Chicago

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Many farms in Adland are still places where creativity can flourish. I hope yours is one of them. Yet too many creative farmers find themselves bound to making drab content, blunting once sharp skills at writing and design in order to manufacture info-graphics and “tool kits” for evermore unappreciative clients posing as marketing sages. “Branding is an old idea,” they decree. “Feed the funnel!” they demand.

These are not oracles patrons or partners.

Yet, revenue strapped agencies yield to their demands, turning to their strategists and creatives to spin gold from tin. Not wanting to be kicked to the curb, the strategists and creatives do what they must to survive, reluctantly leaning into their computers rendering slide after slide after slide of strategery and meeting fodder. Alas! The sons and daughters of bohemia are now forging power points to satiate a box checker whose only mandate is appeasing his or her own pitiful boss.

“This is madness!” we whisper to ourselves and to those closest to us on the line. Oh, to be the brave one. To say back: “This is not creative. This is crap.” Yet speak up and you may not be heard from again. I know this from experience.

Can any creative deny the fantasy of being the great deliverer? It’s in our DNA. We want to make things that make things happen, to be able to point to our creations with pride; not bow our heads with apologies and excuses. When friends and family ask what we do at work we want to be able to show them, to offer proof. I wrote this film. I designed that logo. I created something cool…sick…badass…awesome… those bright, shiny objects that shape popular culture or even just a company’s culture.

But the wheel needs turning. And it needs pushers to turn it. The false oracles admonish the agency bosses, suggesting they are losing touch, not moving at the speed of business. Our leaders can become monsters, driven by fear. The shit in their pants runs downhill. Dripping into their agencies, turning them all into sweatshops.

Am I being cynical? Melodramatic?

That’s because I have seen what better looks like. Creative agencies aren’t lost Utopias from an age before the Internet. They exist now, in pockets and in some places from one end of the building to the other. Big or small, what they all have in common are people who are open minded to creativity, not frightened by it. Enthusiasm reigns over fear. Ideas invite new ideas. Criticism is constructive.

Combining art and commerce is always achievable, regardless of application. Any campaign, no matter how trivial, is made infinitely better by an organizing principle. New technologies and platforms, the proliferation of data, should aid and abet cross-pollination not hinder or usurp it. The creative business idea isn’t the anachronism. If anything, the sweatshop is the old idea and it should be systemically eradicated.

A version of this article was recently published on Reel Chicago:

https://reelchicago.com/article/save-farms-adland-creativity-epidemic/

I am available for writing projects: Steffan1@rcn.com

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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!

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Those of us in the creative department have asked the question so many times it has become rote. The best answer is not an answer. Clients are difficult. Period. Especially when it comes to approving work. Therefore, we expect our work to be criticized. Revisions and changes are baked into the scope. It is assumed there will be rounds of creative. We are told that if we were in our client’s shoes we’d do the same thing.

But you know what? That’s bullshit. I am far from perfect but I am usually an accepting, flexible and even grateful client. When I hire someone to do a creative job –say an architect- I never give him or her the kind of scrutiny that is always given to new marketing campaigns. For example, a contractor shows me some designs for a room addition. I tell him which one I like, we discuss time and money, and I pay the man. Once in a while I have questions or a change is required. We address it in real time, during construction. We move forward. Even when it’s my money and my house I am seldom a hard ass.

Chances are you’re the same way.

So, why are advertising clients so freaking difficult? Why all the concerns, tweaks and rejections? I think the answer is fear. CMO’s and their get are terrified (sometimes understandably) of losing their jobs. Often my counterparts at the agency feel the same way. Every tree we plant must bear fruit. Or else!

Yet, endlessly hacking at the unplanted tree virtually guarantees a fruitless outcome. Death by a thousand cuts is no different than doing nothing at all. After months of revisions, the concept either dies in a meeting or, produced, it has been so severely compromised as to be ineffective in the marketplace. Everyone gets fired anyway. Another CMO comes in. Another agency. The process begins all over again. This is the definition of insanity.

Creating campaigns is thrilling. Yet, their yield potential is and always will be unknown. Hence the thrill. ROI is as possible as it is not. No one can be sure how an audience will react to an idea until the thing is out there. What makes a client nervous might very well be what makes the idea truly great. We all know the story behind the world’s greatest advertisement, Apple’s 1984. When it was screened to dealers everyone except its creators hated it. The agency, Chiat Day was told to fire-sell the media, which happened to be two slots on the Super Bowl. One insertion never sold. So the spot ran. The rest is history. The follow-up commercial, Lemmings was a failure. Still, was Apple really hurt by it? No. Being reckless and cavalier has never hurt the brand. Frankly, Apple could stand more bravery.

It’s 2018. Why is everyone still afraid of new creative? If a concept doesn’t work merely try something else. The “brand” will be fine. Belaboring over the blueprint is an old idea. And a bad one. The digital age is about iterating. Swipe right. These days, fear and inertia are scarier than any new idea.

Author’s Note: A version of this article ran last week in Reel Chicago On that note, I am available for select writing projects.  Love to help. Let’s talk.

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Recently, I read an essay from an anonymous copywriter that struck a chord. I did not save the link (my bad) but the gist of his/her argument was that within marketing services companies far too many big talkers are achieving way more success than they deserve and, moreover, they are effectively degrading the profession (even more so). The author observed how smooth talking, jargon-dropping, critical thinkers have become so prevalent and dominant in our industry that we’ve become a business of talkers not doers, endlessly revising briefs and tweaking PPT’s instead of producing actual work. We are making many meetings but few campaigns. This, of course, suits the talkers who, by endlessly analyzing and criticizing, continue to bake in more process.

Are we having fun yet?

It goes without saying that these machinations are antithetical to the flow of any decent agency and the creative department in particular. Yet, before we go off and blame the strategists for all this hot air, it’s only fair to point out slick talkers and their myriad sins have plagued Adland since before the Mad Men era. Then, it was the evil account guy. Only interested in pleasing clients, he made lives miserable for countless sensitive creatives. “It ain’t right yet. We need another round.”

That said, at least back then agencies produced work. And lots of it. So much so there were actual production departments. Now many agencies don’t even have a producer on payroll, let alone a department, opting instead to bring in the occasional freelancer for the role or, more typically, relegating the job to hardscrabble project managers. So much is hypothetical. Recycling stock. Fodder.

According to Anonymous it is indeed “strategy gone wild.” The pandemic of verbal diarrhea is especially acute in the technology and B2B arenas, where strategists often define the marketing department. As new platforms and complicated algorithms take over Adland, the talking will only get louder.

Sadly, it seems many clients would rather pay for barbless strategery versus actually fishing. And so we keep tying and retying flies. Red feather. Yellow feather. No feathers. Two. Maybe try spinning gear? For Christ’s sake put a line in the water! This vicious cycle hurts everyone caught in its sucking funnel. Except for the big talkers. Under guise of “getting it right” they have become manifest, perpetuating their self-made roles as agency gatekeepers.

This piece originally ran week prior in Reel Chicago I am available for writing projects