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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

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Left side of my tank…

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.

Author’s Note: A version of this story was published in Reel Chicago


I maintain a 180-gallon reef aquarium in my home. Try to anyway. That’s it up there. 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 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, 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 typically more polluted (joke), the hallways and cubes of this 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 ear phones, 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 show the awesome power of collaboration. If the tank masters accept the occasional skirmish, providing nourishment to all, then the ecosystem will flourish.


What’s it all about, Alfie?

Having been away from advertising for several months, now seems like a good time for reflection, about the business and about what it looks like to me from forty thousand feet…

Sans job, I’ve religiously kept up with Adland’s machinations. While some of what I write about is critical most of it isn’t. To this day, I’ve mostly adored every year of 20-plus spent in service to capitalism’s bitch Advertising. And I am unabashed about it. Coming up with ideas, fleshing them out and selling them in is a job I feel blessed to have done. And it’s one I fully intend to keep doing, pending of course, a willing suitor.

So many smart people, characters, and crazy sons of bitches populate Adland it can feel like a Moveable Feast, albeit sometimes a tainted one. Especially when you’re in it, as I was, and as so many of you still are. But trying to keep up with technology. Trying to keep up with the Consumer. Trying to keep accounts. Trying to keep your fucking job…it’s trying.

But you know what? Six months away and it also seems, well, kind of small. A feast? More like a TV dinner. From six months out, I’m afraid the drama of Adland plays like a tinny old rerun of I Love Lucy.

A perfect example of what I mean by “small” can be found in this frothy review of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s recent speech to the Chicago Advertising Federation. I’m not sure what’s more disappointing: the coverage or the event. Were “jaws dropping” in “disbelief and dismay” at Rahm’s “mostly unsuccessful attempt” at rallying Chicago’s “rather beleaguered ad industry?” A better question: Why turn a random business luncheon into Heaven’s Gate? News flash: the new Mayor of Chicago does have better things to do than spend the afternoon with a bunch of advertising executives…no matter how “gussied up” they were.

It’s this melodramatic idea of dashed expectations that belittles our industry. Between the overblown hype bestowed upon mere adverts and the ungodly amount of fear, cynicism and schadenfreude permeating the corridors of Adland it’s a wonder any work gets done at all.

Over the years I’ve lived in the problem, added to it, been small. I’ve had my share of ridiculous expectations and insidious resentments. My blog is called Gods of Advertising but I’m no angel. So here’s my vow. If and when I come back to Adland I promise to do my job as best I can and to be thankful for it on a daily basis.


Been there, done that…

My entire career, I’ve been a full time employee of three agencies. Before now, my only work stoppage (six months) was on account of a separation agreement.

This time I have no such covenants. Therefore, in addition to copious amounts of personal writing, I’ve also taken my first foray into freelance copywriting. To my pleasant surprise, I enjoyed it. A lot. Not only did I not miss being the boss I actually relished being inconspicuous. Why? Well, that’s the subject of this post. I think I have a fairly unique perspective. Hopefully, most of you will find it interesting and maybe even enlightening, especially if you’ve got designs on creative leadership.

Freelancing put me back in the creative trenches: conceptualizing and writing. Two things I deeply missed. Fact is, unless a Chief Creative Officer actively fights against it most of us end up being curators and choreographers. Those are important tasks but it’s just not the same as coming up with ideas and writing. Whether my peers admit it or not, the longer they stay out of the trenches the more likely their creative muscles atrophy. It’s the same as anything else: use it or lose it. Remaining a player/coach isn’t easy, especially if various members of the agency are driving you in different directions. In addition, you have to want to do the work. Think about it. If no one at the agency expects you to write copy or compose layouts then would you? Lots of ECD’s and CCO’s (the most famous ones included) don’t create anything anymore. Regarding global creative directors, a colleague once told me the only “books” those guys care about are their passports.

Freelancing, I no longer have to suffer fools the way most creative directors must. A CCO is expected to work with senior people across his or her network as well as for clients. While many in the C-suite are brilliant and pleasant plenty are also tools. Paid only to write they are no longer my concern. A blessing.

Finally, I don’t miss power. As a matter of fact, I’m here to tell you power is overrated. For one thing, it separates you from the people and places and things that make advertising so damn fun. While separation from the troops is endemic to any leadership position I missed the camaraderie. You know who scares me? The ECD or CCO who doesn’t. Those guys are trouble.

As a freelancer, I get to create work with the other people who create work. That “flow” trumps pomp and circumstance. Plus, whether or not I become a CCO again, it’s nice to know I’m comfortable working the skill sets that got me there in the first place.

Full disclosure: As a CCO, I was never a big fan of hiring freelancers. I thought perhaps they wouldn’t try as hard as FTE’s. Or be as vested in outcomes as FTE’s. I was dead wrong on the first point. (Freelancers won’t get hired back if they don’t go full out.) And while the second point is usually true it’s also a moot point. If a company demands loyalty from a freelancer offer him or her a damn job!