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Looking for my next gig, I have visited a fair number of agencies. Typically, I meet with people representing the management team. It’s a bit of a gauntlet. In that context, one expects a positive attitude throughout, from both the interviewee and the interviewer(s). However, that is not always the case. At one agency, a number of the folks I’d met were pretty 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?”

Sadly. Yes.

Despite the awkward frankness (exceptional in those circumstances), 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 one of my complainers a parable, the best thing I could think of to say 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.

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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. The first word in ECD is “executive.” Therefore, any philosophy we have must strike a balance between passion and responsibility. Said another way, we are both craftsmen and business people. We gotta 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 with winning awards and other personal achievements. I had to compromise. I had to listen. I became responsible-ish.

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.”

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Yesterday, as a freelancer, I presented some work at a small shop in the city. Let me first say, I loved being back in the trenches and, thrillingly, on the working side of the table. Camaraderie with a dose of healthy competition tempered by humility is a recipe my creative soul thrives upon. Indeed, I think all creative people in Adland are nourished by this activity. How could one not be? Putting what comes out of our heads up on a wall for others to see is central to what we do. It’s exciting, humbling and deeply satisfying. It’s not easy. But appreciating and respecting that process is part of maturing into a seasoned advertising professional, for the audience as well as the presenter.

So many skills are required in order to do it well.

If you are receiving the work you must be paying attention (that means phones down!) You must be patient. Let the ideas unfold before you. Try to free your mind of expectations, which taint reality. You see a morsel of copy you don’t like don’t reject the whole dish. A campaign has many courses. Perhaps there is more to redeem it. Let the presenter finish. Before commenting remember that you are dealing with humans, who, despite any evidence to the contrary, care a great deal about what you think of it and them. Note also that creatives in particular are egomaniacs with inferiority complexes. This comes from a lifetime of being praised and belittled. Speak wisely to us. Be constructive. Not destructive.

I’m delighted to report that today’s presentation was free and clear of any negative energy. Such a blessing.

Presenting work well is a gift. Whether earned through learning or divinely given or, as is usually the case, a combination of both, the ability to get up in front of people and advocate for an idea is never to be taken lightly. We must not be glib about our ideas, nor apologize for them. Speak to strengths, not weaknesses. Shortcomings will be probed, if they exist at all. At the same time, we must not be defensive about our work. This is a common sin among young creatives, almost unavoidable. Take heed. Fighting for one’s work sounds like something we’re supposed to do but it seldom works. Let the person finish his argument. Wait and see if someone else stands up for the idea. If the strategy director, or an account person, has your back it will be worth far more than your complaints. See what the creative director does or doesn’t say. He or she will address most feedback. The good ones always do. Lastly, nervousness is okay. It is not a sign of weakness. Being nervous is a sign of respect: for the material and the audience. Ask any actor about stage fright. They’ll tell you it’s not only natural but something to embrace. Heart pumping. Perspiring. Yes, it’s scary but this is when we are truly alive.

On that day I felt truly alive. While not all of my ideas (and my partners) moved forward, a couple were revered. In addition, I got to see other ideas. Though I wasn’t asked to be a creative director, I am one. Regardless of title, a good creative pays close attention to his peers. She knows viewing other people’s work is always a revelation. If you are schooled by someone have sense enough to learn from it!

If anyone who was in that room today is reading this: Thank you! It was a pleasure and a privilege. It almost always is. I can’t wait to do it again.

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The firefish goby. (Nemateleotris magnifica) From the warm waters of the Western Pacific, it’s not considered a difficult fish in the reef keeping hobby. Unlike its strong name, the firefish is peaceful. Even shy, often darting into nooks and crannies when alarmed. It won’t pick on other fish or nibble on corals.

I picked one up from my local fish store a few days ago and introduced it into my reef aquarium. Unfortunately, the inhabitants of my tank were not as hospitable to the firefish as it was to them. Within moments of releasing the goby, it was harassed by several different fish. You see, many reef fish are as territorial as they are beautiful. As soon as the startled firefish visited another section of the tank, a resident attacked it. They didn’t want to eat the goby, merely to chase it away. Not in my neighborhood, each told the firefish. Go wave your dorsal fin somewhere else.

The bullying continued and soon I feared for the creature’s life. With good cause. A pecked upon fish is vulnerable to disease. Worse, the wounded animal is easily taken for dinner by the invertebrets living within the rocks and on the sand floor. They aren’t called the “clean up crew” in the hobby for nothing. My crabs, shrimp and snails would make quick work of the struggling firefish.

When the animal disappeared from my tank, I pretty much knew it was lunch. Even so I looked everywhere for it. With a pen light I gazed into every recess, behind every rock. Nothing. Not even a frail skeleton. Terrified, the firefish must have swam deep into a small cave, died and was eaten. Hopefully, in that order.

I’ve lost fish before. Over the years, hundreds. You get used to it. But this one hurt a little more because it touched a nerve. I, too, had to leave a reef of sorts: my job. Only a few days ago I’d been ensconced with my tank mates. And then…

My aquarium had been a pleasant distraction, same as a garden brings another solace and tranquility. The firefish was my first addition since I’d left my post. Now it was gone. I’d failed. The perfect metaphor, yes?

No.

This evening when I was feeding my tank, up from the depths emerged the firefish wielding its great dorsal fin like a sword. Not so shy anymore, he hovered middle of the water column like a samurai. No longer did the other fish bother him. Looking right at me, he took his evening meal. I realized the firefish hadn’t been hiding; he’d been gathering his resolve. And now he was ready to take his proper place, front and center, this coral reef. As he chewed the krill, spitting out bubbles, I imagined him saying: “Fin up, brother. We got this.”

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Up from the depths, front and center…

Where to next?

September 2, 2015

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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!

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