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My last post was about “responsible passion” as creative philosophy. I wrote that whatever the philosophy a creative professional has, it must strike a balance between passion and responsibility. We are craftsmen as well as salesmen. To do the job right, “you’ve got to do both.”

Now I’m going to talk about staying creatively fit and remaining relevant, which is a critical part of any creative philosophy.

I believe in what I like to call the “creative athlete.” He or she is creatively fit, physically and mentally. He relentlessly works at his craft. She takes classes and workshops. They are students of the game.

Are you a “creative athlete?”
Are you a “creative athlete?”

They are also switch hitters, in that he or she thinks about their agency from every skill position and can play there if necessary. A good copywriter is a planner. A good art director knows how to interface with clients. All are good salesman, when called upon.

The creative professional may prefer working alone or with a partner, but he or she is also a competent and enthusiastic team player.

When I was coming up at Leo Burnett, I totally related to the founder’s screed regarding the “lonely man” — a romantic figure who wrote into the wee hours. As I grew older, I had to adapt my game to accommodate the many others who ultimately affect a project.

When creative athletes become creative directors, they remain active in their core skill. They get better at the other ones. They remain teachable and open-minded.

I firmly believe in the player-coach. If I were to stop writing I would lose the ability to judge writing. I would also begin the not-very-slow fade into irrelevance.

A writer writes…
A writer writes…

Remaining relevant is, in itself, a creative philosophy.

Honestly, I don’t know how a creative director can do the job well if he or she isn’t banging away on every other brief at the agency. I suppose some do but that’s not how I roll.

A writer writes. Right?

Being fit creatively is both mental and physical. I think a good salesperson looks good doing it. They are pumped to be working one of the coolest jobs in the world. I’m not talking about jackets and skirts. Lord knows I don’t adhere to any dress code. Just don’t skulk.

Finally, I believe in the basic tenants of a liberal arts education; in that a good creative professional is knowledgeable about our culture in all its forms. He or she is a consumer of it as well as a creator.

That means we must have a working knowledge of TV shows we don’t like and music we don’t listen to. For example, I loathe The Bachelor, but I’ve seen it. I cannot stand gossip magazines, but I read my wife’s copies. And so on.
We go to movies. We make videos. We Tweet. We read.

Know your crap
Know your crap

The creative professional who hates pop culture and avoids much of it cannot possibly serve our craft. Losing interest is tantamount to giving up and, as with any good athlete, giving up is unacceptable.

Know your crap.

I hope these last two posts have been helpful. While I am hardly the consummate teacher I have done this job for over 20 years. I know a thing or ten; many of them learned the hard way.

Whether or not one agrees with me on all matters isn’t critical. Your creative philosophy can and should vary. Just as long as you have one and that you are open to changing it.

Author’s Note: A version of this story was published last week on Reel Chicago

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Last week the acclaimed actress, Emma Stone made headlines with her revelation that certain male co-stars had taken significant pay cuts in order to achieve parity with her own salary. It’s a nice story. And one that readily feeds into the red-hot narrative regarding “fearless” women “leaning in” and breaking barriers into male-dominated fields. While the feminist aspect is important, the idea of taking a pay cut for the greater good is also a trending topic. Witness what NBA Finals MVP, Kevin Durant did in order for his championship Warriors to stay intact.

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Specifically, a thread on Linkedin caught my eye. Above a link to the Emma Stone story a female advertising executive commented, “I wonder how many of my male peers would do the same?” The implication was not many. My guess is few women would either.

But guess what? I did, willingly and without hesitation. hell, it was my idea! And that’s what I thought about when I’d first read the Stone story. Without getting into names and places, a few years back I took approximately 25% off my compensation in order to significantly bump the salaries of two of my top lieutenants. I had reason to believe one was being courted by another agency. Moreover, I also felt strongly that both individuals deserved bigger raises than the company was budgeted to give. For me, reducing my bottom line to increase theirs felt like a no-brainer. In a weird way I was almost happy to do it. It felt like right sizing. Though he later came around, I recall the CEO first balking at my suggestion. “Nice gesture, Steffan but business just doesn’t work that way.”

Why is that, I wonder? Seems to me such redistribution and/or diminution would help remedy the need for layoffs during hard times as well as mitigate the blade being used on older more expensive workers. My guess is that self-induced pay cuts somehow feel communistic and is antithetical to capitalism. This is bullshit of course. But then why is retrenchment so rare?

I’ll work for numbers that work for you: https://steffanwork.wordpress.com/

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He’s making his list…

We read about holiday layoffs in the trades. Perhaps we experience them in our lives. A grim subject, I know. For I have been on both sides of this sad equation. What I’m about to tell you may not be morally right or wrong but it is a matter of fact.

First, a note on the obvious. Nobody likes to fire people. Especially during the holidays. We forget that, in the rush to create demons. Still, firing is better than being fired. Like I said: obvious.

Why now and why always the middle tier that gets it? Well, Virginia…

Since August, the CFO of your agency has been warning the CEO that the numbers are down. Way down. The CEO, being a glass half full guy, advises restraint in pushing the panic button – don’t want to alarm the troops or start any rumors! Besides, he says, the tide will turn. There’s still that pitch. They debate behind closed doors. Alas, come November, the shortfall is now impossible to ignore. Budget reports are due and the agency is, let’s say, $750,000 dollars below its target. And so the CEO calls together his or her management team: Managing Director, ECD, Head of Planning. A dour PPT ensues. New business did not come in. Organic growth was less than expected. Yada, yada, yada. To sum up, the CEO requests that every department cut a portion of overhead, say 250k each.

The Management Team goes off to their respective corners and creates a “list.” Rather than fire 5 junior people to arrive at his number the executive invariably chooses the highest salaried person he can do without. She figures she can pick up the slack or more likely beat it out of the kids. That, and it’s a hell of a lot easier to let go one person versus doing five. A couple ACD’s. An Account Sup. Two Senior Planners. Throw in that loose cannon from the production department. And Boom. A half dozen souls doomed. If the shortfall is bigger then so will the body count. By the time HR has the necessary paperwork completed it’s after Thanksgiving and just before Christmas. The result is another Black Friday.

Here’s the kicker, in case you missed it. Since the senior-most people were asked to create these lists that means neither they nor the askers appear on them. Gadzooks! This is perhaps unfair – it may very well be that one or two of them are the reason the agency is ailing in the first place. Likely even. What is certainly unfair is having now arrived at their targets the senior executives qualify for a bonus. You may ask, could not the bonus pool have filled the shortfall, sparing jobs? Nope. Because that money comes from “separate buckets.” That last piece has been explained to me several times but I still don’t get it.

Economics and ego. The result is not unlike a third world country, or a sweat shop: a minority of leaders bossing a majority of juniors. Of course there are exceptions but not enough and less so every year. Maybe that’s why so many holiday parties get out of hand… because tomorrow we die.

Not the only ones: http://money.cnn.com/2016/12/20/news/companies/christmas-layoffs/index.html

Like many brethren I’m doing freelance and can provide superior content creation as well as creative leadership: https://steffanwork.wordpress.com/

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Integrated shop. Unified model. Gyro refers to it as “Uno.” Call your agency (its culture, its model) what you will. And on some days those terms can be pretty brutal. As some of you know I’ve likened working in an agency to being on a submarine: We’re at sea. We’re at battle. We’re in this thing together. Because, after doing good work, that’s what it’s all about: working together. That’s what the word “integration” originally meant before all these holding companies got a hold of it.

But today the glass is half full. If I think about it it’s more than half full. Our cup runneth over. Therefore, in this good mood, I’d like to give you my spin on integration, paraphrasing a parable I heard some time ago. I’m sure you’ll agree, it applies now more than ever…

On the outskirts of a small village, the farmers, loggers and hunters would gather under a lone, ancient and leafless tree, everyday at noon, when the sun was most high and the heat was too unbearable for working.

The farmers threw down their bags of apples, giving a snort to the fruitless limbs towering over their heads. “Without any fruit, what good is this tree, anyway?” The loggers shook their heads in agreement. “The old wood from this tree isn’t fit to burn.” The hunters among them also agreed. “Without fruit or places to nest, there are no birds to kill.” They were all unanimous: the tree was worthless. And so it went, for days upon years, hundreds of hunters and farmers and loggers, bitching about this lifeless, barren tree.

It never dawned on them that without this great tree they would have had no place to rest their feet or shade their heads. And without this great tree they would never have formed a community, and been able to share their experience, strength and hope…or find out where the fruits were…and the firewood for winter…to learn the tricks of their various trades…

And so here we are, art directors, writers, planners and suits. Working more and more together, more and more everyday. Sharing our experience, strength and hope. And while I’m sure we’re too busy to sit around and complain, do any of us realize how rare community like this is? And how blessed we all are to have it? I know I’m blessed.


Digital gone to far (image from Videodrome)

Every time I hear marketing people use the word “digital,” and indeed I use it myself, I keep going back to something Rishad Tobaccowala wrote in his excellent essay, Four Thoughts on the Future of Advertising: “The world might be digital but people are analog.”

He gives plenty of texture around the comment (how agencies overcompensate for various deficiencies by stressing digital, etc.) but one can take the comment at face value and still glean plenty, especially in the wake of Steve Jobs’ recent passing.

From day one, Jobs understood how much technology depended on the human touch, figuratively and literally. And that if there were a one-word catchall it wouldn’t be “digital” but rather “design.” And design, Jobs said, was not merely how good something looked but how well it worked.

To him (and for us), Digital was more than just tools but extensions of our limbs and imaginations. Not hardware and software. Lifeware. Sight, feel and now voice are the operating principles that drive Apple. Not “technology solutions,” a phrase, like the word digital, that couldn’t sound more inhuman if it tried.


Jobs introduces iPad. More than hardware and software…
Lifeware!

Oh, the irony! For the last decade or longer we marketing geniuses have gone great guns trying to bolster our digital creds, doing everything in our power to look savvy, often at the expense of working savvy. We learned the hard way that flashy microsites were likely meaningless to our client’s businesses. That hundreds of thousands of views on You Tube often meant winning a popularity contest without any prize. That brands aren’t social just because they’re on Facebook and Twitter. And so on…

The costs have been tremendous. To us and to our clients. But make no mistake clients are as culpable as we are. The clamoring for digital came from all corners. I’d argue that social media (another tetchy term) has exploded the myth of digital, reminding us Tweet by Tweet that people are and always will be living, breathing, human beings; in other words: analog.

However painful the learning curve, for Adland this is good news. Agencies are at their best when we put ideas before clients and, dare I say, technology.