LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 27:  (L-R) Guest, internet influencers Brittenelle Fredericks, Sara Dinkin, and musician Garrett Borns of BORNS attend Discover Los Angeles' "Get Lost" Pop-Up Concert at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA on April 27, 2016 in West Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board )

LOS ANGELES, CA – APRIL 27: (L-R) Guest, internet influencers Brittenelle Fredericks, Sara Dinkin, and musician Garrett Borns of BORNS attend Discover Los Angeles’ “Get Lost” Pop-Up Concert at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA on April 27, 2016 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board )

Buh-Bye, your services are no longer required.

Part of the reason I dig this story from Gawker is that it did NOT appear in a marketing trade publication. Not that Gawker has more integrity than Adweek or AdAge (it has less, frankly) but it IS a consumer-facing property and a popular one at that. Therefore, the story has more cultural currency.

What I really love about this story is that it calls bullshit on the idea that anyone with a few thousand followers on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter can be considered an “influencer” and worth paying money to. The practice of paying slews of d-bags thousands of dollars to “interact” with one product or another to “influence” buyers (in lieu of actually using creative ideas) has finally jumped its own self-made shark of stupidity. (In my opinion, it happened several years ago, when some fashion brand paid a Kardashian six figures for one God-forsaken Tweet.)

Paying celebs to endorse products is hardly a new concept. On the contrary, it may be the oldest trick in marketing. But the frenzy of chasing fabulous nobodies to capture the culture just reeks of laziness and stupidity. Why pay for creativity or thinking of any kind? Let’s just book a handful of Whoevers.

Read this quote from a social media strategist:

“I remember I once did a speaking thing to a school of young social media people, and they asked, “How do I become an influencer?” So I asked them what they were good at. And they said, “Nothing.”

As a father of young teenage girls, I am aghast by such vapidity and entitlement. Moreover, I want my kids to be as well. We’ll see. With scores of somewhat attractive, nominally talented young people appearing on too many reality shows to count, it’s easy to see how the easy way to fame and fortune took root. So, I’m delighted a controversial and popular site like Gawker is calling bullshit on one aspect of it. Having big boobs and tattoos is not a talent. So-called “influencers” should be skilled at whatever it is they’re fronting for.

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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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Hopefully, I strike oil…

I’m writing this on board an American Airlines flight to Dallas, Texas, where I will be meeting some folks about a cool project. I haven’t been to the Big “D” in a long time. Do the locals hate their town being called “Big D” the way San Franciscans loathe the touristy expression “San Fran” or New Yorkers “The Big Apple.” If so, I’m sorry. And PS: I don’t blame you.

In any event, this excursion reminded me of my very first business trip EVER IN LIFE, to the same destination, where I’d been sent to present copy I’d written for Dewar’s Scotch Whiskey. It might have been a couple print ads – I don’t recall. But I do remember sitting in first class – an AMAZING perk of working at Leo Burnett during their AOR with United Airlines.

Though its unhealthy days were numbered, one could still smoke cigarettes on a plane –in designated seats (as if the smoke stayed there!). And I smoked and drank with impunity. Wouldn’t you? Unbelievably, though our flight was but two hours and change, they’d also served us a beef roast (steaks on a plane!) freshly sliced and plated by a stewardess, who, at the time, had no problem being called a stewardess.

Needless to say, those days are over.

In many ways that’s a good thing. Smoking and demeaning titles are no less attractive at 30,000 feet. But as I look up the aisle toward the front cabin from my current seat 24D, I can’t help but have fond memories. I’d missed the Mad Men era by over 20 years but at least I’d caught a last remnant of it then.

By the way, I’m offering my mad-loco copy and creative director skills at recession-era prices. Check out my portfolio. Find me.

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The glittery potential for every brand…

According to Zen, one’s serenity is inversely affected by one’s attachment to things. The more you live the more you realize it. Obviously, you can’t take anything with you but I wonder why it takes us so long to figure that out? On some level, we all accept the spiritual truth in this idea but on a day to day basis most of us don’t “go there.” We are too busy acquiring things, building things, starting things and ending things.

When I began this blog a decade ago I titled it the way I did for irony’s sake. As if there could be Gods of anything, let alone advertising. Ha! I also gave the blog a subhead: “We Make You Want What You Don’t Need.” Even then I felt the low-level hum of tension inherent to making a living in Adland. I’m an agnostic (mostly leaning on belief in a higher power) but I’m also a realist (leaning on skepticism). Still, I knew and know that making people covet brands was a form of idolatry. Obviously, I’m not talking about selling a car on Craigslist. I’m referring to branding. Big “A” advertising: Nike, Apple, McDonald’s, etc…

As brilliant as Nike’s historical marketing story is (and precisely because of), there is a tension to it. When Air Jordan’s came out with its iconic marketing (the jump man and the swoosh and “Just Do It”), all hell broke loose. People who could least afford them wanted them the most. And, well, bad things happened to realize those aims. People stole for them. Harmed others. Or more casually frittered away resources. Nike had become a religion. It is believed God can walk on water. And so, as all of us are lead to believe, with a pair of Air Jordans, can we.

This is an extreme example and not typical of most branding efforts. Yet, that is not because we don’t try to achieve those results. We do. Therefore, in theory and sometimes practice, we are efforting to “make people want what they don’t need.”

Admit it, copywriters. When you’re drafting a manifesto for a product or service or company (it doesn’t much matter what the thing is) don’t you feel the power at your fingertips? There, at your desk, you are creating a myth. Our words are like sparks and we want them to ignite. We are toying with Pandora’s Box and it is nothing short of thrilling. For me it is.

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As far back as 2008, I made a presentation at Cannes (at the Palais no less!) sharing some of the above ideas. I recklessly compared coveting Gold Lions to the Israelites worship of a Golden Calf. Needless, to say I was not invited to give that speech again. Ever.

Who doesn’t want their copy to go viral? To be shared. To spread like, frankly, a disease. If it does, we are blessed with silver in our paychecks and Gold Lions at Cannes. With powerful alchemy, we will have turned people into consumers. Into Believers. We will have become GODS OF ADVERTISING!

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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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