A while back a guest writer on AdAge, Lauren Warner took some heat for an essay she wrote about the briefing process. Among other things, she claimed one should address “creatives on your shop’s team like they’re in kindergarten.”

Others may have been offended but the story made me smile. I recall an evening spent at my children’s school, meeting their teachers, discussing the upcoming year. During this visit, I became aware of how “creative” so much of my daughters’ curriculum really was. Colette’s science teacher explained how “experimenting and taking chances” shapes her powers of intuition. Lily’s drama teacher rhapsodized about “connecting to the inner fantastic.” She used the word “connecting” over and over again. “At this age,” she said, “the creative gene is ready to explode!”

I couldn’t help but think of all the “connecting” strategies I’ve puzzled over as a copywriter and creative director. “Connecting people” is the default strategy for all telecommunications, personal technology, and, frankly, just about everything people use in their waking lives. Connecting folks is Coca Cola’s uber-strategy. “I’d like to buy the world a coke.”

Even more interesting was this business about creativity “exploding.” I believe the teacher was saying that our creative muse is born in these opening years of life. That stimulated and nurtured, we begin to understand and respect our intuitions. Kindergarten is a creative department. Experimenting with ideas on the stage, colors on paper, sounds in music class… That’s what I do!

Or that’s what I prefer doing. Much of my day, however, is spent lawyering on behalf of ideas. Defending them. Subjecting them to all manner of worries and concerns, making them more appropriate, more coherent, more on strategy. It’s inevitable. It’s my job. But it’s also like killing the butterfly in order to appreciate it.

The older I get the more I realize how important it is to stay “connected” to my “inner child.” The best creative people do not grow out of it when they grow up. We remain inquisitive like children. Lovers of fun. You see it in our bicycles in the hallway. Our dubious wardrobes. Our playlists. Our silly photos online. Alas, you also see it in meetings, where we become pouting and defensive, wilting under criticism, frustrated by the grown-ups ruining our fun. I know we can be insufferable. Imposing MBA logic in Romper Room is bound to create problems.

But our muses shouldn’t be stymied: the ability to ideate, to find that “inner fantastic” is necessarily petulant. What’s regrettable is marketing’s obsession with guaranteeing results…or else! Research. Testing. Groups. I say Bleh! There are no guarantees. Never were. Never will be. Intuition, if cultivated and nurtured, is the most important tool the creative department has. The old saw is wrong. Ideas are not our “babies.” That job belongs to us.

Author’s note: This post originally ran as guest commentary on Reel Chicago

I am available for copywriting and creative direction and I will behave like an adult: Steffanwork/CV


When it comes to evaluating ad copy, it’s not purely about judging the meaning of words. In order to truly assess copy properly, I also need to see what it looks like in a layout. The art directors were right: a block of copy is a visual. It needs to look right. Losing or adding a word or two in order to accommodate the layout should not be viewed by the writer as a concession. it’s also a part of creating good copy. Seeing your words “in-situ” provides explicit proof that what you’ve written is correct. The perfectly rendered paragraph in a Word document is seldom right the first time in a layout.

This notion predates technology. If anything, word processing tools have made it even more pronounced. Now we can see finished looking ads before they are produced. (Ancient history, I know. It’s been years since anyone relied on marker comps to sell an ad.)

For me, visually orienting words is equally necessary in my other writing, like this blog. While I write and rewrite these words in Microsoft Word, I’ve really only created a first draft. The true test comes when I preview a “new post.” Then I see the paragraphs as you will see them. Suddenly their flaws become manifest, almost like an allergic reaction. Lose this sentence. Change that word. Move the photograph down a peg. Why these things were not apparent on a white screen is a mystery.

Looking at words adds more time to the editing process, which I suppose is anathema in the modern world. New content is the key to new readers, or more views anyway. Therefore, many bloggers crank out content as fast as they can. Like in a MASH unit, they sow up stories and send them to the front. The sentences bleed adverbs and are pockmarked with dot-dot-dots, suggesting the writer had no time to tie up paragraphs or suture a proper segue.

I can’t work that way. Whether it reflects in my writing or not, I treat each story and every block of copy as if it were being looked at as well as read. It’s a habit I got into a long time ago.

Stealing from the best…

Recently, I was able to use a modest but working knowledge of art history in the formation of a creative marketing idea. How about that? Apparently, those “vanity” classes I took at the University of Wisconsin actually did come in handy. As a matter of fact, we not only used examples from the Renaissance and other important periods to inform the execution of our idea but also to help sell it. It isn’t everyday you see a Raphael or Tintoretto in a PowerPoint presentation. But you did in ours. We even used the word chiaroscuro…correctly!

Saying this was gratifying is an understatement. Especially considering the extent everyone in marketing (including me) obsesses about new media. We get so amped up on chasing or creating the “new new thing” we utterly lose sight on just how vital certain old things can be.

For centuries, paintings and illustrations were humankind’s primary visual media. Instead of clicking through myriad links and cable channels, man sought inspiration or entertainment from still images, the best of which were generally paintings. Earlier generations gazed upon frescoes in their church and if they were lucky got to see masterworks at a salon or museum. Granted, lewd and crude drawing have always pervaded popular culture but the high road was pretty damn high for those electing to take it.

Shifting gears…

What we make is so ephemeral, isn’t it? The best marketing campaigns in the world quickly fade and die, perhaps lingering as a bit of trivia. The winner at Cannes this summer will be entirely forgotten in five years. Probably sooner. Our masterpieces might be game changers within our industry, and even in popular culture, but most have no lasting value or meaning beyond selling. Few things are more irrelevant than last year’s Gunn Report.

Yet, this isn’t about the dumbing down of society. Or a hate on advertising. For one thing I’d be a hypocrite. I haven’t been to an art museum in years and the SFMOMA is ten minutes from my office. I stay up late to watch horror movies. I blog about advertising! In other words, one finds me on the low road often enough.

How fine knowing the old masters could still be relevant to the creative process, especially mine.

“Say hello to my little paint chips!”

I really dig this tumblr blog by graphic designer Roxy Radulescu, featuring stills from films and their corresponding color palettes. It’s a creative idea that seemingly has everything. Not only is moviesincolor inspiring from an aesthetic point of view but the concept emanates directly from popular culture so it’ll get talked about and shared.

And not just by movie buffs and art directors. There’s potential utility here as well. I totally see homeowners and designers being inspired by the irresistible source material of their favorite movies. I mean who wouldn’t want a man cave designed around the colors of Scarface or Goodfellas? For chicks, how adorkable to have your bedroom done up a la Moonrise Kingdom?


The possibilities are endless. As are the applications. The only thing missing, frankly, is the big time paint advertiser. Not long ago I worked on the product launch for Valspar paint. We did some pretty cool stuff for them in the digital space. Moviesincolor would have fit perfectly.

Judging from her other blog (RoxyMakesThings), moviesincolor is just one of many concepts percolating in this young designer’s head. Since moving to LA from the “corn field’s of Illinois” Roxy, in her own words, “has managed to be a part of a handful of L.A. bands, work on videos, hold several graphic design jobs, sell my prints, and help friends bring their projects to life.”

Nicely done, Roxy. Here’s hoping moviesincolor brings you some well-deserved attention and many more chances to shine.

Shout out to The Denver Egoist for discovering Roxy’s boss tumblr.


The call of duty beckons…

In Adland, people come and people go. Turnover happens, now more than ever. Without long term incentives employees are not bound. Upheaval in our industry exasperates an already virulent tendency: to keep moving.

Agencies feel the urge as much as individuals. Like a submarine, new crew is necessary to keep the ship going, to keep up with the other subs, to stay fit. While we may feel distraught to see a beloved crewmember leave, it is part of an agency’s lifecycle, inevitable as the tides.

For a long time I was the anomaly. I spent my first 15 years at the venerable Leo Burnett Company in Chicago. I seriously thought I’d never leave. All my vocational dreams were coming true. I had great partners and bosses. I created lots of work, some of it good, some of it even very good. I felt a part of something bigger than myself. Alas, that strong tie didn’t fray. It was severed. A wave of corporate jive crashed over my head and I swam for the doors. For me wanderlust came late and not without a strong kick in the ass.

For a time I looked back in anger -a pointless endeavor and one I don’t recommend. But then I signed on to another ship. And then another. Like you, I was no longer a “company man.” My updated goal was to be of maximum use. Last year, I took the helm at gyro in San Francisco. She is a relatively small ship but with great ambitions and a stellar crew. Our mission is to create humanly relevant ideas, often for clients unaccustomed to them. Of course it’s hard. But I am loyal to this brief and despite the many challenges feel its potential on a daily basis.

Join me.

I’m looking for good crew: Specifically, an art director with web production capabilities and knowledge of B2B marketing, someone who knows their way around technology-based clients. In addition to, or instead of, we will also consider men and women who create and design content, be it websites or online advertising. Doers in new media are welcome to enlist. Speaking of media, a position also exists for a top strategist. Lead generation. Emerging platforms. You know the drill, call us.

Turnover happens. And we’ve seen our bit. Yet, now it’s time to reload. 2013 started with a new President. Maybe you’re next?

Yes, we will use age-old methods to fill these positions. But I’m trying a newer one. Hell, if I find one great recruit this blog will have been worth it. In the oddly timeless words of Van Halen’s David Lee Roth, “Change, nothin’ stays the same/ Unchained, ya hit the ground running.”

Interested? Hit me up on Linkedin.