Portrait of a young man as troubled copywriter…

How many times have we in Adland heard variations on the following comment regarding a member of the creative department: “Jack has talent… if only he wasn’t so negative.” Or: “Sally does good work but her negative attitude is holding her back.” The admonishment that creative people are by turns cynical, jaded and petulant –in other words, negative- is as old as creation itself. But is it a fact of life or an overblown stereotype?


Negative emotions have always been linked to artistic expression and therefore ability. The cynical writer. The moody painter. The depressed poet. These are but a few of the many common expressions linking negativity to creativity. For perspective try switching adjectives. The cheerful poet? I rest my case.

Rather than dive into the deep ocean of thought on how and why negativity and creativity go hand in hand (pain and suffering being catalysts for art, ego and inferiority, constant rejection), let’s explore what it means in the modern advertising agency. First off, it accentuates the unofficial divide prevalent (to varying degrees) at every agency on earth. While many an account person has been called a jerk or worse, precious few of them earn the moniker moody or melancholic. No sir, that’s our job!

In weird but totally understandable fashion the jaded creative department rolls its collective eyes at the cheery frat boy/sorority girl account exec. And the uber-cheery AE’s roll their eyes back at us. I cannot count all the times I’ve seen a creative person called out by an account executive frustrated by his or her bad attitude.

Negativity & Creativity

Conversely, I cannot count all the times when a creative has bitched about an obsequious account person. The personality divide defines and disrupts most agency cultures daily. Kind of like yin and yang. Only for us it can become toxic. If we let it. Rather than expecting tigers to change their stripes I believe the solution is mutual respect and acceptance. Live and let live.

Interesting to note (for me anyway) is the typical response a creative person offers up for being so negative. These tend to fall into two very opposite camps. The first type comes off as profoundly indifferent. “Whatever. I don’t care about the shit I’m working on. I’m sick and tired of trying.” Or some such. The second (somewhat thankfully) response is that the man cares a great deal about his work but has become defeated by the dimwitted autocrats running the show. He blames his attitude on others, who thwart his ability to “do good work.” The first is sick of trying. The second is sick of dying trying.

I refuse to editorialize. To me the above paragraphs are like photographs, capturing things as they are. While neither attitude is pleasant to behold (or likely very healthy), both situations are commonplace. Negativity cohabitates with creativity. To some degree we must accept this reality and at times even respect it.

As time goes by most petulant creatives grow out of it. (I like to think I did.) Maturity, hard work and luck all play factors in the lessening of the darkness.

Who can tame a wild creative?

Finally, there is the irony that negativity actually aids creativity. It is a paradox but the miserable creative is often an inspired one. Therefore, we must embrace edginess, cleverness and cynicism the way a cowboy appreciates a fresh horse. “That pony is mean but man is she beautiful.” The wise account executive learns how to bridle this animal but can never do so completely and not without occasionally getting bucked.

In turn, the rogue pony comes to understand that if it ever wants to leave the corral (i.e. get anywhere) it will have to accept the bridle of professionalism. Either that or get made into glue.

Author’s note: I published a version of this story a while ago. I beg your pardon. Work has been busy!

The Ass-Con in full glory…

A while ago, I got angry with someone on a work related matter. Not a person from my office (I would certainly not write about that here); let’s call him/her an associate consultant.

At that time and place, we’d been going after a lot of new business. For me, the pressure of conjuring big ideas and then delivering them is endlessly exhilarating. It never gets old.

What does get old, however, is the associate consultant, be he or she an outlier, vendor, client, colleague or boss. He/she is usually a control freak, rarely a doer, and almost always anathema to the team. These “ass-cons” claim unearned sovereignty over your project. Ass-cons use fear and manipulation to force their agenda just as they used lies and malevolent charm to get their jobs.

“This looks creative. Let’s shit on it, then leave.”

I’d been given ample warning about this particular ass-con, but I only lasted five minutes before losing my temper. Something about this pigeon swooping in and shitting on my team’s work set me off.  I did not raise my voice and I did not use profanity. However, my blood boiled and I wanted this person expunged. I’m sure ass-con felt the same way about me, especially because I stood up to him/her, challenging his/her authority. Somehow we got through our unpleasant interaction without fisticuffs (I’m not a longshoreman!) but my seething anger remained with me for hours, days really.

Which brings me to my point. I’ve come to realize that I simply cannot process anger in a healthy way. It works through me like a fever. I obsess over the catalyst, making him/her a villain. I create revenge fantasies in my head. Worst of all, I lose what little spirituality I’m lucky enough to possess. Fear and loathing take over. My instincts to fight or flee become overwhelming.

Therefore, even righteous anger is taboo for me. To paraphrase Dr. Bruce Banner (aka the Hulk), “you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” I become the very thing I despise, a grotesque image of the ass-con.

When angry I change into… Lou Ferrigno?

Friends and colleagues tell me not to sweat it, or the ass-con, that I’m just a passionate creative guy, standing up for my work. But I can’t allow this scapegoat. In most cases, I view anger and passion as two separate things. I do not believe having great passion means one has to be a hot head. Frankly, I think most ass-cons lack a true passion in life and compensate by domineering others.

Bottom line: Anger, even when it is justifiable, is a very tricky emotion and should not be taken lightly. Maybe the ass-con gets a thrill out of being a dick 24/7 but for me life is too damn short to be miserable all the time.

Because of the sensitive nature of this topic, I spent more time than usual thinking and writing about it. In doing so, I came across a book, The No-Asshole Rule by Robert I. Sutton, which would appear to be about the same thing. The subhead is “Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.” Amen.