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A few 24 hours ago, I had the pleasure of conversing with Alex Bogusky before he became a demi-God of Advertising. We were at a vendor-sponsored pool party in Cannes. However unlikely as it seems, both of us were not really digging the scene. He seemed to prefer a quiet discussion versus living it up in the shallow end. I was perhaps more torn on the issue but also more than happy to oblige him.

For the record, later that week, Alex and his namesake agency would win handfuls of Lions, including the Grand Prix for a charming spot from Ikea called “Lamp.” Crispin Porter & Bogusky were in the middle of an epic run making them perhaps the most famous ad agency on earth.

But Alex wasn’t interested in talking about prizes.

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Alex Bogusky, from that period…

Like a lot of executive creative directors (myself included), he’d come to Cannes simply because he could. However, he now admitted to being unsettled by the attention he and his agency were getting. He confessed that this would likely being his last time at Cannes. “Steff,” he said, “we’ve got plenty of swimming pools in Miami.” (This was before CP&B moved its home office to Boulder, CO.) Then he added, “I find that I like doing work more than celebrating it.”

I’m paraphrasing from memory but this was my favorite bit. Ironic commentary coming from the man who would later write “Hoopla” (a book about fame in marketing), not to mention win more Lions than probably any other person or agency in the United States.

Yet, to me, Bogusky’s ambivalence about all of it seemed indicative of a higher power beginning to work in his life: that making work, really good work, was more important than drinking champagne and toasting about it. Bigger picture Alex was also discovering the persistent headache and clash of conscience that hedonism invoked.Lessons I would learn the hard way.

Later that year, Alex resigned from his agency to pursue other interests.

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Are you ready for some ads!

Now that the Superbowl is over (one can argue it was over after 12 seconds), Adland has already begun planning for the Mongolian Cluster F**k that is Cannes. Festival officials have started naming its 2014 jury presidents. The list contains the usual high profile suspects, a collection of CEO’s and Chief Creative Officers from the world’s largest holding company agencies: David Sable (Y&R), Susan Credle (Leo Burnett) and Amir Kassaei (DDB).

Obvious, elitist and conspicuous… Like a surgically enhanced, rich socialite traipsing along the Croisette, Cannes has always been top heavy. I’ve been to my share so I know of what I speak. Of course, by comparison, I was but a sand fly caught upon the sticky, oily boob of any one these big shots. But so what? I was in the South of France. Whether one is A-list or D-list the pink rose is the same.

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“Wanna go look at some ads?”

Over the years, I’ve attended a bunch of these fetes and I’d do so again, if invited. Which I won’t be. My whistle-blowing hijinks at the Dubai Lynx a while back probably ended those dreams. More on that here.

Or did it? The fellow selected as head juror of film (still the penultimate category at Cannes, Cyber Titanium be damned!), only last year called out the festival (see above linked post) for rampant corruption at the highest levels. And yet there he is. Back for more.

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“How much for ze bronze?”

More what, I wonder? Methinks it has a lot to do with prestige and big agency politics. You gotta represent! That, and spend another lost week with one’s peers in the French Mediterranean!

For the record, I’ve actually won Gold at Cannes. And ze bronze. Corruption aside, it’s not an easy thing to do. I’ve also given speeches there. Made presentations. Met all manner of marketing legends. Lee Clow. Steve Zuckerberg. One time I literally bumped into Nike’s Phil Knight while jogging! I even had a chance to visit the street address where my grandmother lived after World War II. Goes without saying, it’s a beautiful place. Even when full of people like us.

Putting my ego in its place…

In preparation for my family’s move from Chicago to San Francisco, I threw out six boxes of advertising awards I’d amassed during my 20+ years in the business. Among the discards were countless certificates of merit and honorable mentions. Basically booby prizes. I was tempted to keep my first place trophies and Best-in-Shows but for the most part even those I chucked. Made of metal, they lasted ten minutes in the alley before the garbage pickers got them. They took the framed certificates, too, no doubt for the generic black frames. Zero chance some local picker will have use for a 1997 merit award from the Chicago Addy’s. On the other hand those bronze and silver One Show Pencils weigh a ton. Scrap prices are sky high these days. I wonder how many cents each of them netted at the smelter, or wherever it is metal gets bought.

A pair of old-school, badass Lions

I did keep my first two Cannes Lions, a gold and bronze awarded for a TV campaign I wrote on behalf of Heinz Ketchup. The gold was for a spot featuring a teen-aged Matt LeBlanc (Joey from Friends). It’s shown from time to time on nostalgic TV specials. A grainy version can be seen HERE. Back then there were far less categories at Cannes. And broadcast was the king. Ergo, I’m keeping my kitties.

I also kept three Andy Awards and two Clio statues, mostly because they look cool, as well as the Kelly Award given to me by the Magazine Publishers of America for best print campaign in North America: for Altoids. With only one winner, the Kelly was once highly coveted. I should mention it came with a check for $100,000 dollars. Ah, the days when magazine publishers were flush! Win a Kelly now you get a handshake and a photo in Adweek.

Whatever.

Advertising awards seemed so important then. I kept every certificate of merit, every clipping in AdAge. Oh, how I coveted those accolades! I was like a Roman conqueror collecting statues. I was a God of Advertising! Now, as I look upon the heap of paper, plastic and metal in my alley I feel anything but.

Author’s note: I realize this post probably qualifies as a humblebrag, which, according to the Urban Dictionary is where “one, usually consciously, tries to get away with bragging by couching it in a phony show of humility.” I’m pleading ‘No Contest.’


Admiral’s Club, O’Hare Field, Chicago

Picture perfect day in Chicago but once again I’m at the Admiral’s Club in O’Hare airport. Here the sunshine is more of a nuisance than anything else. Right now it’s pouring in through the windows causing numerous guests to uproot and move. Twenty miles east the city’s annual Gay Pride Parade is probably breaking all records for attendance. It truly is a perfect day for being “out.”


“Admiral’s Club” Halsted Street, Chicago

Anyway, once again, I’m flying to Los Angeles. Trust me I’m not complaining. This is exactly what I want and need to be doing. Talking with companies interested in producing my movie scripts is an avocation I will pursue to my grave, and, given my latest script is about the undead , maybe even after that!

Meeting with entities interested in my services as creative director and/or copywriter is even more important. That’s my vocation. My forays into freelancing have been a great experience for me and hopefully to the agencies I’ve helped. I’d like to do more of it. As I wrote on Twitter the other day, “Hire me and you get ECD talent at CD prices!” What’s not to like? Don’t answer that.

By the way, I intend to write about my experience on the other side of the desk from a creative director. It’s been surprisingly fun and satisfying NOT being the boss. Creating and presenting ideas more than makes up for any loss of credentials.

Still, Chief Creative Officer was my last job. This particular trip west has me visiting the CEO of a pretty terrific company who just might be looking for a creative leader. The more I read about his company the more I like the opportunity. I’m thrilled to meet him.

I’m telling you all this because I don’t have another essay prepared. Frankly, if my flight wasn’t delayed for mechanical difficulties I couldn’t have even written this. Who’d ‘a thunk being unemployed would be so damn time consuming?

Too bad I can’t make a living writing Gods of Advertising. But like fishing, it’s a labor of love. Even so, I beg your pardon for its ‘Dear Diary’ like content. I’ll be back at my desk soon enough. And for those of you coming back from the Advertising Festival in Cannes: Welcome back to yours!


The adoration of art history!

Something wonderful happened to me the other day while I was working on a freelance project: I was able to use my modest knowledge of art history in the formation of a creative idea! Yes sir, those classes I took long ago at the University of Wisconsin actually came in handy for work. As a matter of fact, we’ll be using examples from the Renaissance and other important periods in art history not only to inform the execution of our idea but also to help sell it. It isn’t everyday you see Raphael or Tintoretto in a PowerPoint presentation. But you will in ours. We even use the word chiaroscuro…correctly!

Why does that make me giddy? Because for the entire new century we’ve all obsessed about new media ad nausea, especially those of us in advertising, or whatever the hell we’re calling it. And I’m as guilty as anyone. Maybe more so.

My point is we’re so amped on whatever the new, new thing is we often forget how brilliant certain old things are and how vital. For centuries, paintings and illustrations were the primary visual media available to Man. 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 pervaded popular culture but the high road was pretty damn high for those who elected to take it.

Pause here for a second…what we make is so ephemeral, isn’t it? The best marketing campaigns in the world quickly fade into trivia. Whatever wins at Cannes this year will be entirely forgotten in 3 to 5 years. Probably sooner. Our masterpieces might be game changers for our industry and even popular culture but they have no value or meaning beyond a few ad classes and even those are fleeting. Few things are more irrelevant than the 2003 Gunn Report.

Yet, I don’t want to lecture about art versus commerce or the dumbing down of society or anything like that. For one thing I’d be a hypocrite. I haven’t been to the Art Institute of Chicago in several years, and it’s 5 miles from my house. I stay up late to watch horror movies from Europe. I blog about advertising! For all my alleged culture you’ll find me on the low road often enough. I guess all I’m saying is that it felt pretty good knowing the old masters were still relevant to the creative process, mine anyway.

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