images-1images
Two peas in a pod?

“Much of the Simpsons’ success can be traced to two main sources: an independence from network interference and a complete dedication to the writing…”

                                       -John Ortved, The Unauthorized History of the Simpsons

 

The Simpsons TV show is the creative standard by which all comedy writing (perhaps all script writing) is measured. Few ever meet those standards. Many duck them all together. The Simpsons is also one of the most successful things ever created. Period. No part of popular culture (ours or anyone’s) is unaffected by this quirky cartoon. How and why can be summed up in the above quote.

As you might imagine, the above quote is sweet music to any creative person’s ears, especially if you’re a copywriter. Unfortunately, it is a song we seldom get to play or hear in the creative department. We get “network interference” all the time, so much so it is considered part of the “process.” And while we may have a complete dedication to the writing, few others in a typical agency do. And why should they? Writing is not their skill set. They are executives, strategists and managers. Their skill set, if you get right down to it, is to affect the writing, generally via “comments.” Comments can be good. Comments can be bad. My point is we don’t work in a vacuum.

The “curiously strong mints” campaign is my Simpsons. In my own unauthorized untold true story of Altoids, I make a similar statement to Ortved’s. A great campaign for many reasons but, in the early going, its meteoric success comes down to the same two things: autonomy and an obsession for writing. I obsessed over those headlines as my partner, Mark Faulkner obsessed over images, color scheme and typography.

In that first year we answered to no one, save for our creative director, who was only appreciative and supportive. Obviously, the client had to sign off (they were a joy by the way) but “network interference” was negligible. Why? No one in the agency cared. The budget was tiny and TV never an option. (Remember this was 1995 and this was Leo Burnett. TV was king.) Anyway, the rest is history: Wrigley bought Altoids and Lifesavers for $1.5 billion dollars.

Ultimately, many would contribute in the case study of Altoids (I’ve named them in previous posts as well as in an Adweek story) but year one it was just a creative team and an assignment.

So, what do we make of “network interference” aka the age-old battle between suit and creative? We are both on the same team, working for the same “network.” But the partnership is strained. Necessarily perhaps. And maybe that’s healthy. But for those once-in-a-lifetime campaigns –“Think Different” “Just do it.” “Curiously Strong Mints”- I’m guessing it’s the creative lonely man who called the tune.

Author’s Notes: This article first ran last week in Reel Chicago – If you would like a creative lonely man as cipher hit me up Portfolio

Advertisements

the-creative-process1-1

How in hell do you scope this?

From a business perspective, “creative process” is an oxymoron. Yet, every agency has one. In the age of projects versus client relationships, the process looks like hours worked. PM’s and AE’s must estimate how many people to put on a creative project and how many hours they will spend doing it.

With clients choosing agencies like restaurants and ordering a la carte off our menus, a neophyte might think it would be easy calculating the bill. Unfortunately, it is harder than ever.

From a creative perspective, the process defies accounting. The time frame for making creative was, is and always will be a guessing game, fraught with variables. How long does it take to come up with an idea – Two hours? Two days? Two weeks? And how long does it take to flesh out the idea? And how many ideas do you require?

When guessing how long a project will take to complete the guessers would ideally need to calibrate how different individuals create, which is unique. For example, Sally likes to work alone. Jack and Jill work best as a team and Bill, Fred and Mary love collaborating. And what about nights, when I like to write? If one calculated how many hours I play with a paragraph of body copy we’d be over budget on everything.

In the good old days, an agency had a relationship with a client (with a yearly nut augmented by media commissions), which allowed for expanding and contracting creative resources, contingent upon the growing or shrinking demands of each assignment. Therefore, creative directors could deal in real time, adjusting resources based on immediate needs, wants and capability variables. In a fire drill, we called in resources with impunity. On a pitch, we might give a bunch of newbies a crack. And so on. Though still a process, it was far more fluid and organic than what we have now. The creative department did not have finite budgetary limits.

As a manager, I’m all for tightening the screws and figuring shit out. As a creative director, I know it seldom works that way.

126_Whitman_New_1

Walt Whitman

When I was a teenager, I worked one summer at my Grandfather’s can factory on the Southside of Chicago. Dominic was not my biological grand parent but I grew up knowing only him on my mother’s side. Dom was fierce, funny and a very loyal man. He treated me like blood.

His can company, called (for a reason I forget) Wisconsin Can was a line factory. Each person occupied a spot along a conveyor and did one menial but critical job. The end product was an aluminum can, usually for cookies or candy.

A log-haired, pot smoking dreamer, this was not my fantasy gig. I wouldn’t have lasted a week if not for Dom’s patience – if that were the right word. He would call me in to his office constantly to reprimand me for doing a half-ass job. During those sessions he’d also throw in various criticisms toward my liberal upbringing, castigating my parents for divorcing and other bon mots.

Yet, I actually preferred his berating me to working on the line. Partly because it took me off the line but also because it made me feel good –somehow- to be in his presence. In his own way, the man loved me.

Once, when I dared question him on the sanctity of factory work he told me something I’ll never forget, even if I don’t agree with it. He said, “Steffan, work isn’t supposed to be fun. Why do you think they call it work?”

Much later, I got into the advertising business. And I had fun. But I also knew I possessed a skill and that I was getting better at it. Unlike sticking a wrapper on a can, writing was (and still is) something I can sink my teeth into.

Yet, as we all know, this business is not always fun. Pressures mount and fears take hold. Work can become a trying experience, like a factory. Or worse. A factory that doesn’t make anything. I think of my grandfather during those times.

I know he had a point. One must earn a living. So, maybe “fun” isn’t the right word. Let’s try some others. If one feels “useful” and “purpose-driven” then that is better than fun. Wouldn’t you agree? Suffice to say, I wasn’t feeling either on the can line.

Give me this. Working in our business should at least aspire to be fun. Data be damned, creativity will always be more art than science. And art is about passion and, yes, having fun! When a creative is feeling it there is no better feeling. It’s like your Walt Whitman singing the Song of (Your)self. It’s glorious.

So, here’s to feeling it and being of maximum usefulness to your company, your clients and, most of all, yourself. May all of you find that happiness. It does exist.

Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”

images

From a business perspective, “creative process” is an oxymoron. Yet, every agency has one. In the age of projects (vs. client relationships) the process looks like hours worked. PM’s and AE’s must estimate how many people to put on a creative project and how many hours they will spend doing it.

With clients choosing agencies like restaurants and ordering a la carte off our menus, a neophyte might think it would be easy calculating the bill. Unfortunately, it is harder than ever.

From a creative perspective, the process defies analytics. The time frame for making creative was, is and always will be a guessing game, fraught with variables. How long does it take to come up with an idea – Two hours? Two days? Two weeks? And how long does it take to flesh out the idea? And how many ideas do you require?

When guessing how long a project will take to complete the guessers would ideally need to calibrate how different individuals create, which is unique. For example, Sally likes to work alone. Jack and Jill work best as a team and Bill, Fred and Mary love collaborating. And what about nights, when I like to write? If one calculated how many hours I play with a paragraph of body copy we’d be over budget on everything.

the-creative-process

In the good old days, an agency had a relationship with a client (with a yearly nut augmented by media commissions), which allowed for expanding and contracting creative resources, contingent upon the growing or shrinking demands of each assignment. Therefore, creative directors could deal in real time, adjusting resources based on immediate needs, wants and capability variables. In a fire drill, we called in resources with impunity. On a pitch, we might give a bunch of newbies a crack. And so on. Though still a process, it was far more fluid and organic than what we have now. The creative department did not have finite budgetary limits.

As a manager, I’m all for tightening the screws and figuring shit out. As a creative director, I know it seldom works that way.

stock-photo-man-drawing-idea-board-of-business-process-105905063
The “ad” scientist…

One of the things I’ve come to disdain about our business is how damn serious we take it. Not the craft itself, which I think is beautiful and even pure, but rather the extemporaneous crap we built around it over the years. Stuff like process and proprietary tools; the things we fill our slides with that come before we actually do what we do, which, for those who’ve forgotten, is create work that gets people to think and/or behave in a favorable way to our clients. I was going to say: we make ads; but I realize that “advertising” has become an outmoded term. Still, we are always selling something, even if it’s just a philosophy or an idea. Yet, because of this variable I accept, begrudgingly, that advertising isn’t all we do.

Whatever your take on the matter, you must agree we have complicated what we do beyond what is necessary to doing it well. This is why briefs are no longer brief. This is why Cannes has become a cluster fuck. This is why I am writing this post.

By definition, planning and strategy are the progenitors of creativity. The agency gets an assignment and we formulate a team. The left brains give us facts and insights. The right brains turn them into ideas. In a healthy agency the two sides work together. Part of this is collaboration. Part of it isn’t. Each assignment predicates a different balance of both. Inviolate in all this are the people. The better the people the better the outcomes.

Yet, as obvious and true as all this seems (to me anyway), agencies (not just mine, not just yours, all of them) have endeavored to codify every step we take in getting to our outcome. We call it our process. Basically, process is how agencies mitigate the fear involved with taking a risk. We create the illusion of proof to support an idea. This insight divided by that challenge equals a solution. Ta da!

Another bit of reverse alchemy occurs when we justify an idea after the fact. True story. My one-time creative partner at Leo Burnett, Mark Faulkner devised the brilliant green color that to this day represents the iconic Altoids’ campaign he and I created so many years ago. Taken for granted now, in the campaign’s infancy it was questioned. After all, the client reasoned, the product was white not green. As was the packaging Altoids came in, with red piping.

Altoids 1

I recall vividly my longwinded reply to this client. I stated that Mark’s color scheme evoked the “industrial strength” of a bygone era, like battleships and tough guy locker rooms. I talked about the “steam punk” phenomenon, likening the color to a powerful nostalgia “locked up” in every tin’s DNA. I said a lot of shit that day. And I’m pretty sure everyone in the room bought it. Everyone, that is, accept my partner. Mark rolled his eyes at me (not the first time) and stated where the color really came from: “I chose it because it looked cool.”

It looked cool.

In the end Altoids became a billion-dollar brand and the campaign a perennial award’s show favorite because he made it “look cool.” All that came afterwards –a textbook full of complicated nonsense- had less to do with Altoids’ success than Mark’s divine intuition. Food for thought next time we pray at the altar of agency process. For though we have made our agencies into churches of organized religions, divine inspiration often has nothing to do with it.