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Even though this blog is ostensibly about advertising, I am ambivalent about critiquing ad campaigns. Especially in a negative manner. It’s easy to find bad work. And smashing low hanging fruit is a sure fire way to get readers and comments. Yet, I am always leery of doing so.

Truth be told I think most criticism is folly. Let me tell you a story. In college, I aspired to be a music journalist for Rolling Stone magazine. (Back then it was still a relevant publication.) In pursuit of this goal, I reviewed albums and concerts for both school newspapers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Highlights from this period include the resounding thumbs up I gave to the Replacements and Violent Femmes. (If not for me who knows where these two bands would have wound up?) Anyway, I also reviewed plenty of local talent, including a hair band called Whiz Kid. Whiz Kid played Lover Boy and Head East covers for drunken sorority girls (and the men who loved them) at various venues around town. For 2 bucks a head one got 3 sets of music.

Like almost every novice critic I rejoiced in ripping no-talent outfits to shreds. Whiz Kid was no exception. I might not be up on that stage but I had my pen, which was mightier than any guitar. So, I wrote a story, making fun of their lame music, silly matching outfits and ridiculous big hair. I used every bit of my marginal writing skills to tear them a new one. And then I promptly forgot about it.

Not Whiz Kid. A couple weeks later I ran into the lead singer at an after-bar party. He asked me why I’d so cruelly laid into his band. I said, no disrespect, brother but you sucked. I mean Lover Boy… Give me a break!

The vocalist did not punch me. Instead he hit me with something far more lasting. He told me the reason Whiz Kid played shit music was to get gigs, which he needed in order to pay rent and put food on the table for his wife and new baby. He told me none of the bars in town hired original talent unless they were famous. Whiz kid was not. He had to sing Working for the Weekend because that’s what 19-year-old girls (and the men who loved them) paid money to see.

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They actually did an original tune…

From that night on, I abandoned my ambition to write criticism. I had been stifled by the truth. Whiz Kid was literally working for the weekend, every weekend, in order to survive. I had no right to criticize them for doing so. I wasn’t aiding culture. I was merely hurting this band.

To this day it takes an especially notable campaign for me to write about it, in particular if I’m considering a negative opinion. Obviously, I still do it but I try to use an even hand, look for silver linings, give praise. I always remember Whiz Kid.

Author’s note: Previously, I shared a version of this story. I decided to reprint it, in lieu of critiquing anything.

Is your agency like this…

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Or this…

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Creative boutique. Process driven. Sweatshop. These are some of the terms we use to describe one advertising agency or another. And while they are often accurate descriptors –delightfully or painfully so- what is less true is that the agency chose to be defined that way.

Allow me a metaphor. In the fish keeping hobby, of which I am a passionate member, we are all familiar with how corals get their beautiful colors.  They do so via a symbiotic relationship with algae called zooxanthellae, which provide nutrients to the host animal. (Yes, corals are animals not plants.) One square inch of coral may contain millions of these microorganisms, which transmit their iconic gorgeous colors. Or they may be drab brown, depending on the zooanthellae.

For better or worse, an agency becomes the clients they work with. If an agency has one dominating and difficult client it will become a dominating and difficult place – a sweatshop. It matters little if the agency’s beloved mantra extolls a different and virtuous path: “The Power of One” “The Truth Well Told” “Human Relevance” If its clients demand, for example, an endless slew of cheap “how to” videos and “creative wrappers” for their email campaigns and tool kits then that is what the agency will be. Conversely, an agency that is hired to make sexy brand campaigns, and actually produces them, will be known for doing that kind of work. Everyone wants to be the latter. Many become the former.

The coral reef is a fragile ecosystem. Without the right nourishment it bleaches and can die. With fewer and fewer bright corals, it loses its ability to attract. Usually what happens is the reef becomes an ever uglier place, even hostile, with its beleaguered inhabitants struggling to survive, using all their resources just to maintain.

Large reefs can tolerate a fair amount of blah corals and still be healthy. The ugly stuff is swept under a carpet of jewels. Smaller agencies do not have this luxury. Many of those succumb to the prevailing currents. “This is what we do,” they say, about making Power Point for example. And they survive, albeit one dimensionally.

Improving the reef (agency) is rarely just about chasing after better fish (talent). Desirable species would come if the reef were healthy. Management isn’t the solution either, although predation at the top is often an outcome. Above all, the solution is not about redoing the agency website. The mission statement is always aspirational. Who doesn’t want a creative culture? But it matters not if clients don’t adhere to it.

The solution, obviously, is to find those clients –even just one- that arrive with creative zooanthellae alive in their DNA. Even a small “zoo” culture will inspire the host and all those considering residing there. If a small agency cultivates one of these it quickly becomes a “creative boutique.” Big agencies on the cusp of bleaching need to make room for these delicate corals, even if it means expending valuable resources. The smart ones do. The puzzle is how do you attract them if your current culture is meh? It can be done. Back in the day, Fallon McEelligott became synonymous with awesome creative by committing to myriad tiny clients, fanning gorgeousness out of them. Much later Crispin, Porter & Bogusky did the same, using burgeoning social media as their live rock. The corals grew fast and furious. Grey in New York was a big gray slab that hit it big with E-Trade babies. Leo Burnett in Chicago rose above its bedrock of CPG coral with its “curiously strong” campaign for Altoids, which was a tiny speck when it arrived. Later, they achieved amazing results in unexpected places by creating Mayhem for Allstate. Transformation happens. But not without catalytic clients.

Though few like to admit it, luck plays a big role.  Without the right clients, a talented crew and a good leader is a meeting you don’t want to be in.

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I found myself watching the movie 300. Again. Have you seen it? You should. Redemption, revenge and freedom. We are taught to be careful about the first two. And to passively appreciate the third. Civilization, I suppose. But King Leonidas would suffer no one to protect his freedom.

And so a fantasy, which, as many do, must start grimly…

The fields of Adland may be fertile for some, but many of us are bound to servitude. We make content. Blunting our God given skills at copywriting and design in order to fashion “tool kits” for unappreciative and faceless entities posing as marketing oracles. But they are demons. Takers. Deceivers. “Gives us weapons for our sales force!” they demand. For pittances our task masters yield to them, turning to us with expectations as sharp as dragon steel. Not wanting to be thrown outside the gates, we bend into our computers and render slide after slide after. All these good sons and daughters strapped to machines forging power(less)point presentations to satiate a box checker, who’s only mandate is to appease his own pitiless master. And so is weaved the self-fulfilling prophesy of sorrows. For no one in this chain will ever see the freedom true creativity can bring.

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“This is madness!” we whisper to ourselves, and those closest to us on the wheel. Speak up and you may not be heard from again.

Oh, to be the brave Leonidas. To say back: “This is not creative!” Then to kick the stunned whip holders into the pit.

Can any creative deny herself this fantasy of being a great deliverer? It’s in our DNA. We want to make things that make things happen. To be able to point to our creations with pride of ownership – not to bow our heads with apologies and excuses. When our children ask what we do we want to show them. Answer with proof not jargon.

That film. This poster. Those bright, shiny objects that shape popular culture.

But the wheel needs turning. Seven days a week sometimes. The false oracles threaten our bosses turning them into cowards and monsters. Fear ripples down. Dripping into a sweatshop. The chain of sorrows has no give.

Or does it? I have seen creative Utopia. There, enthusiasm reigns over fear. Ideas command respect and are worshiped for their amazing powers. I have harvested fruits from these fields and will do so again. I hope all of us do.

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Yesterday, as a freelancer, I presented some work at a small shop in the city. Let me first say, I loved being back in the trenches and, thrillingly, on the working side of the table. Camaraderie with a dose of healthy competition tempered by humility is a recipe my creative soul thrives upon. Indeed, I think all creative people in Adland are nourished by this activity. How could one not be? Putting what comes out of our heads up on a wall for others to see is central to what we do. It’s exciting, humbling and deeply satisfying. It’s not easy. But appreciating and respecting that process is part of maturing into a seasoned advertising professional, for the audience as well as the presenter.

So many skills are required in order to do it well.

If you are receiving the work you must be paying attention (that means phones down!) You must be patient. Let the ideas unfold before you. Try to free your mind of expectations, which taint reality. You see a morsel of copy you don’t like don’t reject the whole dish. A campaign has many courses. Perhaps there is more to redeem it. Let the presenter finish. Before commenting remember that you are dealing with humans, who, despite any evidence to the contrary, care a great deal about what you think of it and them. Note also that creatives in particular are egomaniacs with inferiority complexes. This comes from a lifetime of being praised and belittled. Speak wisely to us. Be constructive. Not destructive.

I’m delighted to report that today’s presentation was free and clear of any negative energy. Such a blessing.

Presenting work well is a gift. Whether earned through learning or divinely given or, as is usually the case, a combination of both, the ability to get up in front of people and advocate for an idea is never to be taken lightly. We must not be glib about our ideas, nor apologize for them. Speak to strengths, not weaknesses. Shortcomings will be probed, if they exist at all. At the same time, we must not be defensive about our work. This is a common sin among young creatives, almost unavoidable. Take heed. Fighting for one’s work sounds like something we’re supposed to do but it seldom works. Let the person finish his argument. Wait and see if someone else stands up for the idea. If the strategy director, or an account person, has your back it will be worth far more than your complaints. See what the creative director does or doesn’t say. He or she will address most feedback. The good ones always do. Lastly, nervousness is okay. It is not a sign of weakness. Being nervous is a sign of respect: for the material and the audience. Ask any actor about stage fright. They’ll tell you it’s not only natural but something to embrace. Heart pumping. Perspiring. Yes, it’s scary but this is when we are truly alive.

On that day I felt truly alive. While not all of my ideas (and my partners) moved forward, a couple were revered. In addition, I got to see other ideas. Though I wasn’t asked to be a creative director, I am one. Regardless of title, a good creative pays close attention to his peers. She knows viewing other people’s work is always a revelation. If you are schooled by someone have sense enough to learn from it!

If anyone who was in that room today is reading this: Thank you! It was a pleasure and a privilege. It almost always is. I can’t wait to do it again.

Do you know where you’re going to?

That’s the signature line from the Theme from Mahogany by Diana Ross. A lovely number, back in the day it was a sensation. But that line. Well, as tuneful at it is it also happens to be wrong. As a sentence it’s grammatically incorrect. Ask any 7th grader. it ends in –or should I say ends with- a preposition. Spell check will tell you the same thing. That “to” is tacked on. Technically, the line should be, “Do you know where you’re going?”

However, the correct line would also be the wrong line. Without that tiny,”incorrect” word the song may very well have failed. Theme from Mahogany might not have even happened.

Which got me to thinking about copywriting. How many times have we also used poor writing (grammatically speaking) to deliver stunning creative results?

“Think Different” anyone?

It’s what we do. It’s what we’re supposed to do. Good copy takes poetic license with the written word. And sometimes that means ending a sentence with a preposition. Or starting one with one. Or repeating words like “one” to make a point. To stand out. To shine. That’s the same reason I just used two phrases as complete sentences, even though spell check implored me not to. And look at that. There’s “to” at the end of another sentence. For that matter there’s “that.”

I realize all this may seem quaint in the age of social media and texting. Never before has the written word taken so much abuse by such a mass audience. Brutal spelling, abbreviations and the like have manhandled the world’s languages into grotesque shorthand.

But that is how people choose to communicate. We like it. And for the most part, any and all marketing communications must adjust accordingly or risk dying off like big words and good manners.

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