Here’s to the Crazy Ones…

I admit it. I’m crazy. And for the most part I’m okay with that – not that I have a choice. Ever since I can remember I’ve been aware of my, shall we say, unique perspective on the human condition – or my condition anyway. I wasn’t like the other kids. And I’m not like the other men. And while that can prove irksome at cocktail parties, or at times to my wife, it is simply reality.

Fortunately, I was able to forge a very successful career in advertising, where tempered crazy mixed with hard work is called creativity. Finding compelling ways to persuade people into believing in a product, brand or service requires more than a sound strategy; it demands a unique intuition. Crazy good ideas are hatched from crazy good minds. On good days I was crazy.

Like a lot of crazies, I ran into trouble “augmenting” that reality with drugs and alcohol but those days are thankfully over. I accept the way my mind works, even relish it, and am “aware” in ways no artificial stimulation can simulate.

Going deeper, I’ve come to the conclusion that for a great many of “us” being crazy is merely being more wholly aware than most so-called “normal” people. I am aware of my demons and defects and, for the most part, have learned how to live with them and even play with them. They can be muses. Pandora’s Box can be opened and shut. Yes, depression and anxiety are a part of it. And this is not always a small price to pay (see the preceding paragraph). So be it.

Looking at the world, we see chaos. In religion. In politics. In every other Instagram feed. Millions upon millions of people acting crazy but not identifying as crazy. Speaking and voting and even killing and not aware of it as crazy. Are the multitudes normal or just in hopeless denial?

We crazy ones know the difference. That doesn’t make us “better than” or “less than” but it makes us saner.

(Author’s note: The above anthem is the never-aired version with voice over by Steve Jobs. In retrospect, I prefer it to the read given by Richard Dreyfuss.)

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“You’re in the great game now…”

Adweek published a story asking the big winners at Cannes 2016 what their “secrets to success” were. You could read the article here or just stay with me and I’ll tell you how to win at Cannes. Forget analysis and trendspotting. Don’t be mystified by all the never-ending categories either. Winning at Cannes has more or less relied on the same formula for years.

First and foremost, do great work. Then get it seen and talked about. This one-two punch, by the way, is the same formula for ANY awards show.

Ideally, at least some of your great work should be real. Real means it went through the gauntlet known as your client (not to mention your agency’s often debilitating process) was brilliantly produced, ran in genuine media, and received boffo results.

Enter the shit out of it.

But, dear friends, you know as well as I do, that it doesn’t end there.

Long ago intrepid creatives learned how to game the system. At first simple cheating, what this looks like now is far more, shall we say, ornate. Boiled down it means mimicking the legitimate. Something like this: Create gorgeous work, share it with select others internally, maybe have a friendly client smile at it wistfully, then run it on your own dime somewhere cost efficient or, even free, like posters at the local coffee shop or via some innocuous website. Take a bunch of pictures of it “in situation,” make a case study video and voila: you have award show bait!

Enter the shit out of it.

Professional winners have huge budgets for entering shows and a complicit team doing it. Mixing in fake campaigns with real creates a juggernaut that is hard to untangle. A few real pieces win; a few scams. Who knows which is which? Who cares – the agency clearly does good work.

Be part of a network that knows all the ins and outs. Networks have a regular, sustained presence and they will massage the process to help you win. Networks know people in high places. Networks get judges into shows. Networks have wags who do interviews, predictions and the like i.e. Global Creative Directors. Networks do PR. Networks spend money.

Gaming the system has become the system. Varying degrees of corruption are tolerated for the greater good. A few unfortunates get caught and thrown to the –ahem- lions. The rest is the rest. If it looks like a winner and comes from a winner then, by golly, it is a winner!

The agencies that won the most at Cannes do all of the above, legitimately and otherwise. Been this way for years.

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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.

First, let me say Happy 100th birthday to the National Parks of these great United States. It seems like only yesterday I was hiking through Muir Woods gazing up at the towering redwoods. Actually, it was only yesterday. I’m privileged in that they are only a few miles from my house.

We are all privileged to gaze upon this new campaign from Grey New York, celebrating our National Parks’ milestone. It’s a glorious body of work, befitting the subject matter. And so simple too. A tall tree creating the numeral “1.” An reptile’s eye depicting a zero. And so on.

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Using Mother Nature’s own perfect graphic design insures everyone will appreciate our precious natural resources as well as the campaign. The elegance in which the images are put together make us smile and think (not too hard) about our National Parks and what they mean: not only to us but to the inhabitants of the parks. Rare is a poster or a billboard that no one –not even an advertising hater- could take umbrage with.

The campaign has legs. Literally. It must have been a “hoot” to create. Like putting a puzzle together each time: which animal should we use, which iconic feature? Triptychs have always intrigued me. And these are great examples of why.

Rather than replicate the concept in TV, which certainly would have worked, the creative team went even further, utilizing sound and visuals wishing these parks a happy birthday. It works seamlessly with the static pieces but stands alone.

As an aside, I’d like to commend the continued renaissance of Grey, New York. When I was starting out in this business, and for years after, Grey, true to its name, was considered by all to be conservative and bland. No creative wanted to work there. But then some new people came in (Jim, Tor, others) and it got great. Their E-trade babies took over America and all the award shows. This delightful campaign continues that trajectory.

Bravo all!

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A while back, in the Admiral’s Club at Laguardia airport, this youngster caught my attention. Regular looking kid, a bit disheveled in his ill-fitting blue sweatshirt and no-name blue jeans. But something marked him apart: a striped cap with a propeller on top!

Wow.

I remember thinking he’s safe here but that goofy cap would be a death sentence in the schoolyard -certainly in the ones I attended. I mean, what symbolizes dork more than a beanie with a propeller on top? It’s a nerd icon from when nerds were at their nerdiest. Spanky wore one on the ancient TV show, The Little Rascals.

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But in this day and age, an adolescent boy wearing something so silly… in public. He might as well have had a “Kick Me!” sign affixed to his back. I decided to sneak a picture -not to mock him as a person but to document the reality. I uploaded the anonymous photo on Facebook, adding my line about the schoolyard.

The comments came quickly. To my delight they all were deeply supportive of the Beanie Boy. Here’s a perfect example from a Facebook friend, Brian Collins:

I think the kid is astounding. He is wearing it with some pride. And it looks like it’s motorized. Even better. If this makes the kid happy that’s perfect. And he looks deeply engaged on the web, too. Great.

What we don’t need are any more cookie cutter kids dressed in oversized nylon football jerseys, cocked baseball caps and ratty jeans with their lifeless eyes glued to ESPN.

Go, beanie boy, go!

Upon further consideration, Brian is right. My knee-jerk reaction was shortsighted, even ignorant. The Beanie Boy is not a dork. Frankly, he’s anything but. He’s a maverick and a rogue, a lad who’s not afraid to defy convention.

Recently, I compared the typical ad agency creative department to Romper Room. I wrote: “The older I get the more I realize how important it is to stay connected with my “inner child.” The best creative people do not grow out of it when they grow up. We remain inquisitive. Lovers of fun. You see it in our bicycles in the hallway. Our dubious wardrobes. Our playlists. Our silly snapshots on Facebook.”

Indeed, defying convention is what makes us creative. I don’t want to lose that. Ever. And so, young admiral from the Admiral’s Club, I echo the words of my wise friend, Mr. Collins and the champions of creativity everywhere: “Go, beanie boy, Go!”

Author’s note: I wrote about the Beanie Boy before. For me, he never gets old.