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Left side of my tank…

I maintain a 180-gallon reef aquarium in my home. Try to anyway. The coral reef is the most complex, delicate and beautiful ecosystem in the world. Lighting. Filtration. Water parameters. Flow. Everything has to be calibrated and monitored in order to even passably mimic a real coral reef. One or two miscalculations and your reef crashes. Suffice it to say, this is not your father’s guppy tank.

Still, or maybe because of the challenges, I am an addicted reefer. I can easily spend two hours in twenty-four with my hands in the tank and even more online doing research. Nothing tweaks my nerd DNA more than scouring websites, gaping at corals, bidding on equipment, or contributing to a forum. Reef porn is real.

An ad agency has a lot in common with my reef. Though it can be more polluted (joke), the hallways and cubes of an agency ecosystem are populated by equally diverse and complicated organisms. Some species, like the showy creative, can in fact be very sensitive. While others, the account director for example, can be very aggressive. Given the two must live together the experience can be challenging. Certain aggressive species torment smaller creatures, nipping at their work, crushing them. Biting criticism takes its toll. The wounded creative hides in his cave, camouflaged by earphones, avoiding the persistent predator. If the biggest fish in the tank is a bully, everyone suffers. When the tank becomes mired in territorial disputes, the whole thing crashes. Sound familiar?

It doesn’t have to.

Last night I observed my cleaner shrimp nibbling parasites off a troubled yellow tang and I realized that there is wonder here. When all these myriad creatures work together, giving and taking in harmony, the results are truly breathtaking. The solitary superstar flashes brilliance. A school of darting Anthias shows the awesome power of collaboration. If the tank masters accept the occasional skirmish, providing nourishment to all, then the ecosystem will flourish.

Author’s Note: A version of this story was published in Reel Chicago

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“I’m going to tell you a true story, okay?” Colette is looking at her phone but you know she is listening. You are driving her to rehearsal. She has a big part in Les Miserables. She plays the grown-up version of Cosette. (Colette playing Cosette. How’s that for kismet?) Though you saw the movie a while ago you don’t really remember the story. Victor Hugo is not your thing. Being a musical and being a lead, Colette must sing and she has been practicing a lot. You’ve heard her belting out lyrics from her room, in the shower, on the trampoline in the backyard, which she pretended was a stage. You can’t tell if she’s good or merely loud but her enthusiasm is amazing. Many members from your family are coming in to see her perform. There will be hundreds of other people as well. The tickets cost money and this is a real show. Up until yesterday Colette has been psyched. Then one of her “friends” disrespected her online, insulting her skills and some other shit you’re not sure. Usually a brick, Colette was wounded by it. Your wife told you this much. And you can see it now in your daughter’s sullen demeanor. So you have a story…

“Before you were born,” you begin. “Back when I was coming up at Leo Burnett in Chicago I was preparing for a huge presentation. It was my idea. I wrote all the copy. And I had the show to go with it. I’d been practicing for weeks. What I was going to say. How I was going to say it. I had the shit down.” Colette looks up when you curse. Good. “Anyway, the night before I’m rehearsing my presentation in front of the team. And when I’m done the head account person –the guy who deals with the client- he shits all over my work. All of a sudden he doesn’t like the creative. He’s not happy with it… or me. I’m dumbfounded. Like where’d this shit come from?” Traffic on the 101 is heavy but that’s fine. It allows you to look at your daughter. “The guy says to me, in front of everybody, if you present that work tomorrow it will be Armageddon.”

“The end of the world?” Colette asks. “What did you do?” One of Colette’s most beautiful features her eyes, big and blue, and they are wide open staring at you.

You laugh. “I told him I would make some changes. That I’d do a bunch of things he wanted and not do a bunch of things he didn’t.”

“That really sucks,” your daughter says.

“It would,” you say. “Had I listened to him. “The next day I delivered my presentation just as I’d planned it. My work. My way. And I fucking killed it. When I was done the clients actually applauded.”

“Really?” She’s serious, you can tell. You have her full attention. And something more.

“Story’s not over,” you say. “The meeting ends. My campaign’s a huge hit, right? Everybody’s shaking hands, patting each other on the back. So, I walk over to the account guy who’d dissed my work the night before. He thinks I’m going to shake his hand. I look him right in the eyes, and I say, ‘Welcome to Armageddon, asshole.’ And walk away.” You change lanes swiftly, almost missing the exit.

“Wow, that’s a great story, dad,” Colette says. “It’s all true?”

“Every bit, sweetheart.” At the red light, you look at Colette full on. She is the sassy one. The middle child. The daughter that gives your wife the most trouble. You choose your words. “If people are disrespecting you or your work, you don’t have to change.” The light turns green and you move the car forward. “All you have to be is… devastating. Redemption like that, there’s no sweeter feeling.”

In the parking lot, Colette thanks you again for driving her to practice. You’re not a hugging family but you can see it in her eyes. The fierceness is back. You watch her march toward the theater. The entire world’s a stage and you’ve given an important player some badass direction.

Author’s note: This is an excerpt from a book I’m writing, my fourth. If you like it let me know. Available for freelance as well: https://steffanwork.wordpress.com

And by the way, Colette was devastating.

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Colette et Cosette

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Police and fire engine sirens cut through the howling wind. Rain lashes onto the windows of my house, torrents of water falling from the sky. A blessing for drought stricken California but eerie in the moment. Especially when the moment lasts for two days and counting. This afternoon we lost power. Most everyone around here did. A tree fell taking power lines with it. Then another. And another.

And then mine. It toppled over at the root line. The saturated earth could no longer bear the weight. Horizontal became vertical.

My daughter saw it first. Or rather the absence of it. My wife asked me to stake the tree back up. Like I said shorn from the roots. Staking it would be like trying to plant a telephone pole. And so I dragged it off to the gravel pit beside the trampoline. What else could I do? It left a wake of pink and purple petals in the grass.

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As the rain poured down upon me I gazed at the fallen tree. It had been here almost as long as I had, first barely flirting with the lone window of my office, then towering above it. I can recall looking up from my desk on sunny days and seeing hummingbirds zipping among its colorful blooms. At night hawk moths, their curly tongues (proboscis) drawing nectar from the flowers in moon glow. I’m not going to say it was my muse. Writing advertising copy doesn’t require such things. But it was beside me when I wrote everything I wrote.

Bigger trees fell during this storm, causing much chaos. Crew filled yellow trucks. Soggy, irritable claims adjusters taking notes in the rain. Blaring car alarms. This tree did none of that. It just fell. When nobody was looking. But make no mistake: it was there.

On Tuesday the same gardeners who planted it will saw it up and take it away. Come spring, we will likely put in another. But for now this one is lying on the gravel, probably not even fully aware it’s dead. Or that it will be missed.

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My home office: a cheap cigar, a Diet Coke and thou!

Oh, dear blog what shall I write? It’s been more days than I like to spend away from you. But work, family and the great outdoors call me away. That and the whole wide rest of the Internet. The last one is the big devourer of time. What with my shows, that video and this movie.

Often when I’m riding my bike or waiting to fall asleep I think of a killer topic. But then I forget it. I guess it wasn’t so killer after all. More likely I realize the topic is just not right for this forum. New things we are working on at the agency are not appropriate for public consumption. Nor are many of the intrigues we are experiencing. I’ve learned over time, often the hard way that discussing certain items on a blog violates the trust others have put in me. However compelling a challenge at work or home may be, this cannot be the place for it.

My ego is a strong influence. The devil may care, it says. Write, chicken shit, write! It is my lone frenemy.

Here’s the hard part. For provocative and challenging issues I often need to write about them in order to know what I really think, feel and believe. My first thought –Run! Fight! Drink!- is typically not the right one. This blog has been a perfect sounding board for my thoughts to marinate into sound ideas. Until it isn’t. In my last engagement, the agency PR guy came to loathe this blog for my self-disclosure and truth telling. Ironically, he now works at Facebook.

Like you, I am also caught up in the sad, maddening melee of modern culture and politics. What is going on with our police? Were they always this freewheeling with their pistols and we didn’t know about it? And then there is Donald Trump. So much has been said about so much he has said. Somehow he leads the polls to be the GOP candidate for President of these United States. What’s even more unbelievable is that he has made an enemy of Fox News. He would be their torch bearer! In the end, the Democrats need only put out mashed potatoes and win. Hillary you are one lucky woman.

But this blog isn’t about those things. Or so I thought when I sat down to write.

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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?

Yes.

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.

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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.

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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!