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At a recent all-hands meeting, I was asked about my “creative vision” for the company. I’m not sure I provided a good answer. Not a concise one anyway. Big picture my vision is the same as any sane employee: to grow, to succeed, to become prosperous -as an agency, as individuals.

This is not the first time I’ve been asked about creative vision and philosophy. Typically, my answer lined up with whatever mantra the agency I worked for was advocating. For example, at Leo Burnett it was to create brand believers with big ideas. At Euro RSCG (now Havas), it was to make creative business ideas (not just ads). At Gyro, it was to create humanly relevant ideas for B2B and technology clients. At R2I, it’s to help accelerate connections.

Whatever the hoo-ha, the common denominator is always ideas. Specifically, I want to divine the organizing principle out of every legitimate creative opportunity we have. If/when a client comes to our doorstep with inherent gravitas, social currency or the ambition to achieve those things I would expect our creative solutions rise to that potential. Put another way: Wouldn’t it be nice if we could actually talk to our friends and family about what we made at work without their eyes glazing over?! Creative that makes a statement and leaves a footprint. I want us to do that. I want us to be seen.

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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

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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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One Lion is apparently enough.

The great irony from the Cannes International Festival of Advertising is that by far the biggest story coming from this famously bloated bacchanal is that the new leader of Publicis Group, Arthur Sadoun decreed in the forthcoming year zero euros will be spent on advertising award shows! Instead, Publicis has introduced a Siri-like App called Marcel (named after Publicis’ founder), which will unite the holding company’s agencies into a “Power of One.” Furthermore, Arthur stated unequivocally that all the monies that would’ve normally gone into entering award shows (extravagant fees, production for entries, and travel) will now be used to create, optimize and deliver Marcel. Here is the video introducing Marcel. No comment.

As everyone (accept apparently Arthur) expected the reaction was fast, furious and mostly vitriolic. Some of that is here.

So much to unpack…

Rather than vivisect the top paragraph like everyone else in Adland, let’s pick out a few tidbits from the carcass. First, why on Earth would a French advertising concern make such a controversial announcement at the biggest advertising festival in the world…in France no less? For publicity? Mission accomplished, Art. But doing so is, well, rude. Dare I say French?

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Les Creatives? Let them eat cake!

And to justify the move by claiming an Intranet App, seemingly only for Publicis employees, should somehow take precedent is just plain bizarre. There are already a zillion ways to share files and connect. Does Publicis really need a proprietary one? But fine. I’m sure it will provide some utility. Yet linking it with a budget cutting agenda (pork) feels like the worst kind of governance.

Lost in the melee is this business of “Power of One.” Really? Christ, when I was at the former other big French holding company, Euro RSCG (now HAVAS), the “Power of One” was their big, swinging dick. It was the main part of Euro’s credentials and in all of our pitches. Trotting it out now is trite and oblivious.

All this being said, I’m actually for the decree. You heard me. And yes, for the usual reason: that we are an ego-maniacal industry with a profound inferiority complex. Saluting our wares in show after show became pathetic years ago. Yet like addicts we can’t stop.

But here’s a better reason. Advertising award shows are no longer necessary. If and when good work becomes part of popular culture, the so-called conversation, that is all the accolades one needs. It will be heralded in countless venues. Shared by industry wags and real people alike. A lot.

 

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Why do I need a Lion when I rattled this bull?

McCann’s timely “Fearless Girl” statue was the talk of the town well before winning Lions at Cannes. Not winning would have been the only story. Ergo it was already a winner. Its creators were celebrated and undoubtedly got fat raises and job offers. Cannes is merely icing on the icing. The sugar high is fleeting and unhealthy. We creatives may crave the perk but we don’t need it.

Back in the day, before the Internet and social media, shows like Cannes were more vital. Save for the occasional marketing column, It was the only place things got shared. Now, it’s the last place things get shared.

So good on you Publicis. Throw a harpoon into the whale. (Yeah, a bunch of Global Creative Directors may go down with it. But honestly their salaries are where the real savings will come.) Your timing sucks and the cold turkey will too but measures like this are frankly overdue. Let’s see if Arthur can withstand the shit storm of junkies that have already begun pounding on his door.

For award winning work hit me up: https://steffanwork.wordpress.com/

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Back when I first started out as a copywriter for the Leo Burnett Company in Chicago, I had been on the job only a few months when a new copywriter was hired into our creative group. Tom Coleman came to us from a small agency in Washington DC, along with his art director partner Bob Wyatt.

Tom and Bob would go on to create wonderful award-winning work for Dewar’s White Label, among other campaigns. One of my all time favorites from his “oeuvre” was this print ad, convincing young men to try Dewar’s even though research suggested most new drinkers hated the taste of scotch. Freaking genius.

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Tom had a strong personality with a biting wit. He also possessed fashion sense way beyond most young men and, frankly, just about everyone else in Chicago. (Except for maybe our boss, Ted Bell but that’s another story.) Tom regularly came to work in a suit and, if not that, always donning a jacket. Unless he was hung over or ill, he always wore a tie, usually a bow tie, and never a clip on. He cherished his weathered Cordovan loafers from Brooks Brothers. His shirts were monogrammed.

Needless to say, we road him hard for his sartorial streak. But like Dewars, Tom “never varied.” He knew he was ahead of the game and certainly beyond us slobs. Despite our wardrobe differences, Tom and I became good friends. He tried to get me to dress like an adult but unless we were presenting to a client, I dressed for comfort not success. Truth be told, even my “fancy” clothes were pretty lame. Especially compared with Tom’s.

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Tom Coleman, towering over the shallow end…

I’m writing this not to reminisce but because Coleman (as we often called him) has a fabulous and fun new book that just came out, detailing the greatest fashion missteps of otherwise smart and stylish people. It’s called, I Actually Wore This: Clothes We Can’t Believe We Bought. In it a bunch of genuinely cool people (some famous, some not) talk about the single most embarrassing article of clothing in their closet: why and where they acquired the garment and a fun anecdote about it. Each person is marvelously photographed in said item(!) by Jerome Jakubiec. As Tom wrote in his inscription to us: “It won’t change your life but it may liven up your coffee table.”

It’s a hoot, hard to stop reading and gawking at. Obviously, Tom’s “concept” is titillating tapping into our voyeuristic tendencies. But it’s more than that. There’s something intimate and warmly human about the book. With a handful of words and a portrait, you really get to know these people. How they could buy, let alone wear, these things is actually a far bigger question that it first might seem. We discover the ego’s power and the trouble (albeit harmless here) that it can get us into.

Tom once told me he was a “collector of people.” In I Actually Wore This we see the fruits of his labor. Coleman’s book is available on Amazon and likely the chicest coffee tables.

Though my wardrobe is still suspect, I write copy fashionably well: https://steffanwork.wordpress.com/