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I’ve parlayed my passion for freshwater and saltwater aquariums into a YouTube channel: Lush & Salty Aquariums The channel is only a few weeks old – a wee fry. But I’ve been going at it pretty hard. Labor of love. Anyway, You Tube says I need at least 100 subscribers before they’ll really lets me use the platform. Will you help a fish nerd out? Just go to the channel and hit subscribe. Lush & Salty Aquariums

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Been thinking about obsession. Not Calvin Klein’s perfume from the late 80’s. Though it is a fitting digression, seeing as Obsession was a quintessential icon of the greed decade, which actually does lead to my thoughts on obsession…

My young daughters love to toss around the word “obsession” to mean something they can’t stop thinking about and/or get enough of. A good example might be a type of candy or a popular song. Maybe it’s a brand of clothing or a food item from this restaurant or that store. And so on.

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Ew.

Now you know why advertisers are so interested in obsession. If only they could get more people to obsess about their products. If only. But obsession is ephemeral, like a vapor. Here today gone tomorrow or, if advertisers are lucky, the day after tomorrow.

As I think about obsession, I realize it lies somewhere between addiction and love: the third point in that Bermuda Triangle. The differences are subtle but profound. Love generally is a “good” thing. Addiction not so much. Obsession can go either way. By my daughters’ definition, obsession is generally harmless.

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“OMG. I’m so obsessed with painting my nails.”

But adults obsess. I am or have been obsessed with all manner of things, including in no particular order: leather jackets, bicycles, running, fishing, zombies, old oil paintings, U2, aquarium keeping, silver rings and writing. To you a random list but for me these things are or have been significant totems. One aspect that marks them as obsessions is my inability to stop thinking about them. It is like my head is a rock tumbler and I keep turning over the same thoughts. I have literally stayed up nights wondering if one of my aquarium corals is dead or merely in a dormant stage. Obviously, the Internet is a fiendish companion to obsession. Search “dormant corals.” Search “reviving dormant corals.” You get the idea.

While obsessive behavior resembles addiction it is not. Addiction is the Ace of Spades in that it trumps all obsessions and very often love for that matter. An addict will stop at nothing and stoop to anything to get what he wants. Trust me.

I do not know what it is like to obsess about another human being. Perhaps there was a girl in high school. But those memories are vague. I love my wife and children unconditionally but I am not always thinking about them. When I do worry and wonder about one of my girls I feel intensely vulnerable and so I stop. Rightly or wrongly, I take love for granted. I’m working on it. On the other hand, obsessing over another person is not healthy either. See stalking.

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Leather me up…

What I like about obsessions are their ability to fill one up. A hobby (fish keeping), collection (leather jackets) or passion (U2 music) somehow makes life keener and more fun. I’ve been instructed that it might behoove me to set my compass on a more spiritual course. Alas, I may be too cynical for that. Perhaps that’s why I’m obsessed with U2. Like Bono, I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. In the meantime, I’ve got my eye on this badass vintage biker jacket on ebay.

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Too much of a good thing?

Last Sunday, I read a story in the New York Times Magazine about a woman who had become obsessed with an obscure songwriter and producer from the 1960’s, Curt Boettcher. It’s an interesting story. A classic tale of a talented artist that almost became famous. But for the writer, Alexandra Molotkow it was Boettcher’s obscurity that fueled her obsession with him and in turn with another writer who was also obsessed with Boettcher, Dawn Eden. Eden actually did become famous, first as a rock historian and then as a born again dogmatist.

As fascinating as the story and the people in it are it is the theme of obsession that I’m left with. This short article is shot through with it. Boettcher, Eden and Molotkow were all obsessed with different but related things (music, fame, destiny and even God) propelling them forward into life and in Boettcher’s case, death.

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The object of obsession, Curt Boettcher

Teen-agers and myriad other types throw around the term obsession, expressing devotion to a person, place or thing. For example: “I’m obsessed with Pretty Little Liars!” Or “I’m obsessed with Sprinkles cupcakes!” It comes and goes. The word obsession is like the word awesome. Played.

Obsessions like those in the NYT magazine piece are fairly named. They altered the lives of the people obsessed. They became all encompassing, driving forces. Perhaps because I have an addictive personality, I find these stronger affectations deeply interesting. I have become obsessed with malignant things (alcohol) and benign (leather jackets). For better and for worse, these obsessions have indelibly altered my life.

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Advertisers take note of obsessions; indeed they can become obsessed by them. After all, a person obsessed with a product or service is one hell of a customer. Whether she is a collector of toys (Beanie Babies) or a fanatic about a professional football team (Cheese Heads), these obsessed people are customers for life, often spending good money after bad living it.

I wonder if that’s bad. Most religions and many spiritual teachers tell us that craving material possessions is wrong. As we all learn soon enough, ‘you can’t take it with you.’ True serenity, it is said, comes only when we “let go” of materialism and “selfish pursuits” and open ourselves up to a “higher calling.”

I won’t argue the point. Yet, as we are not saints, it seems impossible for most, if not all of us, to let go completely. Hobbies, collections, habits are part of the human condition. We can’t help ourselves. Fishermen always buy more tackle than they need. Women own more shoes than they require. I can only wear one leather jacket. I have twelve.

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Pathology or Perfecto?

People get “need” and “want” all mixed up. One becomes the other. Obviously, there is a difference between hording and collecting, addiction and passion. But just how big a difference?

As a copywriter, I’ve always wondered what magic combination of words and pictures I might conjure that could trigger obsession. I’m not sure any one thing can. But certainly our contributions can provide fuel. I saw for myself what a handful of “curiously strong” posters did for Altoids. It took more than one TV commercial (“1984”) to create the cult of Apple but few doubt it wasn’t a catalyst.

The rise of the cult of Apple…
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This is the power I love and at times loathe about our craft. When done to perfection it is witchcraft. As is written in the header to this blog, We make you want what you don’t need. Word.

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“With great passion comes great responsibility.”

Recently, I was asked about my creative philosophy. Namely, do I have one? Seems like a reasonable question. Seems like something an Executive Creative Director ought to have.

Well, I’ve had many. Which, if you think about it, is as it should be. As creative professionals, we must remain open-minded and forever teachable. For us, one-way streets are typically dead ends.

Look at the term, “creative professional.” It’s almost an oxymoron, isn’t it? There’s tension there. The right brain (creativity) and the left brain (professional). But that’s the gig. That’s what we do. Therefore, any philosophy we have must strike a balance between passion and responsibility. Said another way, we are both craftsmen and salesmen. We’ve gotta do both.

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Both ends burning…

Your exact philosophy will be a function of percentages. I’d say my current philosophy is 60% passion to 40% responsibility. Those numbers change over time. Back in the day, I’m sure my split was more like 80/20. But then I started facing clients. I had to mitigate my obsession with winning awards and other personal achievements. I had to compromise. I had to listen. I became responsible-ish.

It is important to note that while passion is the fun part -and closer to what people think about when they think about creativity- it is often destructive in too large a dose. Without empathy for the business, even the most brilliant creative person will be stifled… often by his own hubris. Obviously, I don’t need to discuss the unduly “responsible” creative. They are hacks. To me, mortgaging one’s passion to the hilt is both sad and unmanageable.

While percentages vary, I’m a big believer in “responsible passion.”

In my next post, I’m going to talk about staying creatively fit and remaining relevant, which, in my view, is a critical precursor to any creative philosophy.

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Remind you of anyone in Adland?

A gathering of ad agency people –who shall go nameless- were talking about some of the rip roaring screaming matches that used to take place between their old creative director and, well, just about everyone at the agency. For example, an argument over production of a DM piece culminated in broken glass and a serious gash in said CD’s wrist. Blood was everywhere. “I guess he was just a passionate guy,” someone offered. “Or a prick.”

I’m going with the latter. Losing one’s temper over a piece of direct marketing –or any ad really- is just plain ridiculous. Mistaking gross behavior for passion is one of life’s great myths. Anger like that is a character defect. Period. That someone could get to physical violence over the manufacture of an ad… Crazy.

I brought the subject up later with an old pro at my agency. We agreed that anger has its place, especially for the impetuous young. But what if it’s just a charade? Maybe some of us act out not because we actually feel angry but because we think we’re supposed to. Because that’s what makes (us) passionate leaders. We are defending creativity!

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Ad Agency or Reality TV set?

Most creative professionals (myself included) are egomaniacs with inferiority complexes. Having endured criticism for our “art” over and over again we lose perspective. We already crave respect and validation beyond what normal folks do. And now, being in a position of creative leadership, we demand it. Furthermore, I think some of us become high on our own vapors. It’s like the ad agency is a reality TV show and the “passionate creative director” one of its stars. Along with the “domineering project manager” and the “tyrannical President.” Like any reality TV star, he or she must develop a persona larger than life. Mild frustration won’t cut it. The delusional actor must be enraged. He or she must make an impression in order to be heard, to stand out, to star! His or her “brand” depends on it. After all, nobody watches reality TV for thoughtful conversations and mundane human interactions. Where’s the drama in that?

Without getting into an argument about reality TV, let’s just agree that the workplace is not it. Bigger than life “stars” in our business –if they exist- are best known for their work. Or should be. Being an exceptional asshole is not a legacy.

What do you think? Is it possible that the screamers are just doing it for show? Doesn’t make it right but it does make it easier to comprehend. How else do you explain spilled blood over a piece of DM?