Dear Creative Thinking students,
Happy First Day of Class.
Just to let you know, I understand how little reason you have to listen to me. Welcome to Neverland.
It is incongruous, I know, for an arrogant prick like myself to urge the valuing of humbleness on you.
But get used to it.
There is much you can learn from people whom failure has taught.
Humility is important. If I may be permitted to say so, humility is the fashizzle.
It is especially valuable to an ad-maker.
Because humilty earns you trust.
With trust you get to do what you want.
Without trust you only get to do what you’re told to do, and you’ll be watched over while you do it. Which sucks. You don’t want even a minute of that.
Good ad-makers understand the value of what they make.
Clients almost never do.
But explaining how important what you do is, although it sounds as if that would be helpful, isn’t ever taken to be by those being explained to. Never. No way. It does not happen.
Says the numbskull who has tried it. More than once.
This is where the advice comes in.
Clothed in arrogance by an appreciation of the value of your contribution you cannot help but earn distrust.
But clothed in a humility that pushes away any sense that what you do is important or difficult or world-changing (even though making good ads is) cannot help but show the client that you see what you do the same way he does.
Which builds trust.
I resisted humility.
My face wore the belief that I could write what others couldn’t.
And it lost me trust.
Put on humility. Lead with it.
It won’t change your work. Just the look in the eyes of the people you show it to.
Next , The Value of Arrogance
I wrote this parable about the lack of “success” that choosing to be right often brings. Since it seemed to give a different spin on what separates agencies who make ads from those who make great ads I’ve joined it with the others in a way I hope is helpful to you, dear graduates, as you enter the ad agency business:
Two knights are given a task by the king:
“Bring me a stone to make soup from.”
The first knight goes away but returns in only a few minutes with a ham bone.
He says, “This will make good soup.”
The king says, “That is not a stone.”
“Well of course it’s not a stone,” the knight argues, “Who makes soup out of a stone when they can have soup made out of a ham bone?”
The king says, “Put him in the dungeon.”
The second knight also goes away.
After many days of eating and drinking and traveling at the king’s expense, he returns with a thousand drawings of a thousand different stones.
“Which of these beautiful stones do you wish me to bring you to make soup from?” the knight asks.
There is delighted murmuring from the king and from his court.
“Give this knight a chest of gold” says the king, “and take the drawings to the Queen that she may choose which stone suits.”
Moral of the story:
Doing what you know to be right is always right. But so is following orders.
Welcome to the conundrum. It’s a simple dance, complicated by people. You’ll love it.
It’s not what city the agency is located in.
It’s not who the creatives are.
It’s not who the creative directors are.
It’s not who the clients are.
It’s not whether the agency is digital or big or small or pharma or business-to-business or family-owned or young or old or the staff is composed of any permutation of colorgenderrace or if the offices have doors or whether there is any office space at all.
It doesn’t matter what language the agency’s work is written in.
It doesn’t matter how the work is art directed, produced, traffic-ed or presented to the client.
What separates the tiny cadre of agencies who make great ads from the legion of agencies who just make ads is whether the agency’s process looks for and depends on found insight or whether the agency’s process kills found insight.
Found insight is what one gets once one has started on a project.
It is not the map with which one starts a reconnaissance of an area but the redrawn map one returns with from having been there to look and smell and measure.
Found insight is something you discover that you wish you’d known when you started.
It is the nature of the really good stuff about products and audiences to hide itself from the view of normal investigation.
It is the way the world works that the best answers to problems do not come to the surface before they’re needed, but rather are only found in the penultimate moment before they must be put to work.
99% of agencies kill these found insights, these unknown discoveries. They punish those who bring them up and reward those who stray least from the exact terminology of the project’s starting point.
1% of agencies thrive on implementing found insights.
1% of agencies (maybe fewer) will stop what they’re doing and shift direction to the found insight and turn it into great advertising that surprises and delights.
Dear students, this is not the only way to look at agencies.
Not everything is as simple as the look through this particular lens makes it seem.
Neither is this an incitement to disregard briefs or to provide argument for the value of every cobbled-together-at-the-last-minute piece of work that you do.
This is merely an invitation.
To those Brand Managers-to-be: Leave room in the process of deciding what to say about your product for the agency to discover something you didn’t know was there. If you dare, require them to find such and not accept their work until they have. And if you dare greatly, reward them for not bringing you merely what you asked for.
To those Planners-to-be: Briefs are more helpful when they establish a place to start than when they are fashioned as a hoop the finished work must jump through. And, if you dare greatly, don’t leave all the fun for the creative teams–create starting points no one else would have dared to.
To those Copywriters & Art Directors-to-be: Kill your darlings. The first sentences you write that sound like headlines have to go. Yes, first thoughts are sometimes good. But mostly they represent the same thoughts anyone else would have if they spent 20 minutes thinking about the product. There’s gold in looking longer and harder at something than anyone else is willing to.
Whatever does not come from the heart is mere information.
And therefore useless to us humans.
For we do not live on what is outside us, but inside us.
And this is important to the consideration of new technologies in what way, dear students?
If you would do leading-edge technologically astonishing work, you must start with an idea.
An idea—if you would do great work—that makes a connection between your subject and the audience’s insides.
It is tempting when making ads to leave off doing the hard work of developing a concept so that one may more easily rush forward to fill in the blanks a software developer has dictated in order to give one’s work the scintillating effervescence of NEW!
But it is the path to mediocrity.
When the synthesizer was invented, plenty of composers rushed to use it in the hope it would give them a new sound.
Pete Townshend put it at the heart of The Who’s 1970 album Who’s Next with the same hope, surely.
But one huge difference.
He put the writing of the songs before the machine.
Which is why, 45 years later, they’re still played constantly on TV and radio while that of many of the other early adopters is not.
So you, too, dear students, get the order right.
Format is often touted as if it is by itself the answer.
But format matters only consequently to the idea.
Begin with the hard work of thinking and creating a concept that makes a connection between product and people, between tangible and intangible.
Then the astonishment in your work can come from the only place it can grow from that lasts:
A tree does not grow into anything other than what the seed is made of.
Whenever students argue their grade with me they always end their spiel with the same line:
“But I did my best.”
When they do work that earns huzzahs and hoorays, however, they never say “I did my best.”
They look down at their feet and say “We didn’t even think it was our best idea.”
Don’t ever say “I did my best.”
“I did my best” is for children.