I’ve Been so Busy I’ve Become Useless

Dear Students,
This is Henry David Thoreau.
The guy who wrote Walden.
The book about living in a cabin in the woods.

Thoreau kept a lifelong journal that is filled with, well, read it–there are several different collections–the journals are about 2 million words long (so I’ve been told; I’ve not read even close to all of it)–and also pieces of it online.

Read some.
I know you read Walden in high school, but that doesn’t count.
It’s impossible in your teens to understand what Thoreau was putting at stake by going out to live by himself in the woods as an adult.
In your teens your instructors, even in college, would have taught Walden as man escaping from the real world.

Man trying to get away.
Man trying to find himself.
I used to wonder about that.
What is so far inside you that you have to go way out to nowhere to find?

I see the opposite.
I think Thoreau’s story–from both Walden & the Journals– is man escaping from busy-ness to what is real in life.
Escape from busy-ness not to nothingness but to engagement.

Thoreau engaged with what surrounded him.
Read the Journals and you see a man intimate with plants, trees, agriculture, making a living out of where he was, the well-being of his friends, and his own thoughts.
Engaged with what was there, not with all that wasn’t.
A man happy with and filled by his apprehension of what came each day into his path of walking and paths of thinking.

There was a busyness in his world that oppressed him.
I think Walden was not retreat from that busyness but the removal of busyness because it hinders engagement.


…is one bitch of a master.
The continually shortening timelines we are conducting the ad business by leave less and less time for thinking.
Specifically and most destructively, for the kind of thinking the creators of joy need in order to flourish.

Busy-ness keeps me from engaging with what surrounds me.
It keeps me from the lazy playfulness that surprising insight comes from.
Producing to too tight a schedule results in snap insights.
Snap insights, while they can be true and have value, are more snapthan thought, and tend to be the same insights other people get when they don’t think about an idea for long.

When I am busy I am not able to sit idly with a thought others deem ridiculous, turning it over and over until something in it strikes me and I can follow that thought out until it turns into something funny/true and etc.
There may be none of the originating impulse left in the thought by the time it turns into a piece of work.
Nevertheless, the significance of the starting point–and this includes my attitude toward it and the lazy time that inspires it–cannot be overestimated, it seems to me.
Judging by the work I’ve done, at least.
And that of people I’ve seen with like minds.

But this should not surprise.
The value of the kind of engagement with the world Thoreau spent time at and which filled his thinking and writing is not obvious to the world.
Which is to say THE MONEY can’t see value in it.
And whatever THE MONEY can’t see doesn’t exist.

What am I suggesting you do?
1) There is a laziness in the thought process that is important.

Do not be bashful about indulging in it. Do not let the nimcompoops bully you out of it. Don’t be a bully to others. It’s part of the process.
2) Look for the chance to engage with the world instead of engaging with the busyness of the job. The joy you seek to inspire in others does not & will not rise up out of the clammy-handed nothingness of a Blackberry.
Technology contains no salvation.
I have no gripe with timeliness and in no way do I suggest there is not significant & life-giving power in deadlines.
But without engagement with the world about you and the people about you, the word dead in deadlines becomes more powerful.
3) Read. Thoreau, Emerson, U.S. Grant’s Memoirs.
Good writers read.

Being Good at School isn’t the Point of School

Dear Students,
School is a place to try on the real world.
A place to fall face-first without the consequences of failure or the stifling restrictions of the real world.
Don’t mistake it as a stage to perform on.

It’s a practice room.

The real world is going to be yours too soon with its nincompoop forests of unbearable dullards, wasteful rigamarole, and ignoramus creative directors who belittle your work because they’re afraid they’re not as gifted as you.

Don’t hold yourself back from using all the room your current freedom provides.

Wait for and work at finding the wild insight that you only barely think may be true instead of settling for the mild one you know everyone else will have.
Not only is the wild one more likely to be fun to work on, but one of the lessons being out of school soon teaches is that the boldness of thought which you’re so free to try on at school is a necessity for success in the real world.
You will not rise without it.

Old Dog Tricks

Dear 2nd year Students,

Might help you, might turn you around, at least give you some exercise.

Show the product.
First said to a class in 1990. 
Still true. 
Ad school students continue to have trouble with this. 
Over and over I see great effort put into the making of ads that use 99% of the space for talking about something besides the product, and then, as a courtesy to the client, the logo is placed in 12 point type in the bottom right corner. 
The client’s product is the reason you’ve got the space in the paper or on TV to work with. 
Deal with the product. 
You may end up choosing not to show it. 
But start with the thought that you will. 
Do at least a couple ideas in which the product is the visual.
1) It will focus your thinking.
2) By starting there you’ll have a reason for why you don’t show the product if you find that makes better work.
3) If you find a solution you like that doesn’t show the product, I guarantee it will use one of the lines you wrote when the product was the visual.
And, 4), perhaps best when you’re a student, you’ll generally end up with two campaigns for each assignment you work on. One with, one without.
This isn’t a luxury. 
Half the time, when I look back in my workbooks at stuff I’ve done before, I like what I didn’t show better than what I showed. 
This ain’t science.
You aren’t going to be right as often as you think.
And tastes change.
I’m not suggesting showing the product works for everyone, but it works good in school.

If you can’t say it short you’re probably lying.
“Will you marry me?”
“I don’t know if this is a good idea or not, and I’ve got reservations about asking this, but if you’ll promise to always be what I hope you’ll be and things go well do you think you might …” 
Why does the first line move us, and the second one make us jump up to change the channel quick? 
Look at that first line.
Every word in it pulls a ton of weight.
There’s no word in that line that doesn’t have to be there to say what it says.
It aims at the bulls-eye.
The second line is all equivocation.
It’s no less true than the first line but it’s so full of the speaker talking about himself and not about the point that we can’t stand to listen.
1st line means what it says.
2nd line says what it means.

Put your client’s whole proposition on the line.
Put the product’s place in the world at stake.
Find what the product’s hold on people is & dare the audience not to get it.

(I’m not saying long lines aren’t true. This is a trick. Something to consider when what you’re doing isn’t going right & you don’t know why) 

Portfolio. You are what you show.
Are you unusual? 
Don’t hide it.
Lead with it.
Get found. 
Most of the great creatives I’ve met are more odd than typical. 
Damaged, not whole.
Introspective rather than gladhanders.
Faulty, deep, extraordinary, giving, shy people.
(How else could they know what other people think, which is what you have to do to write good ads)

Portfolios come in here at W&K by the hundreds. 
Every one of them has the same stuff in it. 
A long copy ad. A visual solution. A packaged-goods print ad. etc. 
Stop it. 
Don’t add to the boringness of the world. 
What is a portfolio for? 
If you suppose it’s to function as a collection of your work you’re missing the point of why you’re making one. 
If you had a job, sure, collecting your work would be a valuable habit. 
But, it’s not what portfolios are for when you’re graduating ad school & hoping to get a job. 
A portfolio is your pitch for a job. 
What can you show that will convince me as a creative director I should put you in a room and feel good about what you’re going to come out of it with?

Imagine there are two writers.
One has a collection of ads done for various products.
The other has 4 small black books on every page of which there is a single headline.
Let’s say the work is of equal quality.
Which do you want to put in the room?
For me, I would wonder how much of the portfolio guy’s ads his art director did, and whether the pieces that are well-written are the writer’s usual output or a few kernels culled from a ton of manure. Then I would look at the ton of headlines in the small books and with a better feel for that writer’s ability hire him.
You’re not trying to convince me your old ads are good. You’re trying to convince me your next ads will be.
It’s not a trick meant for everyone, but maybe for you.

How about an art director with the usual book full of beautifully laid-out magazine ads versus an art director with no print ads but a reel of wacked-out spec tv spots & short films?
Again let’s say the work is of equal quality.
If the work I need to hire for involves doing a lot of print, more than likely the portfolio of print will win the day.
But that’s not a failure for the guy with the TV reel.
It’s a victory.
If what you’re into is TV, you probably won’t find happiness at an agency that majors in print.

You’re looking for a job.
The great agencies are looking for disciples.
Reveal yourself.
That’s what portfolios are for.

Don’t judge. Everything in life is good and bad.
It’s easy to dump on John Denver.
A piece of cake to make distinctions between ideas and between people and between products based on political correctness.
But a mass audience finds no edification in you flogging them for not seeing the world you wish for. 
There’s nothing wrong with John Denver and his music.
You don’t like it, fine.
I do.
Make your client and your client’s product distinctive on its merits.
Don’t define it by standing it in opposition to something else.
Don’t say “Our product contains no John Denver.”
It’s a trap.
It’s an easy hole to fall into.
I’ve done it.
A client pointed it out to me.
I’d disparaged John Denver’s music in order to make clear the type of music we were talking about was more “cool” than that.
What a heel I was.
I liked John Denver and there I was disparaging something I liked in order to make a point.
It’s so easy to do you feel almost invited to kick the kickable dog in order to claim a higher place for what you’re talking up.
Let how easy something is be a warning to you.

What’s the news?
What do you have to say that isn’t known? 
Most advertising is boring, not because it isn’t clever, but because it says nothing people feel they don’t already know. 
News isn’t limited to information. A new way of looking at something is news. A re-appreciation of an undervalued thought or person or idea or product is news.
People are so hungry for news they’ll take it from unclever work.
People are so hungry for news they’ll take what’s not true as news if somebody can get an extra crank in on the fooled-you-machine.
Ask it.
What’s the news?
There’s good advertising in it.