Clothe Yourself in Humility. You’re Not Curing Diseases.

Dear Students,

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

What separates agencies who make ads from agencies who make great ads. Part 3

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.

What separates agencies who make ads from agencies who make great ads. Part 2.

It struck me in reading over the 1st part of this post that I’d described something–found insight–but not given an example of it in action. The admaker with the best story I’ve heard about the value of found insight is someone I know who was also nice enough to write the story out:  
“In the late 90’s, Tiger Woods was winning so often it seemed like everyone else on the PGA Tour was showing up to compete for 2nd place. And Tiger was a golf Terminator–all fist pumps and intensity. Nike asked us to show another side of Tiger. A more human side.
We developed a spot called Driving Range. A simple story of Tiger on a range with average golfers who begin mimicking Tiger’s swing resulting in a ballet of perfect golf — until Tiger leaves and everyone reverts back to slices and duck hooks. We asked Lasse Hallstrom to direct. During a break in filming, we saw Tiger bouncing a golf ball on the head of his driver. Cast and crew loved it. It was amazing — and fun — to watch. We thought it would be a nice thing to put on film and show at a sales meeting. So we put Tiger in next year’s apparel and shot it during the lunch break.
I remember walking up to video village after we finished with my partner Chuck McBride and looking at playback. It was obvious this was more than a meeting toy. It was something we had found that did a better job of making Tiger human than the commercial we were shooting.
Everybody remembers Hackeysack. Nobody remembers Driving Range .”
 -Hal Curtis, Creative Director, Wieden & Kennedy

What separates agencies who make ads from agencies who make great ads?

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.

All Great Work–whether it is technologically astonishing or pounded by hand into clay tablets–Comes From the Same Place:

The heart.

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.

An example:

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:

The heart.

A tree does not grow into anything other than what the seed is made of.


People say “I did my best” only when what they did sucks.

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.”

Dear Students,

Don’t ever say “I did my best.”

“I did my best” is for children.

The words used to describe great work– Disruptive, Unexpected, Eccentric, Subversive, Bold, Funny, Emotional, Frank, Unusual –are the same words folks use to describe those people they wish to fire, detain at airports, kick off teams, deny access to, etc.

Dear Students,

It is human, natural and satisfying to create.

As it is an imitation of the first act of God, I believe it a high calling.

But don’t be fooled into believing creative thinking is going to make you popular.

The opposite.

Rather than applauded for seeing the world differently and making something new in response, you’ll be avoided, distrusted, unheard, misunderstood, insulted, and, then, after a time, as if to show that justice has no place at all in the world, you will see people who earlier mocked your ideas stand up and wave them as their own and make profit from them.

This is not news.

It has been so from the start of the world.

A union leader in America in 1918, Nicholas Klein,  described the process by which upstart, disruptive ideas come into the world:

“First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.” (Something like this statement is usually attributed to Mahatma Gandhi but according to several sources –besides Wikipedia–there’s no record Gandhi ever said it, while Klein got it into print)

The world gets used to a new thing, but it loathes the person who first brought it to life

A genuinely new thought in the moment of its arrival in the lives of normal people is like a boulder arriving from space. It bangs the sound barrier, sets fire to the sky and scuds up dirt like a 30,000 mph snowplow.

People hate the new.

And they’re going to hate you if you’re a creative thinker, because you’re in favor of finding as much new as you can to toss in their face.

It’s a dilemma.

You want to think up new things. And you know there’s money in new things. Eventually. But you don’t want to be hated, pelted with vegetables, ostracized, etc.

What to do?

Pretend you aren’t creative.

Yes. I’m serious.

Disguise the fire.

Give no suggestion you see differently, think differently, desire differently.

Walk around like you haven’t got a clue.

The novelist and teacher Gustave Flaubert said “Be quiet and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

I used to think what he meant was that by being quiet and orderly in life one would save up one’s energy so that one could use it in one’s work.

But experience has changed what I think.

Fool them is what I now think Flaubert was advocating. Trick them into not seeing your true self, or they’ll take all the power and originality out of what you do.

See, he knew what most people don’t ever say about creating.

It destroys.

There is violence.

There has to be.

To create something new something else has to become undone.

Knowing you’re going to do this, Flaubert gives the creative thinker practical advice:

Hide the gift.

If you make noise they’ll stop listening to you before you even talk. Go under the radar. Let silence prevail. Behave as if you are in line and happy to be there.

So that the world isn’t prejudiced against your work before you show it.

I’m guessing Flaubert got burned a few times and figured out that if you make new things and think new thoughts the destruction that goes along with them might get your work –or maybe even you–killed before it starts.

Better to live ordinary.



Give no sense that you’re capable of Disruptive, Bold, Unexpected.

If you’ve got it, respect it.

Don’t invite extra scrutiny.

Don’t let them know you’re coming.



If You Can’t Afford to Come to VCU Brandcenter Here’s a Way to Learn How to Make Great Ads at Home.

It’s not as hard to put together a portfolio of good advertising as people think it is.

Here’s a trick that might help you.

Go home and watch the commercials that come on TV.

Study what happens in each ad.

What’s said, what’s shown, what the song is, who the star is they get to talk in it.

Then do the exact opposite of what you see.

If a commercial comes on saying something inanely stupid about a product you write a script in which something not inanely stupid is said about the product.

If a commercial comes on that takes 30 seconds to say something everybody already knows, you write a script that says something nobody knows about the product.

Something this simple might not work in every field.

I’m doubtful you can get a job as a plumber by making what’s in the toilet shoot up in the air from the bowl when you press a lever.

But it works in advertising.

With 99 out of every hundred ads being a certifiable piece of crap you’ll have enough material after just a couple nights to put together a pretty thick portfolio.

Just do the opposite of everything you see.

Later dudes.

Catch you in the award books.