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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Catch you in the award books.
To make ads is boring silly work.
I won’t teach it.
If you want to make great ads.
Here’s what you do.
Get a cast iron skillet.
The one I use is nearly as old as I am. (we pass along cooking instruments in our family, not art or real estate)
Heat the shit out of the skillet.
Put two catfish fillets in. (marinate them in something that has the words Cajun and spicy on the label first)
You’ll hear a popping sound when they hit the hot metal because you took my advice on how hot to let the skillet get.
Now, here comes the secret number one most important trick that you’ve endured the reading of this recipe for:
Forget that you’re cooking.
Go into another room. Read the paper. Do the crossword.
The amount of smoke created in blackening catfish will tempt you, if you stand there watching it, to pull the pan off the fire before perfection has been created because you will think Gadzooks, this is not what a kitchen should look like, this is not what cooking looks like on tv.
In the same way, when you are making a great ad, the distance your mind will deviate from what seems like advertising will scare you.
Don’t give in.
Erase from your mind the thought that you are making an ad.
Even when the smoke alarm goes off don’t pull your pan from the fire.
Great ads are like great breakfasts.
They’re different from what normal people make.
Aim at that problem with the advertising you create.
The client will fight you. He wants a problem addressed that he thinks is not his fault or a weakness in his product.
The agency planners will fight you. They want the problem addressed that the client told them was the problem.
The sales managers will fight you. They have taught themselves that the words “sale” and “lowest price anywhere” must figure prominently in everything.
The audience will say (but not out loud) “finally”.