Sunday, August 25, 2013

Congratulations, you failed

Ah, school. Welcome back to school, freshmen, sophomores, juniors, seniors, super-seniors, you six-year-plus types. It is an amazing time to get something wrong.


The path to graduate school may be paved with 4.0s but the path to originality is paved with pot holes and the occasional pile of dogshit. The bigger, the smellier, the more treacherous the better. And I beg you all to start stepping in it. The sooner, the better.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting you fail by sleeping through all your classes, melting your brain with bong hits or failing to turn in your assignments. Rest assured, if you set out to fail, that is one way to do it. I'm talking about sticking your neck out by asking crazy questions, putting forward risky ideas and above all, looking for strategic ways to turn convention on its head. I'm talking about removing the fear to fail -- I'm not advocating failing outright.

I had a creative director, the much-quoted Pete Wood, who preached -- (yes, preached; his path to creative director started after failing out of seminary): "Think dangerously, act safely." Pete failed seminary because he couldn't reconcile the role of women in the Catholic church with his own ideas. His ideas got him in trouble. How awesome is that? What was the last idea YOU had that got you in trouble? Remember how much fun it was? Did you learn anything? Of course you did.

The downside of thinking dangerously is you'll probably do twice, 3 times, 4 times as much work. But that's what it takes to be great: work. And being wrong a lot. In fact - if you get it right the first time, you would be very brave to throw it away and try to fail once, just to see what it feels like. And get used to the feeling of getting it wrong. Getting it wrong can be a sickening, humiliating experience. And it can also be an incredible motivator. SO CLOSE! Let's do it again! I guarantee nothing feels better than succeeding AFTER you fail a couple times.

As for acting safely? Cover your bases if you need to. Complete the assignment. Then I challenge you to try it a crazy, different way, just to show you're thinking about it. Don't put all your eggs in one basket -- but think about flinging one of those baskets at the stars.

You're in school. A certain amount of failure is expected of you. While good grades will get you into grad school, great ideas and a knowledge of what it feels like to blow it will give you the confidence to follow your own path instead of someone else's. That confidence will get you into grad school. Or better -- it'll help you decide whether you really have to spend that money. Trust me when I say your failure stories will be far more interesting than the stories about the times you did the safe thing and lucked into a B. They'll make you a more interesting person. Employers appreciate an employee who has learned to take a calculated risk by crashing and burning a few times.

You watch Project Runway? Of course you do. You know who the big losers are on that show? The safe ones. They hug each other and nod reassuringly, "Well, we're still here!" But inside they're thinking "SHIT! I didn't take a big enough risk! I'm in the middle." Because the middle is death. The middle is unmemorable. The middle is Jan Brady. Forgotten. When you really want to prove yourself, you have to put yourself out there -- and out there is where spectacular failure happens. And amazing greatness. Whichever.

So consider this a call to arms, you students, you brave scholars. Don't take "good enough" for an answer. Get out there and make some mistakes and actually learn something from them. In the words of Ken Robinson, "If you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original." If you don't know who Ken Robinson is, watch his TED talk.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

An Ode to Idiots

Screw you, dude who nearly drove me off the road tonight, holding your iPhone inches from your face as we drove, side-by-side through a school zone. Screw you, lady who -- despite my fluorescent yellow shirt, flashing tail light and broad-daylight-timed ride -- swerved out of my lane approximately ten feet behind the rear wheel of my bike only as I swung my head back at her in disbelief. A lone, long upright finger to you, jerk who turned that huge parking garage into valet-only. Another to the guy who emptied the coffee pot and didn't make another pot. And to that bitch on my flight who smashed her seat back into my lap. Oh wait. I've been those people. Apologies, friends. Strangers. Fellow idiots. My bad.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Congratulations, Now what?

I just graduated a class of ad students from UNT and have reviewed more than a couple portfolios over the past few weeks. As advertising students collect their diplomas and start shopping their books for -- not internships now -- but JOBS, here are a few things for all advertising youth to keep in mind:

Your student book contains mere glimmers of what will make you a valuable employee for some lucky (?) ad agency. Keep adding to it. Stop massaging the ideas you created in school. Immediately start prioritizing the campaigns in your book so you know what to replace first, next, etc. Then start coming up with ideas to replace them. One of your first goals as a junior is to replace your student book with actual work (as long as it's better than your student work in idea, strategic relevance, integrated thinking and craft.)

All the things that make for great advertising? Those are the things you should use to sell your talent. Have a brief. Position yourself. Know your target. Create an integrated campaign for your brand and keep it fresh and relevant. You are the most important product you'll ever market. Be honest. Be human. Have standards. And ethics. And be very clear about your standards and ethics.

Have a plan. Know -- and say -- more than "I just want a job". Or more than likely that's what you'll get: just a job. Visualize the work you want to do, and the creative director you want to work with. Then be candid with your recruiters. Be picky. If you feel like you can't be picky, improve your portfolio or go do something else. Life is too short to take a shitty job in advertising. Or "work your way up from the mailroom" in advertising. If you don't have what it takes to be really good -- be honest with yourself and go be productive somewhere else. It isn't for everyone. Not trying to be discouraging, just trying to save some of you from 10 miserable years of creating advertising that I will ignore on bathroom walls, on the windows of fast-food restaurants, and in my mailbox.

Eat your own dogfood. If you are working on Miller Lite -- drink Miller Lite. Even if you're a beer snob. Not out of a sense of loyalty (although they are LITERALLY paying your salary), but because in order to sell your product, you need to know your product. Fall in love with your products. If you love it, tell everyone you meet. If you literally can not love the products you're selling: you should quit. Seriously.

Every new project is a chance to use a new typeface, a new illustration technique, a new layout grid, a new color palette. If you're asked for several concepts -- use each as a chance to push your design ideas in a drastically different direction. Don't develop a style. Develop an approach. And make that approach eclectic. Your book should feel like the discography of the Beatles, not the Spin Doctors (if you don't know who the Spin Doctors are -- right.)

Ever. Whether it's in your mom's basement, your graduate school dorm or golden-handcuffed to a well-paying first job with an espresso machine in the kitchen. Your work is your future. If your book isn't improving, move. Either across town or across the country. On the other hand, if you are continually challenged to do great work, are trusted some responsibility -- and not being taken advantage of like a lowly pack-mule -- stay as long as it pays you back.

Be nice to people. Be considerate. Go to lunch with people from other departments. Remember names and send thank you notes and go to happy hours. Expand your circle of influence and goddammit, be a little political. Kiss some babies. This is a business driven by your ability to persuade people. Be awesome to EVERYONE you work with (don't be a pushover). Everyone remembers the happy ones. The loud ones. The ones that volunteer and are never too busy and offer to carry a box down the hall. You never know where your next job will take you. And who will be there from your last job. Keep up your book. You never know when the wind might change. You will most likely be fired/laid off at some point. It's the business. And its incumbent upon you to be ready.

Advertising is a stressful, unhealthy business. Make time to swim, bike, go to the gym, run. Join a sports team and go to the games. This shit is important. Advertising will sneak up on you and turn you into a fat, lazy, grumpy bitch/bastard if you let it. Look at all the CDs you interview -- you can tell which ones follow this advice. They are healthy looking, happier, and generally lead more balanced lives. They have more energy and a sunnier outlook. You can tell which ones lost the battle between a life and a life in advertising.

If all you think about and do is make advertising, you're going to end up a boring ad-douche. Don't do that. Travel, paint, write, sing, make friends, become an expert in food or whiskey or home repair or motorcycle construction. The creatives and developers I work with are all makers and doers. They make amazing stuff here and they go home and do other amazing things. Learn new stuff all the time that has nothing to do with making ads. It'll make you better at making ads. And friends. And give you a jump on something else down the road.

Share what you learn. This applies hours and days after you start your first job. Take an interest in the juniors that get hired behind you. A huge part of the path from junior art director to creative director is your ability to balance your people skills with your job description. Be patient. And persistent. Be firm. Set reasonable expectations and hold your juniors accountable. Fight for them. Remove obstacles. When you fight for them, most juniors will reward you with their loyalty and their best effort. In short: lead.

Take a vacation. Two weeks. Less than two weeks is not enough. Go lie on a beach. Or get lost in a foreign country. Or learn a skill. Do something other than advertising and lose your fucking cell phone for a few days. Trust me -- this is how vacations work. Three hours on Friday afternoon may be enough to grab a few beers, but vacations are about renewing your spirit. Ignore this one at your own peril. Plus, no good boss can resist the "I planned a trip to Australia in 6 months." story. Note: A little forewarning goes a long way.

You'll need it. Don't discount it. If you have it, appreciate it. If you don't have it yet, start making your own. Go.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Fall in Love

I'm posing as a professor this semester, co-teaching a portfolio class for a talented group of UNT advertising seniors. My co-adjunct professor assigned some seriously difficult clients for these students. One in particular, the magazine edition of TV Guide, made me question: were we being too hard? Were we purposefully making their lives difficult?

Then I remembered how, two years ago, I was working on The Yellow Pages. The actual book.
And yeah -- it was hard. But that was my job. Sell the tree-killing, finger-dirtying, always-went-in-my-recycling-bin-the-second-I-got-it-until-I-finally-gave-up-landlines-in-part-because-of-the-fucking- Yellow Pages.

And a hundred other assignments over my career that I didn't want. At least, not initially.

It's easy to look at something -- anything -- and pick out the things you don't like. Or come up with a reason to keep your distance. We live in a generation of snark. It's become kind of a sport to deride the people and things that surround us.

But I realized, at some point, that no product, no company, no job is perfect.
And as a person who had decided on advertising for a career, I had made the choice of celebrating things that I might otherwise turn my nose up at.

Who does great advertising? The best advertising ever? Weiden? For who? Nike? I can say, that advertising is absolutely incredible. Heartfelt, inspiring, sometimes humorous but always thoughtfully conceived and artfully produced.

I very much believe in Nike, the brand. But I don't typically buy Nike, the product.
I dislike Nike shoes. I haven't had a swoosh on my feet in a long time, for a variety of reasons.
Some practical, others more political.

As a consumer, I am absolutely afforded the luxury of turning my nose up at brands I dislike.
As an advertiser? Not so much.

So what's a creative to do?

I suggest you fall in love.

Look past the blemishes. Look past the ugly ears and the big nose and that unfortunate eyelid mole and find something -- maybe something deep down -- that you believe in, and can unconditionally celebrate.

(I tried to convey this to my class. I fear it had mixed results. They may have though I was just being funny. Or perhaps a little insane. I wrote a long-winded love letter to them on the white board in the class room. It may have been kind of creepy.)

I will attempt to capture the essence of what I told them here:

Fall in love with your client's product or service.
Look past the ugly stuff. Especially the stuff over which both you and they have no control.
Look at shortcomings as opportunities.
Look at things with humility, and empathy. You're not perfect either -- even if you're trying.
Look at things through the eyes of a human -- with hope and optimism.
Look for the bright side. Make it shine as brightly as possible.
Look for the dark side. Rim-light it so it remains seductive and mysterious.

Don't lie. Don't ever lie.
But shape your observations -- and your belief around the good, not the bad.
Make sure you can believe it. And say it with a straight face. Because you MUST believe it if you expect me to.

You should be able to introduce me to it, as you might your girl- or boyfriend, while looking me in the eye. Without winking, or raising your eyebrows or looking at your shoes. You aren't just sleeping with it this weekend -- you're taking it out to dinner and introducing it to your parents.

Now if the thing you've been asked to sell kills people. and you're not okay with that. Then refuse to do it. Break up. This is your right. You are, after all, a moral being. A conscientious objector.

You may be fired. Or flunked.

In fact, it's probably better that you are fired/flunked if someone asks you to sell cigarettes or WMDs or anything else that kills or sickens millions of people.

Maybe you no longer create advertising. (I don't)
Maybe you never did.

But, in whatever you do -- hopefully you do something -- there are the good things and the bad things. If you focus on the bad things -- it will definitely be bad.

But if you can find the light, through clear eyes clouded only by humility and optimism, then maybe you, too, can fall in love

Friday, February 08, 2013


Generally speaking, I've lost my taste for advertising. But these are fucking beautiful. Intriguing. and actually make me want to give this car another look.
photography by christopher griffith

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Trying is human

I'm an honest guy.
Mostly. I tend to go right to the point.
And may the soft-ego'd and frail-eared fall where they may.

 I drop F-bombs like a lost fat child drops breadcrumbs.
And I have trouble disguising my disappointment around people for whom I lack respect.
 Which makes me sound like a dick. And maybe I am.

So I'd like to apologize.

 To the people that were trying. Especially to them.
To the people that were rushed, and otherwise troubled.
Or were distracted and their 100% came out looking and feeling more like 53%.

 I'm not apologizing to you because I know you're human.
Or, because you're human, I know I should expect a little less of you.

I mean, that's just bullshit.

 I've been there.
I've been pulled in too many directions.
I've let life cloud my work. And vice versa.
I've multitasked at the expense of all the tasks.
I've been rushed. And I've been irritated. And occasionally I've just been lazy.

Some people might shrug and say, "Meh -- you're human."
But that's neither an excuse nor even a particularly good explanation of why I do those things.
I do them because I'm flawed. Imperfect. And occasionally just not trying.

To be human is to seek companionship and enlightenment.
To be curious.
And more importantly, restless.

To be human is to learn from our dreams to do the things that have never been done.
To be human is to try things and, when they fail, to try them a different way.
 Humans flew to the moon.
Humans created the iPhone.
Humans invented French cooking. And really amazing wine.
And, having created the first amazing wine -- they've gone on to further refine and even perfect its production and distribution.
 To be human is to be amazingly sharp, despite our soft-cell exteriors.

So if I fail -- ESPECIALLY if I fail by not trying -- it's not because I'm human.
It's because sometimes I'm an asshole.

If I'm truly trying, I make time for you.
If I'm truly trying, I come up with something great -- then beat it with something better.
I admit that I'm wrong.
Not as an excuse -- but as a segue to being right (or at least right-er), eventually.
If I'm truly trying, I know when I'm not given enough time -- and I plan accordingly.

Yes. Sometimes I go home and go to sleep. Because I'm human. And humans need sleep. And water. And to see their families and be greeted by their dogs and put the work on the back shelf. And while they're home -- they need to be trying, too. Really trying.

Yoda said "...There is no try". But Yoda wasn't human. Or real. Let's not garble the definition of human by assuming the flaws are part of the package. Let's do all we can to overcome them ever day. Or, at least, let's try.