I am writing this on a flight to Los Angeles where we are going to shoot the first five commercials for the campaign I began last summer. It was July 27th when I stood at a urinal on 22nd street and was suddenly struck with the idea which, through various barrel jumps, backflips and slaloms, has brought me to this seat on American Airlines.
Of course, it’s absurd that it should have taken 200 days for three or four minutes of advertising to go from my urinal to your television. Well, actually the commercials haven’t even been filmed yet. It’ll be closer to 300 days before they actually hit the airwaves. This is certainly a long time for even advertising to be birthed, but not unheard of.
When you sell your creative work, the results are invariably a collaboration between your imagination and the processes of the person or corporation who is funding them. In the case of a new brand advertising campaign, your collaborators include various levels of decision makers in your agency, some ‘creative’, some administrative and some strategic, all of who provide input based on their own experience, ego, time and attention span.
Next, the work runs through the filter of the client company’s marketing executives. Some have long and illustrious careers producing great advertising and can often make your ideas better and sharper. Others have ended up in marketing by virtue of their success or failure in another part of the company. I have worked with clients who were former antifreeze salesman, flight attendants, bank tellers, and tax attorneys. When I created ads for the Postal Service, my client was a former mail carrier. However, their past is not necessarily an indication of their utility as creative collaborators.
As I have done a lot of corporate and brand advertising, I invariably end up presenting to CEOs and CFOs. Most of them have little interest in advertising and consider it a waste of time and money. They tend to be results oriented, I’m from Missouri, kind of left brainers, Some, by virtue of having a lot of money and a lot of power, have odd and interesting ideas about how advertising should work. They often cite their wives’ or children’s opinions. Because they are unused to talking about executional creative matters, their words are often ambiguous and hard to take at face value and much time is spent by others, parsing their phrases and trying to determine the hidden meaning behind all sorts of cabalistic executive signs. I have worked with agencies who note down the colors of executives’ ties and shirts in an effort to come up with logo and advertising palettes that will pass muster.
These creative approvals are funny things. They are so often subjective and frankly irrelevant to the effectiveness of advertising. The best clients are the ones who are extremely clear and smart about what they know best. They tell you what they want to accomplish with their businesses and how advertising can help. They couch their reactions to the work you bring them in terms of their original intent. Often they are surprisingly lucid and insightful, demonstrating in spades how they got to where they are. They respect the people they hire and assume that they will do their work well. They keep their egos in check and use their authority to clear impasses further down the food chain. They can break loggerheads with a phrase or two. As one CEO said to me recently, ‘People assume that because everyone has a voice that this is a democracy. It’s not. I want this done so let’s move on.” Someone who works for someone who works for someone who works for him and who had been our daily contact had said something equally memorable and candid in an earlier meeting:” My boss told me that my job is to tell you what you have done wrong. I can’t see anything wrong in what you’ve done but I still have to figure out how to do my job.”
There’s little question that, unfortunately, much of what we are paid for is to deal with the process. To be able to listen to someone’s incoherent rant and turn it into some thing actionable. To respond to the various thumbs stuck in the wet clay of one’s idea and yet emerge with something that isn’t embarrassing and wasteful.
There are different styles that creative people have to deal with this obstacle course. Some defend their work against every single remark and soon devolve into shrill defensiveness. Others sit quietly, waiting for the moment to insert a devastating retort. Some try to come up with constructive responses as the clients lays out his objections. Some give long rebuttals that communicate little but ego and leave the client wondering if they heard a word she said. Some sit gulping in anxiety, waiting for others to defend their efforts. Some smirk smugly, all but saying ‘ You are such an idiot”.
The most constructive approach is, first, just to listen. Particularly when there are lots of clients of various levels in a room, they tend to circle around each other, ideas canceling each other out, objections overruled, problems solving themselves. Then, if the audience has the patience, summarize what they have said and see if they agree with your summary. Then offer a solution or two for the present and withdraw and try to form a coherent plan of response. When you do respond, show them what they asked for, accompanied with a range of other solutions.
I think most clients like the creative process. They want to be wowed. When they come up with their own ideas and insist upon them, they also have a nagging feeling that they’re doing the wrong thing, buying a dog and barking themselves. In some ways, advertising seems easier than other creative forms. When I do illustration work, no one has ever redrawn my pictures like some clients feel they can rewrite my copy. When I work with composers, I have (almost) never seen a client tell them which specific notes to play. A bad and desperate client will push past agency and director and go up to an actor and tell him specifically how to say his lines but he’ll rarely get in front of the camera himself.
The key again is to listen and observe. That’s the way to get the clearest sense of what’s really going on. Then by re-presenting the client’s POV to him or her, you show that you get it, you want to help, you care. Don’t insist on logic — often the process spits up a lot of nonsensical mandates that come about through intricate games of Telephone that make no real sense. People, intimidated by their inarticulate bosses, can resort to just taking dictation and passing the buck on to you. But try to see through that and get to the truth underneath.
Then, try to take all of the comments as a new creative challenge. Be willing to sacrifice your children in order to end up with an even stronger result. I’ve often had good ideas become great ones as they were annealed on the forge of the approval process. Despairing of being able to fix your crippled creation, you toss it aside and fabricate a far more elegant solution.
Am I making it all sound horrible? Do I seem like an arrogant know-it-all who thinks all clients are boobs? Maybe so, but I don’t really feel that, not most of the time. It’s a thin line to tread between making something that fits the needs of the people who hired you to do it and something that you are proud of, that is fresh and exciting to you. I often write commercials based on events or perceptions that have occurred to me and it is heart breaking to see them mangled beyond recognition. It feels very personal. But in the end, it really isn’t. That’s what Art is for, to express the personal. The creative work we are paid to do, while growing from our integrity and values and personal aesthetic, is always a collaboration and must be respected as such. When created honestly and openly and generously, it is is the best sort of collaboration, Rogers and Hammerstein, Dolce & Gabbana. At other times it’s more Rogers & Frankenstein, Dolce & Gambino. So you pick your fights. You say to you yourself, if they want to drive this Lamborghini over the clff, it’s their dollar. I won’t allow myself to be twisted in the wreckage. Recognizing that jobs and millions of dollars are at stake, that these matters are impacting people’s better judgment, doesn’t make you a hack. Just a professional.
So the simple answer is: throw yourself 90% into what you do for money. Reserve that small part for self-protection. Be willing to stand back, to be objective and dispassionate. And channel the feelings you have, the reaction to disappointment and limitations, and put it into the work that really matters: your Art. Now be uncompromising. Insist on the highest quality from yourself. Be clear, be strong, be energetic and bold. Experiment, reach, push. Stay up later than you would on a client project. See yourself in this work, the real you. Keep working, keep fighting, be heedless of others. And keep telling yourself that you work to earn a living and that you must never forget to to do the living that you have earned.
It’s a year and a half since I left my last job, left meetings, left acount executives, left downsizing, left that tight feeling between my shoulderblades. For the next year, I managed to do a lot of drawing and travelling. I created this blog, worked on the staff of the Morning News and the New York Times, and finally achieved my dream of being paid to be an illustrator. I finished one book and then conceived and wrote another, the book I have always wanted to read. I spent a lot more time with the people I had abandoned during my four years of senior management: I picked Jack up from school, I sat in the kitchen and talked to Patti every morning, unencumbered by bosses and office gossip. I met hundreds of great creative people around the world. A happy time.
Somewhere in the back of my head, probably on a nerve that connects right to that tightness in my shoulders, a little voice continued to murmur. “You’ll never make enough money. You’ll never be able to afford the standard of living you had during all those years in advertising. You are still a rank amateur. What will you do when you’re sixty? Seventy? What if you live as long as your grandfather? You can’t survive to 95 on scraps. Wipe that smile off your face.”
On and off, I freelanced in ad agencies. I had steady clients who brought me back in time and again. In one day of advertising freelancing, I could make what took me a couple of weeks of illustration and so I did both.
And I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it like I hadn’t in years. I was being hired just to sit around and come up with ideas, to make things. Not to hold clients’ hands or draw up lists of people to fire or listen to my boss quote from his most recently read book on management techniques. All they wanted was ideas and I have become a fire hose of those. At the end of each assignment, I would throw on my suit and present the work to the client and most everything was well received.
Then last summer, just before I went on my cross-country trip, I came up with a campaign that won a small agency an account worth about a quarter of a billion dollars. When I finished my trip, visiting Andrea in San Francisco, I got a call on my cellphone while walking down Market Street. They wanted me to come back and run the account.
It was exciting to have been part of this sort of victory. We had beaten the biggest, most famous agencies in the country, based on a line I’d thought of at the urinal one afternoon. The agency has done a lot of good work and it is on a phenomenal wave of success. Right after the big win, we reeled in one of the leading sneaker companies, then an international beer, and now we are on the verge of three other huge new accounts.Our success is like nothing in the recent history of advertising and there are just a meager overworked handful of us doing it.
Like the tsunami that hit Asia, this agency’s momentum has threatened to devestate all of the changes I made to my life over the past couple of years. It is easy to succumb and work sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. I can give up this blog, see my family only in their pyjamas, stop drawing altogether.
I can also succumb to the tension and fever pitch and not even enjoy the incredible creative opportunities on my plate. I just got the go-ahead to shoot a dozen commercials, each with a budget over a million dollars. I’ll be traveling around the country to do it and yet I can still make myself feel miserable about it. Miserable because I worry about what I am losing, breaking my commitment to myself. Miserable because I can worry about not living up to expectations. Miserable because I’m an ad guy again.
It has been a struggle not to succumb. I know that sounds dreadful and there are so many people who would do anything to be in my place. What I am wrestling with, truely, is the danger that I could slide back under the waves, go back to how I felt a half dozen years ago, when I didn’t draw, didn’t share my feelings, couldn’t conceive of myself as an artist.
But guess what. I can and am and will continue to win that battle. I am not the person I was. And even though I am in the world I left, I am a new man. My year off was transformative. My imagination works better than it ever did. My confidence and self-knowledge are magnified.
If you are considering chucking a job or career or a direction that stifles you, I hope my experience is helpful. You can decide to walk away and then to walk back without feeling like your experiment was a failure. You will return, if you do, changed and smarter and knowing where the exits are in case you feel like you need fresh air ever again in the future. Or perhaps you will stay on the new path and never look back. All that really matters is that you take each day as it comes, look for the beauty in it, abandon preconceptions and focus on what you want to be. A healthy, creative, complete person.
I wish it for you. And for me.
A few days ago, this drawing arrived from my stepmother, Sue. It was drawn by my father when I was about three, around the time my parents were divorced.
Many of these objects are things of my mum’s. I think she still has the copper ashtray on the lower left. Sue pointed out how similar this piece is to much of the work I have been doing and I must agree. I never really thought of him doing illustrated journaling but clearly he did.
Keir lives in Leicestershire, near Nottingham (that’s in England, folks). His three daughters (my half sisters) are all grown and he seems to spend most his time drawing daily self portraits or writing software for his own amusement. I’ve only seen my father a half dozen times since the divorce and we correspond very intermittently. I have a few of his sketchbooks from the early 1960s and I have always loved them.
Between Jack’s painting and this newly arrived drawing from Keir, I must say I am thinking quite a lot about heredity these days.
Here is some more of Keir’s work circa 1964 (he never shows his work so I hope, on the off-chance that he stumbles across this web page, that he doesn’t take offense to this little tribute exhibition). Some of it is pretty angry and hard core so please don’t yap about the language or the macabre-ness:
Too long ago, I went to the gym every day. At seven a.m., the doors opened and a small group of us would shamble in and begin lifting weights. I had a little notebook in which I charted my regimen and recorded my progress; accumulating the little pencil scrawls kept me committed for close to a year. I was pretty intense about it, seven days a week, rain or shine, always at 7 a.m. If I overloaded the stack of iron and strained a rhomboid, I would switch to a leg routine for the next few days until I healed. But I had to keep going
I took a fair amount of pleasure in how my body developed. I wasn’t a steroid freak or anything though some of the other 7 a.m. crew were a little scary, particularly a couple of the women with lats like pterodactyl wings and neck as thick as my thighs. For me, weight lifting felt like a creative act; I liked how my arms felt like they belonged to someone else, like touching a horse or a large dog’s back. I had made my body into something, something essentially useless as I rarely had to lift toppled trees off cars or open jars of pickles, but something hand-crafted nonetheless. I don’t even know how healthy the whole thing was: I almost always hurt somewhere and woke up each 6:30 wincing and groaning.
When it was still cold and dark outside, Patti would urge me to stay in bed but I would refuse. There was simply no room for discussion. If I missed a day, I would lose momentum, my streak would end. I was convinced that I had to be 100% committed to my routine. The pathological drill sergeant in my head gave my will zero room for excuses.
Then my sister said she wanted to join me. For a week or so, she met me every 7 a.m. and it was fun to have someone to work out with. Till one morning she called me at 6:45 and croaked that she didn’t feel like going today, that I should take the day of too. So I did. And the day after that and so on. I never went back to the gym again.
Habit is enormously powerful. The bad ones are easy to pick up and a drag to shake. Each bad habit starts by stifling a voice in your head, the one that knows better, and says ‘go ahead, just try it’ and leads you to drag that first cigarette though you know it’ll lead to the grave, to accompany every burger with fries, to flop on the couch in front of the tube, to drink too much, talk too much, do too little…. The angel on your shoulder doesn’t stand a chance.
For me, developing good habits requires the same sort of censorship. However, this time I have to stifle the voice that leads me astray, to be absolutely rigid in my refusal to capitulate. It works best when I have an inflexible routine, like my 7 a.m. appointment at the gym.
These days, NPR wakes me up at 6:57 a.m., and I go mechanically through a series of maneuvers that have me walking up the street and arriving at my desk at 8:30 while the office is still cold and empty. I am at my most productive in that first hour. I’d love to add another hour to my morning, to rise before six and really get something done with my first cup of joe. I haven’t muscled myself into that harness yet.
What does this sort of rigidity mean when it comes to creativity? Can you be so iron-clad and expect your imagination to function just because you have put it on a regimen? Will the ink lie cold in the pen? Will the mind stay half-asleep?
Not if you insist. The muse can be put on a tight schedule. I have had to come up with ideas, on deadline for decades and, if anything, things flow more easily when you bear down on the brain. It’s not guaranteed but showing up is half the job. If I am focussed, resolved, and present, ideas will come.
I’d like to be more disciplined about my drawing. When I have an illustration assignment or a commitment to another like sketchcrawling, I can deliver. I just did it in Paris, crawling out in to the cold rainy dawn to draw. But it’s not as much fun as when I am suddenly inspired to pick up the pen. It feels like work. But maybe that’s because I am irregular in my early morning sessions. I mean, I could stagger over to the gym tomorrow at 7 am and bench press something but it would not be fun.
My pal, Tom Kane, has a great habit. When he walks into his office each morning, he snaps on his computer, loads the NY Times homepage and draws something from one of the lead stories in a Moleskine reserved for the purpose. Each day, at least one drawing of a newsmaker. Only then does his work day begin. His book is full now, brimming with great caricatures and portraits, built one drawing at a time. His drawings muscles ripple. Of course, he does not stop there; he draws New York City most days, detailed pen and ink drawings that fill the page from corner to corner. Tom’s compulsive too. He cannot stop until every square inch of paper is covered and crosshatched. He tells me he doesn’t do it because he enjoys it; he does it because he has to. He’s got the habit.