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Glad Tidings For The Young And Terrified

Posted on July 30, 2003 and read 9,650 times

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On your desk, there is a brief. Let’s read it again, shall we? The One Main Selling Message goes something like this: With its advanced lemon scent, hard-working new Blippo gets clothes even cleaner to make laundry day special for the time-starved, ecology-conscious consumer on a budget.

Your internal presentation is tomorrow. You have no decent ideas. Actually, you don’t even have any lame ones. Clearly, there is only one thing to do.

You must try to get a hair appointment. Since hair grows on agency time, it is perfectly reasonable to get it cut on agency time. (If you would prefer to get your legs waxed, that’s fine, too. The same principle applies.)

And as the snick-snick of the scissors lulls you into a trance, pray, oh pray, that the hairdresser doesn’t ask, “What is it you do, again?” Because then you’ll have to have the conversation in which you smile and agree that the ad business is for sure totally neat and glam and fun and, oh yes, very competitive.

Oh, yes.

But privately, you are terrified. You fear that your book is not up to snuff. You fear that the business is even nastier than you thought. You even fear that you might get fired.

You are craving reassurance. You ache for glad tidings that will restore your hope. I would like to give you those glad tidings. I’ve got three of them, actually. Here goes:

Glad Tiding #1: Your Book is Not Up To Snuff. That’s because the approaches you learned in ad school have reached their Best Before date. How does this qualify as good news? Since so few of your peers are taking the time to improve their books, you now have a rare opportunity to make your own work delightfully conspicuous.

The strongly visual approach of which I speak is now something like ten years old. That’s when those punny 1980s headlines set in Franklin Gothic Extra Bold Condensed started fading in award shows. They were gradually replaced by – gasp! – ads with no headlines whatsoever! These fresh new ads had ideas that were fully expressed through the juxtaposition of unrelated images – for example, a razor blade where one would expect to see a bicycle seat (that excellent and much-awarded ad was done here in Toronto for Preparation H).

Within a few years, visual ideas completely dominated award shows, and the only long-copy ads you ever saw were for diet pills or marital aids. But since visual punnery is now about ten years old, you will observe that even the crummiest agencies in the world are employing it. And this is nature’s way of telling us that it’s time to look for new ways to tell our stories. Taste in advertising is not a fixed ideal; it’s a moving target, much like fashion.

To show a book with no copy today is like showing up for a first date wearing shoulder pads and Flock of Seagulls hair. So now is the time to reacquaint yourself with the myriad possibilities of copy. Sadly, many juniors cling to their books with a stubborn disinclination to change or replace a single ad. Too bad for them, and good for you. The best portfolios are an ever-changing snapshot of their owners’ evolving abilities; a stagnant book suggests stagnant talent.

So where to start? The advice for both writers and art directors is the same: Write five ads a day. They can be about any product or service, even one that doesn’t exist. They don’t have to be good. Scribbles on scrap paper are fine. When you’re done, file them away and don’t look at them for a while.

The point of the exercise is to open your creative sluices and to get you away from regarding any one ad as precious or sacrosanct. Never will a creative director view even your best ad as the Magna Carta, and you shouldn’t either. As Samuel Johnson put it some 250 years ago, “Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”

Glad Tiding #2: The business is even nastier than you thought. Maybe you’re at an agency where senior creatives will take you under their wing, guiding you, calming you, amusing you with war stories. Then again, maybe you’re at an agency where senior creatives regard you as a threat, where you hide your ideas for fear they’ll be poached. Wherever you are, your response should be the same: Be Nice. Very few people can tell you offhand who was dominating the award shows six or seven years ago. But everyone can remember who is easy to work with, who’s a straight shooter, who’s not a prima donna. The good news here is that a reputation as a nice person is more enduring than a Cannes Lion, and it’s a lot easier to get.

Glad Tiding #3: You might get fired. You see furrowed brows, you hear anxious whispers: If we lose the Snorbix account, we’ll have to let three teams go. And so it comes to pass that the Snorbix account does move. And you are let go. This is the most devastating thing that’s ever happened to you. Or maybe it’s the best thing. Ours is the only business I can think of where there isn’t any particular shame in being fired. And this blameless hiatus might be just what you need to reboot your work. But there’s one helpful trick of the mind that’s available to everyone, with or without a job: Work for yourself. This doesn’t mean going freelance (although you may decide to do that at some point). What it means is that while you work hard for other bosses and other brands, you should also work hard for your own development and your own brand (you do stand for creative excellence, don’t you?). Creative directors will love your entrepreneurial spirit. And you will be secure in the knowledge that your improving skills are like a carpenter’s tools: They don’t belong to anyone else, and when the job is done, you will pack them up and take them with you.

You won’t ever have to worry about finding a mentor in this business. You already have one. It’s called uncertainty. Make friends with it now, and you’ll go far.


Freelance writer Suzanne Pope was most recently Group Creative Director at Ogilvy & Mather Toronto. Her work has been seen in Communication Arts and Archive, and she is the winner of a One Show silver pencil.






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