Two Young Creatives of Equal Talent
by David Lubars
Executive Creative Director of BBDO North American
Originally published in Communication Arts July Illustration Annual 2001
You and your buddy are just starting out. You’re a couple of juniors from ad school, or wherever. You both have killer books; maybe you’ve scored in the One Show college competition. You’re excited and juiced. You have tons of potential.
Flash forward fifteen years. One of you has become the creative director of a brilliant agency. The other is brain dead in Punxsutawney.
A fascinating scenario, and one I’ve tried to make sense of in the twenty years I’ve been at this. If you’re a kid, this is written to try to help you avoid the mistakes some of your talented but misguided predecessors have made.
Here, then, are nine attempts at understanding why some people fall off the face of the earth:
First, it seems that these people somehow get it in their heads they’re artistes and poets. A wrong headed and dopey notion. We’re businesspeople who use creativity as a vehicle to deliver brand messages. This is different from being someone who uses advertising as a vehicle to deliver pretentious crap.
Second, some people speak about their clients with condescension and loathing. Again, dumb. Not to mention counterproductive. Think about what it’s like to be a client for a second. You worry that you’re paying the agency big money to help, knowing it’s your ass if they don’t. You worry about whether they’ll create work everyone inside and outside your company can feel good about. You worry about whether they’ll penetrate the issues as solvers of business problems or just ad makers.
But then when the agency people come through for you, you become less worried. You begin to see them as a secret weapon. As time goes on, you allow them to guide you into new territory because you trust them. The point being, it’s hard work to earn and maintain client trust, but it’s been the foundation of every great campaign ever created.
Third, some people don’t seem to recover well when their first or second batch of work is killed. After a couple of rounds, they decide the assignment isn’t good anymore and return with garbage. Bob Moore, our Fallon/Minneapolis creative director, points out, "This is a sure way of becoming a hack. Five years down the road you’ve got no book and you’re bitching about how lousy your agency is. Who made it lousy? You did."
This is an important point. You should know that most creative directors don’t assess you simply by how creative you are. We also consider how deep, how fast, and how willing to return to the well you are. And how much of a pain in the ass you aren’t.
A freelancer and early mentor of mine, Ernie Schenck, was telling me about someone he’d worked with who wasn’t able to rebound: "This went on for a few years, so nobody was surprised when he turned into this pathetic, defeated little puddle of awesome talent that never amounted to jack."
Fallon account manager Rob Buchner says, "Stamina is a constant virtue I see in the best creative people; emotional and intellectual stamina. Without perseverance, their talent surrenders to the uglier dynamics of the business."
Fourth, while still developing their talent, some people decide to follow the scent of money instead of continuing to follow the trail of great work. One of my partners at Fallon, Mark Goldstein, says truly great creative people are able to recognize "quicksand" agencies. These are places where no matter how good you are, the internal processes and culture conspire to make you horrible. The lure is the short-term financial gain. Goldstein says, "That’s because bad agencies are happy to overpay for badness; they don’t know the difference." But you’ll know the difference.
Fifth, some people become intoxicated with the idea of titles, puff pieces in the trades, and becoming "a manager." Fallon legend, Bob Barrie, warns, "The first time you do a decent campaign you’ll get calls from bad agencies. You’ll decide to ‘move up’ and join one of them and then you’ll disappear. Never make a decision based on coin. Do brilliant work and you’ll be rewarded more in the end anyway." As far as managing goes, Bob says, "You can’t manage till you’ve done tons of great work yourself. How can you be a credible judge of other people’s stuff when you’re still figuring out how to do it yourself?"
This segues nicely into my sixth point. Some people appear to be unconcerned with building a body of brilliant work over time. A question: who’s had the richer career, Neil Young or Donovan? Young has been making brilliant records for 35 years. Donovan had some hits in the mid-1960s. Many of you may be wondering, who’s Donovan? Exactly. The point is, you can’t put together a few good campaigns and hope to live off the fumes forever. You’re only as good as the last thing you did, and you should’ve done that today. Current greats like [Lee] Clow and [Phil] Dusenberry are Neil Youngs.
Seventh, some people seem closed to new ways of doing things. Another Fallon partner, Rich Stoddart, says, "The successful creative is totally objective about his or her own work. If it’s not working, if it isn’t right, they just move on. Bad creatives only think ‘protect, protect, protect.’"
Eighth, some people don’t exercise their brains enough. Our planning director, Anne Bologna, observes, "The awesome ones are extraordinarily curious and ask ‘why?’ all the time. They’re part planners in that they’re empathetic to the human condition. They don’t see the world through their own eyes only." Stoddart adds, "They’re sponges. They read everything they can get their hands on. Two or three newspapers, novels, business magazines—everything. When they sit with clients, they’re better able to understand the context of people and business."
Ninth, some people actually believe their initial good press and listen when industry sycophant whisper in their ears.
Here’s the thing, though. The guy who cured polio was important. Even though you created a great campaign, you’re not all that important in the grand scheme of things. Yes, you’re in a nice industry that can reward well. Yes, you’re creative and people admire that. Yes, you may attain some level of status. But, I mean, come on.
Here’s what is important: humility. It’s great to be around people like Pat Fallon, Laurel Cutler and Maurice Levy, who demonstrate every day that the greater the success, the greater the opportunity to remain humble. And if just being classy isn’t reason enough to be humble, then consider the practical side. The guy who gave me my start, Jon Goward, says, "Once you start thinking too highly of yourself, your ears fall off. You stop listening to anyone who criticizes anything you do because you think you know better. And that feeds itself. Success tends to attract people who tell you how great you are. The tricky part is maintaining a strong sense of yourself; being sensitive enough to hear what clients and other people who disagree with you say."
If you’re really great, let other people talk about you. Your job is fairly simple: be quiet, sit down and create some more work. (In fact, why are you reading this when you could be working on your craft right now? Put this down. You’ll learn more by doing than reading about doing.)
I heard a guy say something a few years ago that sums up the whole thing for me. He said, "My best people come to work every day worrying that they’re about to be fired, while the mediocre people are always shocked when they actually are fired."
How do you feel when you come to work?