The Egg Assignment


This is one of the assignments I like to give to my copywriting students.

You’ve probably seen one of these before. It’s an egg.

I want you to write something on an egg that makes me want to eat it.

Take any angle you want.

Go to the store and buy an egg and write the thing on it and bring it to class. You might want to use a hard‐boiled egg.

These are due in Monday’s class. I will give you a pass/fail grade on it. If you fail, you can try again in any other class. If you pass, you can be finished, or you can try to come up with a better egg. Or you can give your idea to a struggling classmate.

You get to keep your eggs.

At the start of class, I would have the students, one at a time, set their eggs in the middle of the table. I would read whatever was on the egg. I would judge the egg based on one simple factor: did I want to eat that egg? I wouldn’t think about it very much.

Some eggs were very clever. Some tried to be funny. Some gave a functional benefit—protein or healthy snack.

Sometimes the message made a difference. I might feel like I could use a healthy snack. Sometimes I would chuckle but not want to eat the egg. Sometimes I would pick the first egg simply because I was hungry. Sometimes I would pick no eggs because I wasn’t hungry.

It was frustrating for the students, because it was like their creative idea only sometimes made a difference in whether or not they passed or failed that day. Which was exactly the point.

There are dozens of factors that go into whether or not a consumer buys the product you’re trying to sell. Your creative idea is usually pretty low on the list. Way below whether or not the consumer happens to be hungry at that moment. So remember that. You have to be relevant. You have to be persuasive. You also have to be lucky.

How can I build my portfolio when my client won’t buy good work?

Early in your career, you should be chasing opportunity. Go where you can produce your best work. A lot of it. Cycle great work into your portfolio and expunge the crap—that’s your simple goal. And early in your career, it’s critical.

Thus, one of the most frustrating (and dangerous) situations to find yourself in is to a client that refuses, for whatever reason, to buy good work (and here let’s define “good work” as work you’d want in your portfolio).

So what do you do?

First of all, don’t put work in your portfolio just because it’s “real” (i.e. just because the client bought and ran it). If it’s not better than your student spec work, it shouldn’t go in your book, period. You get no points for “real” bad work.

What about my good ideas that were pitched to and killed by the client? Can I put those on my site? The specifics of the situation, the agency-client relationship and legalities of contracts, etc. all can determine the right answer to that question. Some would say yes, just password protect it. Some would say ask your creative director. Some would say just do it and ask forgiveness if needed. I’m going to save that tangent for another time.

What does that leave you with? You still have some options. Here are four that have worked for me in the past:

1) Do work on the side.

Find a client that you can do good work for. Go outside the agency if you need to (just avoid any direct conflicts with your agency clients ). You have a friend who owns a bar? See if you can throw some work her way. Or the local aquarium. Or a startup that you happen to like. It doesn’t have to be a Fortune 500 company. Go to a conference and introduce yourself to some people. Be open about what you’re trying to do. You’re looking to do great work that you can put in your portfolio. Would they be open to letting you take a crack at a project for them?

When I was in San Francisco, you couldn’t throw a smartphone without hitting someone who knew someone involved in a startup. A group of people at my agency found a wine startup that ended up being a dream project. Although these guys were never an official agency client, the agency supported the work (they wanted to see us do cool side projects too).


Obviously, if the person knows and trusts you, you’re more likely to get a yes. But I’ve found that if you’re honest about your intentions, people are happy to let you pitch some ideas to them. They’re not obligated to buy or run the work. Whether or not you do the work for pay is another can of worms I won’t get into here, but remember that your main reason for doing this work is the work, not the money. And if you are willing to do it for no pay…


2) Find a pro bono client.

When I take on a project, I want at least one of these:

  • Great creative.
  • Get paid.
  • Work with friends/have fun.
  • Good cause.

Ideally I get all four. I usually have to settle for three, sometimes two. If none of those boxes are checked, I’m-a-gonna pass. For pro bono, you eliminate #2. So find a cause you believe in. Try to involve people who will make it fun. And be clear with the client that you want to have good work in the end, not just brochures. You might do a brochure, but only if you can also do something you’ll be proud to put in your book.

I worked for a music education pro-bono client for years. I’d say we had #3 and #4, often #1. But we also had something else, which was an opportunity to experiment and learn. We shot a number of documentary pieces that put my partner and me behind the camera, working the boom, editing and building stories out of interviews and b-roll. It was something we didn’t have much experience with when we started, but after six mini-docs, we’d actually learned a few things. And that’s not nothing.

And years ago Greg had an idea for the National Parks, so he reached out to them to see if he could do some free work. That campaign ended up in Communication Arts.



3) Solve a real-world problem.

Forget clients altogether. Just pick something that sucks and solve it. My partner and I once had a planner who would call and talk forever. We were bullshitting one day and had the idea of an app that lets you select from a library of sound effects to give you excuses for ending the call. Like knock at the door, pre-flight announcement, baby crying, etc. Neither of us had ever made an app before, so we decided to figure out how to do it. We called a developer we knew, worked out a deal around profit-splitting and got to work. Again, we learned a lot in the process and, in the end, we had something we could show off. We even sold a few of them.


4) Do a passion or self-promo piece.

What do you love? Do a project around that passion. Love books? Redesign covers for your favorites. Create a children’s book. One former student used to build big type installations. Who cares if it’s not “ads?” It’s probably more interesting. Create a website for your grandmother. As a last resort, create something about you.

The point is, make something. And make it good. You have no client for something like this, so you have no excuse. If I’m looking at a portfolio from someone who has only a couple okay client pieces but a bunch of really interesting, well-crafted side projects, I figure that they’ll be able to do that for a client if given the opportunity.

But if I’m looking at a portfolio that has a couple of okay client pieces and a handful of excuses, no thanks. Clients may be a reason you can’t do great work on a particular brand—believe me, I’ve had my share. But bad clients are not a reason you can’t fill your portfolio with great work.


How to Negotiate

Creatives are not always (one might say rarely) natural salespeople. Most have to learn how to effectively sell their work. But one of the last things they learn to do (if ever) is to sell themselves. It’s unfortunate, too, because interviews, job offers and negotiations are some of the most important conversations you will have in your career. You need to learn how to talk about your work, talk about the challenges you overcame, tell stories about how you approached problems and what you learned. And then once an offer’s on the table, you need to know what to do with it.

When I was running a creative department, it was shocking to me how few creatives actually negotiated when it came to a job offer. Or for those who did, how one-dimensional the negotiation was. I’d say (very unofficially) that 60% of the offers we put out were accepted or passed on as they were. No further conversation about the offer itself. Maybe another 30% would counter with a higher salary, usually ending with an agreement that was somewhere in the middle.

There’s a great post on Medium by Haseeb Qureshi about the rules of negotiating a job offer. He’s coming from a tech industry POV, but I agree with everything on his list.

You may be uncomfortable negotiating, especially if you’re a student or it’s early in your career. You probably feel like you have no idea what you’re doing. And at some point, the stress might feel so great that you just want it over with. Even if that’s true, don’t short-change yourself (don’t be unrealistic either!). The rules outlined in Qureshi’s post can help make sure you hold some of the cards. Even as a junior, you are an asset, and you have something that is of value to a company. As he points out, this is a business relationship. As a business, the agency want to maximize the value they get from it. As a creative talent, so do you.

My Favorites in Film

While I’m on the Cannes kick, here are my two favorite pieces of film from this past year.

In my mind, there was no better crafted, more moving piece of film in advertising than the Under Armor Michael Phelps spot. There is something Homeric about its beauty, about the hero past his prime but not ready to let it go. The way it celebrates both the beauty of the sport but, as its theme line says, what we don’t see—all the things happening in the dark. What it does so well is not just show us the training—we’ve seen that a million times from a million sports companies—but the brutal everything else that comes with being a historic athlete. The cupping, sleeping in the hyperbaric chamber, sitting in a tub of ice, the pain of consuming 12,000 calories a day. Lay on top of that the haunting song from The Kills, an unlikely but brilliant juxtaposition, and you have a wonderful spot.

“Is there a limit to how much living I can live with my life?” Old Spice has tread well upon absurd, over-the-top, slapstick humor for years. Sometimes it works well for me, sometimes less so. I love this one for the sheer hilarity of the copy and the quality of the production. Playing it straight and going high production value also separates it from the Dos Equis work. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall when they sold this spot to the client. More great stuff from W+K.


REI-_OptOutside_Anthem_Film_15I was happy to see my favorite campaign from 2015 pick up a Titanium Grand Prix Cannes Lion. Much of the chatter from the festival was predictable (scam ads, the importance of technology, how to deal with the emotional resonance inherent in cause-related advertising). But a few of the big winners surprised me—I wasn’t sure this campaign was going to get the recognition it deserves.

Why do I like it so much? It is a brand sticking to its values in the most important way possible. If the strength of a person’s values can be measured by what they do when nobody is looking, the strength of a brand’s can be measured by what they do when lots of money is on the line. And there’s a lot of money on the line on Black Friday.

REI_OptOutsideonBlackFriday2215.jpgREI_OptOutsideonBlackFriday1215Closing its doors on Black Friday and encouraging people to go outside instead is a simple idea. But it’s also brave and, importantly, perfectly embodies what the brand stands for. It’s not latching onto a cause or topical conversation. It’s creating its own cause: nature>commercialism.

Beyond that, it’s very well executed. The design is great. The tone is great. And the hashtag is a fantastic bit of short writing. Kudos to the teams who pulled it off. Wish I had this one in my portfolio.



Tell Your Idea to Life

compWhen you have a story to tell, you usually just tell it. But in advertising, the story is what gives your idea life. And for your idea to live successfully, you have to tell it over and over. You tell it to your partner, to your team, to your client, to your director—before you finally tell it to your real audience. You literally breathe life into your idea through these tellings, so you better get good at it.

Your job, as much as anything, is about articulation. That’s seems like a weird thing to say, but it’s true. You have to figure out how to articulate your idea in a way that brings it to life for different people. Some of those people will be creative people who understand what you mean when you reference a Wes Anderson style of art direction. Others will be MBAs who are very smart at business but don’t know Wes Anderson from Steven Spielberg. Or maybe you’re talking to a CMO who has about 2 minutes to hear your idea and just wants to quickly get the gist and understand how it solves her business problem.

Whatever the case, you have to know your audience in the meeting the same way you know your audience out in the world. What will resonate with them? (Hint: there’s a 99% chance that “it would be really cool if we…” won’t resonate with them.) Importantly, how can you articulate your idea so that what’s in your head is the same thing that ends up in their head. I tell my students this over and over in my scriptwriting class. How can you get what’s in your head into my head? 

You’ll tell your story many times. If those first tellings don’t go well, that final telling will never happen. So don’t overlook those first tellings. Give a lot of thought to how you’re going to bring the story to life for your client, in particular. They should be as engaged by your telling of the story as they will be by the final execution.

We’ve all seen ideas that could be great fall flat in meetings. It’s usually because nobody gave any thought to how to present it. Or worse, didn’t think the idea needed anything more than to be read from a paper. Ideas do not sell themselves. Stories—vivid, engaging, entertaining—sell ideas. So tell a good story each time you tell it.