Hating Everything the Most Doesn’t Make You the Best

My friend Peter is very opinionated. Sometimes he seems like a crank. I used to think he hated everything. Then I realized he also loved some really bad things. And some really good things. I noticed a method to his madness: he said he liked the things he liked, and he said he didn’t like the things he didn’t like. It didn’t matter to him what other people thought. I respect Peter’s opinion. I don’t always agree, but I very much respect it.

There are other people I know (who shall not be named) who think that everything is shit. At least, they SAY they think everything is shit. With those people, I don’t care about their opinion. Two reasons, really:
1) I already know what they think about whatever. They think it’s shit.
2) They’re lying.

I don’t think anyone actually hates everything. But I do think in a creative industry where it’s important to have high standards, there can become a kind of competition. A pressure to have the highest standards. And who has the highest standards? The person who doesn’t like anything? They must have the highest standards, right?

It can seem like that person’s opinion would become the most important opinion in the room. Because if they ever do like something, it must really be good, obviously. But that’s not true. First of all, to my point above, hating everything makes your opinion irrelevant and people start disregarding it altogether. Second, that “everything sucks” attitude is usually the result of trying to win the non-existent high-standards contest, caring too much what others think of what you think, or just an unfortunate psychological predisposition. All of those are bad.

Don’t love everything. Everything is not good. In fact, most stuff is not good. Have high standards. But base those on what you think (maybe with some good reasons as to why you think it). Don’t worry about what other people think you think. And don’t try to impress them with your mythically high standards.  Don’t be a hater.

* Peter is not a crank. He’s a great guy.

So you really think it would be cool to live in California?

“Why do you love her?”
“Because she lives in my town.” 

This is one of those posts that makes me worry I’m going to come off as some cranky old coot. But I still think it’s good advice.

If you’re interviewing with an agency, and the person asks you what you’re looking for, as in like a job, or what you’re seeking in life, that’s really another way of asking “why do you want to come work at our agency?” So please don’t let your first answer be, “I really want to live in California.”

That may be true. California has its perks. But there are 1400 ad agencies in California. There are 26,000 creative companies. And there are 12.2 million available jobs, not including couch surfing. So answering that you want to move to California, while it’s a fine lifestyle choice, isn’t what your interviewer wants to hear. It’s one step above a shrug and a mumbled “Dunno.”

Maybe say something work related, for starters. You’re looking to go to a place that does amazing creative? You want to learn and grow? You just want to make cool shit? That at least narrows it down a little. It implies something about the why you and the agency you’re talking to are a good match beyond its physical location.

Writers, Be a Word Nerd

My mother corrects my grammar. Still. If I send an email and incorrectly use I as an object, she will let me know (I did the other day, and she let me know about it).

Odds are, you don’t have my mother. But hopefully you have someone who has instilled in you the importance of understanding how to write well. (I’m speaking primarily to writers here, but art directors who can write are awesome.)

Great art directors know their craft inside and out. They get off on serifs and kerning and leading, and it irritates them if you use the words “font” and “typeface” interchangeably. But for some reason, a lot of writers place less importance on their wordsmithing. “I suck at drawing” is a terrible reason to become a copywriter.

You have to love words.

You should get all giddy when you hear a great line of dialogue.

You should actually enjoy reading books like the one above and not feel like it’s torture.

If you see a word that you don’t know, you should look it up.

You should write. A lot.

You should have favorite authors, favorite books, favorite sentences.

When you read and you come across a great sentence, you should stop and consider what makes it a great sentence. How is it constructed? What is the author doing? What choices did he/she make in writing the sentence that way?

I’m not saying you have to be able to diagram a sentence (though it can’t hurt). And I’m not saying that everything you write needs to be grammatically correct. But like design, there are mechanics to writing. There are reasons a sentence is strong–conscious decisions that are made in its construction. If you want to be a decent writer, you need to have, at the very least, a working knowledge of these things. Ideally, you obsess over them.

Be a word nerd. We like nerds.

The Many Tellings of a Story

When you have a story to tell, you usually just tell it. But in advertising, you have to tell it multiple times—to your partner, to your team, to your client, to your director—before you finally tell it to your real audience.
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.

Too often I see ideas that could be great fall flat in meetings because nobody gave any thought to how to present the idea. Or maybe they didn’t think the idea needed anything more than to be read from a paper. Ideas do not sell themselves. Stories sell ideas. So tell a good story, each time you tell it.

Pre-Write the Case Study

I’m taking a fiction-writing class, and last night my teacher gave us this tip: “If you’re writing a novel, one exercise to help determine what the novel wants to be is to write a review for it.”

Even before you’re done, jump ahead and write what you’d like to see in the press once your novel is published. How would they describe it? Not just that it’s awesome, but why and what it’s about. It’s basically a roadmap built on aspiration.

You can do the same thing when thinking about your ad campaign. Write a case study for it. Even before you have it figured out, see if you can write what you’d like the case study to be. What was the problem? Your insight? Your solution?

You’ll be able to tell pretty quickly if you’re idea’s simple and if you actually know what you’re trying to achieve. You’ll also be able to see if, once all is said and done, you’ll actually have a compelling story to tell.

"Better Than His Book"

I’ve been looking at a lot of portfolios lately,* and I’ve heard the same phrase about five times this week. Someone has sent me a book on behalf of someone else and commented, “They’re better than their book.”

I don’t know what to do with that. I totally trust the people passing these books on to me, but I can’t help but ask why the person’s book isn’t as good as they supposedly are. “They’re better than their book” is like saying “Our product is better than our ads make it seem.”

Your book represents you. It represents the way you think. So if your book isn’t as good as you are, you’d better get to work on making it better. If you’re not getting the opportunities, do something on the side. Give yourself some fake assignments. You’re competing with people whose books are probably better than they are. That’s the reality of the situation.

If your book isn’t as good as you are, then your book could be better. So why isn’t it?

*We’re hiring all creative levels. Drop me a line or send me your stuff if you’re interested.

How Can You Make It Better?

I saw this sign at Jimmy John’s yesterday.* This sign could have been your standard NO SHOES, NO SHIRT, NO SERVICE, but someone thought it would be funnier to rewrite it. And it is.

It reminded me of when I first read Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.** When I opened the book, I saw that he’d actually written all of the boilerplate legal copy that comes in the first few pages. The copy that most authors ignore because most readers ignore it too. Eggers’ legal copy was the best, funniest legal copy I’d ever read.

You will have a lot of people telling you what you need to include in your ads. Sometimes it’s legal copy, sometimes technical copy. But that doesn’t mean you have to take it as it is. See if you can make it better. It could be: “Professional driver, closed course. Do not attempt.” Or it could be: “Tony Stewart, closed course. You couldn’t do this if your life depended on it, so don’t even try.”

Not that many people read legal copy, but if someone does, why not use it as another chance to give them a good impression of the brand?

*I highly recommend Jimmy John’s. For those of you in San Francisco, they just opened one in Crocker Galleria. 
**Highly recommend AHWOSG, or really anything by Eggers.  

A CASE STUDY VIDEO SHOULD BE A LAST RESORT

If your campaign is clear without a case study video, please, for the love of all that is good, do not make a case study video. If you absolutely, positively, without a doubt cannot sum up your campaign in a short paragraph or a few bullet points, then and only then should you make me/us sit through a 2-minute case study video. 
P.S. It goes without saying that you will spread your campaign message through twitter and allow people to share it via social media channels. That is not a concept in itself and does not warrant a case study video. 
P.P.S. We have made this post into a handy jpg. Please feel free to blow it up, print it out and post it at your school/agency/barn. Godspeed. 

Four Quotes from Steve Jobs On Advertising

1. Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. (from Wired)

2. That’s been one of my mantras — focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains. (from BusinessWeek)

3. When you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there. But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can often times arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions. (from Newsweek)

4. Innovation comes from people meeting up in the hallways or calling each other at 10:30 at night with a new idea, or because they realized something that shoots holes in how we’ve been thinking about a problem. It’s ad hoc meetings of six people called by someone who thinks he has figured out the coolest new thing ever and who wants to know what other people think of his idea. (from BusinessWeek)

Props to Fuel Lines for compiling the full list.