Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

Read whatever you can get your hands on. It’ll make you a better creative, whether you’re a writer, art director, designer, UX guru, creative technologist, whatever. But don’t limit yourself to “ad books.” Learn to communicate in ways that aren’t covered in the Advertising sub-shelves of the Business section at Barnes & Noble.

Pick up a copy of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. A beautiful and inspiring piece. I don’t want to call it a how-to. But it will help you how-to: communicate, question, wonder, ponder, reconsider, and get to work.




David Oakley’s Why Is Your Name Upside Down?

We have a list of books we recommend over there —-> on the right side of the page. Lots of stuff that might inspire you or make you a better creative. Here’s one that might do both, and will get you excited to be in an industry as fun as ours. Why Is Your Name Upside Down? Stories from a Life in Advertising by David Oakley
Oakley is the president and creative director at BooneOakley, a small independent advertising agency in Charlotte, NC. It’s a really good shop with nice, talented folks. Full disclosure here—I’ve met David and many of the people there, so I’m probably a little biased. Even so, I laughed much harder at this book than I thought I would. After 15 years in the business, sometimes reading books about the industry feels like, well, work. This one feels more like just grabbing a beer with a dude who tells really good stories.
BooneOakley opened with a ballsy, attention-grabbing stunt. During the 2000 presidential race, they ran a billboard that said “Gore 2000.” But what it showed was a photo of George W. Bush. Calls from the media started immediately. All the big names wanted to know who had screwed the pooch so badly. CNN, CBS, ABC, NBC, FOX. Oakley even received a call from the Vice Chairman of the Republican Party. Only after a few nervous days of incredible publicity did they reveal the punch line: the board was for, with the copy: “Today’s job opening: proofreader.” A really simple prank that turned a local billboard into national media coverage.
That is the M.O. of Oakley—he likes to take risks, make his clients famous and have fun doing it. Some of the stories here are how some of BooneOakley’s best, most over-the-top ideas came to be. Some are stories from the trenches of running a small agency in a small market. And some are personal stories from David, how he got into the business, how he met his wife (who also works with him), a few other random but always entertaining stories from his past. If you were to cut a trailer for a movie version of this book, you’d see a giant muffin fall on a car, a professional golfer tee off on a biscuit, a Silence of the Lambs basement moment as Oakley tries to buy a ping pong table for the office on the cheap, a client fired via tweet (don’t we all wish sometimes), a condom on a dog, a pole dancer, a live earthworm eaten by a human, some terrible golf, Celine Dion, Roseanne Cash, a kidney stone passed and what is certainly the only sex doll thrown from a rooftop during a new business pitch. And that would just be the 30-second cut of the trailer.
You don’t have to be in advertising to enjoy these stories. But if you are, you might actually learn something while you’re laughing your butt off. There’s a method to Oakley’s madness, and he drops some important lessons along the way. Even his craziest stories have morals to them. Well, most of them do. And you’ll be treated to some delightful writing, such as this: “Our moods were swinging like a pair of donkey balls.” (Surprising, visual, simple—everything a good simile requires.)
The stories are so random and improbable that you know they’re true. Advertising is random and improbable. I’ve had many moments in my career where I’ve stopped to look around and wondered, “How the hell did I get here?” I could totally relate. And what comes through more than anything is that Oakley is a guy who loves what he does. He loves the people around him, and he’s built an agency, a body of work and now a book that shows that advertising can be a blast. It should be, if you’re doing it right. And he shows that, despite the rumors, there are some really good people in this industry.

The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry

I read a handful of books on creative thinking and management every year. Some are more helpful than others. The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry is one I found full of good advice from both perspectives. In a nutshell, Henry’s focus is on practices that help us make the most of our creative resources (time and energy). It also has some good advice about managing a creative environment. 
My review is below, along with some random notes (I post reviews of everything I read on my personal blog). 
Additionally, Henry runs The Accidental Creative podcast. And he has a new book out, Die Empty. I haven’t read that book. If anyone has, let me know what you think of it. The title’s a little cheesy, but he usually has smart stuff to say. 

Anyone who works in a creative industry knows the pressure that comes with having to solve creative problems against a deadline. Or being required to generate ideas every day within the constraints of budget, timing, politics and the chaos of the modern work environment. This is a book on applying rigor to the creative process. This is not meant to confine creativity—Henry cautions that structure should not be confused with formula. Formula is a prescriptive process. Structure is a scaffolding within which surprising creative solutions can still flourish. By understanding the rhythms of creativity, its inputs, its enemies and various tricks of the trade, one can learn to coax ideas out reliably. As Henry says, “people who succeed are often those who do the little, everyday things that other won’t.”
Henry identifies elements of the process for creative individuals as well creative teams, some of the barriers that can hinder creativity and gives some practical tips for working more productively as a creative person. I’ll include somewhat random notes and my favorite slide-worthy quotes about creativity below, but in general what I love about this book is that it articulates process problems I experience all the time, both at work and with my own projects, both as a creative and a creative manager. Identifying the barriers is often more helpful than the solutions because the barriers sometimes become so ingrained in the way we work that they become invisible. Shining a light on them, naming them and calling them out as problems is critical.
We all want a greater sense of purpose in our lives and in our work. We want to feel that our efforts contribute to a greater good, and that our personal goals align with our professional ambition. That all our motivations are in sync. What this book provides is a pragmatic and sometimes inspiration outline to better align our individual goals with our professional realities (and vice versa). It’s a handbook for becoming a more productive, more reliable, happier creative person.
Key elements of the creative process
Focus: Know your true objective. Articulate it. Be aligned with team members on what this is and constantly check back against it to maintain alignment.
Relationships: Identify and build the relationships that positively empower your process. My buddy Jon, when I asked him what advice he’d give a younger version of himself, called this one out. In a nutshell, he said that you only have so much time and energy—focus on the relationships that push you to grow and make you stretch.
Energy: Establish practices around energy management. You have to maintain a healthy, sustainable lifestyle in order to maintain a sustainable creative output.
“It’s all too easy to waste the energy we need for important creative objectives on unproductive or unfocused behaviors.” (e.g. constantly answering email) [p116] The opportunity cost of sitting in unproductive meetings or answering emails, dealing with politics and other BS has a huge opportunity cost. Which, smartly, Henry defines with this quote: “You can have anything you want, but you can’t have everything you want.” [p128]
“You are defined by what you say no to.” [p130]
Stimuli: Beauty in, beauty out. Austin Kleon says creative people are a mixtape of everything they consume. Be purposeful with what you put in. Henry suggests you have a defined “study plan” and figure out a way to keep what your study provokes—the ideas you come up with—organized. A notebook, note cards, whatever—but return to those notes from time to time. Study can be inspiration for ideas, but not if it’s quickly forgotten.
Hours: The tension between possibilities and pragmatics is the source of most of the burnout, frustration, and conflict within teams. “…it’s difficult to stay excited about the work when we feel that practical limitations will ultimately prevent us from really doing something we believe to be truly great.” [p23] Henry dedicates a chapter to the various types of tensions that can cause strife within a team, but they are all variations of possibilities vs pragmatics.
Assassins of Creativity (I love that name)
Dissonance/Unclear Objectives: Everyone not being on the same page with the “What” and, more importantly, the “Why?” The common purpose for existing as a team is…? If everyone can’t answer that, you got problems. If there are differing objectives, the boat will go in circles, maybe sink. The creative process, without proper management, will naturally trend toward entropy. In the generative portion of the creative process, this can be normal. But to be successful, the creative process also requires decisive pruning (convergent thinking). This is where a clear objective is critical—it is the guide to what is pruned away and what is left to flourish and given more resources. Lack of a clear goal invites chaos.
Unnecessary Complexity: Maybe Einstein said it best: “Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Included in this section is a point that I think Henry glosses over too quickly, which is that complexity can lead to obfuscation of how an individual contribute to the overall mission of the organization. Daniel Pink, in his TED Talk, lists this understanding as one of the three key motivators in the workplace.
My favorite illustration of this point is a story. In 1962, JFK was touring NASA’s space center. He saw a janitor mopping the hallway and broke away from his group and walked over to the janitor. As the story goes, he said, “Hi, I’m Jack Kennedy. What do you do here?” The janitor replied, “I’m helping to put a man on the moon, Mr. President.” Whether or not that story is true, it’s a great illustration of an ideal. Every member of the team must know how their efforts contribute to the project, and their goals must be in line with the goals of the project and, ideally, the organization. It’s not only good for cohesion, it’s good for motivation.
Fear: Fear can take any number of forms, all of which cause hesitation or, worse, paralysis in the creative process. The creative process, specifically the generative part of it, relies on momentum and energy. Fear drags its big heavy feet in the mud. Henry describes the forms that fear can take, and he makes the point that while fear of failure certainly exists, fear of success can be even more stifling, especially to an individual. Comfort is the enemy of success, “the single biggest factor that causes creative to shrink back from opportunity.” [riCardo Crespo, p56]
“Fear of success is often more destructive than fear of failure because it’s masked in the guise of wisdom.” [p59]
Comparison: This is, I think, a specific manifestation of fear rooted in our insecurity that our final product won’t be good enough. We compare it to our past work, the expectations placed on us by our co-workers, benevolent (or malevolent) overlords, or to our industry heroes. We don’t see our work measuring up, and it plants a deadly seed of doubt. This can be crippling, particularly early in the process, when a germ of an idea will never live up to a fully realized, polished and celebrated project. There may be a time to compare our work to others, but early in the creative process is not that time.
“It’s great to stand on the shoulders of giants, but don’t let the giants sit on your shoulders.”
-Stephen Nachmanovitch.
Said less poetically, “there is a form of oppression that emerges when we allow the work of our influences or competitors to drive our creating in an unhealthy way.” [p62]
Creative Rhythm: In order for us to create, we need to get into the zone, the right headspace, whatever you want to call it. We need to be able to focus. This is the most important element in our work—time to think—yet the modern work environment conspires to steal this time from us. Make sure you structure time into your day to actually think about things. Put it on the calendar if you need to. Good ideas rarely come about when ticking off menial tasks and answering email.
The Ping is technology and culture colliding. It is the constant sensation that an email has come through, a need to check in on social media, etc. It prevents us from truly being present in any task or situation. When I’m writing, I’ve anecdotally experienced that it takes me 15-20 minutes to get to anything good. So if I’m only spending 10 contiguous minutes on any task, I’m denying myself the ability to do my best work. Linda Scott calls the way we live and work “continuous partial attention.” Again, structure time into the day to do these things, or time when menial tasks and Facebook updates are off limits.
Assumptions: “We develop systems to replicate our past successes—or to prevent replicating our past failures—but all we really do is fossilize these processes and create rigidity in our life.” [p72] We make assumptions that we reinforce time and again, each time deeper ingraining those assumptions and making it more difficult to think in new ways. What are those assumptions? Stepping back and literally your assumptions can be one one way to break through creatively.
The Big Three. One suggestion Henry makes to help focus is to define “The Big Three.” Creative people tend to have many irons in the fire. It allows them to self-medicate with distraction. His suggestion is to pick three. Identify the three top priority projects (not tasks, projects) and focus on those. Dedicate time, bandwidth and any other resources to accomplishing those three projects. In addition to resource management, this sends a signal to your brain that these projects are the ones that are important. It relieves your mind of trying to solve 15 things at once. This is true in a collaborative environment as well.“One of the greatest gifts any creative leader can give to their team is to regularly refine focus by utilizing the practice of establishing the Big 3.” [p86]
Relationships. Henry dedicates a section to the importance of building and maintaining important, inspirational relationships. Meaningful connections, rather than maintaining relationships of necessity. Be structured with it—create a group that meets regularly to share ideas and provide motivation.
Unnecessary Creation. I engage in this quite a bit, personally. Take time to make things that don’t need to be made, that won’t be judged, that are important for no other reason than they are personally fulfilling. Creating work for ourselves, under no pressure from anyone else (or ourselves), with no expectations, is a great way to explore ideas and a pressure release valve—the urge to create has been temporarily relieved. And the feeling of “getting lost” in your work is, from my experience, therapeutic. It can be meditative, can lead to total immersion, what some refer to as “in the flow.”
“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”
– Jack London
“An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that exists only as an idea.”
–Edward de Bono
“Few things in life are less efficient than a group of people trying to write a sentence.”                                                                      -Scott Adams (Dilbert)
“Creativity is a natural extension of our energy.”
–Earl Nightingale
At the beginning of every season, Vince Lombardi would give a talk to his players. He would start that pep talk by holding the ball in the air and saying to the professional football players around him: “Gentlemen, this is a football!”

Our 2013 Book Lists

Thirteen years ago, Greg turned me onto an idea that has become one of my favorite annual traditions. He and I (and anyone else we can convince to do it) keep reviews of every book we read. Then at the end of the year, we release a list of everything we read that year.

Here are our lists from 2013.

Greg’s 2013 Book List

Jim’s 2013 Book List

What great books did you read in 2013? The Best of Makin’ Ads? Anyone? Anyone? [crickets]

The Best of Makin’ Ads

This is post #797 for But if you want just the very best of the last 796, we’ve compiled them into this book, now available at blurb.

It’s over 200 pages of our most popular posts. And it comes with a review of major portfolio schools – something we haven’t put on our blog. We’ve listed websites, tuition, tracks, locations, application deadlines, and more for schools like 72U, the VCU Brandcenter and everything in between to help portfolio school hopefuls figure out which school’s best for them.

Preview and order your copy at The Best of Makin’ Ads here.

(High fives to our pal B.Thibbs who designed the cover.)

Truth In Advertising

Truth In Advertising is a new book by John Kenney. I haven’t read it, but here’s a promo for it.

I thought this was worth sharing for a few reasons:

  • Focus groups can be like this. Especially the lady with all the issues, and the guy who changes his mind.
  • The piece was funny, but I thought it was very over-acted. Subtlety always works best. If you want someone to act confused, don’t have them scratch their head; have them bite their tongue in a way you barely notice. I promise – you’ll notice.
  • I find it interesting when books use social media as marketing. It’s probably not a coincidence that authors with backgrounds in advertising do this best.

Source Materials for my Storytelling Class

This past quarter, I taught a storytelling class at Miami Ad School with some really talented, enthusiastic first-quarter writers. Here’s a list of some of the source materials I used as examples and sometimes just stole from to make myself sound like I knew what I was talking about:

On Teaching and Writing Fiction by Wallace Stegner

On Writing by Stephen King

 The Comic Toolbox by John Vorhaus

Improv Wisdom by Patricia Madson

The Handbook of Short Story Writing, Volumes I and II, by Writer’s Digest

Building Believable Characters by Marc McCutcheon

The Moth Stories
This video from J.J. Abrams.

Various lists, such as this one by Elmore Leonard and this one by John Steinbeck

Writing samples from writers much better than myself, including Edward Abbey, James Agee, Sherwood Anderson, Donald Antrim, Roberto Bolaño, Richard Brautigan, Jon Clinch, Mark Costello, Patrick deWitt, A.M. Homes, Dan Kennedy, Chip Kidd, J Robert Lennon, Cormac McCarthy, David Mitchell, Tim O’Brien, Helen Oyeyemi, J.D. Salinger, Jim Shepard, Hunter S. Thompson and David Foster Wallace.

Luke Sullivan: One of the best pieces of creative advice I was ever given.

Most of you probably already subscribe to Luke’s blog. But for those who haven’t discovered it yet, here’s a great piece:

One of the best pieces of creative advice I was ever given.

And yes, Anne Lamontt’s Bird by Bird is a fantastic creative help. Almost as much as Luke’s book.