John Stewart on It Getting Easier

This is from “What Makes People Laugh,” an interview by Carl Arnheiter with Jon Stewart. It appears in the book Rejected: Tales of the Failed, Dumped and Canceled, by Jon Friedman.

What’s your take on building a joke, how does it start for you?

Jon Stewart: It’s 99% perspiration and 1% love and all that…I think it’s just one of those things you learn from doing it, and you know, the funny thing is even though I know how to do it in that yeoman sort of way, there is no “oh now I got it and so it now pours out.” But it still takes as much effort and all that, I can do it a little quicker than I used to be able to, but the great stuff still comes in the same percentage that it ever came.


When good enough is not good at all

Last week I checked into a hotel and found this assortment of shampoos, conditioners and shower gels waiting for me in the bathroom:

They were products from a company called Lather. And while I rather enjoyed the rosemary and mint scent of their shampoo, I was completely underwhelmed by their branding.
They’re colored squares. Each unique product gets its own color. That’s it. That’s their packaging.
You can say I’m being harsh picking on a small shower gel company. That I shouldn’t be thinking about brands and advertising while I’m on vacation. But I think Lather’s packaging is a great example of a pseudoidea: something that looks like an idea, and feels like an idea, but is really just a hollow shell masquerading as an idea.
And we’re all subject to this. We come up with a simple idea – usually the first idea – see how easily it works and fall in love with it. What’s not to love about brightly colored squares? And that simplicity, the ease with which we solved the problem, the fact that we no longer have pressure to deliver anything gives us permission to stop pushing. To stop peeling back layers. To stop looking at the problem from as many possible angles.
Good enough will get you a portfolio, but not necessarily a killer job.
Good enough will get you a salary, but it won’t make you indispensable.
Good enough will get your work produced, but not celebrated.
Good enough will relieve some of the pressure, but it’s not insurance against regret.

Are you as honest as Ben Folds?

I was just listening to an interview with Ben Folds on Sound of Young America.

One of the things that struck me was how he would use a tape recorder as a kid. He would record himself playing his music so he could go back and listen to it with fresh ears. If he thought he really had something, he’d take the tape to JC Penny’s, put it in a stereo, push play, walk around the store a bit and kind of sneak up on his own music as if he’d never heard it before. If he didn’t like it, he’d change it, or scrap it altogether.
I guess the alternate universe story would be Ben writing some songs he was satisfied with, stopping when they were “good enough,” performing for a few people who thought they were okay, never signing a record deal and complaining about the fact that his work was just never really understood or that he never had a big break.
If we really want to do great, fantastic, killer work, it’s not really about having a big break or finding an audience who gets us. We’ve got to be as honest with our ideas as Ben is with his. And we’ve got to be willing work to make the okay ideas much, much better.

Creative directors vs. creative engines

Don’t confuse being the creative director of an agency with being the creative engine of an agency. Sometimes, they’re one and the same. But not always.

I’ve worked at agencies where the creative director, however well-respected, was not the creative engine. Those who came up with the best work, the killer lines and fresh layouts were not always the ECD, the CCO, or even the CD. They were the people who loved their jobs and worked like crazy to make sure their ideas were as good as they could be. They never settled.

It may take you a few years to be a creative director. But you can be an agency’s creative engine whenever you decide to be.

Versions in the teens

Over the course of a project, I keep all of my revisions on my computer. Whether it’s a TV or radio script, a list of headlines or body copy, I begin with a file like “TVscripts01.doc” which is usually followed by “TVscripts02.doc” after an internal review and “TVscripts03.doc” after that.

My point in telling you this isn’t to encourage you keep your old drafts (I rarely revisit my own). It’s to say that by the time a project is approved and on its way to production, it’s usually labeled “TVscripts17.doc” or “Headlines15.doc.”

That’s not an exaggeration. It’s just another reason to not fall desperately in love with the first ideas you have. There will always be something better.

Agency Tenacity

This is an ad some friends of mine made at Y&R Chicago:

Here’s the story of the ad as I remember it:

  • The team working on Craftsman came up with this idea independent of a brief.
  • It was presented to the client who loved it. But they had too many looming deadlines and too many fires to put out for this to be a priority, no matter how cool. It was “put on the backburner” (i.e., ignored).
  • In the meantime, the team created two other posters (muscles and major organs).
  • The agency continued to remind the client that they should run this poster, to which the client kept saying, “Yes, yes. We love it. We’ll get around to it.”
  • Finally, the creative directors said, “The client liking the work isn’t enough. We’ve got to make it irresistible.”
  • The agency printed these as huge posters (something like 3′ x 8′) and with October a couple months away, the brand manager suggested repositioning them as a Halloween promotion.
  • They were presented to the clients again. This time, they bought them. In fact, they liked them so much, they approved production of a TV spot and hundreds of skeleton/tool t-shirts that were so popular the client charged their own employees for them and they still sold out. (In my opinion, the TV and t-shirts aren’t as cool as the original print. But they were still great opportunities, and the agency got paid to produce them.)

What was the difference? It might have been timing. It might have been the moods of the client. But there are three things the agency did right that they didn’t have to do:

  1. They were tenacious. They recognized great work and pursued it. Not every agency and not every creative director will do this. You need to gravitate towards the ones that do.
  2. They invested in making the next presentation irresistible. They printed these out as huge posters, not unmounted 11x17s, or even mounted poster-sized posters. They showed the client exactly what they would look like, and didn’t leave it up to their imaginations.
  3. They made it relevant to the client. These weren’t concepted as Halloween posters. In fact, that almost makes it cheesy. But it was enough to get the work produced. And that’s what matters.
There’s an alternate ending to this story:
  • The Craftsman team came up with this idea.
  • The client loved it, but sat on it since it wasn’t a priority.
  • It never got produced and exists only as spec work in the AD’s and CW’s book.
As Sally Hogshead says, “Brilliant ideas are fragile. They won’t get produced unless everyone in the agency is dedicated to helping them through.”

* * * * * * *

New addition: In early 2010, Sears began offering tool chests and storage lockers with the Craftsman image. So put down product design on the list of media affected by this off-the-brief and never-asked-for idea.

Credits for the original print campaign:

CW: Tohru Oyasu, AD: Rainer Schmidt, CDs: Dave Loew and Jon Wyville, ECD: Mark Figliulo

Tony Granger’s ANDY Diary

Creativity has asked Tony Granger to blog about his experience judging the ANDYs. In his first installment, he wrote:

I was struck by how many agencies waste their time and money in entering work that is so bad that we often would find ourselves scratching our heads wondering if we had missed something. (More often than not, sadly, we hadn’t.)

I think it’s hard to gauge how important creative integrity is when you’re a student. As a student I was surrounded by people who wanted to do great work, so I never questioned it. And as a junior I was so full of hope and enthusiasm, I’d always give my work the benefit of the doubt when it came to awards-worthiness.

But Tony’s comment shows that even when you have to put up $250 for a single piece or $500 for a campaign, some people are still overly optimistic or blind to what great work really is.

The only way you’re going to understand great work is to get very familiar with the annuals. And the only way you’re going to beat what’s in the annuals is thinking and working.

Creative Love Handles

Welcome to post-holiday January. This is a big month for buying gym memberships, ordering salads, and signing up for Weight Watchers. It’s okay if you let yourself go physically. No one here is judging.
But what shape are you in creatively? Did you take a break from your book during the holiday, too? Maybe you needed the break. That’s fine. But don’t wait around hoping to ease back into shape.
Creative love handles are what happen when you start to coast. When you stop challenging yourself. When you keep hoping for a great creative assignment to come your way instead of creating opportunities for yourself.
You get rid of creative love handles the same way you get rid of the physical ones: discipline and hard work.
Don’t say you’re going to do something great with the next assignment. Sit down with a pad of paper and a pen and go to work.