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.

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.

How to Read an Awards Annual

You’ve probably already gone through the CA Advertising Annual and preordered your copy of the One Show. (If not, why haven’t you?)

It’s easy enough to go through these books page by page, thinking “Cool…Cool…How’d that get in?…Cool…I had that idea…”

But if you’re serious about understanding what makes an award-winning ad, you can’t just flip through the annuals. You have to study them. Yes, study.

One of the best techniques I know came from my old copywriting professor, Coz Cotzias. Here’s what you do…

  1. Sit down with an annual and a pack of Post-It notes.
  2. Go through the book flagging every ad you totally dig as a creative.
  3. Put the book down. Go see a movie. Read a book. Whatever. Just step away.
  4. Come back to the book, but this time, viewing only the executions you tagged as a creative, look at them as a consumer. Tag the ones you dig as someone who might actually buy whatever it is that’s being advertised.

These are the ads you want to aspire to. Why? Because they’re not just clever. They’re smart. They’re effective. They’re the ones that are rooted in a strategy. The ones that are really solving the client’s problem creatively.

For extra credit, go through all of these ads and see if you can figure out what the strategy was and who specifically they were trying to talk to. This isn’t to turn you into planners. It’s to make you better creatives.

I’ll leave you with this quote from Gary Goldsmith…

We all pay less attention to the process than we should. If doctors and scientists operated in the same manner that we do, it’d be a scary world. What they do is creative, too, in its own way. They’ve devoted a lot of thought to the way in which they arrive at a diagnosis, and the way in which they treat it. But with us, it’s almost like we have this thing in our head, we don’t need to do that, we should just sit down and come up with ideas.

What To Do When You Hit A Wall

Every so often you’re going to hit the wall. No ideas. No hope. No motivation.

There are tons of reasons this happens.

Maybe you’ve worked for days with nothing to show for it…
Or you’ve been incredibly productive, but none of your ideas were accepted internally…
Or you’ve worked for weeks, but none of your ideas were accepted by the client…
Or you don’t believe the brief…
Or you don’t believe in the product…
Or you’re distracted by something else going on in your life.

Whatever the reason, when you hit the wall, you really have two options:

  1. Stop working.
  2. Keep working.


It’s as simple as that. And honestly, either one may be right.

If you’re not cracking it, you’re not cracking it. And sometimes it’s best to step back and let your subconscious hammer things out. Go on a walk. See a movie. Read a book. Just step away from the problem. This has worked for me a number of times.

On the other hand, Phil Dusenberry used to say that when it’s 10:00 PM, and you haven’t had any ideas all day, and you feel like you may as well go home, get some rest and start fresh tomorrow, that’s when you should keep working for just a half hour more. Because you never know. This has also worked for me a number of times.

Showing Your Work Around

“I don’t know what’s good anymore.”

We’ve all had this experience. We work on something so much, for so long, that we completely lose perspective. We’re too close to it. We can’t tell if something’s clear, funny, stupid, or so stupid it’s funny. At times like this, it’s good to have a few go-to people.

“Hey, what do you think of this?”

You need someone who’s smart, has good taste, and will be brutally honest with you. Sometimes it’s good to have a few of those people.

“One person I showed thought that the cat kind of reminded her of aliens, because this one time she had a dream about alien cats.”

If you focus-group an ad around long enough, you will get some pretty strange feedback. We all know the chronic focus-groupers. Sometimes they’re legitimately confused, but often they’re just fishing for compliments, or searching for the one person who will tell them that their crap ad is brilliant. Don’t be that person.

Have your few trusted brains. Use them as necessary. If they all agree that the ad’s not working, take that to heart. But don’t take every piece of thinking that you ever poop out and show it around to everyone. It’s annoying and, because everyone will have a different take on it, it will just confuse you.

As much as learning how to come up with a good idea, you need to learn to evaluate a good idea. Trust your gut. And when your gut is full, trust the guts of a few smart people around you. But don’t trust the guts of everyone in the school, or everyone in the agency. That just leads to a big, gooey, gross, gutty mess.