For Those Who Say "It Can’t Be Done"

Over the course of your career, you’ll have several people tell you something can’t be done. It might be an account exec. Or the client. Or your partner. Or your boss.

If you’re told, “It can’t be done for this much money, but…” That’s fine.

If you’re told, “It can’t be done by the deadline, but…” That’s okay, too. These people are offering solutions.

But if someone’s first reaction is simply, “It can’t be done,” there are three possibilities;

1. That person misunderstands something and I need to explain things better.
2. That person is just lazy.
3. That person should be fired, and find work outside of advertising.

Advertising is no place for people who don’t think something can be done. That’s what creativity is all about.

Mike Cooley on the Creative Team


This quote is from Mike Cooley, guitarist in one of my favorite bands, Drive-By Truckers. It originally appeared in an interview with the Toronto Sun here.

How does the band function? As a democracy or with you and Patterson calling the shots?

There’s not a lot of effort to it. We’re all on the same page naturally. Most everybody’s genuinely happy with what we’re doing. And we’re all mature enough to just roll with it and not inject our egos into the decision-making process unless it really does matter. I’ve found the quickest way to screw something up is to be too hands-on. There are people in this business who are complete control freaks, who can’t stand for anything to go on without their presence and seal of approval. But I’ve never seen any evidence that being that way produces better results. Ever. In anything.

A Cautionary Tale

I once knew a creative team where the CW was a little more adored and befriended by agency leadership than the AD. Not sure why. Just the way it was. (It wasn’t me, by the way.)


At one point, the AD was frustrated enough with the situation to talk to our ECD about it. Hoping to convey her neglected value, she even said, “That [redacted] campaign we just did? [It had just appeared in Archive.] That was all my idea! I did the whole thing – he just changed one word in the tag!”


The reason I know she said that was because within a week, almost everyone in the creative department knew she had said it. That she would claim sole authorship on some work, however accurate, seemed, as one coworker put it, “so unprofessional.”


A couple morals to this story:


1. I have never heard a story about a creative who complained about anything to an ECD to their benefit. Complaining just doesn’t get you anywhere. Not even when it’s about your clients.


2. You can create an entire campaign on your own. But if you’re part of a team, you did the work as a team. A little humility is a good thing. (And if your partner’s not doing his or her share, it will show. You don’t have to put up any red flags. Your CDs are probably more aware than you know.)

Part of being a good creative is being a great partner

Once, another copywriter asked me how I was getting along with my art director. I told him we worked well together. Sometimes we got in some arguments about the work, but we were always respectful of each other’s opinions, and were quick to apologize to each other if the debate got too heated.


I took some pride in being able to argue with my art director. I felt it showed we both cared about the work. And to some degree, there might be some truth in that. But his reply made me see things differently. He simply said, “I don’t want to have to fight with my art director.”


I’ve since found, that if I’m arguing with my partner, it’s either because one of us is being stubborn (which can be remedied). Or because we have drastically different tastes (and if you don’t respect their taste, you should consider a change).

The Work Makes the King


Hugh Mcleod drew this. It appears in Seth Godin’s book The Dip. And it’s very true.

Except in advertising. At least the creative side. At least in agencies that care more about producing great work than about politics.

Creative advertising really is a meritocracy. If you have the best ideas, you get recognized. And the more you’re recognized, the more control you have over where you work, with whom, and on what accounts. That’s not to say you get a blank check, and can call your clients idiots. But being in demand gives you a little more control over your destiny.
So if you find yourself in this king/pawn situation, it’s probably because someone isn’t focused on the work.

Perfect Copy vs. Perfect Art Direction

When I was a student, they copywriters had an entire semester dedicated to body copy. With good reason. It’s a dying art. But one copywriters should dedicate time to learn.

I remember a friend of mine (it was the blog’s co-author, as a matter of fact) had written a very nice piece of body copy. It flowed. It had rhythm. There was a cadence to it. (Always read your copy aloud after you’ve written it.) He really crafted it.

Then he gave it to his art director. It wasn’t fitting her layout, so without him knowing she contracted all the should nots to shouldn’ts, and eliminated some of the words that seemed repetitive. Short conversational lines seemed superfluous and were eliminated.

So who was right? The copywriter who wanted the copy to be as good as possible? Or the art director who wanted to layout to be as good as possible?

Talking About Work

When I started out as a writer, I was a very headline driven writer. My attitude was “Here’s my headline. Art Director, make it look cool.”

Similarly, I know many student art directors who approached assignments by thinking about layouts way before they had a concept.
Granted, both approaches may lead you into some interesting areas and shouldn’t be discounted. Just make sure they’re not standard operating procedure.
Personally, my best ideas come when my partner and I separate ourselves from the rest of the agency (either in a coffee shop or a closed conference room), and talk. And keep talking. As soon as two minutes have passed without either of us saying a word, we’ve stopped working as a team. You’ve got to keep talking.
Yeah, you’ll stray off into travel stories and “Did you see what Chiat/Day just did?” tangents, which is totally fine. (I used to swap recipes with my last partner.) Just make sure you course correct frequently and get back to talking about the brief.
If you’re talking, you’re thinking. If you’re thinking, the ideas will come.