A Little Post-Holiday Inspiration

Amy Markley is a copywriter at Tom, Dick & Harry. She was also one of my first students at the Chicago Portfolio School.

Here’s what I remember about Amy as a student:

  • She worked hard.
  • She asked good questions.
  • She listened.
  • She worked hard some more.

That’s about the closest any of us will ever get to a road map for a successful career.

Amy was in your shoes not too long ago - coming back to school after the holidays, trying to figure out how she was ever going to put her book together, wondering if she'd get a job after graduation.

Now, some ads Amy did with her art director, Candy Freund, are being featured in an upcoming issue of Archive.

I don’t remember all of my former students. But I do remember the hardest working ones. It’s hard not to. They’re the ones doing the best work.

Ender’s Isolation

Wow. Some really good comments on the last article, both posted and emailed to me. Burr points out that “working with others is important.” Labrot points out that isolation is more likely to lead to insanity. Stackingchairs and Miss Clairol point out the duality of the question. Those and more offered some great insights.

Here’s my argument for why isolation is essential for creativity:

In his book The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki talks about the dangers of “groupthink.” That’s what happens when people become too collaborative and reliant on the status quo.

He points out the reason the Bay of Pigs was such a disaster was because the people involved in planning the operation were the same people who were asked to judge whether or not it would work. No differing points of opinion were welcomed. No outside judgments weighed in. Without anyone to test the integrity of the conclusion, disaster was inevitable.

In another example of groupthink, Surowiecki points to an economist at Berekley who has meticulously analyzed NFL games and concluded that coaches go for field goals way too often. He’s statistically proven that teams would benefit from playing on 4th down situations from almost every yard line on the field. But conventional wisdom says to take points when they’re available. (The one exception to this is the currently 14-0 New England Patriots.)

Finally, Surowiecki points out a phenomenon discovered in the Guyana jungle: swarms army ants moving in a huge circle, about 1200 in circumference. This happens when an ant gets lost. When that happens, it follows a simple, genetic rule: follow the ant in front of you.

What does any of this have to do with advertising?

I think the award shows we all aspire to be in are a form of groupthink.

Don’t get me wrong. I think we should all study the annuals. I think as students, you should devour them, because they’re the best way for you to really understand what makes great advertising.

But we need to be careful not to turn into Guyanan ants marching only after what’s been done before us.

In Ender’s Game, isolation was important to Ender’s creativity in strategy because he was forced to think about and question the tactics others were using. He couldn’t rely on the military dogma and inherited procedures that were all around him, because he was constantly being shifted away from them. He stepped back and thought for himself.

Isolation doesn’t mean you have all the answers on your own. It doesn't mean working without a partner, ignoring your creative director, or coming up with your ideas in solitude. But it does mean that when a person (or team) disregards convention, and does not subject themselves to groupthink, they'll usually come up with breakthrough ideas.

(For my current favorite example of this, click here.)

Ender's Game

I just finished Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. It's a science fiction classic I've been meaning to get to for years, and I'm glad I finally did. Before you expect me to start speaking Klingon or talking about midicholorian counts, let me say I don't read a lot of sci-fi. I like it as a genre. I just usually wait for the movies to be made.

Like all really good sci-fi, Ender's Game deals more with characters and situations than lasers and force fields (although that stuff's pretty cool, too.) In fact, I was surprised to learn the Marine Corps University at Quantico has used Ender's Game as a textbook for leadership psychology.

Hang on, this all relates to advertising.

Without spoiling anything for those of you who might want to pick it up, Ender's Game is about a group of children who are incredibly brilliant tacticians, who are being trained to fight an alien race that's twice invaded Earth. Ender is a 6-year-old who's the most promising of them all, and is therefore specifically groomed to be a battle commander. The adults who are pulling the strings, rigging everything to mold him into the commander they want him to be keep isolating him. Not putting him in solitary confinement. They just transfer him from battle group to battle group to make sure he doesn't get too close to any of his classmates. The reason:

"Isolation is essential to creativity and innovation."

Do you think that's true? Why or why not? I've got my own take on it, but I'd love to hear your first thoughts. (Preferably not in Klingon.)

Regional Differences

A couple of you have asked if there’s a regional difference between agencies:

Stackingchairs asks “What is the difference between the industry in Chicago in contrast to that of NYC, or other towns? How important is location?”

And David asks if one type of brand would work best based on where you want to send your book:

“For instance, do you think that New York (and/or Chicago) is more conservative and Creative Directors (and recruiters) would want brands in students book that are a little on the conservative side (as opposed to SF or LA)? Should I be concerned about what type of brand I have in my book?”

Both very good questions. Here’s my take:

You really can’t generalize. New York has Grey. It also has Toy. LA has Ogilvy. It also has davidandgoliath and G&M Plumbing. In almost every market, you’ll find every kind of agency – conservative, edgy, awards-driven, results-driven, corporate, boutique, etc., etc., And they’re spread out all over this country, this continent, and this planet.

The best thing you can do is create the best book you can. Someone out there will gravitate to it. You can’t anticipate what kind of book an agency is looking for. I’ve seen students with what I thought were pretty underwhelming books land jobs and places like Goodby and Fallon. I’ve seen other professionals who’ve won One Show pencils and Cannes Lions be turned down by places like Butler Shine and Crispin.

When people say “it’s all about the work,” they’re not just saying “creativity is more important than politicking.” They’re also saying, “the work is the only thing you have control over. Push yourself. Make it as good as you can. Be happy with it. And you have a better chance of a like-minded creative director picking it up.”

To Stackingchairs’ question, I think location is really only important in terms of personal preference. You can get a great job with a lot of opportunities pretty much anywhere. If you know what you’re looking for. (See the post on first job criteria for more on that.) Granted, it’s easier to jump from agency to agency in New York than it is in Austin. But that’s a decision you’ve got to make yourself.

Portfolio School Lies to You

Here is the greatest lie you will be told in portfolio school:

If you don’t get a job at one of 4 or 5 elite agencies, you have failed.

Didn’t get an interview at Wieden? You suck, obviously. Goodby sent your book back? F minus for you. You spent all that money, and all those long nights working on a book. And what did you get in return? A subpar career.

And you kind of believe it, don’t you?

It’s hard not to. Certain shops are in the books more often than others. They get more press. More of their spots run during primetime. So if you start to believe the lie, it’s understandable. But that doesn’t make it any less of a lie.

The agencies change from year to year. When I graduated, Crispin wasn’t the shop everyone prayed would hire them. Cliff Freeman was. Twenty years ago, it was probably Ammirati & Puris.

But this lie ignores two truths:

  1. What creative director you work for usually matters more than what agency you work for. (Personally, I’d rather work under Ty Montague at J. Walter Thompson, than do product brochures at Goodby.)

  2. There are great, creatively driven, career-building shops everywhere. Check out Push in Orlando. Firehouse in Dallas. Wexley School for Girls in Seattle. Zig in Chicago. Richter7 in Salt Lake City. Walrus and Toy in New York. The most recent issue of How has a great write-up on Shine in Madison, Wisconsin. If I were looking for a job, it’s one agency I’d definitely check out. And they're not all boutiques. Publicis in Seattle, Hill Holliday in Boston, and Y&R Chicago all do great work. (That last one may seem like a brazen plug, but check out the work.)

What “unknowns” have you guys been digging?