We do not create art. We create belief.

Throughout history, civilization relied on the gods, saints and icons to assign meaning to the random events of our world. They gave reason to natural phenomena beyond our understanding.

In their truest sense, brands are shorthand for what we believe. Are you a Wal-Mart person, or a Target person? Are you an Apple person, or Samsung? Pepsi? Or Coke?


Today, brands help give us meaning to the overcrowded store shelves, levels of technology, information and social media content.

In the book Legendary Brands, Laurence Vincent claims that “Brand mythology acts upon the cognitive centers of the brain in much the same way that religion and other deeply held beliefs do. Legendary Brands, like most religions, gain their strength through narrative.”

Copywriting is the key to this narrative — and a lost art. Contrary to most copywriting, there is more to our craft than stringing together mandatories. But that’s often what we default to. It seems the number of people who actually understand brand voice is dwindling.

It seems the number of people who actually understand brand voice is dwindling.

We can decide if our agency is a temple for brands, or just a clearinghouse for product attributes. Bad work happens when the lack of belief and lack of simplicity create a vacuum, filled with every artistic whim or client mandate that happens to be nearby.

So stop creating art. Start creating belief.

Feed the walls.

War roomI like to put all my ideas on the wall, where I can gauge them more objectively. When we keep our ideas in our lap, on our note pad or on our computer, we protect them too much. We grade them on a curve and keep them from getting the fresh air of objectivity.

Putting ideas up encourages us to come up with more—to fill up the wall. It nags us to keep thinking when we would’ve given up otherwise.

Letting others in the office see the work invites the possibility of “yikes, that’s stupid” but it also invites “wow that’s cool, I wish I did that.” (Don’t mistake this for “showing off” your ideas prematurely. As Ernest Hemingway said, “when you talk too much about it, you lose it.” )

The wall invites the chance that someone outside your group (or your comfort zone) may make a connection with your idea you hadn’t thought of.

It nags us to keep thinking when we would’ve given up otherwise.

Work on the wall also strengthens the culture of the agency, inviting people in other departments or in support positions to take part in the process, and pride in it as well.

A lot of agencies and studios do this, but many don’t. My favorite places are full of rough ideas, sketches, tissues and works in progress. They remind me that the glorious, pristine final creative product is not possible without the messy, uncertain work of trying things and risking defeat.

Embrace the mess, the uncertainty and the risk. Build the wall.


If your idea is not simple, you don’t have one.

EggSo says my friend Michael Iva.

Simplicity rules. Creativity is very often the art of subtraction. Or, as Blaise Pascal put it once, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

It takes a lot of effort to make something look effortless. Everyone loves Apple, but I wonder if any of us would have the nerve to be that simple, that elegant.

Along with simplicity, great communication is pure candor. All humor or drama is honesty put in a surprising way. Honesty is disarming. It cuts through society’s veneer to reveal the soul within.

Few organizations or brands — or creatives for that matter — have the nerve to be truly honest. The marketplace tends to reward those who are.

Only 3% of creative directors are women. Here’s why.

Peggy Olson

 Women influence 80% of consumer spending. Yet, women make up only 3% of advertising creative directors. Through any lens, it’s a ridiculous representation, but there are very real reasons for this surreal imbalance. What are they?

1. Comfort

We know what advertising creatives look like: white guys with goatees and messenger bags. (There have been more dreads and tattoos of late, but you get the idea.)

“There’s no conspiracy…it’s just a bunch of dudes being comfortable with the familiar.”

There are more women in creative departments than ever, but due to lingering stereotypes, we’re still not totally comfortable with the idea of women creatively running an account, creative group or creative department. (Of course “we” includes the women who themselves are hesitant to pursue leadership roles.)

As Shanteka Sigers, my agency’s Executive Creative Director says, “There’s no conspiracy…it’s just a bunch of dudes being comfortable with the familiar.”

And not only does Sanders\Wingo have a female ECD; a woman has been an owner/partner in the company since 1983. (First, Beth Galvin, a creative director, then Michelle Cromer an account director, and for the past decade or so, my fellow managing partner Leslie Wingo.)

An ad agency culture that doesn’t blatantly discriminate against women isn’t the same as an environment that actively encourages them. Putting women in charge of agencies helps send a message that women can be in charge of creative.

2. Pregnancy

This goes beyond advertising, but a woman leaving to have a baby puts a wrench into a process driven by timelines and deadlines. But the prevailing assumption, even in the best companies, is that it’s her problem.

We know from insurance coverage that pregnancy is considered a disability. A disability? Really? I don’t recall anyone leaving the hospital with a cooing infant kidney stone, or having a baby shower for his or her coronary bypass.

We tend to treat women like they’re going off to spawn a gargoyle or some other species, rather than a human being just like us. A more civil society would behave a little more holistically, wouldn’t they?

An ad agency culture that doesn’t blatantly discriminate against women isn’t the same as an environment that actively encourages them.

For all our progressive values, the advertising industry can do better.

3. Work/Life Balance

Much of the reason for few women leaders, in or out of advertising, is that it’s too much pressure and responsibility. We know from the many conversations — op-eds, Sheryl Sandberg’s book — that balancing a family with an intense career is not for everyone. Most women feel they are bungling one or both of them.

Granted, women have strong innate nurturing tendencies and ties to home; men are more able to “compartmentalize” their career life, home life, etc. But women are held to dramatically different standards and expectations than men in terms of parenting — which compounds their conflict, second-guessing and self-doubt.

For many women creative directors, married or single, with kids or without, it’s just not acceptable to be on call 18 hours a day, or in a different city every week. Even when her family tries to be supportive, it’s hard. Husbands (like me) say we’ll do the laundry, the dishes and our share of childcare, but in the end, most of it is still on Mom’s shoulders.

You can’t blame her for not wanting that kind of life.

Then there’s Demian Fore, one of my former colleagues, who left a successful advertising career to be a stay-at-home dad. His wife Elizabeth is the breadwinner. Demian doesn’t work. He’s doesn’t freelance. He raises and takes care of their kids, period. It’s the best decision he has ever made.

Few men have the courage, maturity or healthy enough ego to do this. I don’t.

4. Sexism

Whether we admit it or not, we don’t trust women in leadership positions. Especially those as complicated as that of an advertising creative director. There is a century’s worth of male creative director stereotype — aptly depicted in Don Draper — that to this day, maintains a powerful aura.

Likewise at the time, most people on the client side were men, so agencies needed male CD’s to keep the boys club secure and their credibility high. Of course that’s changing. While female CMO’s are still a minority, half of the most influential marketing leaders are women.

In any case, there’s an underlying belief that women are too fragile to handle it. This same canon dictated that women rode sidesaddle, were forbidden from competing in marathons, were summarily unqualified for military combat, and so on.

In truth, there are people better suited to lead, to make presentations and to run a creative department full time. There are people better suited for working behind the scenes or focusing on their craft full time.

Some of those people are men; some of them are women. Personality, not gender.

5. Creative Bias

From the chauvinistic print ads of the 40’s and 50’s to the “Bud Light” style slapstick of the 90’s, “Guy humor” has dominated the advertising industry for decades.

Much of this advertising, biased or not, was and is, pretty good. A lot of people liked it. Women laughed because that was all they had to watch. (It was either that or the condescending babies-and-puppies stuff on daytime TV.)

For all our bluster, the advertising industry follows cultural progress rather than leading it.

There’s a misconception that women creative can’t do humor in advertising, which just isn’t true. And that they don’t want humorous advertising targeted to them, which isn’t true either.

For all our bluster, the advertising industry follows cultural progress rather than leading it. Not only do women control the lion’s share of consumer spending, but also they report vast dissatisfaction with the ways they are marketed to. Clearly the 97% male disproportion in creative directorships comes at a cost.

We can do better.

* * *

In the end, confronting our own creative comfort zone is its own reward. David Kennedy and Dan Wieden exemplify this in how they built their agency and the resulting creative work. (And by the way, W+K’s Portland ECD and global ECD are both women.)

The three highest-ranking creative directors in my agency — group CD Tynesha Williams, group CD Rhonda Dore and ECD Shan Sigers — are women. This is due 100% to their own talent and leadership. But I still take pride in it.

In the end, confronting our own creative comfort zone is its own reward.

the 3% Conference stages events throughout the country, making the case for women CD and the benefits that await the agencies that grow them in their ranks.

The 3% Conference stages events throughout the country building the business case for more women CDs — and the benefits that await agencies that grow them in their ranks.

The idea of more women as creative directors isn’t about equality or political correctness. It’s about smarter business — and more effective, intelligent advertising.

That’s why, in a week, I’ll be on Austin’s 3% Conference Panel, along with Carlotta Stankiewicz, Shanteka Sigers and Stefani Zellmer. We’ll be addressing and discussing these issues.

Perhaps women will never make up half of all advertising creative directors. Perhaps not 40% or even 25%. But we can do a whole lot better than 3%. At a time when a woman leads the US Secret Service, surely more women can lead the advertising industry.

Today, women have an overdue and increasingly greater voice in the marketplace. The question is, can the advertising industry keep pace with reality?

#3. Plan to fail.

At the 4A’s Transformation Conference, Jeff King gave a great talk about Barkley parting ways with Sonic, it’s signature client. The agency produced the very successful “Two Guys” campaign — and was stunned when the business went into review. Barkley is not unique in this — many creative companies have one or two clients that make up a lion’s share of their billings.

Two_guys_sonicYou don’t need to be Warren Buffett to see how vulnerable this position is. And like General Motors in the early 2000’s pumping out hundreds of thousands of SUV’s, we’re too busy maintaining and protecting our current business model to create contingencies. (See “investing” in the last post.)

King talked candidly about how hard Barkley was hit and what they did before and during the process of agency redevelopment.

True growth is often painful. King shared in detail how the agency navigated the difficult process of staff “triage” — layoffs, remaining talent and key new hires. Sonic had represented over 60% of Barkley’s revenue. Now, no one client makes up more than 7%.

Postscript: One year after Sonic awarded the business to Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, the client decided the new campaign wasn’t working — and directed GS&P to go back to the original “Two Guys” campaign.

#2. Invest in invention.

At Transformation, Lori Senecal and Ed Brojerdi of kbs+ pointed out the overuse of the term innovation.

They prefer to invent.

Innovation implies theory, whereas invention implies action. kbs+ invests in projects and experimental teams, in order to — as mentioned in the previous post — just try stuff.

While many agencies and studios make their bread and butter on a lot of traditional media, the smart ones also invest in experiential and integrated ideas on their own — sometimes with internal labs, sometimes with offhand ideas they produce and use to surprise their clients. They learn from failed ventures, and aggressively promote their successful ones.

Do the rest of us do this enough? Do we truly invest?

New hardware and software for PUMA.

How do you advertise a car that doesn’t exist yet?

After the client killed it, they brought it to life.

After the client killed it, they brought it to life.

#1. Try something. Anything.

backgammon-precision-dice-dark-red_primaryFrom the initial days of the dot-com era to social media, mobile apps, convergence, integration and so on, ad agencies and media companies have been trying to “crack the code.” As if there was a system or formula to connect brands with customers in the digital age.

Transformation was another affirmation that all brands, all audiences, all strategies and tactics are unique unto themselves. Doing your homework and knowing your audience are always critical, but leaning too hard on data is not the path to an idea.

Sure, there are some hard-earned rules of thumb, case studies and metrics, but there’s no formula. There is creativity and inventiveness. There is trial and error. There is trying stuff and sticking with what works.

From Subservient Chicken to Oreo’s “Dunk With The Lights Out,” one thing comes through: Great brands and their creative partners utilize a lot of gut instinct and chance.

As Oreo’s Lisa Mann put it, “You can use analytics to guide you but you have to trust your gut.” 

Three Takeaways: Transformation 2013


Last week the 4A’s hosted their annual Transformation Conference. It was a well-produced affair at the Hyatt Regency in New Orleans. Mayor Mitch Landrieu gave a keynote and musical entertainment included the legendary Irma Thomas.

The conference started with an agency forum on Sunday, limited to 4A’s members, which thankfully includes my agency. While the speakers and panels Monday through Wednesday were more general, Sunday contained more hard-hitting case studies for agencies leaders.

The morning sessions Sunday featured presentations by kbs+, Barkley, Juel and Brunner. Really enjoyed it. Also had some great conversations with Tracy Wong and Pat Doody from WDCW, Greg Johnson from BooneOakley, and Jerry McGee from the 4A’s in LA.

I’ll share the most resounding takeaways in following posts.


My dream job: An interview with KMBA

A few years ago I did an interview with my friend and colleague Craig Brimm for his award-winning blog, Kiss My Black Ads.  Evidence below. See the whole thing here.

How did you discover advertising?

I graduated from design school in the late eighties. There were a few avenues for work — graphic design, illustration and advertising. I dabbled in all of them. The more I learned about advertising and the more time I spent in ad agencies, the more fascinated I became. I loved the combinations of words, pictures, sound, music and film. And I liked the people — they were sort of misfits, which seemed like a good match. I freelanced and worked on staff at a few agencies, and realized I wasn’t trained for the conceptual thinking required for truly great work. And the places that would hire me couldn’t teach me how to be as good as I wanted.Someone turned me on to The One Show (1987 Annual). It was an incredible turning point. The book was full of the kind of work I wanted to do — that seemed a little beyond my grasp. So I dropped everything and enrolled in Portfolio Center, at which point my career really began.

What aspect of your work do you really love?

I love the window into different industries and different audiences that comes with each campaign assignment.

But my favorite thing is recruiting. One of my first creative directors, Bill Westbrook, once said in an interview, “My most important job is recruiting. If I recruit great people, great advertising will result.”

Bringing interesting, talented people into a nurturing environment is a joy. And given the advertising industry’s continued lack of diversity, it’s nice to be part of the future rather than the old paths of least resistance.

What’s the most challenging part of what you do?

Getting the work just right is still the hardest and most important thing. But at this stage in my career, cultivating other creative leaders is critical. It’s also daunting.

People who can not only create great ideas, but also inspire enthusiasm for them — within the agency and with clients — are the ones I count on every day. And we’ve got some brilliant people here who do that.

ECDs can actually restrict the creative work and the process — without even knowing it. It’s more important for me to be a cheerleader for the great ideas rather than telling people why the other ones are mediocre.

I try to follow what David Kennedy said years ago: “Our secret has been to hire people better than we are and to get the hell out of their way.”

What’s your dream job?

I have to say, this is it.

Every day I show up to see fabulous ideas and great finished pieces. We’ve got two offices full of talented, gracious people. If I did anything else, it would just be trying to do the same thing we’re doing here now.

Also, I work with four other partners I trust and respect, in an independent company.

A lot of folks in our business put profit and glory first, and then wonder why they end up mired in politics and compromise. If you stick to what you believe in, with people you believe in, everything else will take care of itself.

Any advice for neophytes?

Don’t worry about being “creative.” Focus on simple, human truths.


Long live the fragile.

As my old friend Tripp Westbrook has said, I wish I’d known how fragile great ideas really are.Photo © Toby Pederson

It’s pretty amazing how an invisible acknowledgement can gift lift and life to a creative notion. And an equally fleeting and gentle dismissal can banish it forever.

Most of us will dismiss a good idea rather than risk failure or embarrassment. Most of us, when faced with criticism or obstacles will cave, even though we tell ourselves we’re “fighting for good work.”

Because ideas are fragile, creative professionals need to be tough. To withstand criticism, to defend ideas, to navigate impossible timelines or unrealistic budgets.

I try to remember that if every situation was perfect, there’d be no challenge. And there’d be no excuses. Great minds navigate obstacles and use them to be better than they would have otherwise.

Some of the world’s greatest creations happened in spite of, if not due to, total debacles and melt-downs. More on that later.

Ruthless Creativity is about capitalizing on the opportunities and confronting the obstacles — within our minds, offices and studios — head on, before pointing fingers at clients, editors, deadlines or budgets.

Get going. Your delicate ideas need you.

Ericka Herod, Sam Bonds and Shan Sigers created this poster as a reminder to everyone at our agency.

Ericka Herod, Sam Bonds and Shan Sigers created this poster as a reminder to everyone at our agency.