By Tom Demetriou
You people are all totally out of your minds and you know that. But bottom line I owe you a lot.
I went to high school. I learned nothing.
The summer after graduation, I worked construction. I learned something.
I went to college. I learned nothing.
I worked in advertising. I learned everything.
That’s hyperbole. But that’s one of the things I learned.
Yeah, I bitched and moaned about it. At the office late on a Saturday night, working on a doomed pitch, revising the presentation per our boss’s instructions, which he casually phoned in from a bar.
“What did he say?”
“He said, ‘Too much Llama.’”
“More sales associate. Less Llama.”
“Less Llama? That’s the entire fucking concept!”
Which begs the question. What exactly is the right amount of Llama to put in a :30 TV commercial for a retail furniture store? Chris Cima, Jason Niebaum and I will never know. It remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma sleeping in a recliner. We lost the pitch.
I left agency life, and those inexplicable kinds of verbal exchanges, almost two years ago to start a new company with some friends. And with that distance comes some sincere appreciation.
I guess this letter to advertising was partly motivated by Thanksgiving sentiment. I also just felt like writing something. Either way, it’s going to sound like a late night booty call.
Hey, Advertising. Miss you, girl.
Do I mean it? Eh, I don’t know. Put it this way. I feel it.
The summer I worked construction, I got my ass chewed all day long. It wasn’t just profanity. It was profane profanity. Technicolor language was the electrical current that powered the whole operation. They were hard guys who did hard work. They dealt, almost exclusively, in reality. The cinderblocks were plumb to the line. Or not. The wall went up on time. Or it didn’t. So I figure they had the right to use foul language. As long as they built those walls, they could say whatever they wanted. One of the masons was named Alan. He had two tattoos, one on each arm. One read, Alan. The other read, Fuck You. What did it matter? He was a brick mason. And he was good at it.
Compared to that dusty, 100-degree, foul-mouthed landscape, Corporate America is a bright and shiny, but ultimately bland place. Tasteless, colorless and odorless. (No disrespect to all my friends at various levels in corporate America, but I think you would agree?) Short on colorful ass chewing. Long on political acumen. Sure, there’s humor. But it’s shrewd. Everybody watches every word they say.
Conversely, in advertising, you have to say all kinds of stupid shit. All the time. As a matter of survival. If you bore your peers, they trash you. If you bore your creative director, she trashes you. Why? Training. If you bore your clients, they fire you.
No doubt, advertising is a twisted game. Recently disparaged and dismantled by both a dying man and Jerry Seinfeld. For me, the most profound problem with the business was always this: It asks you to give everything you’ve got, to convince people to buy a bunch of shit they don’t need.
If Elon Musk wants you to work 60 days straight to put a human being on Mars, hey, you know what? You’re in. But when the agency asks you to work 60 days straight to convince people to eat more pizza, well, after a while, that gets to you.
It’s 1 am on a Sunday night. You walk into a war room plastered with three weeks’ worth of your work. You can no longer smell the B.O. because it’s mostly your B.O. The junior account person realizes you forgot to write the :15 versions of the :30 TV spots. The head planner and the agency president are still debating a nuance of the strategy. The travel team is on a plane in the morning. The presentation to the client is in the afternoon. You’re exhausted and emotionally spent and you feel the weight of it all. Everything is riding on this. Then you remember. You’re selling graham crackers.
You can have a kind of out of body experience (I’ve had several) floating above the room, saying to yourself, Who in their right fucking mind would give the time of their life to this? And the answer, muttered under your breath with a mix of perpetual bewilderment and pride is, Me.
The truth is, as an existence, agency work is closer to a construction site than corporate America. You don’t just chime in on email chains. You make stuff. Cool stuff, by the way. And your wall, it gets measured. The day of reckoning is never far off. If not tomorrow, then the next day. You’ve got to walk into a room, not with some bland report, or some cut and paste agenda, but with The Answer.
What’s The Answer? Well, that’s debatable. And here, I think, lies the heart and soul of the attraction. As Chuck Klosterman observes in his brilliant book, Eating the Dinosaur, on why we’re obsessed with reality TV:
In most people’s daily lives, nothing unusual ever happens.
Every single day is exactly the same. Every morning. Every commute. Every meeting. They know exactly how it’s going to go.
But in Advertising, when you walk into the room with your artsy fartsy, fancy pants ideas, nobody has a clue what’s going to happen. Whatever you predict, whatever you feel in your gut, you’re wrong.
You think they’ll love it? They fucking hate it. You think they’ll hate it? They fucking love it. You get a standing ovation and then, inconceivably, impossibly, it all unravels in the blink of an eye. The person you thought was your enemy stands up and defends the work. The person you thought was your friend pulls out a knife.
That is the thing about advertising.
As fellow Creative Circus alumnus, Jonathan Cude, recently wrote, advertising teaches you mental toughness like no other business. A thick skin is standard issue. Eventually you grow a rhinoceros hide.
You come up with a terrific idea. They kill it because they don’t like purple. You explain the idea can be blue. Too late. It’s dead. You come up with a better idea. It dies a long, slow death of unknown causes. Then, up against the wall, in the clutch, you deliver another idea, your best one yet. The perfect solution. The magic elixir. The silver bullet. There’s a new CEO and he fires your agency.
You learn to be like Bruce Lee in the final scene of Enter The Dragon. Smashing all the mirrors until you finally stick a spear in the man with the iron fist. You can’t just be good. That’s not good enough. You have to be really fucking good. And that’s not good enough either. You have to be relentless.
It’s that intensity, combined with the creative process, combined with the total unpredictability that gets people hooked. Advertising is thankless. Morally dubious. Usually pointless. Shockingly dysfunctional. Only the mentally tough and slightly deranged can hack it, or would even want to. But if you can last awhile, when you come out the other side, you realize you’re walking around with a degree unlike any other. There’s no education like it in the world.
You know how to make something out of nothing. You know how to make decisions under pressure. How to work fast and smart, under the gun, right down to the last millimeter of wire. You can take a big, bloated bag of facts and boil it down to the bone. You can take meta-speak and turn it into plain talk. You can take an insult from a CEO. You can find, not the right words, but the right word. You know how to tell a story. You know how to make a point.
And you learn all this the hard way. Which, of course, is the only way anybody ever learns anything. Just like the brick masons, advertising people say all kinds of crazy shit. They earn the privilege.
Allow me to conclude this note of philosophical thanks with some real thanks. There are many people I worked with who I never appreciated nearly enough at the time (I probably felt too much a victim of my circumstances, or maybe I was just tired). Writing this list maybe a little self-indulgent, but hey, it’s Thanksgiving weekend, and the thanks are long overdue:
Thank you, Norm Grey (in header photo) and MJK, for teaching me the creative process. Not to mention, introducing me to my wife.
Thank you, Sylvia Gaffney, for teaching me about color.
Thank you, Luke Sullivan, for teaching me that simplicity = sacrifice (with the image of a Double Mint twin in the crosshairs).
Thank you, Mark Fenske, for teaching me how to write a sentence.
Thank you, Dennis McClain, for teaching me what business I was in.
Thank you, Bill Oakley, for teaching me how to rope-a-dope and come out swinging.
Thank you, Jim Ferguson, for teaching me how to tell a dirty joke. It truly is an art form.
Thank you, Todd Tilford, for teaching me how to write poetry for a living.
Thank you, Cameron Day, for teaching me how to be a world-class talent and class act at the same time.
Thank you, Wade Alger, Jay Russell and Bob Brihn, for teaching me to lead by creative example, how to argue for ideas based on their merits, not dictating from your box in the org chart.
Thank you, Scott Brewer, for teaching me to find the utterly disrespectful humor in absolutely everything. You’re right, Scott-o, the laughs are in there.
Thank you, Shep Kellam, for teaching me how to write a TV spot like a page in a novel.
Thank you, Phil Gable, for teaching me it’s not enough to be nuts, you have to stay nuts. More people should try it. Love you, buddy.
Thank you, Brian Brooker, for teaching me to write with restraint. I’m pretty sure I bombed here.
Thank you, Tom Hansen and Mike Swenson, for teaching me to how to present to a big room.
Thank you, Sunshine Stevens, for teaching me how to be a one-man gang.
Thank you, Eric McClellan and Tim Galles, for teaching me the meaning of relentless.
Not that I know how to do all those things on the list. But, hey, I saw it done.
I owe you everything.
Maybe that’s hyperbole.