He said he was an artist/But he really painted billboards/In large capital letters."
That line is from a song about love and longing, not advertising. But it played in my mind during the "Creatives on Broadway" Advertising Week event at the Gershwin Theatre, where Lee Clow of TBWA, David Lubars of BBDO and Alex Bogusky of Crispin Porter + Bogusky took their thrones (yes, thrones) on the set of the musical Wicked to discuss their craft.
Along with the expected themes about the agency world today, the "luminaries" (as they were billed) discussed their art. Yes, they believe the best work comes from the few people who can apply their artistic talents within the labyrinth of business problem-solving. And yes, they believe advertising is an art. "The best of it is one of the art forms of our culture," said Clow. "When anthropologists look back at this civilization, one of the things they are going to see, for better or worse, is advertising. Like any other art form, 90 percent of it is going to suck. Ten percent of what we do is very artful and very special and speaks to what is going on to our culture."
They talked about client trust, respect for the consumer, the "cultural antennae" that keep them connected. But I think what is most underestimated is the passion that drives these ad creators to begin with.
Clow noted that the best in the business typically struggle with polar-opposite personality traits—giant egos and perhaps even bigger insecurities. It's what pushes them to top their colleagues, their competition and themselves. "Their ego says, 'I'm great,' and their insecurity says, 'I'm not any good at all,' " Clow said. "It's that tension that keeps them from becoming assholes and keeps them working nights and weekends."
They discussed a phrase that has become antiquated but maybe shouldn't be: commercial artist. "We have to find artful, beautiful expressions for the clients we work for and try to solve a true communication problem, which I think is more challenging than going into a loft and painting blue on green with a red dot and saying, 'That makes me feel good,' " Clow said.
Plus, Bogusky said, "It's fun to be a commercial artist, because you have massive dollars behind your stuff. People actually see it."
I was reminded of the same creative passion later that evening, deep in the recesses of the Bryant Park Hotel, where The One Club gave a sneak peak at a documentary called The Alchemists. Directed by Doug Pray and produced by Kirk Souder and Greg Beauchamp, it's a work in progress (it needs more financial support) about members of The One Club Creative Hall of Fame, and it gives a rare, personal glimpse into the industry's greatest creative minds.
Hal Riney admits, "You have no idea where any idea comes from or where they are going to come from tomorrow." He muses that his work, often described as emotional, may have been his way of resolving a lack of emotion he experienced in his family as a child. Rich Silverstein admits, "I'm still trying to prove to my father that I'm any good." Dan Wieden talks about following in the footsteps of his dad and reveals that his "Just do it" line for Nike was inspired by the last words of a Utah criminal as he faced the firing squad.
Wieden also tells how the '60s rebellion that influenced him in his younger days has morphed into something "deeper"—a personal rebellion against anything that might prevent him from having "the eyes of the child."
In the last scene, Wieden, on his way to the airport, tells Pray that the only way any organization can achieve success is through good "old-fashioned love." He tells him, "If you can hold on to that and keep that in mind when you make your decisions, it can make a big difference."
That, to me, is worth a weeklong celebration.