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I have been lucky enough to be involved in both great advertising and some great vandalism. They are a lot more alike than you might think.
Like the pumpkin-smashing and late-night egg-throwing barrages we perpetrated in 1960s Rhode Island, great advertising is shocking, to the point and still there the next day. The best advertising campaigns I’ve worked on have had a delicious kind of anticipation to them. I couldn’t wait for them to hit.
It struck me that there were some helpful guidelines I could pass along in hopes of encountering a more interesting advertising landscape. (Though these rules could apply to almost any business.)
This is a loose version of something Pablo Picasso advised. His actual words were, “Good artists copy; great artists steal.”
Often what passes for the deepest brilliance is simply out there on the landscape, waiting for you to discover it and use it to solve your problem. For instance, Dan Wieden told me that in the early days of Nike, he was reading a New York Times story about the execution of Gary Gilmore, a murderer in Utah. When asked for his last request, Gilmore said, “Let’s do it.”
That line could have just been thrown away with the paper that day. It wasn’t. Wieden is a great artist indeed.
Part of your job is not to do your job
When I was a junior writer in Hal Riney’s San Francisco office of Ogilvy & Mather, David Ogilvy himself visited. He was in his late seventies and brilliantly handsome, wearing the red suspenders he was famous for. Everyone was afraid of him, of course, and he sat alone in one of the empty offices down the hall. I decided to introduce myself.
“Hi, Mr. Ogilvy,” I said. “I just started as a copywriter here and—”
“Do you have any cigarettes?” he interrupted.
“I will get some,” I stammered and ran off down the hall. When I came back with the goods, David lit one up and sat back.
“So,” he said, “as a young writer here, how many hours do you write each day?”
I knew this was a trap of some kind, so I went deep. “Probably eight or 10 hours a day,” I said.
“My poor boy,” he said, exhaling some smoke. “You can’t write for 10 hours a day. You should write for … two hours. You would then spend the rest of the day finding good things to write about.”
There it was from one of the original vandals himself. Great vandalism starts outside the office.
Run toward fire
There are assignments no one wants. It’s usually because they can’t imagine a crazy, great solution to them. This is an opportunity. When you solve this thing, people will hide in their offices as you approach.
If there aren’t any such assignments you know of, find one either in the office or in the world outside. Take on something that really needs fixing, like disease, guns, bullying or—I’m not kidding—trade ads for a dog food client. These are the chances for legend.
Share the CMO’s foxhole
There is nothing more alluring to a chief marketing officer than actually putting his or her head onto your own body so you can see the world the way they do. Own their problems and imagine what they will buy for solutions. This is not a sneaky trick—it’s what they actually want.
We did this for a whole industry. Our enlightened Adobe client, Ann Lewnes, championed a campaign that talked to CMOs about their day-to-day problems and how Adobe marketing solutions could help. We learned empathy in a way never imagined. That CMO is an ally waiting to happen.
Seek out fame
True vandals want everyone to see their work. Big, in-your-face stuff is our lifeblood.
Don’t get sucked into insider creations that get industry fame but garner blankness when you get into a cab or go to a party. Instead, make things that get famous with your friends, family and future creative directors in the real world. Real fame. Talked-about, passed-on fame. The thing Bowie sang about.
This kind of thing takes nerve, thinks big and does things that are, well, considered naughty.
Email me if you need bail.