Jim Nelson On the Spot

“Big Cat,” as he’s known around Carmichael Lynch, is best known for writing Harley-Davidson ads, winning the top honor at the Kelly Awards in 2002 for the line, “Somewhere on an airplane a man is trying to rip open a small bag of peanuts.” (Nelson also picked up the headline and copy prizes the two years prior.) After Nelson, 40, was promoted to ecd last March, his first account win was a somewhat more mild-mannered client, financial-services firm A.G. Edwards. He’s busy prepping the Minneapolis shop’s first work for the $20 million business, set to break next month.

Q. What inspired you to get into advertising?

A. I took an advertising copywriting course [in college]. I was amazed that you could make a living writing advertising for cars and snowmobiles. The other thing that attracted me to the creative side was, I felt like it was one thing where you couldn’t bullshit your way into a job. If you could make the ideas, you could get the job on those merits. In a way, it’s like a sport where there’s a performance, and if you can do it, you can go.

Do you ride a Harley?

I did for a while. I had a bit of a time issue between work, family, I like to fish and play the guitar. And my wife doesn’t like to ride. She became too nervous. The other reason is, maintaining a little perspective helps me do the ads better. Because if you get all the way in, you’re only talking to people who know as much about it as you do. And we have to talk to people who aren’t in yet.

How has life changed since you became ecd?

I’m busier, and I’m having fun. I’m getting into pitches a lot more. I’m still dabbling in making ads, but that’s tougher, because you don’t have the big blocks of time anymore.

Was it hard not writing Harley ads this year?

The hard thing was making sure the ads stayed where they needed to be. There’s a difference between a Harley ad and a good ad for a Harley. When you write Harley ads, you have to adopt the tone and voice of Harley. You can’t use little writer devices, little headline tricks that appear in a lot of ads. A lot of times a great Harley ad is five words. And to write five words that have power is a tough thing to do.

How do you motivate your staff?

I have high expectations, and if you’re not meeting them, you’re going to know about it. To me, people get motivated when the assignment is clear and the strategy is smart. The belief I want them to have is, “You are able to be as good as you can be. There’s nothing holding you back.” I’m like, “If you bring it, I will do whatever it takes to make it happen.” When I first started here after working at small agencies, I felt like what it must have felt like to be an immigrant in the 1800s, coming to America. It seemed like the land of opportunity.

Who had the greatest influence on your career?

Some people here: Jack [Supple, chairman and chief creative officer] and [former ecd] Kerry [Casey]. But also all of the people who made Minneapolis into an advertising place. When I got out of college, that’s when Fallon McElligott was going strong. Also, there was a time when I read everything Neil French ever wrote. Not that I try and write like he does. I learned a lot about what makes an ad work and what doesn’t. Speed and simplicity are things you need to learn how to understand.

What was the last ad that you saw that made you think, “I wish I had done that”?

The Miller High Life TV campaign. As a writer, that makes me green with envy: “It’s hard to respect the French when you gotta pull ’em out of two big ones in one century. But you’ve got to hand it to ’em on mayonnaise.” That’s great.

If there was one thing you could change about the industry, what would it be?

If I was the king of advertising for a day, I would make a rule that no advertisement could run unless it included some type of reward for the viewer. If you look at the Super Bowl, they watch because of the ads they know are going to be on there. Or even when they have those shows for best commercials or funniest commercials. I think as an industry, if we were doing a perfect job, people wouldn’t use their TiVos to cut the commercials out—they’d use them to catch the commercials. Making people enjoy the process of being advertised to would make the industry healthier.

How do you get past a creative block?

My approach is—and I got this from a book about writing—you have to be able to separate the editing part of your brain from the making-up-stuff part of your brain. Instead of coming up with an idea and deciding whether it’s good, I turn it over and try to come up with another one. And I just keep doing that. The next day, some of that stuff will have changed in your head, and it will suddenly start to become good. I keep doing that over and over. The thing that gives me the block is getting too caught up in the strategy. You’ve got to learn all that stuff, and then you have to forget it and you have to have fun. And when you get stuck, you have to have faith that something’s gonna happen. The biggest thing any writer has to overcome is the fear of writing and self-doubt. But you also have to have that, because if you don’t, you just think everything is good.

What would be your dream assignment?

A client such as Fox Sports, a channel that was sports-related that needed a lot of spots. The other thing I would like to do, I would like to make Cadillac what it should be: the challenge of a brand that was nowhere near what it once was and bringing that back to its original glory. That would be a great accomplishment.

Do you have a motto?

I just adopted a motto. The motto on the Viking ships was, “Solve the problem or die.” It’s the same thing in advertising.