A Voice Of One’s Own

About a year ago, I left being in the biz on a full-time basis to go freelance and pursue a grad degree in counseling psychology. I very soon came to wish I had done it 20 years ago—not because it is something I would have rather done than advertising (I love this business and wouldn’t trade it for anything), but because I would have been so much better at advertising if I had applied back then what I’ve learned recently in counseling.

Counseling psychology is very counterintuitive and very humbling for me. You learn very quickly that it is not up to you to fix things. You cannot tell someone what the solution to his issue is and expect a resolution. In fact, the exact opposite is true. The only time any behavior is truly changed is when this person arrives at the answer himself.

A great counselor isn’t a master at spelling out an answer; a great counselor is a master at providing a space for other people to spell it out for themselves. The people you are helping are not spectators in their process of change; they must be the participants who put in the last piece of their puzzle. It’s about respecting them enough to let them be in charge and finish it.

When this was made clear to me, both in theory and in practice, I naturally applied it to the other half of my life, and that is when the real epiphanies happened. I suddenly saw how all the truly great work in our business has been work in which the audience played the critical and most important role in the communication—advertising that respects the audience enough to allow them in and provides them space to participate in the story, advertising that requires the audience to finish it. I also saw how there has never been a more important time than now for our industry to realize this.

There was a time when many years had gone by in which I hadn’t seen the Apple “1984” spot. When I finally saw it again, I kept waiting for the narration to begin—the narration about IBM being the Big Brother, and Macintosh being the savior of individuality and creativity. But the narration never happened. It never happened because it never existed. At least not in the spot. Where it did exist was in me. I had heard it alright, but I heard it as narrated by me.

The spot created the space and respected me enough to let me fill it in. And so I did. And because it came from me, and because I arrived there myself, I still remember exactly where I was when I did, and have never used a different brand of computer since. This same technique has been what enabled This Is SportsCenter to build an entire network, and why people called all their friends to play with BK’s “Subservient Chicken,” but no one calls anyone about that burger spot that was on the other night with all the great food shots.

A couple of nights ago I attended a tribute for Jim Riswold. I was reminded of a spot with a bunch of kids in it who all say the exact same four words over and over again: “I am Tiger Woods.” Even the reminder got me emotional again. From a lesser writer at a lesser agency working for a lesser brand, what I may have instead heard is a VO (over glory shots of Tiger and a Coldplay rip-off track) that said, “This is for Tiger Woods … an African American hero … whose skill is changing the rules … and inspiring youth of all races, creeds and genders to….” I would not have gotten emotional even the first time. There would have been no room for me. There would have been no place for me to participate. There would have been nothing for me to finish with my passion, or with my love for a sport, or with my love for other people. I would not have been able to be a part of the story.

Great work, like great counseling, provides two points that the audience can then connect with their own truth, and thereby write and resolve their own story. Today’s technology makes this a very literal truth, and any brand that doesn’t create work in which there is a participatory role for the audience may end up literally talking to themselves.

Which is when a lot of people decide to look for a good counselor.

Kirk Souder is a partner at Granite Pass Inc. in Topanga, Calif. He can be reached at kirk@granitepass.com.