The Whine Ethic: Are your complaints more creative than your work?

I read about creative people mourning the good old days of creativity. I hear moaning about how hard it is to do great work: blaming clients, the economy, 9/11 and terrorism for a lack of motivation and low morale.

I started my career at DDB in 1980. My bosses were the people who created the creative revolution. I’ve got news for you. They complained that the good old days weren’t that good either. Get over it already.

Today, the single biggest obstacle to doing great advertising is simply not having a job to do it in.

Sure, developing insightful strategies, simplifying briefs and generally turning messes into messages that sell product, build brands and win awards is hard. That’s why they call it work. There are too many examples of great ideas from all over the world, on big budgets and minuscule ones, to justify this can’t-do spirit.

Not appreciated enough? Talents not being utilized? Not having enough fun? No bonus this year? These are the kinds of high-order problems other people wish they had—people like me, whose lofty worldwide appointment was once trumpeted then quietly eliminated as the economy nose-dived.

Here’s an idea. Take your vacation. Put things in perspective. Relax. And if you still can’t rekindle your creative spark and be grateful for what you have, then do yourself and others a big favor. Quit. Do something else. Make room for people who will appreciate the privilege it is to sit in an office all day and get paid to come up with ideas that sell stuff.

Yes, advertising can be stressful, demanding, political, frustrating, demeaning, unfair and cruel. So can paving roads on a hot day in August, I imagine. In our profession, only ideas get killed, not people. We’re not soldiers, cops or firemen. We don’t work for the real Tony Soprano. Larry David, more likely.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that we become Pollyanna or Stepford employees and whistle while we work. Anger, frustration, dissatisfaction and criticism can be constructive and motivating. I know working in an environment where you’re worried about losing your job can be distracting. I’ll even admit that I’ve griped about stupid office design, bad furniture, limited menu choices at the agency cafeteria and more. But I always thought the best therapy was getting back to work.

Ultimately, the best ideas don’t come from the disgruntled whiners. People with the inner drive to break through regardless of budgets, timelines, obstructive clients, inferior products or the pervading zeitgeist are the ones who create great work. They aren’t necessarily comfortable, cheerful and happy. But they create exceptions, not excuses.

The paradoxical benefit of this bad economy is that as agency staffs get smaller, they should get stronger. But I don’t think that’s happening enough. One friend at a leading agency told me he was amazed by the number of people hiding from assignments and slacking off when they get them. Hearing that made me so incensed that I wrote this column.

There are too many good people without jobs to have people with jobs not trying their hardest and doing their best.