This story is a bit long, but I promise it will be worth it, because it contains the two most important principles every designer must know and take to heart if you intend to do great work anywhere, under almost any circumstances, over the long, long haul of your career.
The Bronze Age of me
Early in my career, before the web, when I was in advertising, I had the good fortune to work for legendary creative directors. They’d amassed so many awards in their careers that, in the event of Apocalypse, they could have melted their shiny trophies down and lived off the barter value of the metal.
These old men were giants who had once strode the halls of famous agencies, but ours was not famous—at least not for being good. It was a reeking quagmire where great ideas went to die.
Our company knew it had a problem, so it kept hiring brilliant creative leaders, paying them to inspire us demoralized and underpaid young art directors and copywriters, and pitting us against an internal culture that had been designed quite carefully to neutralize and kill the kind of work our ever-changing cast of overlords challenged us to create.
Let me unpack that.
Our clients were makers of aspirin and ointments. They owned financially successful chain restaurants. If it ached, if it bled, if it could be satisfied with heaping plates of deeply fried or sauce-drowned food-like products at a family-friendly low price, we probably handled its advertising.
This type of advertising, painstakingly crafted to offend no one, and baited with jingles that stick, unwanted, in the mind, works chiefly by being shown so many times that it can’t help but lodge in the collective consciousness and inexorably drive sales. Think McDonald’s, but smaller and less … glamorous.
Saturation is the name of the game, and the agency (like others of its kind) made its money by taking a commission on media placement. Creative was something we gave away free. All we wanted was a cut of the fee broadcasters charged to run the stuff.
Fear of a creative planet
A great ad—one people talked about, one that potentially risked offending a few people—would destroy the cozy and lucrative business relationships on which the agency was founded. The company knew it, and hired skilled account executives to prevent even a moderately good idea from ever reaching the airwaves.
Creative advertising was much talked-about in the popular culture of the time, and our clients asked for it even though they wouldn’t have bought it to save their children’s lives. So the agency occasionally had to show a good idea.
Besides, we young art directors and copywriters were idealists, and the agency wasn’t paying us enough to buy our loyalty. They might have distributed the profits more equitably, but the account executives had houses in Darien and ex-spouses to support, so they couldn’t afford to waste any of that money on the troops who did the work the whole thing ran on.
Hence every six months the company hired new creative directors who, we grunts thought, would finally “turn this place around” and allow us to do the kind of work we dreamed of.
This is how our company came to hire legendary award winners. And although we never sold a great ad, the lesson I learned from them turned out to be the second most important guiding principle of my work as a designer. The first, most important principle, of course, is listen to the customer. But this other principle comes a close second.
The principle these creative directors taught me, chiefly by how they acted, was…
Never give up.
Never stop trying to do great work. Never get demoralized. Never stop caring.
It sounds simple. It isn’t.
I watched these creative directors and their partners work all night to produce a great idea in spite of all the constraints around the client and product.
I watched them enthusiastically present great work internally. Watched the internal folks sabotage it through fear. Watched my leaders cheerfully go back to the drawing board and come up with something new by the next morning.
I watched them enact this ritual a half-dozen times before the work even got shown to the clients.
I watched the clients shoot it down. I watched my leaders cheerfully get up, put their materials away, come back to the agency, and start over.
Never, not once, did they dial it in. Never did they just shrug their shoulders and say, “Fine, I’ll give these people what they want.” They listened to the customer but the customer didn’t dictate. The customer’s business problem dictated the creative solution. The solution would work if the customer bought it. If the customer didn’t buy, well, there was another great creative solution out there, if you just worked hard enough to find it.
Even in those extremely backwards times, there were great women creative directors out there, too—but our agency never hired one, so I only got to meet these men.
They were old men—one of them, who leaned forward with a hunch, and always walked as if he were in pain—looked like Moses. I swear he stared through my soul when I tried to go home before 8:00 PM. (We worked in offices then, and you never went home before your boss.) He scared me but I liked him.
Once I asked if he missed the “great” clients he had worked for in the past.
“They killed just as many good ads as these guys do.”
“What did you do?”
“Came up with more ads.”
The ability to keep coming up with more ads was why this Moses-looking dude had a roomful of shiny trophies, and I did not. If I wanted a career like his, I would have to seek deeply in my soul for the strength and willingness not to give up.
Career aside, if I wanted to create meaningful work, I would need to develop the patience and willingness to watch people kill my darlings, and come back with newer, fresher, better darlings.
It works if you work it.
I have not done it perfectly, not by a long shot. But keeping a positive attitude when an idea I’ve fallen in love with gets rejected remains the second most important thing I can do on a daily basis as I practice my current craft.
Both product work and client work are tough. The challenges can seem overwhelming. We bang our heads. We weep. Finally, we and our teammates come up with a solution. This is it! We’ve done it! Joyfully, we share it. Our lead shoots holes in it. Maybe because it runs afoul of some important learning we didn’t know about. Or because it was tried before we got here and tested badly. Or, sometimes, because they just don’t like it.
We come back with three ideas and none of them are quite right, either.
So we go back and work harder and come up with new stuff.
The well is never dry. We only run out of ideas when we choose to stop doing the work.
The designers I work with here today inspire me on many levels. Their energy, their talent, their sheer skill impresses me. But what blows me away most of all, is that the really good designers stand up to the misfortune of a killed idea. They take away the lesson of what went wrong, and come back with something that much stronger. Or, if not stronger, something different but equally good.
Never give up.
This article was inspired by a conversation I had with one of our designers, after watching her respond graciously and positively while working on a tough project.