By Egotist / /
When Eddie Izzard does his stand-up show, I’d be furious if I spent $50 on tickets only to have him open up the routine with, “Hey! I’m Eddie Izzard and I’m a comedian! I’m going to tell some jokes and they’re really funny! And you’ll laugh extremely hard! …Hey! I’m funny!” But this is essentially what most creative agencies do with their mission statements or “about us” pages on their website. I came across a new agency’s site the other day, one conceived with much fanfare, for it had the best-and-brightest behind it (which isn’t an exaggeration–they’ve individually done some great work), and found not a collection of great ideas, not an array of provocative work, but a stash of hackneyed Twitter-ready manifestos and slavishly prepared elevator pitches written about their selected group of collaborators. Oh 140 characters, how could you be so vacant? All of it sat on the same continuum of scrappy start-ups from years gone by with nothing all that new to offer. In the past ten years, I’ve seen agencies give themselves billboards, claim that they “engineer pop culture,” that they “tell stories” and “build connections,” or my personal favorite, “create meaningful relationships” with consumers.
I’m here to say that they do no such thing. Our job is to help someone sell something, and if you have a problem with that then you need to grow up. If you think we’re in the business of doing something else, something removed from the grime of actually moving merchandise, you’re insane. If you think that I’m implying that working at an agency has to be serious, dry, formalized and exacting, or that creatives should be preoccupied with placating nervous brand managers, you’re missing the point. The reality is, cool shit sells shit and doing impossibly great work is a worthwhile mission. Hell, I remember walking into Target one day and being mesmerized by the giant, dangling, bombastically colored signs announcing that something I wasn’t interested in buying was 20% off. I probably bought it. Bravo, wheels of commerce! And I bought other stuff too and rather enjoyed the whole experience. Barney’s, Diesel, Ikea, Vitra, Lukas Liquors, and others have had similar effects on me. I probably bought Under Armour gear, too, because I really wanted to protect this house.
These are tough times. The employment levels in the advertising industry have yet to match what they were in early 2001, before the crash after 9/11 wiped out thousands of jobs. Things really have changed, and with that comes a heavy dose of fear and confusion. I understand both of those sensations well. They have a funny effect on people—typical reactions often consist of lots of rambling theorizing, all in an effort to assert continued relevance. So we try to sound smarter and more important, attach our craft to something with greater “prestige,” kind of like how Massimo Vignelli started calling himself an “information architect” years ago instead of the more accurate and meaningful label of “graphic designer,” and how other graphic designers seek validation from the art world or hope to be viewed as “authors.”
My advice: quit assigning authority to sources who do not deserve it, and do not delude yourself into believing you’re more important than anyone else. You’re not.
The context of creativity is interesting. For instance: I’d argue that done right, advertising is infinitely cooler than just about any exhibition in an art gallery or museum of contemporary art (at least these days), yet we’re encouraged to lionize those grand institutions as bastions of cutting-edge exploration and intellect, even if the stuff on those walls is more likely to bore you stiff than change your mind. And, of course, we’re told that advertising is somehow “lower.” Why? Because it’s trying to sell something? This is f-ing capitalism, where everything is for sale! That means the tickets to that avant-garde play, as well as the weed killer. The methods behind promoting each are the same. Also, the best ad/design work is exciting as hell and often ludicrously well-done. It has to be. I’d rather watch commercials–the funny ones, the maudlin ones, the ones laden with buckets of pointless but outrageously cool effects–than I would sit in some dingy theater imbibing what’s probably an offensively dull independent film. Seeing a great piece of commercial design, one that’s been programmed to tickle my brain and tug at my heart, resembles the effects of five shots of Jack without the hangover. Why ad people would ever feel REMOTELY inferior to the fine arts is a mystery to me. I don’t feel used or abused when I see your garrulously colored poster urging me to spend serious dollars on school supplies, I feel entertained. I feel like, “hey, at least they’re talking to me straight, but I’m gonna skip the pink erasers.” David Foster Wallace wrote an monumental novel about pervasive marketing/entertainment but I don’t loathe it in quite the same way he did. I DO loathe the pretentious. And I DO feel used and condescended to when I traipse around a gallery looking at photographs of stacks of books or egg cartons, which has happened this year (that said, Chris Kahler’s paintings at Bruno David were mesmerizing and I wish I could afford one). At least the ad doesn’t pretend to have long-term, epic value simply because of the location of the wall on which it’s posted. Even Jeff Koons figured out that in addition to selling vacuum sweepers for ungodly sums, he could rip off liquor ads, print them in limited editions of 2, and turn a profit. Need I mention that Warhol guy? Forget contextualizing. Don’t pretend an ad is something else. That’s true deception. There’s nothing wrong with trying to sell something.
Ads are cool. Design is fun. Creativity is thrilling, and creativity is a function of action. Why try to be something else? What’s with all the talk? The posturing? The chest puffery and braggadocio? Let the market decide if it’s effective.
So let’s skip the moral and ethical debates, let’s avoid arbitrarily and subjectively declaring the value of creative expression, and cut straight to the point: your concerns about having a job ten years from now, and more pointedly, if the job you do have then will continue to allow unwashed blue jeans, water guns, inappropriate mass emails, and other minor luxuries. Or if you’ll have to start shopping at Banana Republic and show up on time to things.
Well, you’ll probably be fine as long as someone thinks it’s worth spending money on what you do. Emphasis on “do.” As I tell my students: jobs go to those who can do the work. Not those who make themselves look like pirates in their Twitter profile photo or coin themselves “revolutionaries.” You are what you do, and more specifically, you are what you do repeatedly. Listen. Think. Ask some questions. Think some more. All of this will enable the production of cool shit. Then do a lot of cool shit—repeatedly–and all will be well. Making this business sound more complex and mysterious than it actually is won’t enhance its reputation. Talking about innovative collaborations, enterprising solutions and engaging in other empty hyperbolic exercises is the equivalent of talking about decorating a cake. Window dressing is more effective. Forget what other people think about it. Forget about the honors it might get or if it’s art or authorship. Don’t worry about how to describe it or whether or not you’re getting enough press for it. Just make something.
Brad Gutting is the first St. Louis Egotist member to write an editorial. For this, we applaud him and urge the other great thinkers in the community to follow suit. Brad started his career with VSA Partners in Chicago in 2002, spent three years at Adamson Advertising, and has been an art director at Cannonball since 2007. He graduated from Indiana University in 2000 with degrees in history and film, and attended Portfolio Center afterward. He finds everything interesting.