Self Delusion & Selling Out

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.

  1. Josh P October 28, 2010

    Great article, Brad. Selling
    Great article, Brad. Selling out is a weird thing. Feels like there’s a very fine line that zigs and zags all over the place and who knows what’s art and what’s capitalist greed.

    But for the record, my relationship with the Old Spice Guy is totally, totally “meaningful.”

  2. J. Jeffryes October 28, 2010

    About 300% too long, and
    About 300% too long, and needed way more focus.

    And frankly, any designer that would rather be an artist should do us all a favor and get out of the industry. Be a designer because you want to design, not because you can’t make a living with your art.

  3. Brad Gutting October 28, 2010

    Mr. Jeffryes,
    Actually, I cut

    Mr. Jeffryes,

    Actually, I cut it down substantially from the first draft, though were I to talk about it in person I’d no doubt be MORE long-winded about it. I can be quite chatty at times. Care to discuss at Coolfire’s massive party / excuse-for-poor-life-choices-event tonight? I’d be glad to send you the 600% longer version if not. It’s way more unfocused.

    Josh P,

    I’m not sure if I started buying Old Spice because of the packaging or the TV. Oddly enough, the work W+K did BEFORE all the lunacy of “I’m on a horse” ensued caught my attention. That was over two years ago, and I told a female friend of mine that I was “wearing Old Spice.” She responded by saying that she didn’t need the reminder of her father. Presumably, the ads have since changed that perspective.

  4. jj October 29, 2010

    Jeffryes, which industry do
    Jeffryes, which industry do you consider yourself a part of? Design & advertising?

  5. J. Jeffryes November 4, 2010

    The design industry, of
    The design industry, of course.

    @Brad couldn’t make the party.

    If you can get your thoughts down to 3 concise paragraphs, then people will read them.

    If you can’t, maybe you’re not clear in your own mind what your point is yet.

  6. Chris Behrendt November 5, 2010

    @J. Jeffryes The criticism of
    @J. Jeffryes The criticism of the length of the piece is silly. It’s an editorial. Please don’t act like there is nothing of value to the piece.

  7. The St. Louis Egotist November 5, 2010

    @J.Jeffryes Yes. Clearly it
    @J.Jeffryes Yes. Clearly it has been proven over the course of man’s quest for knowledge that nothing over three paragraphs is worth reading or clearly thought out. Kudos for this incredible revelation.

    Also, are you sure you’re in the design industry? Your work has the aura of an obsolete developer who decided to expand his resume by pirating photoshop, copying others styles and calling himself a “Designer. With a Capital D”.

  8. Mary Baum November 5, 2010

    First of all, on the subject
    First of all, on the subject of short versus long copy:

    Of course you’re in the design industry, Mr. Jeffryes. If you were in the marketing industry, you would know what decades of research prove: long copy outsells short copy. Not every time – not when the reader is completely outside the target audience. (But we’re not going to sell that person anyway.)

    But most of the time.

    Enough that there’s a secret society of copywriters who get paid $25,000 a letter and up, plus royalties, and a lot of people like us don’t even know their names.

    BTW, they like it that way just fine.

    As long as we keep subscribing to the magazines and ordering the vitamins, contributing to the charities and voting for the politicians, going on the diets and, every now and then, helping a direct-only brand like Bose or Lands’ End break out into the mainstream, they’ll keep their heads down and keep out-writing and outselling us all the way to the bank.

    (Which is why I’ve spent the last three years learning to write more like them and less like us.)

  9. who are these people? November 6, 2010

    @Jeffryes: No. your not a
    @Jeffryes: No. your not a part of the industry…your poison to the industry. It should be criminal to cheapin OUR craft by claiming to be a part of it and speaking soo ignorantly of it. It’s clear from your postings (and book) that your in no position to preach or even critique. The most you’ll ever be able to contribute to the design community is to not speak of it…you know nothing of it… you don’t practice it… your not a designer.


  10. Brad Gutting November 6, 2010

    Thanks for the supportive
    Thanks for the supportive words, to those who offer them!

    All I’ve ever seen from you here are snide comments, often with a hint of condescension. You, like everyone else, have the option to contribute something to a discussion, but instead you typically come off as bitter and/or (inexplicably) pompous.

  11. The St. Louis Egotist November 6, 2010

    @who are these people?

    @who are these people?
    We second that “wha???” and also add “the hell?”

  12. J. Jeffryes November 8, 2010

    Ha. Hilarious. The knives
    Ha. Hilarious. The knives come out. I can’t believe people are arguing against the idea that a more focused, concise article is better than one that isn’t.

    It’s a shame the original crew left the Egotist. They had better articles *and* knew what they hell they were talking about when they slammed someone.

  13. Stephanie Richardson November 9, 2010

    Anyway, about the
    Anyway, about the article.

    I’m positive he knows what he’s talking about.

    When advertising is really good, it’s spiritual. When it’s bad, it’s borderline visual assault.
    Self-delusion is also very rampant.

    It’s probably wiser to error in favor of self-preservation (i.e. – paycheck)
    and stop worrying about where you fall on the ethical-o-meter.

    When a person chooses “artist” they have to consider whether having heat
    (and all those other things they used to like…nice shampoo, new boots, Netflix, etc.)
    are worth it. Either way, NOTHING is going to happen if the puffery to “making shit” ratio is off.

  14. Boxey December 2, 2010

    @Brad: Excellent editorial.
    @Brad: Excellent editorial. Enjoyed each word immensely. Glad to see you still fighting the good fight, brother.

    @J. Jeffryes: People love to read what interests them. This article interested me, so I read it, and now I feel like Brad added value to my life today. Your comments on the other hand made me feel ripped off for even going there. Fortunately for me, the upside of Brad’s words outweighed the waste of yours.