~ THE BEGINNING ~
One of my favorite professors used to say, “Life is cumulative.” After more than 25 years creating advertising, I don’t just believe it, I’m proof.
I was a math major in college, and frankly, not a very promising one.
Turns out I had a gift for fallacious reasoning. Which made me lousy at proving a theorem, but pretty good at writing copy.
One day, after failing yet another exam on differential equations, I walked to the other side of campus and signed up for Intro to Advertising 101. The first assignment was to come up with an ad to be entered into a national student advertising contest.
I won first prize.
That got me $1,500 and an internship at a New York advertising agency called McCaffrey & McCall. Here’s how bad I was at math: I thought $1,500 was going to be plenty to live on in New York for the summer.
~ THE FORMATIVE YEARS ~
The most important thing I learned during my summer internship was that there was a difference between good advertising and bad advertising. I decided that I’d rather do good advertising, thank you very much.
Around the corner from McCaffrey & McCall was an agency called Scali, McCabe, Sloves, where the creative director, Ed McCabe, was considered to be one of the greatest copywriters in advertising history. Somehow –– and I suppose it proves I have an ability to craft a compelling message –– I got Ed to hire me.
I worked my butt off every single day at Scali, and in exchange I got a tremendous foundation in crafting powerful verbal communications. But after a couple of years I came to an uncomfortable realization: A lot of the advertising that was affecting me didn’t even have a verbal component. It was entirely visual.
I’m talking about stuff being done for Nike, California Cooler, Apple Computer, and Porsche — all of whom happened to be clients of Chiat/Day.
I had to start over.
~ HIGHER EDUCATION ~
It took me almost a year, but I managed to land a job at Chiat/Day in LA, working for Lee Clow, the greatest art director of all time. And as hard as I worked at Scali, I worked even harder at Chiat.
I learned more than I dreamed I could have at that agency, not just about advertising, but about marketing, branding, presenting, and sleep deprivation. And when John Stein and John Robaire, two of Chiat’s creative luminaries left to start their own agency, they chose me — of all the insanely talented people working there — to build it with them.
But after working for them for a couple of years, I had another uncomfortable realization
I liked Pepsi commercials. More than liked them, actually. I found myself responding to them.
Problem was, the work Pepsi was doing didn’t adhere to any of the rules I’d learned, either at Chiat or Scali. It was neither persuasive or evocative. It was entertaining.
Again, I had to start over.
~ POST-GRADUATE STUDIES ~
Maybe I should have made the jump into Hollywood, but I had become a pretty respected name in advertising and besides, Pepsi’s agency offered me a job. I became Senior Vice President/Creative Director at BBDO Worldwide, creating national and international advertising campaigns for Pepsi, Pizza Hut, Visa, Skippy, and a couple of other brands you may be familiar with.
The agency also gave me a really tasty perk: After a long, hard day of work, the agency agreed to send me to film school for a long, hard night of study. At NYU.
After a couple of years of advertising days and film school nights, I realized I had learned far more about directing by paying attention on shoots with big-name directors than I could possibly pick up in classes, so I decided to put together a reel. It had four spots on it, one of which was shortlisted at Cannes and won First Prize at the London International Advertising Awards and another of which was inagurated into the permanent collection of the New York Museum of Modern Art.
Suddenly, I was a director.
What’s nice about directing commercials is that the work is sporadic, but it pays pretty well. For the first time in my professional life, I had both free time and money.
I suppose I suffer from some weird dysfunction that doesn’t allow me to sit still. In addition to the hundreds of commercials I directed, I wrote, produced, and directed several short films, the most ambitious of which was called ‘Burning Passion’. In its rough cut form the film played in more than two dozen film festivals, where it won three Gold Awards, two Audience Awards, three Screenwriting Awards, and a Best Directorial Debut.
I wanted to master every aspect of directing that I could, so I kept writing, finishing more than a dozen feature scripts. I also took classes through the Beverly Hills Playhouse and The Groundlings in order to learn how to work with actors and performed stand-up comedy to try and master comedic timing. And I got deep into photography, developing a unique photographic technique involving shooting through liquids which, by the way, earned me the title of Photographer of the Year by the International Color Awards in 2006.
But then I had another uncomfortable realization: Entertainment wasn’t enough. Not even with good writing and evocative visuals behind it.
The moment came at the Sundance Film Festival when I saw a weird little film out of Mali. In spite of the fact that the movie wasn’t incredibly stylish or entertaining in a conventional sense –– and I couldn’t tell you how well it was written because it was in French –– there was something magical about it. It felt authentic.
And once again, I had to start over.
~ MY BLUE PERIOD ~
By a stroke of good fortune, I was cleaned out by someone I’d trusted both financially and emotionally which meant that I no longer had the resources to gild an otherwise inauthentic existence. No more fancy cars, expensive clothes, and exotic vacations.
When I finished feeling sorry for myself, I began getting back in touch with the fundamentals I’d learned years before. I wrote — not as a way to show off, but for the pure cathartic experience of writing (I publish stories of my children on Facebook as #WhyImNotDead). My photography became more personal, too (my most regular Instagram feed is @OldCarsOfPortland), and I found that the techniques I’d learned to work with actors were actually quite useful in getting them to personal performances as well. Most important, I embraced fatherhood –– guiding two people toward adulthood reminds me every single day that nothing is more important than integrity.
~ AND ULTIMATELY, TRIUMPH! ~
I have come to the point where I realize the power of a well-crafted message and refuse to wield that power on behalf of clients I find unethical or on messages that are duplicitous.
Not because I’m on some holy mission to make the world a better place, but because I can’t help but give 100% of my time and effort to a project and I want to feel good about every single minute I spend away from my kids.
The media landscape has shifted dramatically since I first began making ads. New channels constantly appear, new techniques are developed. As communication evolves, so have I. I’m fortunate to have accumulated a ton of skills and a healthy dose of perspective that together enable me to create pieces that are meaningful, entertaining, stylish, and well-written, both in conventional and digital media platforms.
I hope you agree.
or as we used to say in math,