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Temper Your Irish With German.

Assigned reading.
Assigned reading.


“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

                                                  –Gustav Flaubert.

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I love that quotation.

I’d like to act all high and mighty and say, “What?! You haven’t read Flaubert?? Duuude!” But, the only Flaubert I’ve read is this one line. Still, it sure has stuck with me, because it’s such good advice. In fact, it’s good for anyone who fancies him or herself a creative.

If I may be allowed a wee generalization, we creative types are complete knuckleheads. Because the very thing that makes us slightly weird and left-of-center, also makes us procrastinators and  – hey look, a shiny object – distractible.

This is why I’ve been telling juniors for years “to temper your Irish with German.” (Another one of my favorite quotations).

Temper your Irish with German.

See, the Irish is the fun part, the party dude, the part that produces brilliance out of the clear blue. German? Well, I guess that’s the part that has some discipline and follows the rules. The German part fills out his time sheet so the Irish part can get paid and go out drinking.

But I digress.

So, today’s assignment is to go get this little book and inhale it. Its title sorta says it all: Manage Your Day-To-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, & Sharpen Your Creative Mind.

Authors Jocelyn Glei and Scott Belsky have filled this book with cool chapters full of brilliant advice and titles like “Training Your Mind To Be Ready for Insight” and “How To Create Amidst Chaos.”

The chapters are short (perfect for us ADD’s) and the book isn’t but 240 pages long. I highly recommend it. There are tons of books out there about creativity (mine included) but very few address this issue of using discipline to sharpen one’s creative edge.

Ad School Ain’t Like School School. (Or “Problem Finding VS Problem Solving.”)

Here’s the thing. I went to a School School but now I teach at an Ad School. And it’s really different.

At School School, you study the books they assign you, do the homework they give you, take the tests they hand out in class. You’re checkin’ the boxes so you can make your parents proud and get good grades.

Good grades are fantastic if you want to be a certified public accountant or a lawyer. (Please, don’t be a lawyer.)

However, for those of you trying to get into the ad business (or any creative industry for that matter), let me assure you that no recruiter or CD will ever ask you what your GPA was. They will not care what school you attended, nor will they care if you even graduated. All that counts is your book. “Show me the work” comes before “Show me the money.”

But getting to a great ad portfolio is very different — and much harder — than getting great grades.  Mostly because there’s a single correct answer for any test question, one you can usually find written down somewhere in a book. A great portfolio, on the other hand, is a big hot mess of mind-roastingly cool ideas pulled out of the thin blue air and executed so well they raise the hair on an interviewer’s arms. But the main difference is this: the really great books are the ones filled not with problems someone solved, but problems they found.

Problem finding is way cooler than problem solving. Problem solving is easy. You just wait at your desk and after a while someone brings you a problem to solve. And even if it’s a hard problem, it still has an answer, maybe several, but there is an answer.

The thing about problem-solving in advertising? It’ll never take you to an entirely new place. And if you’re not doing something entirely new, well, it’s a little bit like this marvelously snarky news item from The Onion.


“LOUISVILLE, KY–With great fanfare Monday, Taco Bell unveiled the Grandito, an exciting new permutation of refried beans, ground beef, cheddar cheese, lettuce, and a corn tortilla. ‘You’ve never tasted Taco Bell’s five ingredients combined quite like this,’ Taco Bell CEO Walter Berenyi said. ‘With its ground beef on top of the cheese but under the beans, it’s configured unlike anything you’ve ever eaten at Taco Bell.’”

See? You’re just sorta reorganizing things, stuff we’ve all seen before. But problem finding?

Problem finding is about exploring a thing so thoroughly, digging so deep, and thinking so creatively, that you begin to see around corners, and start asking questions — usually really stupid questions – and finally you flip the game so hard on its head that instead of thinking outside the box you sell the goddamned box on eBay and reinvent the problem, opening a hidden door that leads to more doors that all open into new and interesting places.

Remember, there was no job order for, say, Halo, or iTunes. Nobody walked in anyone else’s office and said, “Damn, if only you could solve this problem.”

Back in school, yeah, we solved problems; we sought order and found it in the predictable corners of the isosceles triangle. But in ad school, we’re looking for solutions to problems we don’t even know we have. Think about it. What “problem” did Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band solve?  What problem did YouTube solve?

Where problem solving ends after you solve the problem, problem finding means you’re just gettin’ started. And these cool discoveries, almost all of them happen out of a sense of play, not work, but play; they come out of the clear blue; out of a “Hey what if we…”

This leads me to a piece of advice I see becoming more and more relevant: “Always be inventing.”

Inventing means making something new; which is basically problem finding in my book. Inventing things uncovers new problems because with each iteration of a new idea, we see what are called “adjacent possibilities,” the definition of which somebody (can’t find the source just now) put this way: “The adjacent possible is what can be done with the next iteration using the elements present in this one.” The boundaries of the adjacent possible just keep growing as you explore the boundaries; doors opening onto doors.

So, don’t worry about grades. Just keep inventing.

(Or if you prefer, the Ellen-DeGeneres version from Finding Nemo: “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.”)


Recent interview from some nice folks in Romania who were kind enough to translate it back into English.

I never cured a disease or saved someone's life. But I wrote a book that didn't suck. Woo hoo.


Sorry I haven’t posted in awhile. Cardinal sin of bloggers, not to create new content. That, and sucking. But anyhoo, here’s an interview I did a while back with some nice folks in Romania.

Here was their very nice intro. (I promise, the interview’s more interesting.)

Luke Sullivan is included in the Business Insider’s top of the most influential marketing people today. Accumulating over 30 years of experience in the industry, he has worked for agencies such as The Martin Agency, Fallon, and GSD&M and won awards at all the major advertising competitions, including D&AD, One Show and Cannes Lions. In 1998 he released the first edition of Hey Whipple, Squeeze This A guide to making exceptional ads (the official Romanian translation: Hei, Whipple, incearca asta – Un ghid pentru a crea reclame de exceptie), included in the bibliography of every adman and considered a Bible in the field. Now at the 4th edition, Hey Whipple was included in the Ad Age top of the most important media and marketing books of all times. Last year, Luke Sullivan gave up his agency job and started teaching, becoming the Chair of the Advertising Department at the Savannah College of Art and Design. He continues to write about advertising on his blog and his Twitter account and he holds conferences that have an important merit: they don’t suck.

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I grew up on the streets of… nope, not even the streets of, but the back roads of Rochester, Minnesota. My dad was a surgeon at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Oh, have I mentioned yet that my second book just came out? It’s the perfect answer to this question because it is a memoir: Thirty Rooms To Hide In: Insanity, Addiction, and Rock ‘n’ Roll in the Shadow of the Mayo Clinic. Oh, I have mentioned it then? Good. Didn’t want to not mention it. My new book, that is.

As a child, I dreamed of becoming Steve Ditko or Jack Kirby, the famous artists who brought Marvel Comics to life. Them, or the Beatles.

(Just checking. I did mention my new book, right? The Thirty Rooms one? I did? Okay, sorry. Proceed.)

This picture of me being Superman was taken in August ’65 on top of the great house I describe in Thirty Rooms To Hide In. (And for those interested, there are more family photos and movies at the book’s official site,

The craziest thing I did in highschool is that I wrote, printed and distributed a small book calculated to tick the school officials off. Titled “Student’s Guide to Better Skipping, Smokig, and General Misconduct”. It worked. We had this Nazi named Thatcher who called me into his office to yell at me about the book. If I called a kid in today about somethin’ like this, I’d be upset if, like, the layouts were crap, or there was too much kerning or something.

In college I was the guy who thought it might be a cool idea if we called the dorm elevator up to the 9th floor, and then ran up to the 10th floor and forced the doors open, hop on the top of the car and go “ride the ‘vators.” Oh, my poor mother.

Being a stand up comedian about a year and a half in 1981 helped me learn how to present. I can think of no better preparation for pitching work to clients than doing stand-up. You have just the microphone and the curtain behind you to tell a story and make people laugh hard enough to remember you. You can’t fake it. You can’t have a second try at it. You just gotta go out there and kill. Does wonders for your confidence.

I decided I wanted to work in advertising when I was going through all these old school papers and things my Mom had saved for me. They were all drawings and stories, drawings and stories, and I thought, man, what else is like that? I knew right then.

My current relationship status with advertising: We are seeing other people now. I am now the Chair of the Ad Dept at the Savannah College of Art & Design. This gives me the opportunity to concentrate on helping others get into the same business I’ve had so much fun in all these years.

Not working in an ad agency anymore makes me breath a deep sigh of relief. I don’t have to worry whether I’m going to come up with the big idea before 9am tomorrow. I don’t have to worry whether a client is going to take its account into review. But I still have worries. Like, whether or not the kids in my class are really getting it, or just seem to be getting it. But it is nowhere near as bad a worry.

What is great about working in advertising is that I got to work with the funniest, smartest people in America. I never had the same day twice. And I never had to pick up something heavy here and carry it over there and put it down.

I like to fish insights from anywhere but work. I used to have to take the train from Richmond to Philly. Loved sitting in the dining car, my writing pad open, and watching the fall colors whip past the window.

That second book started off in the year 1992, mostly as a family project. A project that provided a snapshot of my family during those terrible years when my father was insane. I was just going to gather all the letters my mother had written to her grandfather, as well as all the diaries my brothers kept during those years and sort of turn it all into one big copy-heavy scrapbook. But as the project grew over the years (it took forever) I realized, wow, this is a heck of a story with all these letters and photos and diaries and so what if I just tried writing the story instead of pasting its pieces together.

Is there anything  in Hey Whipple, Squeeze This with which I would not agree anymore with what I’ve said? Well, I appreciate you giving me an out like that, but I’ve had the opportunity to refresh it through 4 editions. I wasn’t ready to tackle the digital revolution until I could at least talk about it intelligently, if not fluently. I almost started writing about it in the third edition, put if off. Then I realized, dude, you’re never gonna be an expert in this stuff. It changes way too fast to think that you can put some definitive piece into a paper-based book that’s reprinted every 4 years. So, I took the summer off in 2011 and just sorta wailed on it. Every chapter was scrubbed and rewritten with digital in mind. Most of the examples in the book were updated. And Chapters 5 and 6 are where I focused hardest. I still kinda dig my title for Chapter 5: “Concepting for the Hive Mind”. Yeah, the 4th edition is the one to get; has the grey-ish cover. It’s also available as an iBook and for that platform I made sure the cool examples mentioned in the text were linked. So if you wanna see a famous TV spot, click, and you’re watchin’ it. It doesn’t suck.

I believe that digital changed advertising completely and totally. There is no more digital revolution. It is over and digital won.

The most rewarding moment in my career was when I refused to work on a tobacco account.

I feel most frustrated when I can’t get a great idea out of the agency. That means you have traitors inside the castle walls. Ads are supposed to die valiantly in battle with the client out in front of the castle walls; not get a shiv between the ribs in the wine cellar.

My best sources of inspiration are reading, movies, and TV. But mostly reading.

When I’m online, I am always checking The Onion. I think it is the funniest print being written these days. I always check out the new trailers on the appletrailers page. I update my blog. I like to see all the cool stuff my friends have posted on Facebook. I like Tweetdeck because I can use it as a weather post to see what people are talking about, as well as a sign post – to point people to other cool sites, or my blog.

The reason I have a blog is that I’m a writer. And writers ought to be writing. If you’re not writing, well, then you’re not a writer. Right?

The best piece of advice I ever received from someone in the industry is “Start from where you are.” That actually came from a speech by author Anne Lamott. It’s advice I now give to people who are overwhelmed by the size of a campaign they have to do. I liked the advice so much, I devoted a blog entry to it.

More than talent, creatives should have curiosity and outside interests. Oh, and not be a douche-bag. I’m leery of hiring kids who have no outside interests. To not be passionately interested in something outside of your stupid job? That’s just creepy. Curiosity is also a must. If you’re not innately curious, why did you even get out of bed this morning? Don’t you wanna know where the digital economy is headed? Don’t you ever wonder why we only see one side of the moon and never the other? You know how they say never to go grocery shopping when you’re hungry? Because you’ll buy everything? I feel the same way about going to book stores. Because I’m goin’ in stupid and there is so much in there I gotta know about. And lastly, don’t be a douche-bag. Nobody good will want to work with you and you’ll soon find yourself starring in the movie “The Lone Douch-Bag”.

I think a great speech should be equal parts substance and entertainment. If it’s all substance, well, it may not suck but it’ll be more of a lecture, won’t it? And if it is all entertainment, well, then you’ve just wasted an audience’s time doing stand-up. I work very very hard to make sure my speeches don’t suck. When people book me, they know they’re getting more than just some ad dinosaur who’s gonna show slides of his 14th century portfolio. I work very hard to stay current (hey, when you teach, you have to) and I work hard to make sure the material is presented in a way that’s either really funny or just “Oh, wow, I never thought of it that way”.

My advice to all the juniors who want to create great advertising is study the masters. Read all the awards books. Study the working masters, too. Read all the best advertising sites (the best of which is, according to some – me – Read all the great books out there on advertising. There aren’t many and I listed my favorite 30 or so in the back of Hey Whipple. For juniors, there is no better book out there than Vonk & Estin’s Pick me: Breaking Into Advertising and Staying There. And lastly, for the first couple of years, listen waaay more than you talk.

Radio is my favorite medium. I think it is the very toughest one to work in. So I am doubly pleased to have my favorite career-long work be a radio campaign for a technical school in Minneapolis called Dunwoody Technical Institute. It was one of those small break-even clients we occasionally did at Fallon.

A good headline is ‘Lose the ability to slip out of meetings unnoticed’ (The Economist).









Let me show you two print ads from my students.





































I love the print ad for the Boston Bruins done by one of my SCAD student’s Ariel Heinnman. I like it because she wrote it and she’s an art director. The great creatives can always do both. I like how she uses the phrase “inside voice.” Such a nice matronly thought to appear in an ad as mean as this. I like how politically incorrect it is. And though you can’t see it, I like the whole idea behind her campaign which is “Save The Crying For Baseball”.

I love the Vespa ads from my student Nicole Corely. She’s a writer (and just landed a job at GSD&M). I loved her Vespa campaign for the headlines but she also did a pretty good job art directing, considering she’s a writer. I like how she cropped out the face of the person in the Vespa. Makes it easier for the reader to sort of put herself in the picture. My fave headline from this campaign was based on a truth and went something like “No One Ever Pulls Up Next to a Buick and Asks to Take a Picture”. I may be butchering that line, but the truth is still there.

In Hey Whipple, I described some of the common horrible clients you’re all likely to meet out there during your career. Let’s see, there’s the Meat Puppet, the skinny little product manager who runs on fear and kills everything. There’s a place called Pablum Park, where they don’t really have anything to advertise but want to look at some advertising anyway. There’s the Bully, any mean-spirited MBA who is certain he is right. And then there’s any agency or client that has one of those huge research machines in the basement, the worst being the one called the Koncept Krusher 2000. Those are just the main ones of the Bad Client Ecosystem. In the end, the ones I had the worst time with were those who were dishonest.

The best clients are the ones that have a good product and want to make money with it, realize they are not the communication experts and so rely on your judgement. Also, I love clients who are just delightful people. I mean, come on, this is just advertising we’re talking about here. Can’t we all have fun while we work on this stuff? Clients like these are the ones I worked hardest for. Partly because if I failed, damn, it’s because I failed. There was no client to blame it on.



Is Your Ad Complete Bullshit? Try This Simple Test.

Your Bullshit Laboratory

Most of us grow up with pretty finely tuned bullshit detectors. The thing is, this technology is getting better every day.

In fact, over the years, I think bullshit-detection technology has more than kept pace with computer technology, to the degree that kids today have BS detectors picking up readings as low as one-part-bullshit-in-a-million.

Interestingly, many of these same kids – these wonderful cynical rebels – will, when asked to create advertising, revert quickly to bullshit. They aren’t stupid. They’ve simply grown up listening to all the horrible advertising out there and, hey, when you grow up in France, you speak French.

This is why I ask beginning students to forget every single thing they think they know about advertising and keep only their disdain for most of it. I ask them to be honest and to just talk. Yes, I want them be interesting, to be funny, or dramatic, but to just talk; not bullshit.

As a test, I give students this process, one they can apply to their own work to see if it qualifies as bullshit.

Pretend you’re sitting next to some guy at a bar and you’re talking about the product you’re advertising which, today, let’s say it’s some chain restaurant. And this guy asks you, “So, tell me again why I should go to this place?” You take a big slug of beer, look ‘im in the eye, and you say….

“The flavors of ancient Italy will tantalize your nose and suddenly you’re in Rome.”

This is where he slugs you.  > POW! <

You’re on the floor lookin’ up wondering what just happened. Well, what happened is you decided your bar buddy was an idiot and he’d believe any insipid, bullshit cliché you come up with.

So, that’s my little test.

Look your best friend in the eye and speak your message. Can you say it with the same authenticity and unadorned honesty as you would tellin’ her what the weather is?

If you can, you’re not advertising. You’re just tellin’ someone about this cool thing you heard about. And what’s wrong with that?

One of the best pieces of creative advice I was ever given.

Anne Lamott is the author of one of my favorite books on writing – Bird By Bird. The title itself is one of the first lessons Anne gives us, in which she recalls having to write a long report about birds for school. She was daunted by the size of the project and finally in frustration asked her dad, “How am I ever going to write this?!?” And her wise father answered, “Bird by bird, Anne. Bird by bird.”

And so it goes with all of our creative projects, be it writing, art, or film.

Creative projects are daunting. In fact, the more we care about a project, the scarier it is, the larger it begins to loom over the measly 24 available hours in our day. Setting out, we begin to see all the wonderful angles we might explore, all those interesting byroads, and the creative mind, it runs down the road ahead of us, sees other wonderful roads which start to fork away, oh wow, they go in all directions, they multiply, they go fractal, kaleidoscopic and … we freeze. We tighten up and pull back.

This is when resistance to writing usually kicks in. Happens to me all the time. In fact, the way I procrastinate is to “do research.” Well, gathering material and backstory may, in fact, be an essential part of the problem-solving process, but I use it as a crutch or, rather, a hidey-hole.

“I can’t possibly begin to write this! Don’t you see how MUCH there is I don’t know?”

Recognizing that we are indeed resisting work is the first step. So we take a deep adult breath and tell ourselves, “It’s time to start, dear.”

Start … okay. Fine, start … but how? This big-ass project? It’s still here, spilled all over my desktop, its file folders obliterating the once serene screen-saver picture of the lake, the lake I’m never going to sit next to because of this damn project.  Fine! I’ll start! But where? Where do I start?

And again, Ms. Lamott comes to our rescue with another piece of calm and loving advice.

“Start from where you are.”


When you think about it, how can we start anywhere else? We have to start from here. And yet most of us want to somehow maaaaybe just think our way down the road a piece, not far, you know maybe start mapping out the journey, just sorta get a grip on this dang thing, maybe also get the 30,000-foot view of all the different roads and, dammit, LET’S SOLVE THE WHOLE STINKIN’ THING RIGHT NOW! And again, our mental wagon train grinds to a halt before we even start west.

“Start from where you are.”

So, this is the piece of advice I have most loved. I remember using it recently while writing a book. A book seems pretty daunting, no? Well, it was for me. There it sat in my computer, non-existent, completely unwritten, with different chapters all screaming for immediate attention.

The thing is, there was one scene I’d recently been thinking about. I couldn’t wait to write this particular scene but the problem was this scene was from smack dab in the middle of the story. I can’t start there. Can I?

And I did.  I started exactly there. This scene, from waaaaay in the middle of the story, was the part I was most excited about writing, which made it exactly the right place for me to pick up the big project. I could worry about the opening chapters later. I could worry about the end later. But simply by picking up this one part that interested me, I was able to keep at it, to stay bent over my keyboard for the longest time; and enjoy doing it.

Thanks, Anne. And now I pass it on to you guys. See that part of your big project that’s the most interesting piece? Start there.

Why Creatives Shouldn’t Get Married To An Idea. (As explained in an original one-act play.)

Oh, metaphors, I love you so much.


(Curtain rises)


CLIENT: It’s in here. The sink is just totally clogged.

PLUMBER: No problem. Sounds like a hairball. It’s almost always the U-trap.

CLIENT: I’m pretty sure it’s a problem with the toilet.

PLUMBER: I thought you said the sink is clogged.

CLIENT: Oh yes, that is the problem. But I think you reeealllly oughta work on the toilet.

PLUMBER: ______

CLIENT: See, most of the guys in the office say the same thing. The toilet.

PLUMBER: Ummmmmm, okay. But …. okay…. but in order for me to work on the toilet, I’mmmmm… gonna have to go in through the sink’s U-trap.

CLIENT: Ooookay, you’re the “expert.” But I’m pretty sure the hairball is in the toilet and that’s  the problem with the sink.


PLUMBER: Heeeeere’s your problem. Like I said, it was a hair…

CLIENT: Fine, whatever, now if you will please put that hairball back in the U-trap and check the toilet like I asked.


PLUMBER: Well, it’s like I said. Listen, it’s a little late, and so if you want that hairball out, I can do it now or just leave.

CLIENT: I hate it when you plumbers act like you know alllllll about plumbing.

PLUMBER: Sir, I’m sorry but… I’ve been doing this stuff for goin’ on 25 years and I’m tellin’ ya, it’s a hairball in the U-trap.

CLIENT: Fine. …. Fine…. Just get it out.


PLUMBER: See? This is your hairball. From the U-trap.

CLIENT: (Appraising the hairball, looking at it from 3 different views) Good effort….but that just isn’t quite the hairball I was looking for. I was seeing something more in a spherical shape or more like a capsule shape, you know, sort of like a big pill.


CLIENT: Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE your hairball, it’s a great start. But if you could just show me three other hairballs, I’m pretty sure I’ll know it when I see it.


CLIENT: (Calling out the front door to the departing plumber) And did your hairball have to have a wedding ring all tangled up in the middle? I mean, what’s that about? Is your hairball married?  Wait’ll Mrs. Hairball hears about this!

Guest blog appearance, by Chanpory Rith of

Thank you to author Chanpory Rith of for this marvelous little lesson.

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What 50 pounds of clay can teach you about design.

A 3rd-year graphic design teacher, Alison Woods, once told a parable from “Art and Fear” that’s still stuck in my brain all these years later.

A ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot—albeit a perfect one—to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and something curious emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work—and learning from their mistakes—the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than a pile of grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Even today, I find myself sometimes in the “quality” group, trying to get it perfect on the first try. I have to remind myself of the two lessons this parable teaches:

1. Don’t drown in the details.

Designers seem prone to obsessive-compulsion. We fight over details like kerning, pixel dimensions, and PMS colors. While being meticulous should be every designer’s trait, diving into the details too quickly can drown you. To use a common metaphor, it’s like rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic. Designers, especially juniors, need to be especially aware of this tendency.

[In her great book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life] writer Anne Lamott talks about the “shitty first draft,” the first piece of writing “where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place.” Like the prudent half of the pottery class in our parable, Anne lets herself put down as many ideas as possible without the burden of perfection. She makes mistakes, but it’s okay, because she knows she can evaluate and refine them later.

2. Quality improves with each iteration.

Like writing, designing is also a process of generating good and bad prototypes, along with editing and revisions. With each revision, quality increases. I suspect it would work well for all types of design and creativity.

Shooting one idea through the lens of another.

(A small excerpt from the new fourth edition of Hey Whipple, Squeeze This.)

In a screenwriting book I read years ago I stumbled on this basic Hollywood trick that seems to apply to what we do here in advertising. To create a story, the author said, “Create one world and then look at it through the eyes of another.”

Long before the term was popular, this author was talking about mash-ups. For instance, isn’t Bladerunner basically an old-fashioned gumshoe detective story seen from the future?  More recently we’ve had Cowboys and Aliens. I don’t mean to go all-sci-fi-geek on you, so how about Brokeback Mountain … which one could argue is sort of a Cowboys and Gay Guys. One world, seen through the eyes of another.

My point is this: thinking in terms of mash-ups may be a good mental exercise to add to your regular creative process; a doorknob you’ll want to rattle as you search up and down the hallways of your brain for ideas.

One of my very favorite mash-ups was a piece used to create talk for Mingle2, a dating site. It was called Zombie Harmony, a dating site for the undead. It’s worth a visit.

For an Aussie beer named Tooheys, they mixed the worlds of money and beer. In this world, doing a favor like helping a buddy move was worth a bottle of Tooheys, while helping him move in with your ex-girlfriend would cost him a case.

Another way to start the mash-up engine is with a meme. Take a popular cultural image or saying and shoot it through the world of your client’s brand. Kit-Kat candy bars started a nationwide buzz by taking the whole silly Shroud-of-Turin, Jesus-on-toast thing and mixing it with the world of candy. (Figure 6.4) Voila, you have Jesus on a Kit-Kat, a “story” that was planted in Facebook and eventually picked up by the news media (on what I can only hope was a very slow news day).


Memes are in great supply on YouTube, as are mash-ups. With a few edits, The Shining + comedy became a trailer for a happy family movie. You can also mash up media. Foursquare is Google Maps + social. And Google Maps + Twitter = Twittervision, a site displaying the location of tweets and tweeters in real time.  And TiVO + lots of marijuana = the Domino’s/TiVO ordering service that lets furniture vegetables order pizza without having to stop watching The Princess Bride for the 800th time.

Good Creative People are NEVER Bored. (or) What I learned at the “George W. Bush Presidential Li-Berry.”

Recently, Heidi Ehlers, (Creative Career Consultant, and founder of Heidi Consults, told me about a lesson she once learned from her mother. Heidi had just moped into a room to whine to her mother, “Momma, I am so bored.”  And her mother responded, sagely if a little coldly, “No my dear, you are boring.”

Sue me if you want, but I agree with Heidi’s mom and want to pass along some advice to students everywhere: If you are even capable of being bored, I don’t wanna hear it. In fact, never let on to anyone, especially your creative director, that you have the kind of intellect capable of being so switched-off it can be bored.

When you say, “I was so bored this weekend” you’re stating that you find the entire universe – in all its mystery, in all its explosive beauty, in all its fractal complexity –  that the entire universe bores you. Saying “I’m bored” suggests  you’ve in fact seen  and thought of every interesting thing in the universe, read every book, been down every street, looked into every window, talked to all 7 billion people and that until some NEW material comes along, frankly, you’re not at fault for mopin’ around the house and draggin’ your knuckles a little bit. “Sorry, but there’s  nuthin’ ta DO.”

I simply cannot imagine a smart person being bored, ever.

I try to picture Albert Einstein moping around his house with “nuthin’ ta do.” I can’t. I try to imagine, say, Malcolm Gladwell hangin’ out over at Paul McCartney’s house and they’re tossing cards into an upturned hat, both grumbling about how bloody boring everything is. I can’t. I try to imagine George W. Bush  and …  well, that’s a fairly easy image to conjure.

(There’s W at his ranch. His cable is out which means he can’t watch NASCAR so he’s out on his porch waiting for the cable guy, munching on Cheetohs and as he reads the back of the bag, his lips move.)

The other day someone told me how bored he was and the metaphor came to mind of a street drunk asleep on the steps of the public library, his brain an insensible dollop of meat loaf  idling  at the feet of the stone lions in front of the vast cathedral of knowledge; his back to kaleidoscopic mystery of existence, his legs twitching, and his sputtery little two-cylinder mind, idling, twitch-dreaming of some Sterno-numbing pleasure, perhaps a People magazine.

Perhaps I am too harsh, but if he’s waiting for this watchman to prod him along down the sidewalk with my nightstick, forget about it. Be bored. Yawn into the abyss. The rest of us will be too busy inhaling all the knowledge and experience  we can before our time is up and our candle gutters. We will never be bored. Good creative people are naturally interested in everything, curious about everything.  They inhale the world.

Beautiful Cities (While Nice) Are Not A Requirement For Creativity

I couldn't work here. Seriously.

Advertising is an itinerant business. I tell students when you step out of school and into the river of commerce, let the current take you where it may. Yes, you can have your target cities, your preferred agencies, but the creative process and the creative life are unpredictable and full of unexpected left turns.

I was lucky and grew up in an area that had five or six great agencies already going strong. I’ve also been lucky not having to move too many times over the course of my career. I’ve lived in Minneapolis, Richmond, Atlanta, Austin, and now I am here – in the incredible city that’s home to the Savannah College of Art & Design.

I’ve found something to love in each of these five cities but this Savannah gig is a bell ringer. See, the thing is, for the last 20 years this is where I’ve come for our family vacations. (To the Savannah airport and then onto a 90-minute drive through the Low Country to a small paradise known as Fripp Island.)

Today I find myself driving into work down streets that, had the gods been art directors in my class, I might’ve said, “Hey guys, don’t ya think you oughta pull it back a bit? I mean, it looks kinda fake. Sorta over-done?” Filtered through a canopy of live oaks and Spanish moss, the sunlight lands in playful patterns on the dashboard as I pass antebellum homes from the pages of Architectural Digest and Forrest Gump.

The beauty of this city has inspired many artists to create marvelous work, the most visible perhaps being that great book Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil.  But for my money, I don’t need a beautiful place in order to be creative. And neither do you.

Yes, it’s fun to live in creative communities like Savannah or Austin. But if fortune carries you to some little Midwestern town known more for its giant ball of twine than its agencies, remember this: when it comes time to actually sit down and be creative I’ve always found the fewer distractions the better.

Creativity, at least the kind I’ve been practicing in advertising over the years is an inward pursuit. I’ve spent years in my head running up and down hallways, rattling doorknobs to see where things go, rotating visuals in my head, arranging and rearranging just the right words. The last thing I need while I’m trying to do all this internal heavy-lifting is a distraction from the real world.

In an interview author Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections) said he keeps a small office with nothing in it but a table and a chair that both face a white wall.  Furthermore, he can’t screw around on line as the wireless connection of his laptop is disabled. He’s not the first writer this finicky. Marcel Proust worked in a cork-lined room.

When I work, I may not require cork but I do want a small room with no stuff in it; just a coupla chairs and a desk. No windows, please; I’d just end up staring out of them wondering stupid stuff like, “I wonder where Spanish moss comes from?” Adler Hall, where we SCAD ad geeks do our stuff, has very few windows and that’s a good thing.

Ah, but even when we don’t have external distractions like windows, we creative types will make distractions — we’ll text, we’ll flirt, we’ll browse.  We do all this because of what’s called “creative resistance.” It’s a sort of self-imposed writer’s block that creative people practice when faced with a creative challenge. Oh, we’ll sit down to work but we’ll leave the TV on, or keep our email open nearby as a sort of trapdoor we can sneak through when the ideas aren’t coming and the anxiety grows.

It may help you to acknowledge you probably employ this defense mechanism from time to time; and to promise yourself when you sit down to work, to commit to it completely. Unplug your landline, turn off your smart phone, turn off the email, find a pen and paper, turn away from the window, put your feet up, and give it your whole mind.

So whether you live in a sterile suburb of Cleveland or the most heavily-mimed area of San Francisco, remember, creativity is an internal act. You can be extraordinarily creative no matter where the river takes you.