Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Honestly, questions like that should be making me a rather handsome consulting buck but I think the reason my money-bags are not exactly of cartoon bank robbery proportion, is that not enough people are asking that question - and even fewer are willing to pay for the answer. George and I had not seen each other in a few months and needed to catch up on many things conceptual and marketing-like. And there's nothing more marketing-like than generating buzz - that elusive commodity, that "where's my line-item in the contract for buzz fee?", that "why are they famous and I'm not" question. And if I had the answers, god, I should own my own island somewhere. But the thing is here, and all my consulting clients please note, it's not the answer that's so important - you might not even like it. What's important is that we are always all willing to search, willing to ask, willing to be not-so-goddamn-smug-and-sure-of-ourselves, and that, in and of itself, will get us simply better answers. What is paid for is the trip - the destination, if things go extremely well, is just a happy bonus.
George runs a, small in Vietnam, but internationally respected advertising brand (dreadful homepage) who's entire brand ethos revolves around a concept they call "Disruption" (much better page). In other days it's been called Breaking Through the Clutter or other things but it's basically the same idea. How to you make waves? How do you rock the boat? How do you get buzz? And how can you (or your firm) be celebrated, valued and in the end, paid by clients for producing this aforementioned elusive commodity? And the answer remains the same - the trick is in always trying. Creative Dissatisfaction it has been called. It's never good enough. Because if you don't try, you are absolutely assured, not to win.
George quickly called me on a post I had written about influences and high standards and reminded me that even my father, who held a ridiculously high standard in his business, had criticized me for this exact effect. But George then quickly added, "50% will love you and 50% will hate you. Deal with it." I can live with that. I could even play with the percentages a bit and not feel too badly. I know more than 50% of the people hate Lady Gaga and I'm sure she sleeps nicely at night.
Meeting George gave me a bit of hope after meeting with some other less than inspiring individuals in the last few weeks. I've met too many people just doing the bare minimum to not rock the boat and that's just not part of my composition. Even my design professor at university had come from a sports background and was just ferociously competitive - he loved to see his own students just scratch and claw to get that buzz. How competitive is your company? If the answer is "not very" - you can either fix it, or wait for the competition to figure it out. Stay curious, George. You are the competition.
Friday, October 22, 2010
"Sometime during the week of Oct. 11, the Chinese-language websites of the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal disappeared."
But the English language versions remained, as did the Chinese versions outside the country - so the message to students and digerati in censored countries the world over remains clear: If you want the whole story, read it in English.
"It's not clear exactly why the sites went dark, but the suspected reason is because the WSJ and FT covered in depth an open letter written by a group of retired Communist Party members that called for greater openness in media and less censorship. The letter was published briefly on various Chinese sites before being censored."
But the thing about the Internet is this: Once it's out there, it can still be found - maybe not on the front page of your local daily but it has already entered the mindset of the populace and there the discussion begins - although a discussion is exactly what the authorities were hoping to avoid.
As the economies in Asia move more towards trying to build a sustainable middle-class that supports their countries internally, as opposed to being primarily export driven, governments may look more towards joining the conversation as opposed to trying to squelch it - after all, isn't it a lot easier to just pick ones battles and fight the ones that matter, rather than trying to stop a billion farmers from going to a billion fences and having a billion conversations they're going to have anyway? Seems to be. But nobody has ever accused any government of being logical, or sensible.
'They're not going to go and piss off all of the expat business community, that would be going too far,' Peter Herford, a former CBS news producer who's now a journalism professor at Shantou University, told me by phone. 'But their own citizens, hell yes.'"
As Thailand endures its travails with Democracy and French 20 year-olds overturn and burn cars in protest of a retirement law that won't affect them for 40 years, it's hard to say that Democracy works better than other more authoritarian forms of government. "It's a perfectly lousy form of government" - but, as I have been able to see over the course of my overseas work, I still come up on Churchill's side when he said, "But it's the best we've got".
Last week we were fortunate to have a WWED story linked in the WSJ. I guess they just won't be getting it in Chinese :)
#1) I want to be spending more time with quality, intelligent, dedicated people who are doing their best to be the best at what they do.
#2) I need to be spending more time with people who are being honest with me and in the end, honest with themselves.
And that's what my week boiled down to - two essential problems that I needed to work better through to help me avoid disappointment and associated depression - because when I'm not sleeping well or sleeping too much, I know something is not right.
Issue #1) That I need to be spending more time with passionate, intelligent people who are making a difference in their business - came up in a response to a blog post I did regarding Vietnamese advertising agencies not winning awards. One person actually wrote a response to my post almost defending, and then in the end making excuses for why his agency didn't even bother to enter the industry award shows. "We don't see the point" - he quoted his management as saying. And that made me sad. "Why even try to be better", it said to me. And that I thought was a very sad comment coming from a man who is actually in charge of a creative business here. Other contributors to my feeling along these lines were an old acquaintance in a bar insulting another guy for seemingly no reason, except to maybe make himself feel more superior and another person just chasing small money instead of looking at the bigger picture. Are my standards too high? Or do I just need to be spending more time with people who have similar standards? That seems to be my question.
Issue #2) That I need to be spending more time with people who are honest with me and in the end, honest with themselves - started with a personal relationship last year in which someone had been fabricating almost an entire lifetime for me. The psychological reasons a person would do this are varied and complicated and as of yet, unsolved, but suffice to say it shook my trust - more my trust in myself in being able to feel I could judge people well. A job I was offered recently lasted only two weeks because the people with the business had neglected to write a business plan and obtain the proper licenses to do what they told me they wanted to do. They weren't being honest with themselves and that in-turn caused them to not be honest with me. Should I have seen it? Should I have vetted them better? Yes. But I did my best and gained a new understanding into exactly how unplanned, idealistic and poorly researched people can be when starting a business. Nobody should expect it to be easy, especially if there is a lot of money involved.
So with these two reasons for general unhappiness, I ended a week. But how to solve? Saigon is full of bars but I have found them as of late to be less than inspiring for anything outside of football and girls - so I settled on fish and chips.
Ones favourite foreign meal can take on a special feeling when it comes to hard times and big issues. People call these meals comfort food. And that's exactly what I needed. A meal served as I perceived it, at a proper price and with all the associated accoutrements - this fish & chips, served at Sheridan's Irish Pub in Saigon came with cole slaw and mushy peas, and was plump and fried and exactly what needed - with a Coke to wash it all down. Funny how simple things can wash away larger doubts. Funny how familiarity breeds comfort as opposed to contempt in a foreign land.
The week would end in my meeting Barry - a man who, of all things, builds concrete buildings with a large Vietnamese construction company - not a very creative business at all you might say? But Barry addressed his subject with a passion and professionalism seldom seen in many businesses. He impressed upon me elements of design, engineering, quality and style that only a man at the top of his craft could do. Thank you Barry. I needed to meet a person with that positive attitude at the end of last week.
The following week would bring a truly unprofessional lawyer who would cause me to just scratch my head and say WTF? - but it would also bring an interview with Sandrine Lloquet, a French/Vietnamese visual artist and VJ who brings a more than interesting history and passion to her work. Surrounding ourselves with people who inspire and help us to do better is not always such an easy job. Last week reminded me that it is a job though and one that needs constant tending - something we should never forget.
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
Here's what she wants: email@example.com has requested to automatically forward mail to your email address David.E.Carlson@gmail.com.
Confirmation code: 68832064
Hello? No fucking way. I guess we are having a fight.
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
My, my, my. I called her lazy, yes - she said that insults cost more than lawyer malfeasance in Vietnamese court and now she wants to sue me and deport me. Shit. It's better than not working at all. If she continues on this rant, I could actually make money.
Here's the story:
I wanted to hire a lawyer to help me on a contract case a month old. Not a big case at all - but important to me. She proceeded to lead me on for 4 weeks, do nothing and then loose documents of mine and blame me for not having documents. Her office is a shambles of old desks with broken drawers and piles of paper but I am not on a large budget at all so I simply regarded that as part of her working scheme. She does seem intelligent. I write this blog to my Embassy, anybody who actually gives a shit about tiny matters and the Vietnamese Immigration authority. I don't like this woman very much at all because she has been summarily unprofessional.
I think she wasted four weeks on my case, was lazy, disorganized, lost documents and has been a complete sham. I've been told that she can sue me in Vietnamese court for insulting her. And well I did. I have called her a terrible lawyer, disorganized and a basic mess. And then she wanted to charge me money! Sue me girl. I have insulted you.
Sunday, October 17, 2010
And to our great curiosity, some other people were curious about that as well. Within hours of the WSJ posting we began to see hits from WSJ with the city of Washington D.C. being a top visitor. Now ain't dat sumthin'? WWED is now influencing top Washington policy wonks on the finer points of the Vietnamese advertising business! Thank you WSJ. Hi Obama! We'll take a hit wherever we can get one. Clearly, it was a slow news day...
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
That's the question I was faced with just months out of school. Armed with my fairly average portfolio of reasonably outdated technique from a not famous at all design program, I realized that the people who were getting the really good jobs had gone to really good schools - The Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Pratt, The School of Visual Arts, Parson's and the like. How could I compete with them? Or perhaps the better question was, how could I learn from them?
And so I set about studying and imitating and asking questions about the ideas behind the designs and rather than treat the competition like competition I regarded them more like professors. And I radically re-worked my portfolio for my three-year quest to get a job at the best advertising agency in town. I spent a summer vacation to fly to L.A. and visit the Art Center in Pasadena. I spoke with a counselor, looked at the more than impressive work and toured the beautiful campus high above the Rose Bowl on a small mountain. It was exhilarating - and expensive. $18,000 a year - in 1980. As much as I figured, even living with my uncle and trying to obtain California residency for a lower tuition, there would be no way I could ever afford that. And the program would be 2 years at $18k plus living expenses. In one instance I was inspired and in another despondent. It just wasn't possible. What to do?
So on my return to Dallas, I went back to work on my portfolio. And back to interviewing for a better job. I had an average job and probably a pretty good one for starters but nobody was doing the calibre work there that would make them, or me, world-class. And I wanted that.
Enter OJT - 'On the Job Training'. This is a term in the US that nobody in Asia seemed to understand when I used it with my staff in Korea. I put a producer on a plane and sent him to California to assist on some Kellogg's commercials so he could learn what a real Hollywood shoot was like. I took the whole creative team, writer, art director and producer to Chicago to film and they came back with an education that went far outside the dark studio we worked in all day. These exercises cost the company little (clients pay for production travel) and provided a real-world education to the staff on real business. OJT for sure.
Our producer from that job took a year off to work in Korean restaurant in L.A. so he could teach himself English. He then returned to production as a director for Korea's top film production house. I used to call him 'Tarantino' because he taught himself directing and editing by watching videos all day long.
Wanting to work in the graphic arts in some way, at 16 I worked for sign companies. I loaded trucks, mixed paint and learned how to paint signs from a man who had learned it in the Army. Next I drove a truck for a printing company. I delivered the final products - but I spent every extra moment upstairs in the design department talking to the creative director and designers. I'm sure they thought I was a terrible pest, but it was my job. It was my job to learn as much as I possibly could instead of flipping burgers or being a waiter, the other jobs on offer at the time - and it's not any different at all today for any other student.
I can't count the number of posts I see on LinkedIn, Facebook or Xing from people who want to know how to break "in" to a business. To be a stockbroker, a realtor, a writer, whatever. And the answer is never any different. Everybody has to start somewhere - so if you want to be a marketer, market a church event, or a school event. Want to write? Start a blog. Stock-broking for you? Start day-trading penny stocks today - plenty of housewives are doing it. Whatever it is you want to do, you have to make it your job before anybody else will ever make it your job for you.
Even at one point as a teenager, I wanted to improve my penmanship, so I bought an expensive German rapidiograph pen that would train me in respect for the craft of the written word, every single day I used it - and then I used it every day - as I still do today. The point being, that if you want to do something very well, better than others, you have to immerse yourself in that subject or craft as much or more than they do and make it not just a class, not just a job, but an integral part of your life - a part of your being.
How many guys want to be computer programmers but don't think of even programming the website for the restaurant they work for? The point here is that much of our education is waiting for all of us, outside in the real world - every single day. Why wait for somebody to start Facebook, become successful, write a book about it, and then have 1000 real genius college professors write books and lessons on that just so that they can 'teach' you something? That process takes 10 years, minimum, and by the time you get the education, the information is already old.
My plan was to pick the best and the brightest who were working in my business at the time, (and they were not working for universities) and then let them be my teachers. And that plan worked - to the amazement of almost everyone who knew me. Almost overnight I went from being a somewhat cute and funny guy who worked for pretty unspectacular companies to being some creative wunderkind who had charmed his way past the line of graduates waiting to get into the most award-wining company in town.
So that's how I got into design. How I published my first novel is another story entirely - one I'm still writing today. Just don't let me say 'I toldja so'.
Monday, October 11, 2010
"Many people (in Vietnam) are willing to give away a little bit of integrity in order to free their families from poverty. Given this fact, many officers who are paid at very low official wages are very much obliged to find extra income for their families through other unofficial means – which means bribery."
Look to the Koreans to sort this out. In 2003 an extra $300 to my "agent" would buy me a favour. By 2005 that wouldn't do. They simply increased staff salaries and enacted severe penalties and checks for corrupt behaviour. Want to kill corruption in Vietnam? Move more money to the people. Simple. Socialist. In line with the 'peoples party' idea.
Saturday, October 9, 2010
You're waiting for the answer aren't you? Are they lousy designers? Poor writers? Bad thinkers? No, it's much worse than that. Vietnamese agencies and studios don't win awards because they don't enter. It's that simple, and that silly. They don't win because they don't play, and there wouldn't be a punter on a football field worldwide who doesn't know that - but still the local companies continue not to enter, and continue not to win, because they don't even play the game. And so they stay in the same low-priced category that they and their fellow countrymen have destined the country to stay in, at least for a while.
I bring this up after a conversation with a Vietnamese firm about a design project in which the client was wanting to play on a world stage but the branding firm wasn't ready quite yet. Here a local firm, tops in their field, was running up against the Achilles heel of Vietnamese thinking - can a country that always competes on low price, ever break free of those economic chains and begin to make money by offering world class quality with Vietnamese flair? I believe they can, but I can tell you first hand, that there is absolutely no money to be made in trying to teach people that. That is a decision that students of all kinds, and certainly students of prosperity, must come to on their own.
The merits of advertising and design shows can be debated until the cows come home with detractors saying they're only good for further inflating egoistic creative craniums and supporters trumpeting the world acceptance of a company's product, higher service fees for that product, as well as the motivational aspects for staff and clients as well. I'm on the supporting side. Clients love winning awards for their work, so long as the agency pays the entry fees - and the staff benefits are immeasurable. Winning awards sets a real tone for a company - the tone of winners, the tone of players.
But luckily, a few of the multinational agencies are showing that the Vietnamese can do it and the Sun Flower Media company is sponsoring the Cannes Young Lions student competition here. Above, see Ogilvy & Mather Vietnam's campaign for motorcycle helmet wearing. While a little shock-valued for my taste the campaign was widely published in print, TV and outdoor and won international awards - bringing international kudos to the work of Vietnamese creatives. Two other campaigns from Saatchi and Saatchi Vietnam won Bronze Lions at Cannes - One for the Cu Chi Tunnel Museum and the other for international client Western Union. And where were the Western Union creatives from New York during this exercise? Apparently taking a nap while the Vietnamese cleaned their international clocks. The saying in New York goes, "If you can make it there, you'll make it anywhere", but I like to think we can do that here in Vietnam as well.
Many of us remember the days, not always so fondly, where products from Japan and Korea were considered cheap and low quality. No more. How many years will it take before products from China and Vietnam are regarded as world-class? Maybe not long at all - but before that can happen companies need to believe it can be so, and there's no better way to test the waters than by throwing your work into the international awards arena and seeing how it swims. Vietnam's marketing and design community has the talent to do it - all they need are Vietnamese company CEO's who have a desire to win and the staff to fill out those troublesome entry forms. It's time for Vietnamese companies to win a few trophies. All they need to do is get on the field.
This story made the Wall Street Journal 'Best of theWeb Today' on October 12, 2010. Scroll down through the Nancy Pelosi story under the heading: 'Questions Nobody is Asking'. We're the first story listed.
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
East&West Magazine Heartbeat Vietnam Story
(I)WHIDFYL I: American Airlines
(II)WHIDFYL II: Nintendo
(III) WHIDFYL III: Charles & Ray Eames
(IV) WHIDFYL IV: Heartbeat Vietnam
Saturday, October 2, 2010
So I thought today I'd go back, and look at the influences in my life, and see if I could uncover what my father has described my dyspepsia as: "He has had very good jobs through the years but does not like to work for someone else as he always thinks he knows more than they do. He has excelled in his positions but it is very hard for him to listen to what others are saying and to do what they request as he always thinks his ideas are better." My father described himself once as not one who fit in with his corporate management crowd because, as he in his own words stated, "I tell them what I think, not what I think they want to hear". And in his career he was rewarded as an electrical engineer with the most challenging projects in the firm - a Special Projects Engineer they called him, working on things like the Seattle Space Needle, St. Louis' Gateway Arch (designed by Eero Saarinen) and the Disney Haunted House in California. Other kids might have felt it was a big deal for their dad to have been a project engineer on the latest, greatest suburban shopping mall. But my dad did the Haunted House at Disneyland. How cool was that? And although I would never succumb to the lures of an electrical engineering job, certain parts of his career and behavior in that career stuck with me. His biggest accomplishments all had a picture associated with them. That stuck.
And I recall being influenced by Sr. Rose-Joseph at St. Mary's Catholic school in the second grade. In response to my seemingly fidgety and disinterested behavior in class, rather than reprimand me, she suggested that I could go into the coatroom during "quiet time" in the afternoon and prepare a science experiment for the class using my shiny new chemistry set with beakers and stuff you could set on fire or make Hollywood blood with. There were many things one could do with a chemistry set - but what I learned most from her, was that is was okay to be different - okay to be interested in things that other kids weren't. At least it was okay with some people - and that was okay by me.
Theatre, at the age of 13 was a huge influence as well. But not the kind you might think. As opposed to my being a big ham and lost in a world of fantasy, the theatre taught me a work ethic that did not discriminate between teenagers and adults. Director Bob Sonneville at Playcrafters Barn Theatre, a community theatre in Moline, Illinois would have no shenanigans from anyone on cast, be it drunk performances, late rehearsal arrivals or ad-libbed lines the actors thought were more inspired than the given script. The influence from this experience was that no matter what our age, were all still held responsible to what he considered professional behavior. And we were all treated as equals. This was not to be the same in school or the Boy Scouts. It's hard to learn to be lesser when you've already been encouraged to be more.
As I grew older school became less of an influence over real life. The work of Frank Lloyd Wright, Eero Saarinen, the Beatles, Bill Cosby as a story teller, Broadway musicals, literature, newspapers and eventually Todd Rundgren would infiltrate my suburban life. More would come later but these were pubescent adorations that scarcely any other teenager could share with me, except for maybe the Beatles (Thanks mom). I recall sometime around 1970 clutching my six dollars at the local department store and a copy of the Beatles "Abbey Road" album. My father told me not to waste my money as that record would be on sale in the dollar bin in six months. I chose not to head that advice and I don't believe that record has dropped in price since. Sometimes it's the things you don't do that stick with you - the advice not taken. Influence can work in two ways - for and against. There must be something good in that. That taught me choice.
Teachers from middle school had always recommended that I be a writer and so I did, in newspapers and magazines, from that time through university and on to to the present day. There has never been much money in that but it's an enjoyable spending of time - and then there are the reader's reactions, the high-fives in high school hallways, the Facebook kudos of today. There's an interesting oddity to being a writer. Nobody can quite figure out exactly what it is that you 'do'. But the analysis of that world just bores me shit-less. The breaking up and over-intellectualization of words, and groups of words and pages of words - as if professors have logically discovered some technical mathematics that will allow all of us to write like Shakespeare by following just a few simple rules. I find a great deal of literary criticism quite tedious. I must have better things to do with my time - like reading, and I've recently vowed to start reading more again. Dickens, Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, Tom Robbins, Richard Brautigan, Tom Wolfe, Ayn Rand, Hunter S. Thompson and Charles Bukowski have done okay until now. Dan Brown anyone? I don't think so.
But I don't recall ever really looking up to any of the writers I worked with in the newspaper business. They were all sort-of news cats and I was writing satire and finding, Art Buchwald, H.L. Mencken, The Firesign Theatre, Cheech and Chong and George Carlin to be the true journalists of the day - what John Stewart or Stephen Colbert may be today. But my influences were all well out of school almost as if few people in the school had much to teach me. With such a big world outside, why restrict oneself to the confines of those small academic words? None of my college professor's ever had a one-man show in New York, none were rock stars, and only one wrote a book of any note. One of my middle school teachers actually became a celebrated children's author. He was the one who encouraged me to write in the first place. He passed away in 2001 at the age of 61. I wish we had had Google before then.
But there was Tom. My best friend in high school. Tom was tall, good looking, sang in a barbershop quartet and was an artist - and chicks dug him. Recognized as the best artist in school, he had an easy-funky cartoon style that I spent hours on end trying to imitate, and never quite did. I have always said that any drawing skill I might have acquired has been a learned one as opposed to a natural one. My best work tends to be freehand and unstructured but teachers seemed to react most to things that were more disciplined and refined - and so I learned that, got better grades but never really became an artist in the traditional sense. My painting skills are dreadful. But Tom seemed to have been able to have done it all in a way that was 'commercial' enough for the critics to have pronounced it 'good'. And he had the pedigree for it as well. His mother had been an art teacher, his father, an advertising executive and his three brothers were all gainfully employed in the creative arts in some way. One a graphic designer, another, a toy designer and another, a lighting designer. Who knew you could find good jobs and live in nice houses with jobs like that? I didn't - until Tom. And so on my list of career influences, at least up to mid-university, Tom stands the highest. He and his family taught me what an art director was and what one avenue to the business of creativity was. They showed me a career which I might never have found without them. And Tom and I helped each other through that awkward stage of going from boys to men, with all the missteps, hilarity and heartbreak that one might expect of two idealistic kids, fresh off the farm. Somewhere, about 10 years into our professional careers, Tom and I would share a quiet moment on a dock at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin one evening and he would tell me that the difference in our careers up until that point, with mine at big agencies winning big awards, seemingly more successful than his at a smaller design company, was a difference of passion and drive. What I lacked in talent, he thought was made up for by my energy, ambition and selling skills. He confessed that a lot of his introduction to the artistic world had been a feeling that he had to be following in his family footsteps and not pursuing a true vocation. I, he thought, had taken it as a vocation. And at that point, I certainly had. Tom left graphic design and has built custom homes for any number of years now. So long as we find our vocation, nothing is lost. It's in not finding it, that we loose a part of ourselves - the ability to hold ourselves to a higher standard.
And higher standards were in no short supply as I entered university but I must say, I found no contemporaries in the graphic design department there. My roommates were my closest contemporaries and they were in the radio and TV and photography departments. The typography and design of Herb Lubalin, Saul Bass, and Helmut Krone decorated my dorm room walls but not a one of them had been introduced to me in school - rather, I bought a reasonably-expensive-for-a-college-kid subscription to Communication Arts magazine and began to teach myself - sort of like a kid going to a corn-fed college with a subscription to the Wall Street Journal thinking he was really going to be working on Wall Street one day. But I was the only kid in school who did that, because without it, I could never have withstood the technical drills we were run through without having first, fallen in love with the theory of it all. Bill Bernbach, Stan Richards and Leo Burnett would follow as influences, and I would work with one and another's ghost in my career to follow, but this was a nuts and bolts 'technical career' college, as my university explained it, and there was no 'advertising' program to be had. And so I enrolled as an 'independent scholar'. Armed with a full-ride scholarship from my state congressman, I took full advantage of having a politician behind me and proceeded to get busted for 'suspected marijuana smoking' the first week of school (with no conviction) and leveraged that into doing whatever I wanted in school for the next three years - the price being, that I had to interview business professionals in advertising and design fields and then write a curriculum for myself based on their recommendations and the courses available at the school, from no matter what department they might be from. To my knowledge, I was the only person in my, or many programs, to have chosen to have done that, but I was allowed to - just like Sr. Rose-Joseph allowed me to prepare my own experiments in the coat room while the other students took a break. I was on my way to learning that others would do whatever I needed, so long as I stated my case intelligently enough and enough times for someone to buy it. John Yack was our department head at SIU and although I can't recall a thing he ever taught me about design itself, I can tell you the almost military dedication he thrust on his assignments and the idea that it was going to be done to spec, on-time and with no BS was legendary. He also made us do 35 thumbnails for every design project before even allowing us to speak with him - a fantastic influence, I think every young designer or adman could follow. And a special note to Harlan H. Mendenhall, for giving me an "A" in public relations - I, having failed most of his weekly assignments and monthly drills - because I threw a free pizza and beer party for the Barnum and Baily Circus press corps. He taught me prioritization. "Nobody gives a shit if you fill out all the reports and don't get the job done", he said. "That pizza and beer party got the press out, and that's all we cared about!"
(For any aspiring adfolk, designers or writers who may be following this and wondering why I don't put links on all the people I mention, I can say this: "I can't be the only one doing all the frigging work around here!" Google em'!)
For me the working world proved a goldmine in influence. I was influenced by Mike Tesch and Ally and Gargano and Chiat/Day and Fallon/McElligot/Rice and Jerry Herring, Woody Pirtle, Pentagram, Sibley/Peteet, The Art Center in L.A. and too many more to count - but I ended up going to work for Stan Richards after more than cursory tutorials from Maxine Goldberg, Sharon Baca, Dave Dozier and Pat & Gail Beckman. And The Richards Group (TRG) was like I had just hit heaven on a low budget. Stan declared that my salary would need to be cut by about five thousand dollars, because I had lost my previous job and didn't really make that much anymore - in fact, I made nothing. When I told him I needed to think about it and spent the afternoon calling my old boss, Pat Beckman, and asking him if I should take the job, Beckman responded, "You moron! You're out of fucking work and Stan 'the man' just offered you a job? Take it you idiot! Before he changes his freeckin' mind!"
TRG turned out to be like working at the Library of Congress of advertising. All these guys, Glen Dady, Gary Gibson, Melinda Marcus - they were just words printed on pages for me - the pages of Communication Arts Magazine and that had been my college bible. And now I worked there. Who cares if I cleaned windows or not? I had made the grad school of creative degrees just by getting a job there. You can't believe how cool that was, and some days, I couldn't. But one of my greatest influences there was Pat Scullin. Pat is just a funny as hell writer and had once even held a job as an advance man for a circus.
Pat and I worked at TRG and then went on as partners at Bozell, on the American Airlines account. Most of the work on that business had been complete rubbish, thanks to our predecessors (save Artie Megibben) but the influences were there: from Ron Fisher, just being straight as an arrow on strategy and creative, to Mike Slosberg, swearing us off any advertising oriented storyboard routine and making us write screenplay introductions to 60 second television commercials - we got our dose. Other influences would be Ridley and Tony Scott and any other film director we could think of. Bad job? Not in a million. Pat and I got a Super Bowl commercial out of that deal, shot by Ridley's company. Was it any good? Who cares. We shot with Ridley friggin' Scott. Pat left that job, almost in the middle for a 'made to order' position, and I left shortly thereafter. Our American Airlines work was nominated for 4 CLIOS. We felt good, and moved on. Dennis McClain, later a partner there in what would become Temmerlin/McClain, also influenced me by telling me how he kept his shoes looking so new. "Buy four pairs of the same shoes", he said. "And then rotate them." I'm still thinking about that.
After that I moved to Earle Palmer Brown in DC. Doug McClatchy, who hired me, was a wonderful boss. He grew me up quickly and taught me how to lead a team. His replacement, Bill Westbrook, a famed CD at the time, could have been better. And so I learned about lesser influences at that time as well. My most positive influence at EPB was Joyce Rothenberg. Joyce was my client at Marriott and she taught how great client/agency relationships could yield fabulous work. We were partners, friends and just eager business people - and we did some of the proudest and most successful work of our careers up until that time.
At Leo Burnett the greatest influence, Leo himself, was already dead - and I can't say that any of my senior management were particularly inspiring in any creative way. I remember big fights about money and power and rumours of drug addiction and affairs amongst senior management and all the rot of a big ingrown institution - but not much about creativity. Those who had done well, the McDonald's creators of Michael Jordan and Larry Bird spots and the United Airlines people, never seemed to rise very high in management - but there was an influence there alright. The influence that told one to look outside that company for better influences. And so I did.
Enter CarlsonCreative, Inc. in Seoul, Korea. Towards the late 90s my big influences came from the dot-com boom and a raft of start-up advertising companies that were giving the big boys a run for their money. So my brilliant idea? Do the same thing, only do it in a place where nobody was doing it - and that turned out to be Seoul. But the problem in doing something that nobody's ever done before is that you run out of influences pretty quickly. You're on your own. And that means, that you must influence yourself. My lawyer was a great influence. He kept me on a business trajectory. And my financial planner was a huge influence. He approved our business plan. But after that, it was slim pickins. All my pals in the adbiz worked for big corporations and really had no idea what we were doing - and nobody else was doing what we were doing, not even the Koreans. But then, we became an influence. Our designer, Nam Mee Hyun won a New York Art Directors show award, and we rented a gallery to put the whole show up in Seoul. We were covered by ADWEEK magazine and even courted by some of the big agencies for purchase. But then we won business, big business, and continued to influence the industry. Going from looking for influences to being one was an interesting transition - but one, one can never retreat from.
These days my influences tend to be other people in business daring to tread their own path. Hugh MacLeod at Gapingvoid.com, Mads Monsen at his own studio, Nathalie at East&West, our client in Berlin and of course, Todd Rundgren, still, who has made an entire career out of treading his own path. So where I've gone is from my influences being further away to those being closer and much more tangible. Yes, of course, I'm influenced by Steve Jobs still, but that's almost like saying you're being influenced by Jesus these days. My point here, is that it's most important to have influences - secondly, to hopefully meet a few and learn from them, which I have - but most importantly, to eventually become one, and to become comfortable with that - and cluster those around you who are comfortable with that as well.
My father, and many others I'm afraid, take some issue with the idea that I have high standards and dislike working with those who don't. I've been told, more times than not, that I should dumb myself down a bit and I would get along better in our homogenized world. And where I've come out on the whole thing is that I'm just not very happy doing that. I'm a whole lot happier holding up my standards, holding up my heroes and trying to be better. It's not that I am better. I just want to be better. And that's what influences should encourage us all to do - every waking moment of our lives - Thanks Dad.
Friday, October 1, 2010
For more in the Travis Diaries, check here:
Sex: The Travis Diaries I
I'm a man, DAMMIT: The Travis Diaries II
Love: The Travis Diaries III
Tiger: The Travis Diaries IV
Ambivelence: The Travis Diaries V
Advertising People & Blogs: The Travis Diaries VI
What's Left?: The Travis Diaries VII
Year of the Tiger: The Travis Diaries VIII
She said: The Travis Diaries IX
Dreams: The Travis Diaries X
A Bad Day: The Travis Diaries XI
Svengali? The Travis Diaries XII
My Way: The Travis Diaries XIII