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November 9, 2010
If You’re Going to Steal, Choose a Nice Neighborhood

As much as I love staring into this thing that I am writing on right now, I don’t love it as much as holding a book. Especially when it’s a book full of work created by people whom I admire in the ad or design business. The new books and the old books. The ones that come out once a year and the ones that come in the mail every month. The ones from Germany and England and, of course, the ones from New York and California. I love to look at advertising/design award show books. Now, that doesn’t make me unique at all as this is the business I have been in for the better part of two decades. What it does make me is a thief, and in the past 18 years, I’ve stolen a king’s ransom.

Of course, I don’t mean actually stealing ideas verbatim or even close to it. I mean stealing the nuances that make great work great. More specifically, stealing from people whom I respect. I am a writer by trade, so more times than not that means pouring over the works of writers I admire. Looking at the way they structure sentences, incorporate pop culture into ideas, and the way they write to photos. Over the years, I’ve stolen from the likes of Ed Jones, Mark Nardi, Janet Champ, and Luke Sullivan. In fact, I raided Ernie Schenck’s vault of writing so many times that he eventually hired me to work for him at Hill Holiday.

However, stealing in this sense is not really stealing but being derivative. It’s something that is not simply relegated to the advertising business but in all creative ventures. The Rolling Stones stole from Robert Johnson and even got their name from a Muddy Waters song. The Replacements were never shy about the fact that they ripped from Big Star. It’s much the same in film, painting, and photography. The hardest part is not getting over the fact that one is stealing or deriving, it’s figuring out who to steal from. Back to the music analogy, it’s understanding why The Ramones' house was ransacked while Reo Speedwagon’s was left virtually untouched.

As a creative director, sometimes the hardest part about working with younger creatives is convincing them that deriving from the work of others is a good thing. It’s healthy, and it’s part of the process. Just the other day I was working with a young art director who was struggling with a project. He was trying to create layouts that had an emotional feel to them. I told him to spend some time looking at the work of John Doyle. He took my advice and within several hours had created a look that told an emotional story before any of the copy was even in them.

Looking at a blank page is terrifying for most creative people, so when coming up with ideas sometimes, it’s better to start by trading the blank page for a page from advertising or design history. And you don’t need a crowbar, all you have to do is pry open a book.

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With more than 20 years working in the advertising business, Dave Smith has written copy for BBDO, Hill Holliday, Boone Oakley and Ogilvy. His industry awards include Communication Arts, The One Show, and D&AD. Dave is now a freelance writer/creative director based in Nashville, TN. His website is davewordsmith.com
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