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May 31, 2006
Let’s See If My Metaphor Holds Up

Know what? You live longer and feel better eating full, balanced meals than snacking on crappy junk.

I know. I used to love snacking more than anything. In my career, I have moved to two different cities to eat potato chips. Mmm, potato chips. I’d had some tasty chips at the agency where I started out, but, y’know, curiosity and all that: what do other potato chips taste like? Couldn’t help but wonder.

So I moved to an ad agency famous for its ability to serve up snack. They served bland healthfood, too, that you had to eat so you could keep eating the potato chips. A lot of places do it that way: first the high-fibre protein mush, then you can have the junk food.

After awhile, I moved to another agency famous for its snackfoods. Their healthy meals were actually pretty tasty, too, but the portions were small. I started to realize that I was mostly there because I liked potato chips.

And what I missed were the really great suppers I’d had back home. Big, complete dinners with shrimp cocktail to start, a nice salad, some vegetables on the side, pie at the end. Some chips in the cupboard if you were still hungry.

Damn. I think the metaphor’s had it.

HELPFUL METAPHOR TRANSLATION KEY, FOR WHEN MY PARENTS READ THIS: 1. potato chips = cool little ads on the margins of legitimacy for which creative people can become quasi-famous within advertising circles by cranking just in time to get them entered into award shows; 2. healthy food = the accounts that pay the bills, which can be creatively challenging and exciting and rewarding, but at some agencies are conservatively handled with a more workmanlike approach; 3. full, balanced meals = accounts where you control every consumer interaction with a company, giving you the chance to brand a business thoroughly and consistently and make an enormous difference.]

In my experience, many ambitious creative people have little interest in direct mail. They do point-of-purchase under duress. They’re not that involved with design decisions like packaging and logos. They’re snacky: Is there TV? Will there be four color ads? What about funny posters?

They rub their belly when they think about funny posters.

I like awards, and want to keep winning them even when I’ve got iPhotos of great grandchildren on my iDesk. But I think awards have created some unhealthy attitudes. Like a recovering addict writing the truest memoir he can write, I confess: I was guilty at times of lusting for media that I’d seen judged worthy and displayed conspicuously in certain industry books. I’d do a professional job on the bank rate ads and hospital radio ads, but all the while I’d be anxious to work on something small and funny.

It was unfulfilling, like when you spoil a meal eating Funyuns.

But that’s life at some shops. Eventually you feel empty and go to another shop. Hey, maybe you end up working at an agency with a Big Brand!

(Sigh.) Sadly, it’s not always enough to land an assignment on a Big Brand, is it? I hope you are the minority, reader-person, and are on a Big Brand controlling or influencing every consumer interaction. But you probably aren’t.

If you can claim Big Brand Experience, I bet it stings a little when you admit that it’s not what it sounds like. Yes, you did some ads, but either: (a) they were just some ads, and maybe they had some butterfly-flapping-its-wings effect, but they pretty much got swallowed up by the Big Brand’s momentum and are history now, and I hope you saved a good reprint because they are g, o, n, e; (b) they were a campaign-of-the-moment that did pretty well and got a little press, maybe some attention here or there in the books, but nobody’s opinion was really changed by them. Same brand, different day. ‘Legit,’ but again, the Big Brand rolls on; (c) you came up with a basic idea that was, for the sake of this discussion, profound, yes, and a version of it was shown to millions of consumers, true, but the concept ended up going through so many approval-layers because so much money was riding on the back of that campaign …well, the way it appeared and the way it is in your book—cleansed of others’ sins—is a secret when you go on interviews.

Let’s face it. There’s a stunning amount of decent, forgettable work for Big Brands, everywhere, all the time. Did you do that? Did you do that decent, forgettable work while you were waiting for your partner to free up so you could brainstorm some ‘pro bono’?

Bono idea.

I’ve been there. I’ve had a few potato chips, and I’ve had good food in meager servings. But it wasn’t enough. Eventually I moved back to where I started because I missed working on the bits and parts of campaigns that really affect people. I missed getting maybe-too-deep in every decision, and working with other creatives who would get upset if the in-store danglers and placemats weren’t every bit as funny and smart and on-brand as the TV.

I recommend getting upset if the danglers aren’t funny. It’s surprisingly rewarding.

It’s more work, admittedly. But I love watching my friends competing to do the best truck graphics, or carefully designing a trade show booth to be cool and motivating and focused, or throwing themselves into ingenious package design and an interactive experience and a new line for the coupon insert because the coupon insert looks so good nobody can stand sending it out with a second-rate line even though it’s due to production now, hurry. These things are how brands stay focused and relevant, how emotional connections are made and sustained, I’ll say it again because I guess it’s my main point—I’ll capitalize it, too—SUSTAINED.

Of course, there’s TV and four-color ads and funny posters, too. So the job list can be exhausting. Thanksgiving every day.

But it’s the good stuff. It’s what we’re hired to do in the first place, after all, and it will nourish you for the rest of your career: affecting real people every time they come near the client you work on. You’d be amazed. It can be just as tasty as those crappy cheese curls.

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Charlie Hopper was Y&L employee No. 12 in 1987 and worked as Senior Writer until 1994. He left to find out what it’s like doing advertising at TBWA Chiat/Day and Martin/Williams. He came back in 1999, bearing the secret of original, effective creative: Work hard until something exceptional develops. His work has appeared in Communication Arts Advertising Annual, One Show, Graphis, Art Directors Club of New York, Print Regional, Clios, and Addy’s.

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