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September 15, 2009
What Work Would You be Willing to Get Fired Over?
 

A month ago I produced with the help of a friend a modest, down and dirty video, lifted from the introduction to my book, that posed a series of questions about where one might draw the line if asked to advertise a certain type of product. For instance, would you work on a cigarette account, a military account or a liquor account? Would you work on a pharmaceutical account for a product with possible side effects that include death and blindness?

It was meant to provoke, and it did. In true online Adland fashion, it prompted some interesting and colorful feedback, with comments calling me everything a pimp, a whore and a hypocrite to someone who made millions on an industry only to turn around and bash it. Thankfully, the piece also received quite a few favorable comments, from all levels of professionals in and out of the industry, most of whom recognized that it wasn’t meant to be a condemnation the industry in which I’d worked for 20 years and had made not millions but, sadly thousands. It was meant to be a consideration, through the eyes of individual experience, written with the hope that someone entering the advertising, or really any profession today might have a sense of the moral choices that lay ahead. I liked it, and thought it painted a complete picture. But I was wrong.

A few weeks ago I realized I’d failed to include in my provocation and important part of the equation, one that might have spared me the whore/pimp/hypocrite tags. I was talking with Shane Knight, a recent graduate of the Brandcenter at Virginia Commonwealth University. Shane is working on another video for me on behalf of my book, and hopefully to help him land a great job. I had been invited to go to Richmond in October to speak at the Brandcenter, and I asked Shane what topic he thought would resonate best with the students. “The introduction,” he said. “The ethical questions that are in the video.” But, he added, “There’s another side of it, too. It’s not just about what you would or wouldn’t do, it’s about what work would you be willing to get fired over.”

This stopped me cold. This was the perfect counterbalance to the premise of my introduction: rather than only focusing on the assignments we’d rather quit (or abstain from) than do, I should have also given to credit the ads we feel so strongly and passionately about that we’d be willing to quit if they weren’t given the support they deserve.

Even though I had an inkling where Shane had first heard this, I asked anyway. “Fenske,” he replied. Of course. Mark Fenske, my former boss, mentor, temporary bane of my existence and current creative guru instructor at the Brandcenter, had unearthed the positive, passionate, artist’s side of my consideration, and had made it exponentially better. Damn him.

While writing my book I spent several days at the Brandcenter and had the privilege of sitting in on Fenske’s class, which was a combination of creative disemboweling (his word) and master class on professional integrity. Watching him dissect an ad is a thing to behold (especially now that the ad is not mine!), but even more valuable is the wisdom he imparts while doing so:

“Right now,” he told them. “You do not yet know what you want to do. The risk right now is showing your work to someone who doesn’t get it. Do you want the job knowing that someone who works there thinks that your best stuff isn’t good? I had that at N.W. Ayer & Partners (in the late 1990’s) when I worked with Jim. My best stuff wasn’t what they wanted to do. And this was a problem.”

As one, the class turned my way. I nodded yes. Indeed, a muckraker like Fenske and an old school mega agency in decline wasn’t a good match. I can see this now and when I wasn’t banging my head against a wall, I could see it then.

And yet…during the brief time I spent with Fenske I learned more about copywriting and editing and professional standards and what makes an ad great than I would learn from everyone else combined in my career. Until that point I’d never written anything remotely like the scripts I was turning out under his watch.

It was Fenske’s contention that we were wizards, that we were making art, and he compelled each of us to take chances and plumb depths we had never reached. In some cases my ads had become more provocative and bizarre than my fiction. Advertising, he said to a trade journal at the time, “may be the most powerful art form on earth,” and while I didn’t necessarily believe it, his words (an act of persuasive advertising unto themselves) did propel me to dig deeper and reach higher. It just turns out that NW Ayer and it’s clients at the time were not prepared to be dazzled by the type wizardy we were creating.

But while Fenske contended that advertising was a form of art, I’ve come to believe that at its core advertising is about a tension between art, commerce and ethics. What assignment or agency job would you say no to? For what campaign would you be willing to fall on your sword? Or, how about this: what if you came up with a potentially award-winning idea for a product that in retrospect makes you morally uncomfortable? What if this happened during a recession, and your partner just lost his job? In addition to art commerce and ethics, add ego and conscience to the mix.

This is what I love about advertising. In many ways every piece of work we do is a reflection of the zeitgeist and the culture at large. It’s good to think of this stuff, and I’m glad that while researching this book at many of the best idea factories in the world and during my 20 years in advertising I was fortunate enough to meet many others, like Mark Fenske, pushing us to do so.


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James P. Othmer is the author of "Adland: Searching for the Meaning of Life on a Branded Planet" and the novel "The Futurist." He is currently conducting seminars in conjunction with We Interrupt This Story, a forthcoming book about the narrative revolution in branding and culture. Follow him on Twitter.

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