We are a nation of heroes. Fans of those who triumph on the ballfield, the battlefield and elsewhere in life. Their accomplishments inspire us and push us to try harder. For that, we should all be thankful.
Heroes set the bar. They may be artists or inventors, athletes or astronauts. But they determine where the line that defines greatness will be drawn.
Tony Gywnn, a 15-time baseball all-star and future hall of famer, was one of the greatest hitters of the last century. He won eight batting titles, a feat equalled only by Honus Wagner, who broke into the league in 1897. Tony Gwynn didn't invent hitting. He learned to hit by studying the art of hitting, by idolizing and scrutinizing the great hitters before him. By having heroes.
He can tell you anything you'd care to know about Ted Williams' swing. And my guess is he's pretty educated on Honus Wagner, Musial and Joltin' Joe, as well.
It seems to me that our craft, advertising, a profession with a few heroes of its own, appears to be in short supply these days. Where are the Bernbachs? The Ogilvys? The Howard Gossages? Is it that they're not out there or that we're just not seeing them?
My fear is it's the latter.
I have the opportunity to speak at some of the creative schools, and advertising programs here in Atlanta and in other cities. At each one, I ask attendees who they admire in this business, whose achievements they stand in awe of, in short, who are their heroes? I am almost always answered by blank stares, turned heads, confusion, even apathy.
How can we expect to create great advertising if we don't understand how great advertising was created before us?
Recently, I ran across an article by a guy named Tom Dillon, an advertising hall of famer who helped build BBDO in the 50s and 60s. He proclaimed this: "If we can see further, it's because we stand on the rungs of a ladder built by those who came before us." I am adding Mr. Dillon to my hero list. I couldn't agree more and I'm damn sure, I couldn't have said it any better.
Maybe I agree with Tom Dillon's assessment because I grew up in the business having heroes. I could spot a Tom McElligott headline from a hundred pages away. Porsche ads that suggested, "One ride and you'll understand why most rocket scientists are German." Or the simple call of "Fire the chauffeur." As far as I know, McElligott was the first to pen a line that began with "think of it as" when he urged that Porsche prospects "Think of it as a Mercedes with Tabasco Sauce." We've now had to bear witness to hundreds, possibly thousands of iterations of that thought for every conceivable product. McElligott cut the cloth, others have only followed the pattern. Try starting a headline with that offering these days and any creative director worth their black on black outfit would have your pen impounded. Or mouse, as it were.
I guess my reasoning, and apparently Mr. Dillon concurs, is that to invent, you have to understand the inventors before you. How their minds worked. How they solved problems. And hopefully, armed with that information, you can solve a few of your own.
Sadly, it seems that many of us in our profession feel we already have it all figured out or are well on our way to that feat. Why be a student of the business if our aim is to reinvent the business? To think in ways no one has ever thought before? Don't get me wrong, I wholeheartedly applaud that goal and hope to achieve some of that myself. But I know that, after 20 years, I still have a lot to learn. And to learn, I need teachers. Teachers who can inspire me to communicate in new, fresh ways. Teachers who can enlighten me to not only create great ads, but a great advertising agency.
Teachers, heroes, they're one in the same.