Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Work. Bad and good.

Since I was down-sized, excised, circumcised and homogenized from Ogilvy nearly three months to the day ago, I’ve had a bit of a liberation.

In the words of perhaps the greatest songwriter in American history, Irving Berlin, “All the cares that hung around me through the week/Seem to vanish like a gambler’s lucky streak.”

That’s an enormously circuitous way of saying that things have been ok. Not perfect, but ok.

Sure, anytime you lose a job you thought you would have for the rest of your life (part of me still bleeds Ogilvy red) and you find yourself in your advertising dotage, out on a lonely avenue, you worry.

It’s a tough situation. And you might find yourself one misty afternoon sitting on the granite steps out side of a major building like, say, the New York Public Library, and crying.

But this is about liberation. And learning. And living. And laughing.

And life.

This is about what work can be. Not what it’s become for too many, to too many, under the thumb of too many.

First, I was scooped up by an ex-boss.

Someone who, at least in private, regarded me as a major talent. He gave me a lot to do at a new freelance job and not a lot of help to do it. A lot of pressure. But he left me alone to do what I can do.

One of those things I can do is think small. I can be given the most excruciating problem. The most tightly bound knot. And slowly, slowly, slowly find a way out. It’s not all I can do. But it’s some of what I do. And after 40 years of doing it, I realize that I’m good at it.

Often, I’ve found, especially when under the aegis of the more controlling sorts of bosses, that having a special skill is more resented than rewarded. 

They can’t do it. You can. Which makes insecure people nervous. So they diminutize your abilities, take credit for what you’ve done or otherwise squash you. It’s not about the work. It’s about control.

But this out-of-Ogilvy boss wasn’t like that.

When there was something that had to be done quickly, it usually fell into my lap. And while I don’t want to make a career out of putting out grease fires, when you do need to put them out (and we all do, at times) it’s nice being appreciated for doing so.

The second guy I worked with was a new partner. I had admired his work for 30 years or more. We connected about a year ago on LinkedIn. Had a drink around Christmas time, when he was up in the city from Richmond, VA, and when I needed an art-director to help me with some work directly for a client, I asked him if he was willing.

He was.

We worked probably twice as many hours as we were scoped to. Because we loved the work we were doing and we liked how we were pushing each other. It was work built on love of work and personal integrity. And a shared, and ancient, belief that anything worth doing is worth doing well.

I also did some work for as legendary a designer as there is today. I worked harder than I’ve ever worked in my life. Because, to steal a line from Chiat\Day, ‘good enough isn’t good enough.’ Yep. It was frustrating, tiring and at times I wanted to punch my fist through a wall, stopping first at this guy’s face. But, you work instead.

Finally, I did work for another legend in the business. Probably the 21st Century’s most-awarded CCO. He asked me over LinkedIn to write some headlines. A day later he asked me to write some more.

I’ve been around demanding people since I was knee-high to a harridan, and there’s a pain that comes with it, of course, but if the person doing the demanding is doing it because he knows he can get more good out of you, and not because he needs to show his power or extraordinary discernment, being pushed—hard—is a joy.

These four experiences got me thinking.

In each of them work was about work.

It wasn’t about “negotiating an ecosystem.” Playing corporate politics. Sucking up. Managing up. Kissing up. And upchucking. 

It wasn’t about having 14 30 minute meetings a day. And suffering through 17-rounds of feedback each of which makes what you originally did approximately 2%-4% worse and less-effective (though somehow more palatable) than it started out.

It was about work.

About thinking. Thinking some more. Then pressing keys with your fingers. Then being thanked for it. Then selling something.

Somewhere along the way for about 99% of the world, work became more “navigation” than creation. More negotiation than communication. More stun than fun.

Somewhere along the way work became more putting up with the impecunious strictures of the holding company oligopoly than being reward for your blood, sweat, toil and tears.

Somewhere along the way work became more about pleasing a pantheon of bosses than pleasing yourself. More about forcing a camel through the eye of a needle than selling an idea you could be proud of.

Somewhere the stony-faced regimen of ‘this is a business,’ ‘let’s be serious,’ ‘corporate overthink,’ and ‘idea appropriation’ became the norm.

Worse, it became regularized.

I don’t love being a freelancer. But you might describe it like Winston Churchill was said to have described Democracy. "It's the worst form of work except for all the others."

It is nice once again, to actually respect what I do.

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