Thursday, April 11, 2019

Creative conformity.

About one hundred years ago I saw one of the best ads I ever read. What makes that unusual is that it was a small space ad, all type and black and white. Even more unusual, it was a help wanted ad.

I’ve searched for the ad for years and was never able to find it. But as I am blessed and cursed with a near photographic memory, here’s what I recall.

The headline said simply:

My son.
A copywriter.

The copy that followed, talked about the writer’s son. And how when he was young he would draw trucks. Sometimes the trucks would have five wheels. Sometimes one wheel would be green and another one purple.

But as the boy got older, his trucks became more conventional. They all had four wheels and all the wheels were black. The system, education, conformity had taken the creativity out of the boy. 

The last line of the ad was the killer. The writer wrote, “I’m looking for a copywriter who sometimes draws trucks with five wheels.”

One of the many unfortunate effects of our overly-professionalized world today is that we look for what I’ll call a “conforming creativity.”

Our work should have the patina of originality. But it shouldn’t be so original that it scares people. Scares people because they hadn’t ever seen anything like it before.

We have, in effect created a slim gamut of acceptable originality. Our work must be new, but not so new that it’s challenging.

Some of this, I think is the result of the awards-industrial complex. That includes ad schools which teach students how to get jobs by doing work that looks like award-winning work.

Years ago, back when the One Club was on East 51st Street, they held an exhibition of the beginner portfolios of some luminaries in the business. I was just a kid and I walked over to the exhibit one lunch-hour to see what the stars had and I lacked. 

Books were private affairs back then, not online for everyone to browse, so I was curious. What I saw were books that were better than mine by a few degrees. A little smarter, a little more adroit.

Then I came to the portfolio of Patrick Kelly, the writer of Fed Ex’s “Fast Talking Man” spot and a dozen other gold winners. It consisted of crazy funny headlines scrawled on torn remnants of an old brown paper shopping bag.

I was blown away. The quality of the observations and the nuttiness of the presentation.

I don’t remember any single ad. But I do remember the effect of being different.

It might just be something we all try to remember.


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