Twenty-five years ago, I was one of those odd people who went in to advertising because I was actually fascinated by advertising.
Most other creative people I encountered had some kind of fine art or novel/screenplay writing dream, and advertising paid the bills in the meantime. Their hero was Alan Parker, the copywriter from CDP in London turned celebrated Hollywood film director. Not that many achieved their dreams, but most made great money and had a lot of fun -- remember fun in ad agencies? -- not doing so.
Strangely enough, much of the fun entailed plumbing the tortured depths of thwarted artistry, railing against things like account people and their maddening adherence to business issues; clients tampering with objets d'art (the crown prince's critique to Mozart in the movie "Amadeus" -- "Too many notes, Mozart" -- always drew a knowing sigh); or researchers trying to dilute artistry with damned statistics.
Decades later, the advertising creative community still carries in its DNA some of the inherent artistic temperament of its forbears. The most extreme examples -- monthlong drinking benders, TV sets and typewriters being tossed furiously through windows -- have gone the way of the typewriter. But the one thing that can still rankle even the most seasoned ad creative is the lack of a commodity that their "pure artist" counterparts wallow in: time.
Deadlines didn't figure in Picasso's or El Greco's worry list. Coppola and Spielberg and their ilk can lavish as much time on a project as they wish. Truman Capote splurged much of a career on "In Cold Blood." No single issue in all the while I've been in the ad business has been debated more passionately and at such length by ad creatives than the desire for more time.
About a week into my career, the following quavering accusation of a senior writer hurled down the corridor at a retreating suit stays with me to this day: "Don't ask me if it's ready yet! Ask me if it's great yet!" Even the ultimate evil of having your work altered can be allayed if there's time. But the fact is, all the time there's less and less time. In the internet-juiced world, everything can change in moments.
All manner of cycles -- cultural, economic, political, historical, you name it -- have been truncated. Arguably "continuous improvement" are now the two most important words in the communications canon: The viability and romance of the solitary creative team gestating their ideas over time in their garret and eventually putting them out there for all eternity seems questionable.
Surely the true thrill and reward today is working hell for leather alongside others with different but complementary skills, in tune with the racing heartbeat of the modern world. Not working fast and shoddily -- God forbid. But working fast and brilliantly? Daily newspaper editors have been doing it for hundreds of years. Finding and developing those super-rare creative people who can work fast and well is tough.
But they're out there -- creative minds more excited about being the next Phil Dusenberry than the next Philip Roth and certainly not believing that ambition to be any less fulfilling or honorable. (By the way, how soon before "continuous improvement" captivates the pure artistic world? With the advent of electronic books, say, surely it's only a matter of time before authors begin to produce continuously updated versions of their novels.)
It's a way of working I've always aspired to, even as a young creative faced with considerable disapproval from group heads and creative directors who considered speed of thought a dangerous irrelevance and later in the face of concerns like commoditization. If it takes you only a day, clients will think it's easy and worth less, the argument went -- to which the answer is that it didn't take a day.
It took 25 years and day -- 25 years ago being when I first proudly started out as a trainee copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather in London.
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Mark Wnek is chairman-chief creative officer of Lowe, New York.