One day, while working at a past agency, I walked into my cubicle and there it was, a 19-ounce canister of Kool-Aid sitting on my desk. I was not happy. (Grape at that! I hate grape Kool-Aid, why couldn't it be Pink Lemonade?)
And from the sounds coming from the rest of the creative department, neither was anyone else. Apparently, someone thought it would be funny to place Kool-Aid on all the creatives' desks.
There were no notes -- just the Kool-Aid. What was the message behind this? Did someone think we had drunk the Kool-Aid, or did someone think we needed to drink it, or was someone trying to warn us not to drink it?
It's interesting how each person interpreted it. With my big mouth and lack of impulse control, I figured it was a warning for me to get onboard. I was conflicted, I wanted to laugh but I also wanted to be angry.
People didn't put the Kool-Aid in their desks or throw it away. The packets became trophies, displays of defiance, badges of honor. The creative juices went from a steady flow to a flood.
One art director built a box with a glass lid and placed his packet in it with the message on the glass reading: "In case of a do-do [not the real word] brief, break glass."
I almost died of laughter when one of the copywriters actually came to a meeting with a pitcher of Kool-Aid and a glass. Half way through the meeting he put the glass down, placed his straw in the pitcher and drank from it. He might have been in trouble if the creative director and the CEO weren't laughing uncontrollably.
Whatever the intent, the result was something interesting. It woke folks up.
Don't get me wrong, the work before was always good with pockets of great sprinkled in, but this was something different. It is sort of like what happens when a really good basketball player gets dunked on or has his shot blocked -- something changes in him, and he sets out to show that person who he is messing with. That's what happened here.
We had gotten comfortable with being good most of the time, and every now and then stepping up to show the world how great we could be. But most of the time we were cool with being good.
I know this hasn't happened to anyone else. All of you reading this are always firing on all pistons, every day for every client -- pushing to create something that really delivers for the client. You never get comfortable; never settle for good; never find it easier to compromise than to stand up for what you know is best for the client.
Knowing this, I'm cool with talking to my team and myself about not drinking the Kool-Aid. Feel free to eavesdrop in on my talk to us.
The Speech to My Team
Folks, it's time to put the Kool-Aid down. This has gotten out of hand. You're on the Kool-Aid hard.
I know, it tastes so sweet and comes in some interesting colors, but it is not good for you. I get that your mind is telling you that it's simply colored sugar water, and you were only going to take a sip. But look how easily you've gone from a sip to a second glass, and then a pitcher. The Kool-Aid has you now. For some of you it has gotten so bad, you don't even need water -- you're taking it straight from the packet, dry. Others are walking around with an IV drip hooked up.
It starts so innocently. The addiction sounds like this:
"It is a small change, what can it hurt?" (SFX: Sip, sip, sip…)
"This isn't worth falling on our swords over."
"It's our job to give them what they want." (SFX: Slurp, slurp, gulp…)
"We have to pick our battles."
"I know them, and they'll never go for that." (SFX: Gulp, swig, swig…)
"Clients don't want great work."
"Creative is over-rated." (SFX: Chug, chug, chug…)
You have got to get off the pitcher.
Think for yourself. Stop trying to run with the herd. The idea that you have to go along to get along is crushing the creativity in you and the industry.
We are supposed to be an industry of free thinkers, but it is amazing how quickly we fall lockstep in line with one another, very seldom having the courage to stand up and say, "OK, you go ahead with the crowd. Drink the Kool-Aid. Me? I'm gonna do something great that I know is right, no matter what everybody else thinks of it, or how they try to justify its death as they try to strangle it." (Thanks Chris S. for that gem of a quote)
There is a price to be said for taking this route -- we are paying it right now. We could have done what everyone else does, the way everyone else does it, and been making a lot more money, a lot sooner. But we would not be happy with the work we would be producing or ourselves.
Put the Kool-Aid down. And step away from it nice and slow.