We all understand the subtext of those words -- the difficulty of remaining dedicated to a profession for which so many people have so little respect. I began as a zealot, blissfully fulfilling my creative dreams, trying to create pop culture. But stories trickled in which dulled my enthusiasm. A friend works for a children's advocacy group in a blighted public housing community in Richmond. She had a group of 3-year-old kids draw "dream" self-portraits -- portraits of themselves as they'd like to be. All the kids drew themselves in a pair of Nike shoes. Was this what I was working for?
Each year, we spend more than 300 billion dollars of corporations' money -- money spent, with few exceptions, to make the wealthy and powerful more wealthy and powerful -- and yet our most critical discussions are often over the latest edit of the rough cut. We are salesmen, yet we look in the mirror and see artists and writers.
Our myopic obsession with creativity leads to aesthetic judgments at the expense of our ability to make moral ones. Creative potential has become the defining factor of a client's worth. A bad client isn't the one exploiting labor or misusing natural resources; a bad client is the one who insists we make the logo bigger.
We agree that lotteries exploit the poor, until they approve our latest killer campaign and let us shoot with Pytka.
I don't believe we are evil as an industry, or that most of us are opportunists at heart. I do believe we have trained ourselves to focus on one aspect of this business. As a result, we have neglected our wider potential as creative people.
So what do we do? Repent? Quit? Feel guilty?
I am going to suggest four things we can do. Not solutions, not easy answers. But four things I believe we are obligated to do as advertising professionals that may add a little bit of dignity to our profession.
First, we need to look at what we do with open eyes. Sometimes we won't like what we see. A couple of years ago I was in a meeting with a client when something put me over the edge. The client argued that with the right ad campaign, people could be persuaded that a holiday, any holiday, is the perfect time to buy their product. Many of the world's holidays are religious, but no matter. Religious holidays could be tied in equally well. "In fact," the marketing director told me, "next year, we want to own Ramadan."
So we were to transform a sacred Islamic holiday, symbolic of moderation and self-restraint, into a Pavlovian cue to consume.
That was enough for me. I quit shortly thereafter.
But sometimes we need to do something more difficult than quit. Sometimes we need to stay put. Harrison Salisbury, the noted writer from The New York Times, once said, "I disagree with the methods and morals of many in my profession, but I am not going to get out and let theirs be the only voice heard."
In any case, regardless of what decision it may prompt, our first obligation involves taking a deep, hard look at our chosen profession. We must begin there.
Assuming we haven't given up, our second responsibility is that we must work for people we believe in. Agencies and clients. Jeff Swartz, the young CEO of Timberland, one of the best and most challenging clients I have ever worked with, believes that business must be infused with personal values. If we aspire to any degree of integrity in our lives, we can no longer change our beliefs when we leave for work in the morning.
Bill Bernbach would agree. We remember Bernbach for his outstanding creative standards, but his reputation was built in equal measure on his moral stance. "We must ally ourselves with great ideas and carry them to the public," Bernbach believed. "We must practice our skills on behalf of society. We must not just believe in what we sell, we must sell what we believe in."
Our third obligation: We must live up to our heritage as creative people. In ancient tribes and communities, creative people, the men and women who saw visions and could create artistic objects, served as the conscience of the community. They were the priests and shamans.
Before you laugh, think of how many times in your role as the agency's creative representative, you've found yourself the one person in the room standing up and raising your voice on behalf of a principle -- even if that principle had to do with the size of the logo.
As creatives, we seem to come equipped with the muscle that helps us know the difference between right and wrong, and the urge to stand up for what's right. That muscle can just as easily be put to use for bigger issues. We can still serve as the conscience of our community. A friend of mine was working at a London agency. Its diaper client was preparing to test-market disposable diapers for the first time in India. They arranged a focus group in a large Indian city, bringing in a dozen or so Indian mothers who were members of the target audience. My friend presented these women with the selling proposition, already tried-and-true with disposable-diaper-buying moms all over the Western world: "A dry baby is a happy baby."
After a few moments, one of the mothers spoke up. "That's not so."
"Oh, it certainly is so," my friend cheerfully replied. "Thanks to a special three-layer-lining, babies stay drier longer in these diapers and therefore will not cry."
All of the women looked skeptical. The same mother spoke again. "It's not so," she said. "A dry baby may be a non-crying baby, but a dry baby is not a happy baby. A happy baby is a baby with a mother who loves her and feeds her and holds her. It has nothing to do with diapers."
My friend sat stunned. End of argument. She went back to her London agency and insisted they not market the original strategy, a strategy that implied that only a bad mother, a mother who wants an unhappy baby, would not buy this brand of diapers. The truer strategy she proposed: "This diaper will help keep your baby dry."
We can do this. It's in our blood. Along with the chance to speak to millions of people comes the question of what message is most appropriate. The way we answer defines us.
Finally, our fourth obligation: we must be excellent at what we do. Martin Luther King may roll over in his grave when he hears his words applied to copywriters and art directors, but I don't think so. "Every individual should seek to do his job so well that the living, the dead or the unborn could not do it better," King said. "Therefore, if it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets as Raphael painted pictures, sweep streets as Michelangelo carved marble, sweep streets as Beethoven composed music, sweep streets as Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, 'Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.' "
By doing our jobs well, we are more likely to find ourselves in a moment when we can speak up, when people will listen to us, when our actions may have a powerful effect.
I'm often ashamed of this business. This can cause me to look at our industry as an abstract entity, separate from myself. I forget that the character of this business is defined by our individual character. I forget that we have the power to transform this business.
These aren't four easy steps. They're damn hard. But I believe even choosing to engage in this struggle, regardless of the outcome, will add dignity to our profession. It stands ready and waiting. u
Jelly Helm, formerly of Wieden & Kennedy/Amsterdam, creative-directs the Timberland account at The Martin Agency in Richmond, Va. He also spends two days a week as an associate professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University Adcenter. This article is adapted from a speech Helm gave at the September Four