What a wolf-man taught me about advertising.

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It's because I also wrestle with conflicting identities. By day I'm a creative director at BSSP. Nights and weekends, I'm a painter, as in fine art painting. It's important that I explain it's not a hobby, but really it's a second career. I have gallery representation, do fairly regular shows, and try to handle the relationships, sales and correspondence that go with that career turf. So like Harry Haller I live in constant flux between two seemingly contradictory worlds. For Harry it was between being a wolf from the steppes and a human member of the German bourgeoisie. For me it's between art and commerce. Both require tricky navigation. Like Harry, I don't sleep well, I have stomach troubles, and I probably drink more than I should.

But luckily for both Harry and I, something happened in our stories to ease the anxiety. For Harry, a beautiful and understanding woman named Hermine appeared, and helped him transform by allowing the wolf and the man to coexist relatively peacefully–more or less. For me, my transformation involved having a beautiful and understanding wife, and a less beautiful but understanding creative partner. I witnessed the former balance motherhood with an acting career, and the latter balance creativity with the business of advertising. After 20 years with each of them, I've come to learn that I too can balance things out. In fact, art and commerce cannot only coexist, but can make each other stronger. Today I can't imagine being a painter without being in advertising. And I can't imagine being in advertising without being a painter. They're sort of balancing forces, anima and animus, yin and yang, beer and pretzels.

Art and advertising actually have a lot in common. Both are really about solving challenges. About breaking into a place where others haven't already been. Getting reactions. And about the fear of mediocrity. So I find there's lots of cross-pollination. I've used some of my advertising learnings to craft gallery mailings that got noticed. (Galleries get bombarded with portfolios as much as ad agencies.) And I've used some of my art learnings to help create ad campaigns that broke conventions, too. I find that dealing with curators uses many of the same skills as dealing with clients. I've learned to create installations using the same drama and attention to detail that we strive for in a new business pitch. And lastly, self-publicity is as crucial in fine art as it is in advertising. Artists like to think their work speaks for itself, but it doesn't. The fine art world is ridiculously competitive, and all successful artists are skilled at promoting and maintaining their "brand." They're just better at hiding it.

So there are a lot of similarities between the worlds of art and advertising. But the differences are equally important. One is a pure expression of you; the other is a team effort. And that's a nice balance. When I'm painting, I'm often thinking about advertising. And vice versa. When we lose a pitch or get a campaign killed, I usually look forward to the solitude of painting, and the complete control it offers. And often after painting alone for hours on end, I look forward to the collaboration and camaraderie involved in cracking a marketing problem, and even the friction that comes with it.

It's usually an interesting conversation when my peers in the art world learn about my advertising career. And vice versa. At first those conversations felt awkward. I think I was embarrassed, as if I couldn't make up my mind about what I wanted to be. But later on I became sort of proud of my schizoidness. After all "weird" is just another word for "unique." In fact, when I find myself interviewing job candidates for our agency, I always ask about their side interests. We find that closet punk singers, welders, bike racers, novelists, cartoonists, stand up comedians, whatever, inevitably add a lot to the culture of BSSP, and our work.

In fact after 23 years in this business, I'd even recommend that everyone else in this business find a side interest and cultivate their own alter ego. Advertising is a rocky road, and you're going to have highs and lows regularly. Having something you can reach for (or escape to) to balance those out is probably the best way to keep from burning out. Drinking and drugs might be the second best way, but I've known plenty of people who did them and left the biz anyhow. Although Harry the Steppenwolf did them, and he lived to be 85. So I guess I'll leave that decision up to you.

Mike Shine is executive creative director at Butler Shine Stern & Partners

His art can be viewed at shinelounge.com, as well as the inaugural Hearts & Minds event.
His commerce can be viewed at bssp.com

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