A charmed if somewhat dislocated life, yes. A big important advertising book said I invented post-modern advertising. I wish I knew what "post-modern" meant. I had a Chinese advertising student tell me she had spent her whole life studying to be Jim Riswold. I contemplated shooting her to put her out of her misery. Newsweek said I was one of the most influential people in American culture. It is no small wonder that this magazine has neither the popularity nor prestige of Time. George magazine said I created more American icons than anyone since Walt Disney. This magazine is out of business for a very good reason and, hopefully, Mr. Disney is turning over in his grave. A Canadian magazine said I looked more like someone hired to teach you German philosophy or to put a bullet in you or both than a guy who does ads. Canada is Canada for a reason. (And, oh so apparently, I learned how to name-drop real good.) All flattering hyperbole, yes, but I honestly don't think I would be the object of such fawning nonsense if it weren't for the most important thing I ever learned from Dan Wieden and David Kennedy: It's OK, sometimes even good, to be wrong.
It was wrong to pair Bo Jackson with Bo Diddley. It was wrong to pair an odd duck of a fan named Mars Blackmon with Michael Jordan. It was wrong to pair a washed-up rabbit with Michael Jordan. It was wrong to make fun of Michael Jordan. It was wrong to have Charles Barkley declare that he was not a role model. It was wrong to cast David Robinson as Mr. Rogers. It was wrong to have Tiger Woods play the race card. It was wrong to have baseball owners and players sing about how much they didn't like each other. It was wrong to introduce Lou Reed and, to put it mildly, his Lou Reedness to the American television commercial public. Wrong, wrong, wrong. No amount of research would have told you that any of these ads would have been successful. In fact, it would have told you, in great detail, in lots of meetings, with lots of fancy geometrical shapes, precisely why they would not be successful. Think of it this way: If you research what a kid wants in a cake, the research will tell you he wants a cake made entirely of icing; after all, icing is the best part! You can't go wrong with an all-icing cake! The kid will get his guaranteed-not-wrong cake made of icing and that cake will make him throw up. Yes, I know this all sounds coy and flip, until you realize that most advertising, as in 99.99999999 percent of it, strives for nothing more than to not be wrong. Sure, the end result of most of it will be ads that are, by some meaningless measure, not wrong.
BFD. They're also ads that aren't any good. They're usually boring, wooden, self-important, hollow, familiar, overwrought and instantly forgettable. I honestly think advertising's desire to be mistake-free comes from its self-sustaining belief that it is extremely important. Excuse me, but was there a sentence I missed on the tablets Moses hauled down from Mount Sinai referring to the sanctity of advertising? Advertising isn't important. Ironically, when an agency and a client come to this conclusion, it—voila!—allows them to create some truly wonderful, relevant and meaningful advertising—advertising that dares to be more than not wrong.
I worship wrong. And, to put my big mouth where my money is, just when it may seem like I've figured this advertising thing all out and the One Club throws evenings in my honor, Creativity asks me to write a piece and other fancy magazines with glossy pages and color pictures write about me and my so-called advertising prowess, I decide to leave the industry to pursue a career in the art world. (If you don't believe how wrong this decision was, you should have been with me at my first Selling Riswold visit to a high-powered NYC art gallery.) How wrong is that?
Real wrong, I hope.