What I Learned From an Old White Man I Never Met

Why We Should All Embody Leo Burnett's Passion for the Industry

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Derek Walker
Derek Walker
Passion matters.

Let me tell you why this is so very important.

I didn't grow up rich or wealthy or anywhere near it -- I was raised by working-class folks, around working-class folks. My father was a military man for most of his life, and with all the moving around (13 bases before I was 18 years old) my mother really couldn't have a career. Both of my parents were high-school graduates who got their college degrees later in life.

I grew up hearing from my parents, "We don't care what you become but whatever it is, you become the best 'Whatever it is' you can be. Be happy doing what you do."

Other family, friends and church members, however, always stressed the importance of getting a "good job." To them, a "good job" meant something stable, that paid a decent amount of money and had great benefits -- a job that didn't require much physical activity, one more mental in nature. They never actually said what a "good job" was, but at times the post office would come up.

Then one day in high school, my journalism teacher showed our newspaper class a short film that changed my life: Leo Burnett's "When To Take My Name Off the Door" speech.

It was like Leo Burnett had been talking with my parents. I was sure it was a conspiracy. In their own way, each of them was talking about being passionate about what you do. My parents were smarter than I knew.

And for years, I took being passionate about being a copywriter for granted. I went about my job of coming up with concepts and copy to meet clients' needs -- never noticing that I had evolved from writing copy to being a copywriter, until recently.

I'm not sure when it happened but it has become fashionable to bash the advertising industry; to assail everything we do as unimportant or useless; to dismiss the power that we can have to help a brand develop, maintain or grow a presence in the market. I'm not talking about external attacks -- I'm talking internally.

I don't understand. I love what I am. I don't do this because I can't do anything else. I do this because there isn't anything else I want to do. The money is good, but I got into this for the opportunity to be creative, to create things -- to open conversations with people I may never meet.

I'm passionate about advertising.

Why write about this here?

Because as minorities we tend to raise our children to find "good jobs," not to pursue something they are passionate about.

Recently, I was part a group of men and boys from several congregations discussing manhood.

The speaker asked this group of 200-plus men, "How many of you have a dream?" Several raised their hands. Then he asked, "How many of you are living your dream?" Less than 10 of us raised our hands. I looked to my side and my two sons had their hands up. The father in me was proud, but the black man in me was crying -- so many of us either don't have a dream or aren't living our dream.

My sons have grown up watching me struggle in an industry that barely welcomes me, but they know how much I love what I do. They've never seen me "work" at advertising. They've been in the car when that perfect idea hits me. They've heard me and their mother discuss whether the work speaks to humans or to clients. They have sat in concept sessions with my team, and been encouraged to express their thoughts and ideas.

My sons may never work in advertising, but being around advertising has helped them learn that it is okay to dream and be passionate.

The advertising industry is not perfect by far, but it is one of the few places where people can live their dream and be passionate. Yes, it needs to evolve to address the changes in society and technology but why would anyone put himself/herself through what we are facing in this industry and not be passionate?

I would rather work with a group of passionate people than work with a group of intellectuals. A passionate person very seldom settles or accepts less than hi best effort.

I e-mailed the link to Leo Burnett's speech to as many advertising professionals (black, white, brown, yellow, male or female) as I could. We need to know it is OK to be passionate.

No. Let me rephrase that.

Being passionate is one of the requirements for being successful in the advertising industry.

Derek Walker is the janitor, secretary and mailroom person for his tiny agency, Brown and Browner Advertising, based in Columbia, S.C.
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