I recently returned to Flint where my career began 10 years ago. I’m feeling nostalgic, so, I put together 10 things I’ve learned about branding and life 10 years in. I promise it’ll take you less than 10 years to read.
It all started before it started. It was August 2011 and I was living in Minneapolis. I was working a sales job during the day, going to advertising school at night and Christian Ponder had just arrived in town to save the Vikings. My boss’s boss called me into his office. I was up for a promotion, so I figured congratulations were in order. Instead, he said, “You can’t compete with Laura-Leigh, if you’re not all in.”
He was right. Laura-Leigh was a badass (and still is). Super smart, well spoken, had the drive, and everyone liked her. I couldn’t half ass it. I decided to go all in. All in on a new direction.
Two weeks later my fiancé and I were driving north-bound on 35 headed for Duluth and my first real job as a copywriter. It’s been 10 years now and here’s what I’ve learned so far.
Don’t get too big for your britches.
I remember in ad school we’d have these quarterly portfolio reviews where creatives from real agencies in town would come in and look at all the student work and offer up feedback. One of the copywriters said he liked my stuff but warned me, “Don’t get too big for your britches.” My dad used to tell me that all the time, so I felt like I must be on the right track.
Since then, I’ve tried to remind myself to stay humble. Just remember: Nothing is cooler than somebody who crushes it and quietly moves on to crush the next thing. Like Barry Sanders or like my fellow Flint copywriter, Phil. He’s one of the best writers I’ve met, and he just quietly moves on to the next thing. Still learning a lot from Phil.
Be confident in your abilities but don’t be arrogant. You’re not that big of a deal.
EGGOS OVER EGOS.
The best story wins.
I’ve always loved stories and have always loved great ads that tell good stories. Visually, verbally, doesn’t matter. Is it interesting? If it is, I’ll love your brand forever. One of my college teachers, Kratz, was the first person to make me aware of the science and psychology behind the effectiveness of storytelling as a sales tool. Do you know what the top 10% of sales people have in common? It’s the ability to connect with and influence people through storytelling.
In advertising/marketing/branding we’re all in sales. But we somehow, for the most part, end up doing a lot of fact telling and feature sharing. Our logical mind takes over and we think of this feature or that feature, “Ah ha yes, that extra meaty meat will surely win them over.” It starts to become rare to see an ad or a website or even a piece of content that tells a story. You know why people buy YETI coolers? There are knockoffs that perform just as well that you can purchase without taking out a loan. The brand is epically good at telling stories. Even their product names and colors tell stories.
What makes a good story? That’s the hard part. Hiring Flint to help you is a good first step. 😉
IF YOUR MOUTH ISN’T WATERING, YOU’RE PROBABLY A LOBSTER.
If you love your work, it won’t feel like work.
One of my old creative directors, Vinny, engrained this in me early on in my career. We had a lot of fun making ads and we always presented work that made us proud, even if we knew it would be ground into a tasteless porridge eventually. We even had a leaf rake in the office for all the concepts that ended up on the floor. Enjoy the process, appreciate the people, grab a coffee or a beer. Take on the office party poster project and try to do something to get your colleagues laughing.
Recently when I returned to Flint to rejoin some old friends in new creative pursuits, I was reminded how fun concepting as an art director/copywriter team was, even via Zoom. The pervasively creative Ken (the same Ken that brought me into this business) at Flint is a master at enjoying the process. He’s always going to have at least one sappy tearjerker that makes me appreciate life and at least one totally bonkers-off-the-wall thing that I wish I thought of. When we’re jamming, it never feels like work. Same with a bunch of other cool people here at Flint like Alan and Phil and Ger and on and on through the agency, really the whole gang. It’s a fun bunch.
So run and smell the roses. You don’t have a lot of time to stop but be present in the moments while you work. Soak up the runner’s high.
IT’S THE BEST JOB IN THE WORLD, BUT SOMEBODY’S GOTTA DO IT.
The magic is in the collaboration.
I learned this one from everyone I’ve met along the way. You don’t have to do it all yourself, and actually, it’ll be better if you don’t. 1+1=3. Let the audio engineer tidy up your script. Let the director change your dialogue. As long as it makes the story better, it’ll help you all win. Some of my best friends are past and current co-workers or cool people I collaborated with along the way – audio engineers, editors, directors, producers – I love these people.
I can’t tell you how many times an art director or designer rewrites my copy for the better. Happens all the time. My man Alan at Flint is especially good at finding the right line in a pile or making up one if nothing’s landing. And my old buddy Jim at Lacek would always make me feel good about it by pretending it was just so the spacing fit the layout better, but no, the words were just better.
One of my favorite projects came out of a chat with my friend Lynsie who was a social strategist at Mortarr. We had a new app coming out and I read a couple clunkers I’d written. She said, “What about something funny like ‘Tap that app’?” A lovable campaign was born.
Listen to those around you, even if you’re running a blankety-blank or you’re an award-winning so and so. Great ideas are everywhere. Also don’t be scared to give others ideas in a respectful way as well.
I’D TAP THAT.
Take your shots, just don’t be a ball hog.
I learned a lot about taking shots when I was at Lacek from my old boss, Jarvis. Like a lot of juniors, my first couple years in advertising I was a real Charlie Try Hard. I’d write 100 headlines for a banner ad and send them over to Jarvis hoping to impress him. Yeah, sure, there were a few good lines but reality sets in quickly at an agency. That single banner ad you spent the whole day writing headlines for was just one of the 99 things you need to do this week. And now you’re behind on the 98 other things. An art director is waiting on you. An account manager is waiting on him. A client is waiting on her. Your show-off move has created a log jam. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t try to kick the living snot out of every promotional banner ad, but you’ve gotta find a balance.
Jarvis taught me how to channel that energy into the big moments. When you’re getting ready to create a new campaign for the year, write those 100 headlines. Heck, write 200. You’re going to need them. When you’re doing radio, take a little extra time to turn in five good scripts instead of 10 OK ones. Push hard to do your best work when it will have the best chance to make an impact. Or you’ll run out of gas, slow up the assembly line and at the same time drive everybody up the wall.
This can be applied to life and making moves in your career as well. How do you get the CEO of Ogilvy to remember your name? Ask him to be your partner in a game of beer pong at the office party. Take a shot.
IT’S LIKE A FIELD PARTY, BUT WITH REAL WORKING TOILETS.
Take care of ya’ll chicken and ya’ll mentals.
Marshawn Lynch said it best and I wholeheartedly agree, “You’ve gotta take care of ya’ll chicken and ya’ll mentals.” Put money in the 401k, as much as you can. Figure out what the going rate is for someone who does what you do. Think about your replacement cost. Don’t be greedy but get what you’re worth and try not to spend it all. It has to work for the business, but it also has to work for you.
Also take care of your mind. It’s what you need to do this job well. My friend Jay used to run at lunch, every single day, and I was always like “what about this soybean mailer we’ve gotta get out the door?” He taught me that you’ve gotta make time for you and your body and your mind or you won’t be able to do the job. I still don’t run at lunch but I do occasionally watch videos of people falling down because it makes me happy. Do whatever makes you happy.
DON’T LET YOUR RETIREMENT DREAMS BE DREAMS.
Cool just is.
For years I’ve studied the art of being cool in hopes that I could one day be cool. I’m a dad now, so you know that ship has sailed. But I can still harness this power for brands. And there’s still maybe hope for you. The thing is you can’t let them know you want to be cool. I recently saw this concept put into words perfectly by Matthew McConaughey in his book “Greenlights.” He writes, “Cool just is.” But how do you create something that just is? I think what Mr. McConaughey is saying is it can’t feel like you’re trying too hard. That is not cool. Trying hard at your job is cool. Trying hard to be cool is not cool. You know the type.
From what I can gather, there seems to be some seismic coolness that hangs in the balance of two extremes. Smart and funny. But not too smart and not too funny. Mean and nice. But not too mean and not too nice. Here’s a way the team at Mortarr and I came up with to describe the coolness that we wanted the Mortarr brand to convey with every stitch of the brand: Cool enough to get invited to the party and nice enough to let everyone else in.
There’s a misconception that cool isn’t nice but think for a second about the coolest person you know. Think about the coolest of all cool characters: Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez. Yeah, sure, he can hit it over the wall and play all nine positions. He risks life and limb to get the ball back. BUT what really makes Benny cool is how he invites the new kid out to play baseball and defends him time and time again. More people and brands should be like Benny. Even if you can’t hit for power and average, invite us dorks along. We’ll love you for it.
The one thing you can’t be if you want to be cool is boring. Boring is the antithesis of cool. Slightly boring can be cool. Think Jim Halpert or Vanilla Wafers. Brands can learn to be a lot cooler just by being less boring. Be interesting. Rule #1.
OUR ENGINEERS WERE PICKED FIRST IN GYM GLASS.
Curiosity killed the cat, but it made the dog that ate the cat stronger.
At Flint this is one of our core values so this is a constant for us, but the power of curiosity first really set in when I worked at Mortarr. The co-founder Abby taught me that curiosity was not only a strength but a skill you can develop. She can figure out how to do pretty much anything, because she asks the right questions. And she always stays hungry for knowledge. A tool you can use to strengthen your curiosity muscle is to simply ask more questions. A great discovery call is the key to a campaign that hits all the right notes.
You can apply this to business and to life. How do you become the most interesting person in the room? Talk the least about yourself. Have your go-to questions but don’t stick to your list. Follow the conversation to where it takes you. Listen, actively, to what the other person or people are saying and ask a follow-up question based on an insight. If you do share a story or a note of your own, make it quick. As Jarvis says, “If you’re going to be clever, be quick.” So follow his advice and sneak in that joke about cat people if you come across a cat moment in a natural conversation. But don’t go on and on about how you once had a cat named Mittens that only ate mittens.
WE DON’T DISCRIMINATE AGAINST CAT PEOPLE. WELL, SOME OF US DON’T.
Figure out “the one thing” and the rest will come.
City Slickers can teach you a lot about life. “The one thing” is one of them. “The one thing” is not only helpful to live a life with purpose but it’s also the key to developing a campaign that punches above its weight. My “one thing” is my wife and daughter, so that’s actually two things but together they are my one thing. Sounds cliché and obvious but that’s my compass. If my Cannes invite gets lost in the mail next year for the 11th year in a row, I won’t mind because they don’t know what that is anyway. Nobody does, really. Not saying you can’t be David Ogilvy and be a great husband and father, but it does help me not beat myself up for not yet owning a castle in France.
Find your one thing in life and in your message. At work try try try to get your team/client/partner to have one super special thing you want to say on a brief. It’ll make the work better. The one thing became “Think different.” The three things became “Science with Service Delivering Success.” They both work. Which one works better?
YOU DON’T SEE AN EVERYDAY TRACTOR LIKE THIS EVERY DAY.
Always leave them wanting more.
The legendary Howard Luck Gossage used to end copy on print ads mid-sentence. At first by accident, then because it worked. This strategy shouldn’t be confused with half-assing it, as in, you left opportunity on the table because good was good enough. Don’t leave your creative director or your client wanting more. Leave the audience wanting to learn, do, feel or find MORE. LET THEM CLOSE THE LOOP. Leave some things to the imagination. Let your call-to-action tease. As salespeople say, don’t give up your candy.
In life you can apply this principle to be more likable, too. You’ll be more interesting if
Keep your stick on the ice,
Special thanks to all the brave, curious, bright souls I’ve met along the way from Brainco, E9, WestmorelandFlint, The Lacek Group, Alliance Benefit Group, The Lacek Group (second stint), The Marketing Plant, Mortarr, Brick, Flint Group (second stint) and everyone that’s been good company along my journey so far. And to Laura-Leigh, thanks for scaring me out of a job and into a career.
I may have inadvertently borrowed and shared some lessons from the following people/books. I promise I just wrote this all off the top of my head though. You should read them all:
Luke Sullivan’s Hey Whipple Squeeze This
Thomas Kemeny’s Junior: Writing Your Way Ahead in Advertising
Emily Heyward’s Obsessed: Building a Brand People Love From Day One
Dan Nelken’s newsletter
Matthew McConaughey’s Greenlights