In Which I Realize Something About Myself.

I’ve been commenting about Mad Men lately, and pretty much buying into the show’s conception of advertising creative people as lost souls, squandering their gifts and their lives on assignments they disdain, but I just looked at my own reel for the first time in years (I retired seven years ago), and I realized something. The show is wrong.

(A “reel,” for those of you not in the ad biz, is the collection of television commercials you’re proudest of having created; the word has been outdated ever since in-office film projectors got replaced by 3/4” videotape machines, then DVDs, then downloads, but it persists.)

Sometimes we (I and my creative compadres) did great work. And when we did, it was personal.

I mean, it came from inside us. Our experiences with the people we’d known, the people we loved. Our frustrations with life, and our triumphs. Our observations, filtered through our own sensibilities, of other people and the way they behave.

What an artist does.

We weren’t exploited by the assignments we were given. We exploited the assignments.

To us, a commercial was an opportunity to send a message in a bottle. The product, the sales pitch? That was just the bottle, the delivery system. The message inside? That was the important part—and that was us.


We put ourselves out there, into the universe. Our messages said, “Hey, this is me, these are the things I care about, I bet they’re not so different from the things you care about. I bet I know what can make you smile or choke up a little, because I bet it’s the same stuff that makes me do that. Let’s find out, anyway.”

And many times, the universe sent messages back, in the form of letters from audience members we’d touched, or gushing compliments from folks at cocktail parties. Or sales of the product shooting through the roof, even though that wasn’t really why we did what we did. The only reason we cared about that was that it meant we’d get to do it again.

Our clients, whether they knew it or not, were patrons of the arts.

We spent millions of dollars that didn’t belong to us to reach millions of people we didn’t know with stories that came from inside us and meant something to us.

I feel lucky to have spent my career at an agency which, for long stretches of time, encouraged us in our attempts at artistry, understood what was really happening within its walls, and knew that serving clients and serving us weren’t contradictory missions. Great work can’t happen without that support.


One Comment on “In Which I Realize Something About Myself.”

  1. Jim Dyer says:

    Thanks, Ted.
    My sentiments exactly.

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