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What kind of Good do you want to be?

25 January 2011 One Comment

It was 1994. Sure, I had spent a couple of years on the client side and a couple of years on staff at a small Atlanta agency.

But this was Chiat Fucking Day.

The place that I saw in all those award show books. The agency that had created the incredible “1984″ commercial for the Macintosh. This was Real Advertising.

There was a popcorn machine and a caterer and there were these crazy offices that weren’t even offices, where you just checked out a laptop and a phone and found a perch somewhere. There were vibrant colors and hip people and tables that looked like diner booths and the whole thing was rather overwhelming.

A friend had moved to NY to work there, and she was nice enough to get me an audience with the creative director, Marty Cooke, whom I’d read about as one of the 25 writers worldwide included in The Copy Book.

And when they had a creative department meeting and some British lady came in to share some reels, Marty actually invited me to sit in with the ”real” creatives. I was on cloud nine.

But then it was time for the rubber to meet the road. It was time to show my book. They don’t make enough Speed Stick for a moment like that.

At the time, it was 100% real work, from the real clients I was working on at my agency in Atlanta. To characterize it as mediocre was to be generous.

Marty sat down with me and thoughtfully went through each piece. He found some things to like. He asked some questions about the thinking that went into each piece. And then he turned to me and asked the question that has resonated with me in every job since:

“There are a lot of different kinds of good, Stephen.

What kind of good do you want to be?”

I have since learned that the answer to this question is so important to your success.

It’s not whether you’re talented or untalented – it’s whether your talents match where your agency is going.

It’s a decision some creatives never manage to figure out. They curse their surroundings or their bosses or their clients and never stop to realize that YOU are the only reason YOU’RE in an incongruent situation. You took the job. You made the choice. And you came back in this morning.

Let me give you an example. After quitting my job, reworking my portfolio and turning down nine different job offers in the late 90s, I took a position in the Dunkin’ Donuts group at Hill Holliday. It was by far the funniest group in the agency, run by a group CD who had torn up the Mercury Awards and was one of the best humor radio writers around. If I had really stopped to think about the situation, alarm bells should have gone off: ”this is not a fit. You are Not That Funny.”

But Hill was a big name in a good town and I didn’t care. They were in the books, and I just wanted to be a “real creative.” And I figured a “real creative” had to be awesome at Everything, and I would just work hard enough until I was.

I managed to get some good work produced. Even managed to satisfy my boss with a bit of funny radio. But every day was like clean-lifting 800 pounds. It. Was. So. Hard.

I had always thought of HHCC as the place with Ernie Schenck and all the great, thoughtful John Hancock work. All work that I thought of as, very me. But this group and this account were another flavor entirely. It wasn’t a fit, and that made it twenty times harder.

After we came back from Christmas break, my bosses sat me down and told me that because my work was so truth-based and smart they were moving me out of their group to “the bank.”

(Cue the 1930s Dust Bowl photographs and music with lots of minor chords.)

The Bank. The hardest, least loved group in the agency. I went home that night and tossed and turned and tried to decide if I was going to quit. I decided not to decide.

But then here’s what happened. I was, indeed, a better fit for the bank. One of the best, sanest creative directors in Boston joined Hill Holliday to run my group. My new partner and I clicked better. And we got to work on a lot of other projects beyond the bank. Damned if they weren’t right. The banishment was a blessing. My new group was a better fit, and my life got considerably better.

Back to that day at Chiat NY.

After hearing Marty’s critique, I realized that what it meant was that I was nowhere near a job at Chiat, that I wasn’t their kind of good. I cursed myself for the stupid career choices I had made. In 1990, I had been offered 3rd quarter advanced placement at Portfolio Center because of the little portfolio I’d managed to put together from the client side. I can’t begin to tell you the rock stars who ended up in that class. But I thought, “why pay money to learn advertising when there’s an agency that will pay me?”

(I hear the echoes of that flawed logic a half-dozen times a year when young creatives bring me their not-quite-baked portfolios.)

But you know something? Every journey has its rewards. I learned unique things and was exposed to unique situations in my 7 years of working in that Atlanta agency. Their goals were different than my goals, but they were good, smart people.

I’ve written before about my decision to throw away my book and become a different kind of creative. It was certainly a less-glamorous path than going to portfolio school alongside a bunch of future ad gods.

But I think if I hadn’t been forced to reinvent, I wouldn’t have been as incredibly motivated as I was. I wouldn’t have worked as hard as I did, or met the incredible people I met teaching at Creative Circus, people who’ve become like family to me and taught me lessons that have been vital in my own growth.

Our unique paths are what make us uniquely creative, and I’ve finally learned to feel blessed by mine.

- Stephen Curry

One Comment »

  • Fabio Seidl said:

    One article, many great thoughts. That’s what our job is made of: choices and fittings. Not everyone has the eyes to see it or the guts to change to another lane when it’s time. Very good.

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