Why we make ads and why it matters.

Some thoughts on the nature of our industry.

I recently read a very well written book by a man named Peter Korn. A woodworker, Korn writes in his book, Why We Make Things and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman, about beginning his adult life building homes on Nantucket for Carl Borchert (a man who I only knew peripherally, through his wife and son), and then learning to build furniture by hand. This preoccupation with making functional objects with wood takes him across the country to Colorado and then back to Maine where he founded a woodworking school. It’s an engaging story.

I picked up this book for its obvious connection to the island where I live, and also because, in my line of work, I’m often wondering about what compels us to create. Is it profit? Or something more?

Korn writes that the primary function of creative work is self-transformation. I’d really like to believe that.

Is our self-transformation in the ad biz a positive one? I’ve met a lot of people in this industry and I can’t really answer that question 100% in the affirmative. While many ad folks are wonderful, caring people, I’ve met my share of shallow jerks who are beyond jaded. This business can make us crass and cynical if we let it. It’s a merry-go-round that we ride in search of awards and money and intermittent ego-stroking, and it’s not all that good for the soul. The process of constantly calling into question things like the brief, the audience, the client, the budget and the motivation behind selling alcohol, cars and processed foods can weigh on a person.

“What are we really doing with our lives?” is a question one has to ask at least once a week or risk turning into a self-deluding madman.

Why do we create advertising? It’s not the same as making dictionary stands or coffee tables. Yes, ads, websites, posters and coupons are functional objects but their function is a little less utilitarian and a little more self-serving. And therein lies the main difference.

For me, the whole thing comes down to a question of service. Who or what is being served? A perfectly turned cherry bowl serves the owner by providing an ideal vessel for food or as a centerpiece. A cobbler’s bench (Like the primitive example I’m currently using as a makeshift stand-up desk to write this) served the cobbler and the customer who receives well-made shoes. But an ad? Is the consumer being served, or simply being persuaded to make a choice among five different, but essentially equal options? Is the client being served by offering a better means to reach hundreds, thousands or millions of people? Is the shareholder being served by delivering ROI? Or is my ego being served by offering me a means to win awards and find an outlet for pent-up cleverness? Essentially, we all need to employ a certain level of rationalization to do the work we do because, in the end, it’s clear we are not bathing the feet of the poor here.

My own personal rationalization is simple. I do this job in service of others. I serve our clients who make good products and their customers who need those products. (I’m pretty sure I would have a hard time serving a client who makes a product that is innately bad, let alone harmful to people, and as I’ve stated before, there are some categories of clients for whom I would not work.) I serve my family by bringing home enough money to keep tuitions paid and electric bills up to date. And most importantly, for me at least, I serve my team — ten creative people who do excellent work, as well as 40 others within our agency with whom I work. Simon Sinek, in his book, Leaders Eat Last, makes an unassailable point: The best leaders don’t look upon their teammates as people who work for them. They see them as people who they serve. It’s why, every morning at 9AM, I ask my team if there are any obstacles in their way that I can remove. They don’t work for me. I work for them.

I am acutely aware that I make the work I do sound rather noble. It’s not. As I said, it’s a rationalization. Truly noble pursuits require little rationalization, if any.

Says Korn in the introduction to his book, “The good life that society prescribes — the untrammeled pursuit of wealth and fame, leisure and consumption — often leaves some essential part of us malnourished.” Yes, this is true. And many people within our industry are in it for wealth, fame, leisure and consumption. Just as, I’m pretty sure, there are people who make furniture for the same reasons, more or less.

The process of making things is essentially the same whether we do it for the right reasons or not. The why of it is what really matters. In Korn’s case, he was compelled to create furniture, despite the lack of profit, fame and comfort provided, and he found, after 40 years, his essential why of it — to reach a new level of self-discovery. As an ad person, somewhat perversely, I am compelled to create within an industry of inherent profit, fame and comfort, and after several decades my why is just as important to me.

Why do you do what you do?

Grant Sanders is the Creative Director at Mintz + Hoke advertising in Avon, CT. He lives on Nantucket Island and commutes back and forth each week to be with his kindergarten-teacher wife and aging black dog. In addition to making ads, he also makes music, outdoor furniture and dinner.

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