5 Stupid Things My Dad Taught Me About Life and Ads

When I was a child my dad would routinely get us lost in the city and ask me and/or my sister to navigate us home using only a compass. The rule was that he would go no matter where we told him, for as long as it took and he would berate us with insults because it’s only fair that an 8 year old be prepared for hard life lessons at any given moment. This is the same man who let me sit in his lap and drive the car until I started to get the reputation as the only elementary school kid in town who had crashed a car. That poor bush never even saw it coming. See my dad never missed an opportunity to have a creative “teaching moment”; he was like Mr. Miyagi but with a deep southern accent and the frame of a former football player. But like a festering smell in a rental car that just won’t seem to go away, these lessons stuck with me and taught me a lot about how to run a creative business and more importantly how to navigate life. I can only imagine the look teenage Ryan must have given him every time he would unearth one of these nuggets of southern wisdom cooked up in the hills of Ooltewah, Tennessee. Oh wait - no, scratch that… I know exactly the face, because I get it from my 5 year old every time I pass along one of these sacred family secrets. So I compiled 5 of my favorite quotes that helped shape me into the creative leader I am today.

“Get Your Knees Up!!!”
Here’s where I try and convince you that my dad’s backyard coaching as I practiced sprinting to the ball in soccer was actually prompting a philosophical debate on form vs. function. See as my father’s son, I had no shortage of will and determination, but what I lacked was proper form. Or so I was told as he screamed from the porch watching down on an adolescent me running suicides in the backyard. He’d pull me aside and tell me “Boy… you could be going so much faster if you would just pick up those knees and make bigger strides.” Seems simple, I know, but this actually drove me crazy. To this day I run on a treadmill and I think everyone must be thinking “why’s that asshole doing high knees?” But see here’s the point; he was right. See I learned early on that proper form gave more opportunity for better function. And I really do think about this a lot. Don’t lose time reinventing your approach. Every new challenge is also a new opportunity to apply something you previously learned.

“You’re a hired gun but you charge by the bullet”
Speaking of function… My dad has really helped me navigate the complications of being a creative while fitting into a business system. You will continually find as a creative that you are butting up against the constant problem of round pegs and square holes. Creative and business are oil and water. I always remind my team that the best painting I ever made took me 25 hours and the second best painting I ever made took me 45 minutes. The point being that being paid with a simple calculation of monies per hour frankly doesn’t make sense. But you will be asked often to make the impossible possible as a creative, so don’t let them ever forget your value and why they hired you. The spreadsheets might define you as an “hour” but your value is “you” and that’s what they are selling.

“Vietnam was a tie”
This is a man who once conned our way into a NASCAR race armed with only a yellow post-it-note and his conviction. He’s the kind of guy who could convince you that you in fact “dealt it because you smelt it.” When I was a young designer I would continually get frustrated when I would propose a solution that was met with doubts, then my dad could swoop in and say the exact same thing, and everyone would nod like he just solved the JFK assassination. I took him aside one time and asked what his trick was. He said “look at my face, what do you see?” I of course said “a dead ringer for Brian Dennehy” and he said “No, when people look at me they see 30 years of experience. They see wisdom and someone who’s done it before and has made mistakes and learned from them.” And then he challenged me by asking me to think about what ways, even while a young man, could I project the type of confidence that made people trust me. I learned then that my job was to instill they type of confidence and control that would be magnetic; make them believe that I am the man to lead them on the journey we were about to take.

On the goal of business: “That guy has money in HIS pocket and I want it in MY pocket” 
I know, I know, this one is a little obvious. But occasionally I need that kick in the ass to remind me that I aint workin’ for free. This goes back to that idea of knowing your value. I tell my team all the time that there will always be a pile of job jackets waiting for them tomorrow. This hours-driven, task oriented approach can become a real grind and burn you out quickly. Solving creative problems is an awesome job and is meant to be fun. My Dad once advertised “Elvis’s Guitar” at our yard sale and sold his old P-O-S guitar by signing “Elvis’s” name on it with a black sharpie. Why would Elvis’s guitar be at a yard sale, and WHY WOULD ELVIS SIGN HIS OWN GUITAR?!? He was always looking for the angle that no one else could see and that he knew would help close the deal.

“Social Media is a tactic” 
This was my 5 word pep talk before leaving the family business to take a huge risk and become the social media creative director for a team of none at the agency I’m still with today. Fast-forward 6 years later and I’m the creative leader for an agency of 100+ incredible, innovative, creative marketing professionals. Believe it or not my dad’s parting words of wisdom were actually meant to be encouraging. It was his way of reminding me that advertising is advertising is advertising. As much as the world changes around us, some things never change; best idea wins. And ideas aren’t dependent on technology. They do not care what type of device you are using. And they can find relevance no matter what the channel. Great ideas penetrate that cynical force field that we create to protect us from the poison rain cloud that we call advertising. So I think of him often and his reminder that great ideas don’t need explanation; they just are.

Now that I’m a grown man with a child of my own it’s important that I’m passing down this wisdom. If not for anything just to make sure that my son and daughter know that their dad can navigate a map and definitely knows that Vietnam was a huge mistake we can never make again. So consider this article an ode to my dad; the Yogi Berra of advertising and the Brian Dennehy of faces.