This is a story about a talk I turned into a Medium post that went sort of viral. It is called 10 Lessons I learned From a Career In Advertising and it conveniently segues into another story about a slightly unhinged organic farmer on the West coast of South Africa.
All of this hopefully serves to help anyone in a creative field to make more interesting and authentic work.
At the beginning of last year, I got a call from my an old pal to come and have a chat with her students at an ad school. What should I talk about, I asked. Inspire them, she said. Show them some of your work. Show them work you like.
This prompted a long little think about inspiration in advertising. I distinctly remember how, as a baby copywriter we used to trawl through advertising annuals to gawk at award winning work.
And I remember feeling two distinct responses to that type of work:
a. I wish I had done that
b. I should do it like that
That sense of I should do it like that is the problem with inspiration in a circle-jerk business like advertising. It often looks to itself for innovation. Advertising people, and often young advertising creatives often look at other advertising for inspiration. The situation is so bad that those who have judged at big festivals like Cannes Lions will tell you how many entries that come through the initial rounds being nothing more than bad copies of the previous years’ big winners.
So I knew the one thing I didn’t want to show them was more advertising. Perhaps, I thought, what would I want to hear from an old fart like myself if I was in their Converse?
I sat down at my computer and wrote the heading 10 Lessons From a Career in Advertising at the top of the blank page. Flashing cursor. Flashing cursor.
Then I got one of those magic glasses of wine that automatically refills itself upon which I started jotting down my career history. In front of me, on the screen, the 10 lessons slowly materialised and magically seem to segway into each other. I guess, at that point if a brilliant 11th or 12th lesson popped up it would have to wait for another year and another talk.
Now maybe it was the wine talking, but I evaluated my own career history in a very honest way and the thing is — there are some very unsexy chapters and a huge amount of luck involved. But somehow I did not filter anything. I did not to try look cool. I just told my story.
I wrote it as if nobody was ever going to read it.
I did get a bit of a massive fright when I reread it the next morning in the cold light of day. But it was too late to do anything about it and I pushed ahead and presented it. And something odd happened. It felt good telling the story as it was. Got some good feedback from the ad kids which prompted me to republish the talk here on Medium.
The post got a bit of interest in the beginning and built up some steady reads in the first month or two after I posted it. Not much more or less than the other items I have posted on here before. To be honest, I forgot about it.
But a few months later, something odd happened. I woke up, like most of us do. First, you open your eyes, then you realise you’re still alive, and then you check your phone. On that morning, looking at my phone, I found a bunch of very odd emails in my inbox. They came in during the night and their time stamps and locations indicated that they were coming in as the sun rose in the east over New Zealand, Australia, China, Malaysia and India. They were all about the 10 Lessons. I was still a bit hazy so I didn’t fully comprehend what was going on. But during the day I had a look at the reads and they just kept climbing. The post was shared all over the world.
Somehow, my super local and honest and unsexy story about a boy from the East Rand of Johannesburg, a story about a boy who was too naive to understand that advertising wasn’t made for him resonated with people in places as far flung as Kuala Lumpur, Oslo, Sydney, Mumbai and Shanghai.
To date, the post has been read over 45'000 times.
I am saying this because I was truly taken aback by the way the story seemed to inspire people. Many of the thank-you emails I got moved me. They were from young upstarts in creative industries who were thinking of giving up but who decided to stay — because I did.
Reflecting on it, I realise that when you take the filters off and show others exactly the way you see life, from your unique point-of-view, you get into a position to create something unique that has universal appeal.
You have a story. It is yours and yours alone.
Look at this picture.
See the speck in the sunbeam? That right there is Earth. And to quote the great Carl Sagan, who had the wherewithal to ask for it to be taken as Voyager 1 reached the outer edge of our solar system and looked back 6 billion kilometres —
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
— also every copywriter, art director, designer, coder, musician, 3D artist and creative director.
No one else has had the experiences you have had. No one else has your memories. No one else known the unique combination of people you do. Or known the secrets you do.
Your story is unique and if you make it your life’s work to tell it truly and honestly it will resonate with every other person on this planet. Now. And in the future. Truth extends purely from one heart to another. There is that familiar click inside ourselves when we see truth.
You know it when you transmit it. You know it when you receive it.
Perhaps you are now wondering if your story is interesting enough. Or you are contemplating how to tell your story in the next creative project you have on your plate.
To answer, I would like to offer you a slightly different perspective on story and creativity. To do that, I would like to tell you about a farmer I met on the West Coast of South Africa.
I was working on a project where we were shooting interviews with organic farmers all over the country. One of them was a woman who used to be a corporate banker but who could no longer resist the impulse inside of her to leave world for something she deemed to be more meaningful. So she ended up on a small farm just outside Lambert’s Bay where she started growing organic produce like lettuce, beetroot and other greens.
Before the shoot, she and I and the director were walking on the sand dunes that her crops grew in. Honestly, the soil there looks like desert sand. I was amazed that anything of use could grow from it — let alone produce that could be sold in upmarket food stores.
She explained that her job as a farmer is not to look after the crops but to look after the soil. Instead, her job is to keep the soil happy and to take good care of it. When the soil is healthy, she said, the good crops becomes a mere by-product of the soil.
I remember how she was still in the middle of telling us the story when here sentence broke off mid-sentence as she bolted into the field. About 20 metres from us, she triumphantly lifted the largest pumpkin I had ever seen above her head. Excited like a child at Christmas she celebrated this wild pumpkin that spontaneously grew amongst her lettuces.
How does this relate to you and me as creative professionals? May I humbly suggest that your work — whatever you produce is not your story. Your life is your story and that is what requires your attention. The creative product that flows from you is the by-product from a life well lived.
Feed your life with good environmentally friendly nutrients. Like diverse experiences. Being brave. Reading. Watching. Walking. Running. Writing. Drawing. Showing up and meeting the muse. Going out to fetch the experiences. Allowing the natural cycle of life to sometimes rain on you, and also sometimes to let the sun shine on you. Because all your experiences, good and bad, eventually feed the soil.
Whatever work will grow from that life will be meaningful and unique because it will be true to who you are. Nobody else can imitate it because it comes from a place that only you have access to.
Thank you for reading and happy farming.