What I Know Now That I Wish I Knew Then


For more years than I am prepared to admit, I have been an advertising creative. And for many of those years, a creative purist.

I believed, as many young creatives do, that the idea, which I and/or together with my writing partner dreamed up, was king. And beautiful execution was its queen. I wasn’t solving a client’s business problem as the principal endgame; I was flexing creative muscle. I thought that simply understanding what kind of business the client was in gave me all the necessary input.

And as if by magic, the idea would occur. A great photograph or piece of illustration was commissioned. Or a film production company was hired, and we had expressed creative ingenuity. The client should simply express gratitude. This was the prevailing ad agency creative department zeitgeist.

I now look back on the early days of my career with healthy doses of relish, nostalgia, and “I wish I knew then what I know now.”

Working at two of Milwaukee’s premier ad agencies, I was mentored by Tom Jordan, Steve Laughlin, and John Constable-legends in this town. While each of these men were all about a great ad and a beautiful execution, they helped me realize that while an idea should be innovative and arresting, success relied on it being grounded in something: a solution to a business problem via a human truth well told.

To quote my good friend Tom, “Great advertising needs to be intrusive. And persuasive.” The viewer, user, reader, or listener needed to be moved. And then moved to act. An agency’s clients are not simply businesses with products or services that need to be pushed. They are brands. And our job is to establish and maintain a connection between these brands and their customers. That connection is the first business objective and the ultimate marketing goal.

At some point, this hit home. And I, like many young ad creatives, suddenly found myself trying to justify purist creative and aesthetic sensibilities in the context of these stifling “goals and objectives.”

Welcome to being an ad agency Creative Director.

Fast forward a few years and into the agency lexicon comes a new four-letter word: Data.

As if business goals and objectives weren’t enough of a conspiracy to frustrate true creativity, here comes statistics. Let’s reduce artistic expression one more time to math. Let’s make creative decisions based on numbers rather than intuition. Spreadsheets now replace gut instinct. Objectivity replaces what is largely a subjective evaluation.

Let’s give the left brain and the right brain a new reason to duke it out.

Before joining Saturn Lounge, I spent 10 years at a very large, retail-focused, and data-driven agency. They had very smart analytical people. They understood how to read overnight numbers and interpret them into consumer behavior. They believed the adage, “the numbers don’t lie.”

Here’s what I believe: numbers may not lie, but they also cannot tell the whole truth. They can isolate very specific behavior about a specific purchasing decision in the context of a specific time frame and under specific conditions. It’s kind of like defining the whole of human nature based on one moment in time. Numbers are useful, to be sure, but viewed in their proper context in the business problem to be solved by marketing. They can inform strategy and creative, but they cannot determine it. Strategic minds still need to find insight and relevance alongside other mitigating factors.

Find the strategic position.

I’ve been in countless briefing meetings and never felt like I left the room with everything I needed to know. Many times, the strategist or account person briefing us felt if they gave us reams of pages of useless information about the company, sales goals, what the competition was doing in the market, and a list of mandatories, they had accomplished “the brief.”  Many times, the document was a simplistic and an obvious state of the business without a tangible insight. So myself, and my creative partner, would be forced to do our own research. We learned to fill in the empty space with more useful information that provided clarity. And then we could find the white space between the client and their competition, where a unique selling proposition and the idea could be found.

Sometimes simply challenging the client’s current position or an industry norm with a diametrically opposing point of view would spark a new path. Marketing buzzword: disruption.

And sometimes we would look for a similar situation in a completely unrelated business segment. Or a real-life situation. How did they solve the problem? How was the situation resolved? I used to pour over advertising award annuals to see how others did things, convinced this would help make my work better. Award-winning work from people I admired from all over the world inspired me to stretch for the more beautiful execution. The wittier and smarter headline. The more pointed visual analogy.

Studying the work of advertising’s best creative minds made my thinking clearer. More strategic. Their great work solved the client’s business problem with a competitive angle and a real human truth. Find that, and you find the proper jumping off point. Find the insight, and you’ll find the idea. And realize, at the end of the day, it’s not about you. It never has been. Great ideas are rarely found in selfishness.

Welcome to Strategy.

In a 2019 article called What Creatives Really Want From Planners, Ed Tsue, the Chief Strategy Officer of Publicis had two conclusions that I think are brilliant, and how I am approaching my new Strategy role.

Conclusion number one, strategy isn’t one direction, per se, but a defined zip code.

Briefing creatives isn’t about showing them the only path. It’s about defining the area that is ripe to play in. It’s okay to put a fence around it. You will still leave plenty of room for the creative problem solver to explore. If only, as a young creative, I understood that boundaries could make me work better, not more restricted. That really understanding the client’s business problem would make the work smarter. And data could help make my work more insightful.

If only I knew then, that one day, I would also realize conclusion number two.

Strategists are useful. That is, after all, what creative people really want.