CREATING DURING CORONA. How to find work/life harmony in lockdown.

Person with laptop on roof

I’m not a fan of the term “work-life balance.” You see, when you define balance, there’s an inherent assumption that work and life are two opposing forces. Positive and negative, assets and liabilities, hot and cold, wet and dry. Right and wrong. Love and hate.

In a creative industry like advertising, work and life do not live on opposite ends of a continuum. Even before our world went into lockdown, when our bedrooms became our offices, ideas lived together. Or, in the words of Francois Auguste De Chateaubriand from the 1800’s (and apologies for the gender-specific pronouns of that era):

“A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.”

The truth is this: it’s not about a work-life balance. It’s about work-life harmony. What we see/absorb/express outside of work is important for the campaigns we create. There is an inherent need to find ideas in life for work, and in work for life. And as our work and life have nested in the past few months, it’s important to keep looking outward for inspiration. To find ways to escape the bubble, to free our minds when are bodies feel contained.

In advertising, work and life are congruent. The human experience is the common denominator we use to create ideas that translate universally. Our product is not a commercial, print ad, experiential display, digital ad, social video, etc. Our product is the idea. And ideas are transitive. 

The ultimate accolade for a brand is not a Pencil or a Lion. It’s when people say, “this brand gets me.” For that to happen, the people creating the ads must first get themselves. This is even more of a reason for our industry to nestle work and life together. It’s not without reason that most purpose-driven, passion-filled campaigns come from personal places. 

Life experience can be expressed through a campaign: the love, the loss, the pain, the joy. And we must draw upon the sum of our lives to produce campaigns that convey that sentiment. What we create is hollow without our experiences guiding us. Same goes for home life. The ideas and takeaways from working relationships should be learning tools for our personal life.

So how do you create a work-life harmony? It’s not as hard as you might think.

1. Be Open to Inspiration

In the traditional sense of work/life balance, work happens during work, and life happens the rest of the time. But when we redefine the relationship by opening the door between work and life, it clears a path for collaboration between our two perceived selves. 

Did you finally break through to a client or co-worker? Use that insight to help in your personal or family relationships. Did a road trip with your best friend open up an understanding of the human experience? Deck it up and see how it applies to your current client. 

As we change our perception, we change our behavior. And when we change our behavior, we can now draw upon all our experiences for a better life, and for better work. 

2. Be a Student

Woman writing in a journal
Photo by Eye for Ebony

I used to manage about 25 social creatives. The skills I seek  from others are multidimensional and cross platform. It’s important to find and nurture those skill sets that bleed from vocation to avocation. 

For instance, I once sent an art director to a street photo class. That same week, a writer wanted to take a VO class, so I sent her there. It helps their side projects, but also their work on the brand. A VO class allows a better sense of writing dialogue when it is properly spoken. A photography class allows an understanding of composition and lighting, allowing for a more informed review of selects. In these instances, work and life are in agreement, and learnings can be applied to both. 

As you cultivate your own interests, find skills and passions that overlap, and see how to bring them from work to life and vice versa. 

3. Be Observant

A crowded outside market in Asia
Photo by Xavier Teo

In the checkout line, on the subway, at a birthday party. It’s important to do your research. The best marketers are anthropologists who informally study the human condition. If you are creating an ad for mobile, sneak a peek at how people use their device. If you want to break through to a younger demo, break through with your kids at the dinner table first. 

Once on a plane ride, I watched someone next to me go through his camera roll. I observed what from his own content got his attention. How he quickly thumbed through the multiple landscape shots. Which pictures he zeroed in on. The ones with people were most popular, especially shots with him in it. Yes, it’s creepy to look over at someone’s pictures. But, seeing how someone goes through their own valuable content is a perspective that many advertisers, despite the expensive suites of tools and analytics, don’t often get. 

Some of my most successful moments of insight have come through patterns I’ve observed, actions I have seen, conversations I have heard or overheard. Throwaway words or everyday moments can become profound in a new context.

4. Set Limits

A chain link fence
Photo by Markus Spiske

There is writing, deck jockeying, etc. that needs to be done. So it’s important to set the limits on work, emails, devices, etc. and be present during important moments in life. Define and stick to a timeline so the active work can have a place in your life, while the passive work around inspiration can continue. Work and life are at their best when they live in congruence. 

If we think of work and life as two different forces, we limit our ability to learn from each. If we look at both as opposites, we will never feel the need for one to inspire the other. If we silo work and life, we can never fully understand that balance should not be the goal, rather harmony should. 

So expand your frame, create a flow, and put these thoughts into practice. Stop shutting the door between work and life and see what good can come of it. And if people “get you” and your work, you know you’re onto something. 

Creative Directors. It’s time to create.

This is the sign you've been looking for sign

Times like these are meant for reflection. Not for holding on to the past, but to figure out how to embrace the future. To ask yourself, Do I really like what I am doing? Am I happy, or just comfortable? I had to ask myself those same questions last year.

These days, at my new agency, Cast Iron LA, I intentionally do not call myself a creative director. And my partner doesn’t either. We are a writer and art director, and they are reflected on our titles. Sure, we can put whatever we want on our raised lettered, pale nimbus business cards, but we learned a lesson in our past lives. And we move forward, our titles remind us what we actually do, not what we are entitled to do.

Ascending to creative director is a reward for good work. And that reward sometimes means you stop doing work. At least the work that got you to that position in the first place.

And that is the beautiful irony of #agencylife.

For us, that was one of the most frustrating parts of that promotion, and didn’t want to repeat it at our own agency. We had seen the CD’s and GCD’s who came before us, and many of them seemed to be enjoying the spoils of their position, but not enjoying the actual work. Emails, meetings on their phones, long lunches, screaming about things outside their wheelhouse. It was sad. And I didn’t want to end up like that. And it was all because they weren’t really doing the work. At least not the work that they loved.

Their reward was also their burden.

Now, not everyone is like this, especially at small agencies, but I’m sure many people immediately come to mind, if you’ve been around the agency block. At smaller and more progressive shops, you are doing the work out of necessity. You can’t afford work to go through INTERN/JR/CW&AD/SR/ACD/CD/GCD/ECD. The work gets lost in committee, and as it begins the ascension, those near the top weigh in more heavily, because, besides writing approval emails with ? that’s pretty much all that’s left to show their top-heavy value.

And it’s not just the creatives. That problem exists at the top of almost every agency discipline. Because the better you are at your job, the less you are being asked to do it. Crazy, right? But now, that org chart may be a victim of thinning the herd on “essential” advertising jobs.

Admittedly, I was on the road to this sad and safe existence. I tried my hardest to be a working CD, but most of the time I was just punching holes as I shepherded other’s ideas. The agency life is complicated, and so much involves moving things along, that there are a limited few that do the actual work. It’s the best kept secret in advertising.

2019 was mY Pandemic

Free me sign

When I lost my job last year, I had essentially been promoted out of strong, marketable skills, and had no one to blame but myself. I had not updated my book in years, and many of the skills required to do that, skills that I used to possess, were now history. So, I had to learn again. Like an athlete with a career-ending industry, I had to start from scratch, re-learn the basics of my craft, and build skills that could add value to the workspace.

So, I reintroduced myself to Photoshop, learned how to build a website, figured out SEO, got my Premiere Pro skills back and basically worked my way through the entire Adobe Suite in search of my next job. After a few interviews of places that gave me more of what I left behind, together with my old partner, Luis, we started our own agency, Cast Iron LA

Do more typed on computer

Now, many CD’s who scoffed at digital and social, are now re-evaluating their skills under the new world of Coronavirus. No longer can they be shielded from not learning, or rewarded for simply being drinking buddies with the ECD. No agency can afford to have that level of overlap that many have enjoyed for years. And many, who are now in isolation should learn to protect themselves, by going back to the days when they did the work, and loved what they did.

So here’s some advice to keep your mind and skills fresh, as they come under newfound, economic scrutiny. If you make it through this (and I hope you do) follow these steps to ensure your skills and growth mindset are aligned, fresh and ready for a post-pandemic world.

Keep creating

It’s easy to get caught up in the world of meetings and emails that you lose track of what you love about this business. Being a working creative director keeps you honest, humble and closer to your team. Even if you are doing spec work, or writing an article like this, don’t turn your back on the skills that brought you here. Keep the creative mind fresh. Rust sets in fast.

Participation Leads to inspiration

Early on, my partner had always pushed me to write a blog when they were coming into fashion. From there, I developed a motto “Participation leads to inspiration.” I learned to roll up my sleeves and experiment. And I did, as much as a siloed office environment would allow.  If you are not on social because you think it’s stupid, reevaluate that objection. It’s hard to lead when you’ve never been down the path. I had an executive-level planner challenge me on a Facebook campaign once. I asked him if he was even on it. He said “no,” and I politely thanked him and walked away.

Lead teams to the well

When I first started reviewing copy as an associate creative director (ACD), it was much easier to make the changes myself. It saved time and energy, especially with lesser creatives. But ultimately it was a shortcut that was bad for the long run. So I corrected and built in time so my writers could arrive at their own pace. If you do the work for them, no one learns. Now, my partner Luis and I mentor people here, and beyond our agency. It’s good practice and you can learn from the inexperience of others if you look hard enough. It’s even more important to be patient, as the workforce continues to operate remotely.

Know the brief

When there are multiple projects going on, it may be hard to keep track of them all. At the minimum, know the brief, and be accountable to the objectives when the team presents to you. Young teams sometimes focus on shine, so it’s your job to solidify the connection from the brief to the work. If you don’t understand a platform, get out of your comfort level to research it. No longer can you simply smirk and glibly say, ” I don’t understand that digital and social shit,” when clients are paying you to do just that.

Don’t solve their problems

If you are a CD, chances are you are a good problem solver. But give your teams a chance to figure things out on their own. Chances are, they will get there and develop a valuable skill along the way. It’s time well spent. Don’t hamstring their development, just so you can get back to playing games on your computer. It’s lazy, and happens far too much.

Teach teamwork

There are so many touchpoints and nuances to an idea, it’s important that your team connects with the specialists around them. You need to reward those who collaborate and encourage those who don’t. The sooner they learn the give-and-take of the business, the sooner they will thrive. And as it has become harder to walk down a hall to talk to a strategist, recognize and reward others who figure it out remotely. Strong leaders will emerge from this, so look out for them.

Show respect

Establish a mutual trust with your team, and always respect their ideas. There are some creative directors who are assholes and have clawed their way to the top. From their perch, they make life difficult for their teams, because that’s how they were treated. That’s not a good way to earn respect, and those who behave like that never earned mine, or my teams. Be vulnerable. Be willing to fail in front of them. Admitting you were wrong about something will earn you more respect than always presuming you are always right.

Help it sell

Teams will work tirelessly on an idea, meticulously crafting it into the wee hours. But when the critical time comes to sell that idea, no time has been put toward it. Presenting an idea should never be downplayed. Have your team present it to you, and give feedback on the presentation. It’s a skill that is often overlooked, and the more it is developed, the better everyone will be. These days, remote selling makes it even more critical to have a good presentation. Help your team with that.

Never stop learning

feet with passion led us here on sidewalk

Technology makes us do things that we may not want to do. But if you don’t play in the digital world, you will never understand it, and your teams won’t take you seriously. Participate in the new or be rendered obsolete. And always, stay curious. No matter how many gray hairs you have.

Now, If you haven’t bothered to do anything different since March, learn a new skill or just assume you can ride this wave out, it may be time to rethink that strategy, as age, compensation make you vulnerable. My partner and I are living proof. Move forward with respect to your own growth, and adapt new ways to mentor and help your team get through this. If you are looking at old ways to solve new problems, that misguided approach needs to be your wake-up call.

But there was reason you got to a coveted level of leadership in advertising, and it’s still inside you. It’s time to go back to the skills that brought you there, learn some new ones, and be ready for whatever the world throws at you.