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Saturday, July 8, 2017

In Search Of Fearless Work

A few years ago, on the eve of my annual family vacation, the agency heads asked me to lead a longshot new business pitch for a relatively unknown, New England-based investment management company. The idea of giving up my summer vacation to woo a financial services firm, didn’t exactly excite me. After all, this is not a category known for its creativity. To my wife’s irritation and my children’s disappointment, I agreed to lead the pitch and bid my family farewell as they flew to Miami without me. I figured, bringing in a new piece of business would be good for my career, which would be good for my family, which they would surely understand. They didn’t. But that’s neither here nor there.
I was given two weeks and a freelance team I’d never met. We got to work. My ignorance to the world of investing meant my days were occupied researching complex financial tools, brushing up on the company’s culture and history and doing my best to write ads that stood out among all the financial advertising noise. Those were some long days. As the big presentation approached, I barely even returned home. Somehow, we’d managed to assemble three distinct campaigns that felt fresh and made the case for CFOs to consider investing with State Street Global Advisors. We were The Little Engine That Could, preparing to prove all the naysayers wrong.
The presentation, to borrow from our President’s parlance, was a complete disaster. Our strategy was off, our tone was all wrong, and our ignorance regarding the nuances of institutional investing, was more obvious than I’d hoped. In spite of the poor showing, we were nonetheless invited to humiliate ourselves all over again, if we could stomach another round. Conventional wisdom suggested our Little Engine ought to change its mantra from “I think I can” to “Don’t be delusional”. But then, I thought about Florida. About ruining my family vacation. About the hours spent, breaking my teeth on dense investment copy. And I thought about Mickey beseeching Rocky, “Get up you son of a bitch!” and resolved not to walk away. We would ride this pitch till the wheels came off.
A few weeks after a spirited second presentation, I received a call from our head of new business. We won! True, we weren’t financial wonks, but our new clients appreciated our efforts to weave creativity into everything we presented. Ultimately, that’s what they were looking for, not an agency that could regurgitate content from a corporate website.
Over the next two years we created clever, hardworking ads for SSGA, even calling on Grammy-Award-winning director, Dave Meyers, fresh off Missy Elliott’s WTF music video shoot, to direct our brand spots. In this notoriously conservative, heavily-regulated category, we never gave up on the idea that achieving something breakthrough was possible. Still, our efforts hadn’t amounted to redefining what financial service advertising could be. Then we heard about SHE.
In a cluttered ETF market, SSGA wanted to promote a gender diversity index ETF called SHE— which would index companies in the Russell 3000 with strong female leadership. The theory goes, that businesses with gender-diverse boards enjoy a return on equity of 10.1 percent per year, versus 7.4 percent for those without a critical mass of women at the top. This is cause-driven investing with the numbers to back it up. Now, this was exciting! A financial service product with societal significance. Something we could humanize. Something with tension. Something with a story that could transcend the product itself. The SHE creative brief became one of those opportunities you don’t keep to yourself. You share it with as many talented creatives as you can because, frankly, broad, interesting briefs from financial service companies, are rare. Like unicorn rare. Or Yeti rare. Or Jewish farmer rare.
Over the next few weeks, plenty of smart ideas were conceived from a range of brilliant creatives, but one idea stood out from the impressive stack. It was elegant, powerful, universally understandable and didn’t require any of the latest whizz bang technology to work. Appropriately, it was conceived by a young female team, who like me, just a few years earlier, didn’t know the difference between an ETF and an ATM. What they did understand however, was that SHE could represent more than just another investment opportunity. It could address the glaring fact that women are severely underrepresented on company boards and help to catapult them into positions of power within corporate America. It could redefine what financial service advertising could be. The idea would become “Fearless Girl”.
Observing the Fearless Girl’s amazing success, including 4.6 billion (with a “b”) twitter impressions, its 745 million Instagram impressions, and the organic push to have it remain a permanent New York fixture, you’d think the process to bring her into existence would have been straightforward. It wasn’t. As with most uncommon ideas, this one provoked anxiety and equivocation on the part of the client. Over the next few months however, nerves were calmed, adjustments to the statue were made, fingers were crossed and on the eve of International Women’s Day, in the middle of the night, a statue of a defiant girl facing off against the famous Wall Street Charging Bull, was installed.
Why do I write this? Because my time on this account taught me so much about advertising—even after 15 years in the business. It taught me that sacrifice doesn’t always yield immediate rewards. That patience and persistence can be your greatest allies. And I learned that there really are no “creative” accounts, or “uncreative” accounts. There are simply accounts, each with the potential to produce fearless work. All it takes is ambitious thinking and yes, a generous dose of luck doesn’t hurt either. So, should you ever find yourself feeling like you’ve hit a creative wall, or tediously turning the crank on an “uncreative” account, remember, “Get up you son of a bitch!” 
*Congratulations to Tali Gumbiner, Lizzie Wilson and the entire State Street Global Advisors team!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Farewell Bond, James Bond



In the Spring of 2000, having decided not to pursue a career in business (despite having just received a business degree) I found myself in India. This was among the first stops on what would become a yearlong, round-the-world, backpacking, mind-clearing adventure. Arriving in Mumbai I headed north to Rajasthan—specifically, Udaipur. Nothing about India felt familiar to me. Not disfigured mothers begging while holding limp infants. Not cattle the size of SUVs roaming the narrow streets. Not families of five riding single mopeds in traffic that seemed oblivious to order or safety. Nothing. However, as the auto rickshaw I was riding in the back of, meandered through Udaipur’s maze-like lanes, I was struck with déjà vu. Upon seeing pictures of Roger Moore peppered throughout the city, I knew exactly why this place was so recognizable. The scenic beauty of Udaipur was the backdrop of the James Bond film, Octopussy. Now I was dipping in and out of the same narrow, twisting streets as 007 during that racy chase sequence. I would even spend the night at the Lake Palace Hotel. The very same Lake Palace Hotel in which Bond, disguised as a crocodile, swims up to the 'floating palace', populated only by sexy women. This was also the place I would become shitfaced on my first bhang lassi, while watching (what else?) Octopussy on the roof of a local hostel. I was young, idealistic, curious and carefree. It was a special time in my life, and right there to witness it all, was Roger Bloody Moore—at least his ubiquitous two-dimensional presence. In the 17 years since that life-altering trip, Roger Moore’s name, image and movies have always made me smile, like some inside joke between myself and 007. Today, Sir Roger Moore lost a short but brave battle with cancer, and just like taking in the breathtaking views of India’s most romantic city (after downing my third bhang lassi), I will miss him dearly.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Is Empathy Dead?



Empathy is the most valuable psychological resources we have. It allows us to resonate with and respond to the suffering of others. It also allows us to care deeply about the fates of those we love, including our spouses and children. But empathy is being destroyed, leaving people free to ignore the needs of others and perpetrate emotional or physical violence upon them.

Can we really be surprised? We’ve heard about teens posting videos of themselves sucker punching unsuspecting people and posting the footage on YouTube. We know about apps that accommodate routine “hook ups” with multiple partners without any emotional connection at all. We train our kids to be winners, because heaven forbid they feel envious of those who have triumphed or feel badly for those who have failed. We even have a President who mocked reporter Serge F. Kovaleski, who has a congenital joint condition called arthrogryposis that limits flexibility in his arms. 

And speaking of Trump, his proposed $6 billion cut in funding to the National Institutes of Health provoked Jimmy Kimmel to respond and in the process, highlight just how empathy-poor we’ve become. Kimmel, whose newborn son had open-heart surgery due to a congenital heart defect, made a plea to maintain health insurance coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. (You can check out the video here.) "If your baby is going to die and it doesn't have to, it shouldn't matter how much money you make," he said. "I think that's something, whether you're a Republican or a Democrat or something else, we all agree on that."

The next day, there were messages of support, but there were also headlines like, "Jimmy Kimmel’s obscene lies about kids and medical care" and "Shut up, Jimmy Kimmel, you elitist creep." I even watched CNN's Margaret Hoover criticize Kimmel while falsely asserting that pre-existing conditions will be covered by the GOP bill (You can check that out, here.)  

To make matters worse, our empathy deficit is actually being lauded by academics like Paul Bloom. In his book Against Empathy, the researcher makes the case that empathy is an "irrational emotion" that "muddles our judgment." He notes that some of the worst decisions made by individuals and nations are often motivated by "honest, yet misplaced, emotions." Empathy distorts our judgment, he says. Without it, our decisions would be "clearer, fairer, and ultimately more moral." Indeed, writes Bloom, "limiting our impulse toward empathy is often the most compassionate choice we can make."

Seriously?

Human nature is headed toward a selfish, sociopathic murk, but we’re not there yet. While we are certainly no angels, our altruistic side is equally real. There is plenty of convincing research evidence to show that we want our leaders to be empathetic and compassionate. Our collective wellbeing depends on it. So, yes Jimmy, if your baby is going to die and it doesn't have to, it shouldn't matter how much money you make. Period.