What Else I’m Learning While I’m Learning to Paint

What Else I’m Learning While I’m Learning to Paint

I started painting again. The impulse seemed to emerge from nowhere or maybe it came from someplace deep within.

When I’m painting, I’m able to get into the zone right away and let myself go. For the most part, I find it’s an unrestrained act to make a painting. This is different from writing, which I come to with training, expectations, and thus some level of built-in stress.

I’ve relied on words for so long—to express myself and also to make a living—that I now need another non-verbal means of conveying my ideas. And when I pick up the brush and begin applying the paint, I’m not thinking about doing it right, or who I will impress with my style. I’m doing it for the joy of doing it.

“Waking Bear,” acrylic and watercolor on canvas by David Burn

Some of my efforts are better than others. As with any creative effort, only a small percentage of the raw ideas and new works are worthy of appreciation and sharing with an audience. The rest is practice.

When the practice is painful, it may be a signal that you’re playing in the wrong sandbox. Ideally, the practice is something that calls to you. This is what’s happening with me and the act of painting. I’m being called to create by a new Muse and thankfully, it’s a joy to put in the time, get in the zone, and let spontaneous things happen from moment to moment.

“West Texas Cash Machine,” acrylic and watercolor on paper by David Burn

I’m about seven weeks into this new practice. I make about two paintings a day, working with acrylic and watercolor paints on paper and canvas. Many of the ideas for the paintings come to me just before I start to paint or after a few brushstrokes.

Some Clear Benefits of Painting

I’m excited to paint because it’s good old analog fun. Plus, when I’m engaged in the act of painting it helps me:

  • Practice being present and sharpen my focus
  • Learn to make the best of my mistakes (there’s no ‘delete’ button when painting)
  • Accept that it’s not all about the outcomes—it’s about experiencing flow during the acts of creation
  • Stay in touch with my true passions
  • Reaffirm that I can learn to do new things (and perhaps, in time, learn to do them well)

My interest in painting has also reignited my interest in art history and the works (and lives) of several of my favorite artists. I am now hungrier than ever to know more about Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, Joan Miró, Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinski, Amedeo Modigliani, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Georgia O’Keefe, Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, and several others.

I feel like the works of these masters influenced me long before I picked up a paintbrush, and now that I do have a paintbrush in my hand, I’m looking again, but more intently at their brushstrokes, colors, subject matters, and the techniques that made their paintings extraordinary.

–> See more of my paintings on Flickr.

The Eyes of Labor Are Upon Us

The Eyes of Labor Are Upon Us

Hollywood’s writers and actors are giving new energy and a prominent voice to the struggles of workers everywhere.

When I heard Fran Drescher, president of SAG-AFTRA, make the case for her union members, I was moved.

Did you know that 87% of SAG-AFTRA union members don’t qualify for health insurance? How much do they have to make to qualify? $26,000 a year. In other words, only a select few top earners make big money. Everyone else is barely getting by. This is a working person’s struggle for rights, respect, and compensation.

And the lords of the entertainment universe are not pleased…

“The endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses,” a studio executive told Deadline. Actor, Ron Perlman, has a response.

@phillewis_ A studio executive told Deadline: “The endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their homes.” You need to hear Ron Perlman’s response. #ronperlman #ronperlmanedit #ronperlmanhellboy #sagaftra #writersstrike #writersstrike2023 #writerslife #actors #actorsoftiktok #hollywoodstudios #hollywoodstrike #sagaftrastrike #sagaftrafound #sagaftrastrong #sagaftraactor #sagaftramember #sagaftrac #wgastrike #wgastrike2023 #wgastrikevote #actorsontiktok #instagramlive ♬ original sound – Phillewis_

Meanwhile, Disney CEO Bob Iger (who made $45.9 million in 2021) said, “There’s a level of expectation that they have, that is just not realistic.”
What’s not realistic is the idea that income inequality will go unchallenged. It’s unrealistic to think that we “the people,” will continue to passively take whatever the corporations we support with our labor and our buying power dish out.

In her speech, Fran Drescher said:

It’s really important that this negotiation be covered because the eyes of the world, and particularly the eyes of labor are upon us. What happens here is important because what’s happening to us is happening across all fields of labor by means when employers make Wall Street and greed their priority, and they forget about the essential contributors that make the machine run.

Greed is a deadly disease. The good news is there’s a cure and the labor unions in this country have an outsized role to play in providing this cure.

“An entire system incentivized to exploit workers.” There’s nothing more American than that. Not when you consider that unpaid forced labor helped create countless American fortunes.

Tragically, the exploitation of workers of every race is woven into the fabric of this nation. You don’t need a degree in American history to know that American workers in meat-packing plants, in mines, and in garment factories (to name a few) have died in this struggle.

To highlight what Fran Drescher said in her rousing speech:

We stand in solidarity, in unprecedented unity. Our union and our sister unions and the unions around the world are standing by us, as well as other labor unions, because at some point the jig is up. You cannot keep being dwindled and marginalized and disrespected and dishonored.
This is a moment of truth and inside of this truth, we can more clearly see how wrong things have gone in our corporations, our branches of government, our schools, and our media. We can see how broken we are and what widespread corruption and malfeasance does to society.

American freedom is a point of honor, but how free are people who work themselves to the bone, who neglect their mental and physical well-being, and who shirk their responsibilities at home? How free are people who work all day and yet they can barely afford rent, utilities, food, or medicine?
America is the richest nation on earth, and in my lifetime, this wealth has grown exponentially, particularly since the dawn of digital. What I have yet to see is an attendant growth in generosity from those who benefit most (or any legislation to make them pay their fair share of taxes, at the very least).

Income disparity today is ugly and alarming. On average, CEOs today receive about 398 times the annual average salary of production and non-supervisory workers in their firms. It’s disgusting and wrong, and it’s time to turn this tide. It’s time for workers to unite and demand fairer treatment for all.

“More Content, Delivered Faster and Cheaper” Answers the Wrong Problem

The advertising agency business has been in one bind or another ever since the dawn of digital. Digital shook the industry to its core, and the reverberations are still being felt from top to bottom. The list of problems is long, but one problem we don’t spend enough time discussing is the problem of not knowing who or what we are, any longer. It’s a confusion that I find perplexing.

Read the full article on Adpulp.com: You Are Not A Machine. Resist!

Communications Arts is also promoting this piece on its Twitter page.

Since writing the article, another gusher of AI-positive news has flooded the system. Regarding WPP’s all-in bet on the technology, NVIDIA founder and CEO Jensen Huang said, “The world’s industries, including the $700 billion digital advertising industry, are racing to realize the benefits of AI.”

And what might these benefits be? More content and better personalization delivered faster and cheaper—these are the discordant bells chiming in the ad industry’s glass towers today.

AI may be a powerful new way to make money, but AI at present is solving the wrong problem for brands. The right problem to solve is creating one powerful and universal message and a singular means of communicating it.

Rockin’​ the Boat: Why It’s an Excellent and Terrible Thing to Do

Creative people in media and marketing spend their days working to disrupt the norm. That’s how attention—which is in scant supply—is won. The information products that we create from the ideas that we generate are meant to be unusual, odd, or even scary to a degree.

The conundrum is presenting these radical-by-design ideas in a light that makes them seem safe. Because, if the ideas seem too far out there, they won’t be adopted. That’s the thinking and it’s often the reality on the ground in far too many business relationships today.

First, Name the Dysfunction

Irrational fear of creativity (and people who do creative things) is a problem for business leaders who want to differentiate their offerings and grow their market share. It’s also a topic my friend Todd Anthony at Pinwheel recently tackled on the agency’s website.

While we humans may delight in creative ideas, we also hate them – especially when we’re asked to support them. Even when the logic behind creative ideas makes perfect sense, research shows that people reject them in favor of known, safe, staid ideas.

In fact, even when someone has explicitly said that they want creative ideas, they still have an unconscious bias against them – associating creative ideas with negative words such as “vomit,” “poison,” and “agony.” A 2012 study from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania showed that this unconscious bias against creative ideas also tends to interfere with a person’s ability to even recognize a creative idea when they see one.

Bias against creativity is baked into the way we do business. It’s what the studies reveal and it’s what anyone who sells creative ideas for a living already knows from experience.

And it’s not just creativity that people in every line of work routinely reject, it’s any departure from conformity, any challenge to the status quo. In many business settings, it’s too risky to rock the boat. You might get tossed overboard, and quick.

How to Stop Playing the Same Same Game

Progress relies on innovation, and creative people in business come up with breakthrough ideas all the time. That’s not the hard part. The difficulty is selling the ideas, producing them, and ushering them to life, where they can do some good.

Like most creative professionals, I’ve had my share of struggles bringing big ideas to life and consequently, I’ve learned some lessons along the way.

  1. Don’t take rejection personally: Bias against creativity and new ideas is a universal human problem and not a problem specific to one dim-witted human being who just doesn’t get it.
  2. Everyone wants respect: I used to resent some clients and bosses for their need to be coddled and made to feel important all the time. Now, I see it as utterly human and this makes it easier for me to locate the good in the person.
  3. Be unattached: Ideas are fluid and plentiful, and they come to all. When a particularly good one materializes, what happens? We attempt to capture it, contain it, and make the idea ours. But this possessive posture sets you up for disaster because most good ideas will get tabled for whatever reason.
  4. The magic is in the making: Advertising makers, like filmmakers, winemakers, and so on, love to talk about the importance of craft. Because how an idea gets made and by whom makes all the difference in the quality of the final product.
  5. Healthy teams make it all possible: There is something more important than creative output and the revenue it generates. That something is the healthy team that makes it all possible. Thus, any impediment to healthy teams is a problem in need of immediate attention.
  6. Find your people: Progress in business, education, medicine, law, and/or government requires a team, but not just any team. Only a team of fellow adventurers and pioneers, and people who share in your mission and values, are going to stand on the mountaintop.

As I consider the list above, I see how much weight I’m giving to emotional maturity and intelligence. Advertising, in particular, is a young person’s game but learning to manage all the egos in the room (especially your own), all the various conflicts and tensions, and being able to hear what’s not being said…that kind of mastery takes decades of focused intention and practice.

When you’re ready to run for office, grow a business, or spark a movement, I can help.

Show, Don’t Tell: A “Help Provided” Prose Poem Campaign

Show, Don’t Tell: A “Help Provided” Prose Poem Campaign

In my desire to “Show, Don’t Tell,” and to chronicle the prelude to my third career act, I’ve been writing prose poems about my career, the communications industry, and some of the philosophies that guide me.

I published more than a dozen of these prose poems on LinkedIn. Now, I’m offering eight of the poems in one package here.


According to the Poetry Foundation, a prose poem is a prose composition, while not broken into verse lines, that demonstrates other traits such as symbols, metaphors, and other figures of speech common to poetry.

Poetry Is A Clear Point of Difference

As someone who writes ads and marketing copy for clients, I like the idea that poetry and art can be used to inform commerce. I also like the idea that poetry can be a point of difference for me in my search for meaningful work.

When looking for work, you’re looking for people. In my case, I am seeking to connect with business and community leaders who need help communicating their marketplace value.

There are marketers in the world today who believe they can simply state their offer and win—no personality, charm, creativity, or strategic planning necessary. I’m not looking for these marketers and they’re not looking for me.

I’m a good fit for marketers committed to pursuing a clear point of difference in the marketplace. A clear point of difference starts with the product or service and moves from there to how people inside and outside the company talk about (and think about) the product or service.

To make a brand culturally relevant today, and to give people something to talk and think about, we often infuse brand communications with arts and culture. Lowbrow. Highbrow. It’s all up for grabs.

When I work with clients on a brand communications problem, I reach back to my training like everyone else. I was trained to read and write poems, stories, essays, and news.

Today, I believe in the use of poetry and poetic frameworks to advance the objectives of a business, cause, or political campaign. To get an idea to stick and to get people to share it, there has to be a short powerful punch of words.

To tap one legendary line, “Where’s the beef?” … it is not poetry. It’s advertising that benefits from poetic construction.

Writing Advice: Readers Are Real People (Get to Know Them Better)

Writing Advice: Readers Are Real People (Get to Know Them Better)

Writers of literary works say don’t go chasing an audience. Don’t picture the reader in your mind. Just focus on the story and serve the story. Basically, the exact opposite of how copywriters work.

The best copywriters are obsessed with reaching members of a pre-determined audience and moving them to act. For a copywriter, words on the page are not abstractions, they’re not hazy thoughts draped over a red velvet chair, words are the vehicle, the high-powered engine with the means to reach the desired audience and the agreed-upon end.

Not Always the Best Advice: Tell Your Story, Your Way

To highlight the “tell your story, your way” argument, I could pick out any one of a hundred pieces of writing advice. This is what screenwriter, John Milius says:

To write for someone else is the biggest mistake that any writer makes. You should be your biggest competitor, your biggest critic, your biggest fan, because you don’t know what anybody else thinks. How arrogant it is to assume that you know the market, that you know what’s popular today—only Steven Spielberg knows what’s popular today. Only Steven Spielberg will ever know what’s popular. So leave it to him. He’s the only one in the history of man who has ever figured that out.

When I consider his point of view—one shared by countless other writers—part of me nods my head in agreement. Another part of me wants to scream.

The biggest mistake a writer makes is leaving untold stories withering on the vine. The biggest mistake is not writing, not believing, not developing a routine, and not improving. Writing for other people is not a mistake at all. Writing for other people is also not the same thing as compromising your values or dumbing down your work. That sometimes happens, but it’s not a pre-ordained outcome.

A writer of literary works can care about the reader and maintain their integrity. The reader is not the enemy of your best work. In fact, just the opposite. It’s readers who spend time with your work and gain something from it. To me, it seems neglectful to not consider the reader.

Cozy Up and Open Up

John Milius also suggests that it’s best for a writer to be his or her own biggest fan. I disagree. Writing is lonely work as it is, and what helps is to hear directly from a reader who knows and supports you. A few kind words from this person can help spur you on, and help you to remember to believe in yourself and the work you’re doing.

Publishing is a business and a writer has to know something about it, how it works, and who is who. The lone writer in a room is where the manufacturing of books begins, but it doesn’t end there. Getting a book into a reader’s hands requires the help of several more people. Professional people who know how to help writers make better books.

If you write experimental fiction, then cozy up to the editors, agents, publishers, and readers in that world. By immersing in a community as a reader before you step up as a writer, you instinctively know what readers want, because it’s also what you want.

Writing is about artistic self-expression.

Writing is about connecting with readers.

Both of these things are true. What I don’t like about the lack of market awareness in literary writers is the solipsistic pose. For a story to work, it needs to reach a reader, and when it does the reader ought to be changed by it. Writing when there’s a reader on the other end is an alchemical exchange. That’s exciting to consider and to consider it fully, it means keeping readers in mind.

My Presentation to Advertising & PR Students at the University of Texas

My Presentation to Advertising & PR Students at the University of Texas

I was invited to speak to undergraduates at the Stan Richards School of Advertising & PR at the University of Texas. The invite came from the Association of National Advertisers in New York City.

The suggested topic for this guest lecture was “My Work as a Creative Director,” plus any tips I may have for graduating seniors seeking work in advertising, media, or marketing.

With the lecture hall as my stage, I brought a strong point of view forward and shared it with the students. One of the things I said is:

Ads Can Solve Powerful Problems

I wanted to leave the students with the idea that there are no limits on what can be achieved for a client, and that some client “at-bats” are more important than others.

During the Q+A following my slides, I was asked some great questions. One question that I thought was smart to ask, was:

What do you know now about working in the ad business that you wish you knew when you entered the business?

I said I wish I took seriously just how fragile one’s reputation inside the industry is, and that somehow we all must find a way to be nice, likable, and a pleasure to work with…without losing our standards or creative edge.

RFPs Are a Waste of Precious Time

There’s a wealth of highly specialized marketing talent available to brands today, but few brand managers know exactly where to look to find a good fit for their most pressing needs. 

Sure, the brand manager may read the trades — and maybe she has a robust network of peers to tap for recommendations — but that’s not the most reliable pathway to take when the business need is acute and the need for an answer is long past due.

Enter the request for proposal. RFPs are commonplace today, and they are often dismissed by savvy new-business professionals as a waste of human resources. If a client sends out 20 or more RFPs and then has a handful returned to sift through and assess, there will be more losers than winners. That’s just math.

Read the entire piece on Builtin.com.

For Better Results, Understand the Relationships Between Creativity, Productivity, and Accountability

People are being asked to do more with less. In the ad agency business, this has been going on since the first days of Digital Disruption. Today, with COVID-19 raging across the land and the globe, so-called “thought workers” who can work from home are doing so, but at what cost to themselves and the economy at large?

While it is true that some people excel in a home office and everyone saves on commute time, not all people, nor all teams are meant to work remotely.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development:

In the longer-term, productivity performance could improve to the extent that the crisis catalyses wider and smarter adoption of efficient telework practices, raising worker well-being and efficiency and lowering firms’ costs. This could speed up the transition into a “new normal”, which would have been more gradual in the absence of the crisis, given uncertainties and costs around the necessary organisational and management changes and other hurdles – cultural reluctance or legal constraints.

Emerging evidence provides support for this notion: 61.9% of hiring managers interviewed in a recent US poll stated their intention to rely more on remote work in the future. However, against these positive longer-term productivity effects stand potentially adverse effects arising from increased spatial distance among employees, e.g. impaired communication resulting in lower innovation or the fusing of work and personal, family and social life leading to hidden overtime.

“Hidden overtime” is a nice way of saying that with no division between work and home or work and play, We, the People are fast becoming automatons.

The process was well underway prior to the pandemic. Now, it’s worse and the impacts are rippling through our society. Overworked and underpaid productivity hounds burn out and lose their edge and effectiveness. When this happens, we all lose. Unhappy and unproductive workers are not exactly the best shoppers or most pleasant people. No sustainable work practices, no disposable income, no stoking of the economic engines.

The Eternal Question: Where Do the Best Ideas Come From?

Question: Where do great ideas come from?

Answer: Great ideas come from the minds, hearts, and souls of people who are experts at connecting disparate dots.

To do this deep work and connect disparate dots, people must have the room to relax, and the room to let their minds wander. Ergo, I want to present to you what I consider the ideal office space for a creative worker today:

No alt text provided for this image

Creative People Need Some Space to Think, Okay?

In a work environment where Slack, text, email, and project management software are always on and always dinging for attention RIGHT NOW, the team’s performance is bound to suffer.

Ad agencies can become pressure cookers where people have too many meetings and too many tasks on their plate. When this happens, people are not their best selves, which means their best ideas are not being sought, nor found.

People must be free to think, free to speak truth to power, free to go for long walks, and free to dream. When anyone or anything impinges on this creative freedom, trouble ensues.

Stress kills people and ideas. Ergo, the conditions that create stress must be managed successfully. You do this by becoming more accountable to yourself, to your team, and to your customers. When those are your north stars, you’re in alignment and when you’re in alignment you can do the “heavy lifting” required to achieve great things.

More Twitter Love from CA!

More Twitter Love from CA!

The person who runs the Communication Arts Twitter account likes the #AdLegends series on Adpulp.com. I am grateful.

CA is the creative industry’s standard-bearer, and each Tweet sent from @CommArts is seen by a segment of the magazine’s 81,300 followers.

To see previous Tweets that CA sent to promote my writing, visit this page on DavidBurn.com.