“We are all basically hedonists.
That’s what makes us human.
And we were made to want pretty simple things:
We want what feels good.
We need the thrill that comes from being good at something.
The thrill of doing what we weren’t sure
we could ever actually do.” -Janet Champ for Nike
While you were desperate to become a writer, heavy doubts about such a path weighed on you like muddy boots. You believed down deep that you were a writer already, but there was such little proof. And it seemed so vain and false, to say aloud, often to a perfect stranger upon first meeting, “I’m a writer,” when in actuality you were holding down a temp job at Pacific Power & Light that paid a meager eight dollars an hour.
Yet, literary pretensions lingered like a November cold. The hierarchy–bolstered by an expensive liberal arts education–that placed fiction, drama, and poetry writers well above the hacks that churn out journalism, or god forbid, advertising, was still solidly intact. It had to be. There was no other way to survive the daily humiliations of being a temp. You just had to keep affirming “I’m a real writer, doing what real writers do for money–something else.”
Then, right when it was most needed, a feature article on Janet Champ, Wieden + Kennedy’s highly accliamed copywriter, appeared in The Oregonian. A poet by nature, Champ’s lines moved millions without so much as a mention of Nike, or its shoes. Clearly, Janet Champ was a real writer. A real writer with a huge and appreciative audience. A real writer with a nice job and nice salary. A writer who could, without hesitation, respond when asked what she did for a living, “I’m a writer.”
Forget Hemingway and Fitzgerald. You wanted to be like Janet Champ. You wanted money, acclaim, and an office with high ceilings and exposed brick walls, where creative people dressed in black and ordered-in sushi. You wanted to call your mother, and all your friends and say, “Watch Melrose this week. My spot will be on.”
It took a good bit of day-dreaming about your grandiose future before it occurred to you to ask, “What do they want?” “They,” being the string of people between you and Dan Wieden–the top practitioner and co-creator of advertising’s famed “Portland School.” In short, the man responsible for “Just do it.”
Apparently, they wanted a portfolio to leap from its position amid the hundreds littering their office. They wanted it to scare them. They wanted to be scared by you. They wanted to look at your work and whisper to themselves, “This guy is out-there.”
No problem, you thought. You could be out-there. You could be whatever it takes, because you were on your way. You’d found your inspiration, and now you were busy lacing up your shoes. Anyway, how hard could it be? You’d written journalism, poetry, fiction, and criticism with some success. Could advertising really be all that different?
Plus, no one in advertising gave a crap about the holes in your resume. No one cared if you were a temp., or a cabdriver, or a service worker. No one cared about anything, except your portfolio. Your ideas, and nothing else, would get you the job. That was all there was to it.
They even went so far as to say, “We don’t care if your work has been produced. In fact, if it has, it may be to your disadvantage, because we want to see your pure thought–not something that’s been polluted by a client.”
Meanwhile, you sat in a cubicle at the utility company only blocks from “The Creative Kingdom” and pondered, “How the hell am I gonna pull this off?” Despite all you had heard, the nagging question lingered, “Was it really possible to go from a temp-job in an unrelated field to the most creative ad agency on earth?”
Before self-doubt could get much of a hold, the phone rang. It was a woman. She said Dan Wieden had read your letter. He wanted to see your book. Could you come by on Wednesday?
“Sure. I can make it,” you said, while internally troubled by the fact that your campaigns were not breakthrough. They were not scary and Dan Wieden wanted scary. That’s what you’d been told by reliable sources. You had to shock him. Otherwise, it was a waste of time. You might as well pack it up and ride the Oregon Trail back to Kansas City.
Wieden + Kennedy had an old-school gymnasium in their headquarters where the suits could work out their frustrations on the creatives. Or whatever. They had a gym. It made sense. After all, Nike put Wieden + Kennedy on the map (or vice-versa, depending on your point of view). And you were certain many great campaigns had come from that gym floor.
You played a mean game of hoop, yourself. In high school you were almost a star. You could taste it back then. Some big-time scouts sniffed around, but in the end there were no offers from Division I teams. You were a step slow, and could only dunk in practice. So you came to terms, shifted gears, and ended up at a Division III school known for producing doctors and lawyers, not ball players.
But now, a decade removed, was the time to put all the dreams back together. Writing was the Big Game now. Writing was going to take you to the hole. Writing would be your glorious contribution. And writing about sports while working on Wieden’s number one client–Nike–was in a word, perfect.
Taylor, Wieden’s portfolio keeper, who was jammed into a tiny office, underneath the stairs–stairs leading someplace–unfortunately had other ideas.
After leaving you in the lobby for an uncomfortable amount of time she wasted no time on courtesies. “Sit down,” she said. Your hands shook slightly and your breath was irregular.
You handed over your black portfolio case. She took from it a speculative story-board for Microsoft–Wieden’s new client. The TV spot-to-be took a stab at a new position for the software behemoth, “Microsoft–Your Window to a Better World.”
“First of all, we do not accept spec. work for one of our existing clients. For legal reasons, I’m not able to look at this.” She gingerly held the story-board between her thumb and forefinger, her expression imploring you to take it back, as if it were laden with a life-threatening contagion.
The rest of the work she fanned quickly. She did not read any of the body copy. She looked at headlines and the visual impact, if any. Then handed your book back, just like that. “I can see you need some advice,” she said. “Listen, if you are serious about this you need to get some help. You need an art director. You need a photographer. You can’t just slap a witty headline on top of some scrap photos and get a meaningful communication.”
She swiveled in her chair and began to hand you books by other aspiring copywriters. “Look. This is practically genius level,” she said while presenting a novel concept for a lawn-care product. “Dan loved this, and we’re still not hiring him.” Her look asked, “Get it?” Her voice asked, “How bad do you want this?”
“More than anything. Once, I thought I would play major college ball. But, I never went all the way. I have to go all the way this time.”
“Fine, but you’re dreaming if you think you’re gonna walk in off the street and get a job here. If you’re truly serious, I suggest you sell your car. Disconnect your cable. Do whatever, because all your time and money has got to go into your book. When I look at a book, I know how much time was spent on it, and by the looks of yours, I’d guess you spent, what, a month? Try a couple of years, then come back and see us.”
You hated her. She was a snotty girl from Short Hills who had gone to Yale and was on “close personal terms” with Jodie Foster. She had to be. Oregonians didn’t act this way. They weren’t quite so blunt with the truth, nor as quick to destroy with it.
You stood up and turned to exit.
She said, “So, you’d walk out on a client then–when they trashed your best efforts?”
She had you. You sat back down and listened. “Look,” she said, “I don’t care how bad you think you want this, you’ve got to assess the competition. And they’re way ahead of you. Why don’t you do yourself a favor and go to Portfolio Center?”
“Uhhh, I’m twenty nine.”
“Well, I’ve already done the school thing.”
“Not in advertising.”
“True,” you said, “But I’m not ready to leave Portland for Atlanta. And I’m not ready, nor willing, to go into that type of debt for a better-looking portfolio.”
“Don’t think of it that way. Think of it as an investment in your future.”
What about the investment your parents already made for you to attend college is what you’re thinking. “I think I’ll take the school of hard knocks, thanks though,” you said as you rose to leave, finally.
“Good luck then, you’re going to need it.”
What you needed was a drink. Time to absorb the hit. So swiftly can the one-big-opportunity slip away. You’d been down this road before. As an athlete. As a student. In your relationships. But not this time. You kept repeating, “Not this time,” under your breath, even though the bartender clearly disapproved of people talking to themselves in his presence.
Of course, she said you can come back in two years. Two years! What a bitch. Two more years of being a temp. and you’ll throw yourself in front of a train.
You’ll have to look elsewhere. Maybe even outside Stumptown. Wieden doesn’t own the patent on creativity, after all. The more micro-brewed ales you downed the more sense this line of reasoning seemed to make. You’d show him and his guard at the gate. Because no one was going to stop you. Not when your path was so clearly visible for the first time in your life.
Too many pints later, when you finally emerged from the warehouse-district pub the moist air outside, rolling in thick over the West Hills, perked you up ever so slightly. And like a stray sliver of metal pulled by a powerful magnet, your feet led you down the transit mall to Washington Street. At the corner of Third and Washington you swayed under Dan Wieden’s office–a huge corner office on the second floor with high arched window panes.
While trying to rid Kafka’s Castle from the mind you happened upon an idea. Sure you were drunk, but it was an idea, and by god, it might be just the thing. Dan Wieden wanted scary, then scary it would be.
With a sudden rush of energy you scrambled into the alley and found a red brick. You leaned against the wall and dug into your book-bag for a bottle of White Out. With as much care as you could muster under the circumstances, you painted a concept for Tom’s of Maine natural toothpaste onto the brick. After rendering the the tube of toothpaste you applied the headline: “Socially Responsible Investment.”
You figured Taylor might remember your Tom’s campaign since there wasn’t any body copy, and they’d know who was behind this stunt. Once and for all, you’d know if Dan Wieden really liked scary.
You got to your feet and looked around in every direction. It was late and no one was out. You stood in the street and with everything you had sent your big idea heavenward. The brick turned end-over-end and was on-target, going smack for the high arched pane, when THUD…
The brick came back just as fast. Shocked, you jumped backward as it hit in front of your feet and splattered into a thousand shards.
Dan Wieden’s window was bulletproof, repelling, like every other aspect of the man and his agency, ideas sorely lacking in originality.
©1995 David Burn Some rights reserved
Note: This story was mailed to ten advertising agencies as a job query in 1996. One responded. Valentine Radford in Kansas City. Bob Simon, VR’s Chief Creative Officer at the time invited me to KC and actually had me play basketball against his senior copywriter, Stewart Colovin. Proving, once again, that reality is much stranger than fiction.