Susan Sontag on the Need to Recover Our Senses

Susan Sontag on the Need to Recover Our Senses

“Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience… What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more. Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.” -Susan Sontag

In Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay, “Against Interpretation,” she provides a new framework for appreciating artworks, one that explicitly denies the need for critical assessments of the works in question. Sontag wants us to experience art and be enlivened by it. She argues that to overanalyze it is to diminish it.

Oddly, I sometimes find myself interpreting my paintings after I make them (as was the case with the new painting posted here). When I am in the act of making a painting, I don’t want to think too much. Ideally, I let the brush guide me and when this occurs and things go well, the paintings somehow have the power to inform me about their meaning.

Back to Sontag’s famous essay… I love that an esteemed writer and intellectual is advocating for less thinking and more seeing, hearing, and feeling. I think artists and all makers can learn from her. “What’s important now is to recover our senses.” Thus, when you’re making a painting, running for public office, or launching a new product, ask how you’re helping the people in your orbit to see, hear, and feel more.

Marketing is often described as an art and science. I’m good with this description, but I’d like to emphasize that the art part of the equation requires a different sensibility. Instead of looking for “triggers” that will “lock in” the “target,” you’re looking for big ideas that will touch and move people. Moving people to care and to believe comes before moving them to buy, vote, join, or give.

Sontag also makes a salient point about the need to cut back on content. We, the inhabitants of these Internets, have been sold a bill of goods when it comes to the call to publish persistently or perish. By flooding our readers, customers, or constituents with too much matter, we’re making it harder for them to discern what matters.

“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 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.

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

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:

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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.


The person who runs the Communication Arts Twitter account likes to promote my writing. 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.

It’s an honor when anyone pays attention to my writing. Given that it’s CA who follows my updates and helps to promote my thinking, I feel particularly grateful for the recognition.

Faux Cowboy Seeks To Lasso Our Public Lands

Extraction. American industrialists posses a voracious appetite for it. In fact, their hunger for more precious metals, oil, and coal is so great, they want to find these untapped riches in our National Monuments.

Thankfully, REI is taking a strong leadership role in the resistance, and actively encouraging its members to step up and help protect our natural heritage.

Our country’s public lands define who we are. These are the places where we work, where we play and where we connect to our shared history. Now is the time to stand up for these places—places that help us live a life outdoors.

Right now, the Department of the Interior, headed by Secretary Ryan Zinke, is undertaking an unprecedented review of 27 national monuments established by presidents from both parties since 1996, including the San Gabriel Mountains in California, Craters of the Moon in Idaho, and Bears Ears in Utah. More than 11 million acres of national public land are at stake.

The Department of the Interior wants to hear from you. And we want to make it easy for you to speak up.

REI’s business is at stake. Taking 11 million acres of public land off the table isn’t just a violation of everything sacred and good, it’s a direct threat to the outdoor recreation industry and the travel and tourism industry. It’s good to see REI fight back. Too many companies hesitate when faced with tough social and political issues. No one wants to offend customers. At the same time, brand managers know they can’t be all things to all people, especially today.

In February, both REI and Patagonia supported pulling out of a major outdoor trade show in Salt Lake City in response to a resolution from Utah’s Gov. Gary Herbert that advised President Donald Trump to overturn Bears Ears as a national monument. Companies like Patagonia and REI are powerful enough to make Utah pay the price for their public official’s backwards ideas. But will it be enough to move the needle and restore common sense throughout the land? No, but it’s a start.

It’s such an odd moment in America. Don and his wrecking crew are busy doing damage to our institutions and traditions. Meanwhile, American brands fight the good fight. Bring all the skepticism you want, but REI and Patagonia aren’t playing marketing games here. This is real, and it’s also a showcase for the power of PR and brand activism. When a movement is backed by an active and loyal community of customers and fueled by an activist company or group of companies, it can be a powerful force for good. Companies haven’t usurped the role of non-profits, nor will they. This increased activism is an added layer of pressure, and an effective one.

The Mixed Up Men Behind The Obfuscator In Chief

The Mixed Up Men Behind The Obfuscator In Chief

When I was 18 years old, I walked into the offices of The College Reporter in Lancaster, PA and soon thereafter my work as a reporter commenced.

My time as a college journalist was difficult but educational. The administration threatened to sue me and frat boys banned me from their parties and wanted to kick my ass. Their anger and outlandish behavior drove me to dig deeper and write better news stories. That’s how journalists operate. They seek the truth in the face of massive resistance and obstruction, no matter what. It can be a highly adversarial occupation—so much so that dozens of journalists are murdered each year.

The truth hurts. In fact, truth sears the flesh of fascists. According to The New York Times, senior liar to the president, Steve Bannon, gave the press a tongue-lashing this week:

“The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States. That’s why you have no power,” he added. “You were humiliated.”

This is the criticism of a savvy media manipulator who ran Breitbart, a hate site far right of Fox News, until Don officially added him to his team last summer.

Could it be that am I too far removed from the Heartland of my birth to now understand the dynamic at work in America? Am I humiliated, as Bannon claims? No, I am embarrassed for the country, a sentiment shared by media pros from coast to coast.

Steve Bannon holds his false staff in a sea of snakes. His divining rod is no good.

Many Americans are in the dark. At the same time, we are in the Age of Radical Transparency, which means it’s nearly impossible to hide the truth. For all the recent talk of fake news and how it threw the election, it’s important to realize that Bannon’s fakes are not at all convincing. MIT Media Lab professor, Ethan Zuckerman, reports:

Preliminary analysis conducted by the Media Cloud team at MIT and Harvard suggests that while fake news stories spread during the 2016 US election, they were hardly the most influential media in the dialog. In tracking 1.4 million news stories shared on Facebook from over 10,000 news sites, the most influential fake news site we found ranked 163rd in our list of most shared sources. Yes, fake news happens, but its impact and visibility comes mostly from mainstream news reporting about fake news.

Bannon has also gone on record as a Leninist who seeks to dismantle all American institutions. Will Bannon’s venomous lies topple the press and the way we govern in this “free country”? I am doubtful. The fact is Bannon’s lies that flow from Don’s mouth on a daily basis are mostly noise, and now that the press is calling a lie a lie, and getting their backbone back, the fight is on for real. “The Steve and Don Show” might be the greatest reality TV program ever made, but like all reality TV programs, it’s a highly produced show that can and will be cancelled.

In related news, last Christmas President Obama quietly signed into law the Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act, a bill introduced by U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Chris Murphy (D-CT). “Our enemies are using foreign propaganda and disinformation against us and our allies, and so far the U.S. government has been asleep at the wheel,” Portman said.

Perhaps we need another law to protects us from the propaganda emanating from the White House and Republican “leaders” on Capitol Hill. In the meantime, I will rely on journalists to dig, learn and reveal on our behalf. We the people have our own role to play as readers who subscribe to our nation’s best newspapers and magazines, as citizen journalists, as neighbors, friends and colleagues. Lies do die out, but right now in America the lies must be killed.

The Magic of Don: How He Hides His Crimes Out In The Open

Did Donny the Dangler employ a brilliant communications strategy to win the White House? According to Roger L. Martin, a business professor at the University of Toronto, he did, and the sooner we understand how it works, the more effectively we can combat him.

What he was doing was creating with precise and relentless consistency an entirely new category in the minds of voters: the politically incorrect candidate. He has since monopolized that new category.

By creating the new category and playing his role to the max, the audience became riveted and eventually moved to support the anti-candidate. The logic Democrats tried to use that you would not hire a bus driver to fly a plane, ultimately wasn’t the kind of logic enough Americans were willing to buy. Is it because Americans are dumb-asses? It is all too easy to see it that way, but the good professor warns against it.

Clinton ran an exceedingly competent campaign, with lots of experienced managers, an abundance of planning, high levels of investment, and careful attention to best practices. However, the strategy was underwhelming. She sold customers what she desired them to want: a product that was compelling to her and her management team.

This is such an astute reading of the 2016 election. Russian hacking didn’t rob Hillary of the White House. She lost in a contest with rules that she didn’t fully understand. She kept insisting, as Democrats do, that better policies matter most. Of course, they do matter in the day-to-day reality of governing. But running for office is not governing. Running for office is a battle for attention, adoration, and ultimately long-term brand preference.

I don’t blame Hillary for not wanting to see herself as a product. No one wants to degrade their own humanity in order to win, except the demagogue who did just that to win. Lessons learned. Now what do we do to expedite the impeachment of the ass clown in charge? What strategy do we the people employ to fight the growth of fascism in our own land? Number one, STOP listening to what he says or Tweets. When literally every word he utters is calculated to distract, it’s time to turn away from the noise of Don and the talking heads altogether. Instead, we must watch what he does, and organize our resistance there. The longer we focus on his or anyone’s personality, the less room we make for the issues.

Don can talk shit all day and he does. Who cares? The issues that I care about are on the line: civil rights, gun control, healthcare, the environment, the economy, and the constant drumbeats of both terror and war. I don’t have time to hear what he or his minions have to say on matters. They are corrupt, anti-American and blind to the needs of our modern society. It’s good to understand the other side’s wants in any conflict, but what do you do once you comprehend that their wants are outrageous and dangerous? Do you listen and try to find common ground? Or do you go out and organize the people of this nation into an informed and motivated force for freedom?