When I was first getting started in advertising back in the mid-1980s, I participated in the D&AD student workshops.
For six weeks you’d be set six briefs by six different agencies.
One week you’d be answering a print brief for Saatchi’s, the next a TV brief for DDB.
Best of all, you got to present your work to the person who set it – typically, this meant getting one-on-one advice from the likes of Dave Trott, Nick Wray, Paul Grubb, Neil Patterson, Adrian Kemsley, and Charles Hendley – the smartest minds in the biz at the time.
On one particular night, the host agency was Collet Dickenson Pearce, and true to form, we had a badass tutor: John O’Donnell.
The brief was for an imaginary product called Mathews Thermal Underwear, and the medium was posters. As was the norm, every student pinned their work up on the wall and awaited their fate.
Few got off lightly.
O’Donnell cited the usual flaws: weak ideas, ambiguous executions, crap headlines, etc.
Halfway around the room he stopped and paused. In front of him were three neatly drawn up layouts. They were thematically linked visually with the headlines that were subtle variations of a single thought.
One featured a young man clambering up the side of a two-story house to reach his girlfriend’s bedroom window on a bitterly cold night. The line read: “Matthews Thermal Underwear: For Adventurers.”
Another read, “Matthews Thermal Underwear: For Explorers” but its visual and the entire third concept have slipped the realms of my memory.
Without looking away from the work, O’Donnell said, “Who did this?”
A tentative hand went up at the back of the room.
He turned and eyed the speaker.
“These are great. I wouldn’t change a thing. Put them in your book.”
And that was it: A first-hand example of what would cut it, what it looked like, and how it worked. In the pub afterward, we all congratulated the campaign’s creator and silently resolved to come back with better stuff the following week.
Which leads to me to the other remarkable thing from that night.
At the end of the workshop, as everyone was packing up, O’Donnell addressed a question to the entire room.
“How many of you really want a job in advertising?”
I’m not sure what prompted the inquiry, but to a man and woman, everyone replied that, Yes, they did.
He took a moment to collect a thought and then said:
“Well, if you want it badly enough, you will.”
A gauntlet had been thrown down in front of us, a tacit challenge issued.
O’Donnell knew there would be casualties. That, whether through attrition, hardship, bad luck or disinterest, many would fall by the wayside.
For one, it was tough.
In those days, getting a job hinged on your folio of spec ideas. Developing your “book” from a half-formed mush of dubious thoughts into a job worthy tome of advertising goodness required a pathological degree of single-mindedness – a willingness to scrap, re-do, revisit, revise, refine and revise again, until you had twenty or so ads that any Creative Director could flick through in sixty seconds or less without ever having to stop and say “I don’t get it.”
So, yeah, it was tough, but that’s what it took to get into a shop like CDP.
O’Donnell would have been right to assume that not all would go the distance – of the 20 or so assembled before him that night, perhaps six ended up in the business.
It’s why I think the gist of O’Donnell’s statement should be posted in the reception of every ad agency, design shop, and client office in the land.
How badly do you want it?
If you’re a creative, how badly do you want to create great work?
How many with a good, even great idea, will keep going and make it exceptional? When a client rejects a beloved campaign, how many will roll up their sleeves and vow to double down and come back with something even better?
How badly will the account director want to champion it before a client?
How many clients will go to bat for it against an intransient superior? Or take the time to argue, rationalize, defend and support what they know works?
Simply put, how many will support the right way when the path of least resistance gets a quick result and a chance to beat the 5:00 traffic?
Like those students in the workshop all those years ago, some will stay the course.
Others will bail out early.
It’s easy to get jaded.
To just say “It is what it is” and be done with it.
But sometime soon there’s going to be a moment when a great piece of work is on the line, and it’s down to you to fight for it.
That’s when this post will come back to haunt you.
Because that’s when a little voice in your head is going to ask:
How badly do you want it?