Are You Willing to Get Naked?
by Ernie Schenck
"When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability...To be alive is to be vulnerable."
It shocks the hell out of you the first time you see it. You know it’s real. But you don’t believe it. You can’t. And how could you? Who would do that? you think. Who would agree to have himself photographed naked with a catheter in his penis?
In August of 2000, Jim Riswold was diagnosed with leukemia. Not the kind of news that makes you feel certain about anything. Will you live? Will you die? Will you be remembered? Does anything matter anymore?
Inarguably, Riswold is one of the most influential advertising creatives ever to grace the planet. His work for Nike is the stuff of legend. At one time or another, most of us have made feeble and futile attempts to think like him. Write like him. Alas, to no avail.
In 2011, Riswold got up in front of a TEDx conference audience in Portland and did something remarkable. Yes, he talked about his cancer. Yes, he and his doctor talked about the promise of a cure. Yes, he talked about the emotional roller coaster he’d been on for the better part of a decade. Courageous stuff, to be sure. But the really remarkable thing was that Riswold shared that photograph with the entire TEDx audience.
Dan Wieden has said that Jim Riswold’s greatest insight is that to remain vulnerable is to remain creative. If sharing a photograph of yourself, naked with a catheter running out of your penis, with several hundred people you have never met in your life isn’t walking headlong into the fire of vulnerability, well, I don’t know what is.
It’s human to want to hide the things that shame us most.
I’m a stutterer. When I was a kid, it was pretty bad. Once, rather than suffer the indignity of getting up in front of my history class and delivering my oral report on the fall of Troy, I spent the entire day in a theater watching the same movie over and over again. Unlike Jim Riswold, I couldn’t face my vulnerability. I lived. I learned.
We’re living in a time when innovation is revered seemingly above all else. And yet, our tolerance for risk, for putting ourselves in vulnerable positions—and that’s what creativity demands of you, make no mistake about it—is lower than ever. Movie studios don’t want to stick their necks out. Neither do publishers. And it’s not a lot different with advertising creatives.
We mock clients who don’t want to take a chance on a big idea. But every time we subconsciously try to mimic the amazing work in this year’s CA Advertising Annual in the hopes of following it onto these pages next year, are we not doing the same thing? Every time we worry about what the CMO will think or what the CCO will think or what the guys in the next cubicle will think, aren’t we protecting ourselves from rejection? To be a truly creative person is to be unafraid of showing up. Ripping our chest open and laying bare our soul. Letting go of what we think people want from us and giving them instead the best of us.
Consider the case of Henry Fonda. Extraordinarily talented actor. And yet, even at the age of 75, the Oscar winner threw up before every stage performance. For any actor, emotional nakedness is unavoidable. You can’t hold something back and still connect with an audience. Audiences pick up on things like that. They know you’re lying to them. And once that happens, it doesn’t matter how talented you are. The audience will know and your power, your talent, will be diminished a thousandfold.
Advertising is no place for the fearful, the meek or the timid. You can’t do breakthrough work without opening yourself up to ridicule. You can be creative beyond measure, but it counts for nothing if you are incapable of standing in your shoes, spitting in the eye of your critics and saying, “Go ahead. Judge me. Rain your critical stones down upon me. I can take it. And I am going to keep coming at you.”
Here’s what I know is true. Nobody in this year’s Advertising Annual got here by being perfect. They got here by having cool ideas. And having the chutzpah to put those ideas out there to suffer whatever fate might come their way.
Are you willing to get naked? ca