You’re 29 years old. You’re bright. You’re intuitively insightful. And man, your talent is some kind of sick. Already, you’ve got a few Pencils and a couple of Lions—that kind of sick. You look out ahead of you and you think nothing short of the Yellowstone supervolcano erupting is going to keep you from cruising straight to the top. But according to ad legend George Lois, you’re missing something. Something you better come by in a hurry, or you’re going exactly nowhere.
Make no mistake. Lois is a god. How many advertising creatives do you know who’ve had such a profound impact on this business and, truth to tell, the culture? Here’s something I didn’t know: Lois is the only person ever to be inducted into the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame and the One Club Creative Hall of Fame, chosen for lifetime achievement awards from the American Institute of Graphic Arts and the Society of Publication Designers, and, as if that wasn’t enough, honored in the Masters Series at the School of Visual Arts.
And Lois has a bone to pick with you. As you might recall, he once famously berated Paul Arden’s book It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want to Be for encouraging young creatives to nurture their inner wusses. In Lois’s arrogance-addled world, too many creatives are too nice, too patient, too civil, too humble, too quiet to make their presence felt in this business. If you’re not edgy enough. If you’re not abrasive enough. If you’re not pissed off enough. If you’re not dropping more F-bombs than Chris Rock and Louis C.K. combined. If you’re not throwing a cherry cheese Danish at a client in a presentation. Well, it might be best to seek a career elsewhere. An investment firm, perhaps. Or a yoga studio.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not much of an asshole fan. Then again, I’m not much of a humiliation fan or a power-monger fan or a demeaning-other-human-beings fan or a taking-credit-for-work-that-somehow-slipped-through-the-cracks-despite-your-shooting-it-down fan. Given a choice, I don’t think many of us would opt to work with or for an asshole. On the freelance site Working Not Working, at the end of the job descriptions employers use little icons to clue you in on what to expect if you work there. Dog Friendly. Work at Home. Pool Table. No Assholes. You see the point.
Of course, in some parallel universe, some alternate advertising dimension where I had never known Mike Hughes or Tom McElligott or Janet Champ or Charlotte Moore or David Angelo or Bob Barrie or Stuart D’Rozario or Bruce Bildsten or Helayne Spivak, then possibly, I have embraced the brutes who bludgeon their way to the top, riding roughshod over the silent and the meek, whose talent is suppressed in the face of these creative terrorists.
But surely not all creative assholes are bad, you might be thinking.
By most accounts, Steve Jobs had his asshole moments. Demanding. At times, abusive. But does it matter? Are there never times when a vision is
so vast, its ability to change the world so immense, that a tongue lashing here or a dressing down in front of a few dozen coworkers there really doesn’t matter in the wider scheme of things? Collateral damage in the wider war for greatness. Could Apple have become Apple without Steve Jobs? No. Could it have become Apple with a different Steve Jobs? Yes.
I don’t care if you’re 19 or 29 or 49. I don’t care if you’re an associate creative director, a creative director, a group creative director, an executive creative director or a chief creative officer. Doesn’t matter if you’re with a blazing hot agency in New York or a weenie shop in Arkansas. Man or woman. Young. Old. I don’t care. I don’t care. I don’t care. If you’re working with an asshole, go find another partner. If you’re working for an asshole, go find another place to work. Whatever you’ve got to do. Wherever you’ve got to go. Don’t try to tough it out. Don’t try to reason with her or him. Assholes will not change. They will not listen. If your career is just beginning, they will eat every dream you ever had. If you’re brilliant, they will snuff out your light for fear of being lost in your shadow.
Life is too short, as they say.
And life in advertising is even shorter. ca