“It’s harder to stay on top than it is to make the climb.” —Pat Summit
You might have thought, “One day, I’m going to win a Titanium Lion, maybe the Grand Prix. I’m going to own the One Show. I’m going to have my name in the Communication Arts Advertising Annual so many times, they’re going to have to dedicate an entire page to me.”
Unfortunately, like winning The Voice or an Oscar or Megabucks, the fact is that most of us will never reach the top of the mountain. Close, maybe. But precious few creatives in the course of their high-flying careers will breathe that rarefied atmosphere.
And for that, you might well want to count your blessings.
Here’s the thing about that mountaintop: if and when you do get there, you will be mightily challenged in a way that you never were on the way up. Staying there is painfully difficult even for the best and brightest among us. The slide down from the pinnacle is littered with creatives who once rolled through this profession like something out of Mad Max. Brilliant minds. Fiery minds. Yet in the end, they were no more able to survive the thin air of the advertising stratosphere than a lantern fish from the Mariana Trench.
How does this happen?
With few exceptions, even the most wickedly talented among us don’t seem to be content with our craft. We love it—but we want more. We want to scale the cliff. Group creative director. Executive creator director. Chief creative officer. Global chief creative officer. Interstellar chief creative officer. And, of course, we want all that comes with those titles. The cars. The house. The private schools. The vacations in the Seychelles.
Blame it on our egos. Blame it on our industry, which seems to have convinced itself that a damn brilliant art director can’t possibly be as valuable as a damn mediocre chief creative.
And so up we go. Higher and higher. Until there is no more higher. Where the hyperventilating begins. Because far above the creative tree line, there’s nowhere to hide. And until that moment, there has always been somewhere to hide.
But that’s not the worst of it. How do you stay creatively motivated at high altitude? What beckons you, taunts you, dares you, as surely as those quickly fading creative sirens? You once spent your days and nights immersed in ideas and images, and now you spend them attending endless, too often meaningless meetings, playing referee to warring factions within the agency and, of course, wrestling incessantly with clients.
There are those who’ve managed the transition to the top of the pyramid without skipping so much as a heartbeat. David Lubars, BBDO’s chairman and chief creative officer of North America, sits as high on the pyramid as anyone in the business. If you ask him what it’s like up there and how he’s managed to thrive despite it all, this is likely what you’ll hear: “It’s not lonely if you surround yourself with brilliant people who are good at what you aren’t. It’s not lonely if you genuinely like and trust these people. And it’s not lonely if you and these people remain laser-focused on the work.”
It’s worked for Lubars. Others—and believe me, their numbers are legion—haven’t had as successful a time of it. So how do you stay at the top once you’ve gotten there?
Find your carrot. Once, the carrot you chased was as obvious as a bogus awards entry at Cannes. Fame. Fortune. The big office. The big everything. But what happens when you’ve chased all those carrots down? Invent new ones—more personal ones. Inner peace might be a good place to start.
Find a new pyramid. The nice thing about being at the top is that the view from up there can be massively liberating. Where once you thought your pyramid was the only one that mattered, up there, you can see how wrong you were. There are other pyramids. Conquered by some, but not by you—yet.
Turn off the radio. And I don’t mean the one in your car. I mean the one in your head. The one that, no matter what station you’ve got it on, plays the same thing over and over. The haters. The people who will bring you down in a New York minute. They will fill your airwaves. I don’t have to tell you that making it to the top comes with repercussions—the kind that will tear you down and tear you up and do everything possible to get in your head. So toughen your neurons. Pull down the blast shutters. Turn the damn radio off. And if that doesn’t work, take a hammer to it and beat it until it’s senseless.
Be warned though. It’s hard to keep your balance at the top of the pyramid. Find a way to do it, and you could become the stuff of legend. Fail and, well, maybe you can go back to doing great work. And what’s so bad about that? ca