Today’s Lesson from Pat Kelly: Ideas Are Like Balloons, Let Them Go…

Four point seven million years ago, when I was a baby copywriter in NYC, I was lucky enough to take a TV writing class from Pat Kelly at the School of Visual Arts. Thank goodness I kept copious notes. This hippy spouted wisdom like Old Faithful spouts water — or steam, or whatever it spouts.

I am thinking of Kelly because last night I was lucky enough to hang out at one of his alma maters, The Leo Burnett Agency. The thought of this bearded beatnick facing St. Leo himself in a creative review board is enough to give me pause. But I am really thinking about Pat (author of, most famously, the original genius iconic Federal Express Campaign) because the evening was devoted to IDEAS. A panel of Creative Circus grads who work at Leo were talking about ideas and the business today.

When these nine or so men and women, and their instructor Dan Balser, were talking about ideas, The Leo Burnett Agency did not seem like any kind of dinosaur to me. On the contrary, it seemed to soar. Good visuals. Strong concepts. Rule-breaking. Failing better. Fun. Risk. Responsibility. Zaniness. As far as I could see, those values are still being cherished over on Wacker Drive. 

I don’t know about the organization, but as for the people and their brains (and guts) ideas were the star. Which brings me back to Kelly, finally.

I remember sitting in his classroom, angry and fuming and working like a banshee on some ads for his class, and for my job up at Fort Ogilvy at 2 East 48th Street, clutching my fledgling ideas to my breast  in a fury. And Pat, in his calm, easy-going, possibly medicinally altered fashion, saying — “hey, ideas are like balloons. Just let them go. You’ll always come up with more.”

And I remember thinking — damn! how can this guy who has come up with so many of the most amazing ideas EVER be so casual about them!!!??? That doesn’t make sense??!!

And I remember how long it took me to work that generous way of idea making thinking into my work habits (I’m still doing it.)

Because the irony of both believing in the flow of ideas, as well as the preciousness of the great idea was on full display.

Somewhere Leo, and Pat, are smiling. Together.

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Great advice from the late great adman Pat Kelly — “Make ads that don’t look like ads.”

It’s a shame that Pat Kelly isn’t better remembered. I was lucky enough to take a TV writing class from him at New York’s School of Visual Arts. His most famous work: he invented the entire Federal Express campaign at Ally & Gargano, made some epochal commercials with the legendary director Joe Selemaier. He also did some incredible work at Leo Burnett when he was starting in the business — much of his work is brilliant. The class was fantastic. His critiques were gems. But the most damning thing he could say about anybody’s work, no matter how ‘brilliant’ it appeared to be was, “Nah — it’s an ad.”

Let me digress for a moment to paint the picture. He looks like Lowell George of the rock band “Little Feet,” long hair, long beard, denim overalls. He commutes down from Woodstock, where I hear he lives in a converted chicken shack. I’m not kidding.

But this is the guy that wrote “fast-talking-man,” and the line “when it absolutely positively has to be there over night.”

And when he sees an ad he doesn’t like, he says it’s because “it’s an ad.” As a young creative person, I didn’t quite understand what he was talking about. I mean, wasn’t that what we were supposed to be doing, making great ads? It took me a while and lot of hard work to truly integrate the genius of Kelly’s observation — people don’t like ads. They like interesting things that show themselves themselves. If something looks or feels like and ad (or to be PC, a website, a promotional event, a press release, etc.) they TURN OFF. Ads scream — “HEY, IGNORE ME I’M JUST AN AD AND I’M TRYING TO BAMBOOZLE YOU!!!”

So Pat, thanks. And rest easy wherever you are.