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.

My beef with Mad Men — too much Mad, not enough Ad.

Ever since it started what seems like back in the 60’s now, I’ve been a wary fan of Mad Men. The truth is, every copywriter and creative director in the business is always working on “the book,” the tome that will rip the covers off the business and tell it all like it is. How many times over my years have I heard someone say “save that for the book.” And that book will never be written. It’s just too weird. And too “inside.”

So it’s no surprise that it took TV Writer Matt Weiner to do the book — albeit a cable TV show. And here perhaps is the problem. At least for me. Not that he doesn’t get the characters right — I guess — but what I’m missing is the real drama.

How much white space in the ad?
Have we been forced to turn our ad into a camel?
Are there three too many words in the headline?
Should we put the ‘smile’ shot before the shot of the car, or after?
Why does that guy drink Jack Daniels from a little paper cup he steals from the water fountain — all the time?
What is the nature of hackdom?

Real questions of interest. To me, an ad geek I admit. So, someday, when I’m stranded on a desert island with a Netflix hookup, I’ll watch all 8 billion hours of Mad Men — maybe there will be two or three minutes of real drama (how could the client buy that????) and lots of stuff about clothes and smoking clove cigarettes etc.

Till then, I’ll keep working on ‘the book.’

Mayhem — The Leo Burnett ‘Critter’ as anti-critter…

He’s there. Right alongside the Pillsbury Doughboy and The Jolly Green Giant and Tony the Tiger and Charley the Tuna. That snarly, bearded, with little piece of band-aid tape above his eye purveyor of all that is wrong with the world known as “Mayhem,” spokescritter for good ole’ Allstate insurance. Espousing all the little things that go wrong, this critter has taken his proud place among the greatest that the Leo Burnett agency has ever created. How do I know? I heard him ripped off this morning. On the radio. Some health company was touting some undecipherable disease and they gave that disease a persona just like Mayhem. But not as good. By a longshot. But still, boxed into a corner, the agency creatives reverted to the ultimate sign of someone having come up with a “big” idea. They ripped it off. (I could almost hear the cash registers ch-chinging at the Allstate company!) Another winner for Leo. And I thought, would Leo himself have approved of this downtrodden anarchistic force of evil as a spokes-critter? I do believe he would have. See, he liked the sounds of ch-chinging too.

Leo does it again.