Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable

To take one step is courageous;
to stay on the path day after day,
choosing the unknown, and facing
yet another fear, that is nothing
short of grace. 

—Excerpt from Sangha, by Danna Faulds¹

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Believe it or not, about 15 years and 30 pounds ago, I used to run marathons. Yes, the 26.2 mile kind of marathons. The crucial part of training for marathons is the weekly long run. Each week over the course of a 4 month training period, you add one more mile to your long run than you ran the previous week. Near the end of your preparation for the race, you’ll probably have logged three runs of 20 miles or more. The rationale of this type of training—or madness, depending on your point of view—is getting your body used to being comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. After all, there’s really no way to avoid being uncomfortable at some point during an endurance race that covers 26 miles.

Two cases in point. During my first marathon in the Fox Valley, we were treated to 40 degree temperatures and a 20 mph tailwind for the first 18 miles of the course. At mile 18 we turned back into that cold wind, at which point my entire body immediately cramped up—with eight miles to go. Uncomfortable is not the word. Excruciating and soul-destroying come to mind. But I eventually finished the race and was given the customary finisher’s thermal foil sheet, medal, and long-sleeve t-shirt. Two years later at the 1996 Grandma’s marathon, I absolutely cruised for 25 miles, until I hit a complete power outage. But with only 8 minutes of exertion left, I knew I could easily gut out those last moments of discomfort to get my finisher’s medal.

Uncomfortable circa 1996

Now that I’m older, I run much shorter distances, but I’m still faced with many days when it just feels flat out uncomfortable. I have to actively remind myself in those instances that eventually this feeling will pass, and I’ll be better conditioned because of it.

So what does this have to do with what we usually write about on this blog? Okay, confession time. The last three years have been the most uncomfortable period of my professional career. Allow me explain.

In late 2008, I decided I had enough with advertising. I had done everything I wanted to do. Got in all the important award annuals, won multiple best of shows, and worked in Minneapolis for an agency I had always admired. But I didn’t love what I did anymore. In fact, it had become boring and tedious. Campaign after campaign after campaign. Telling clients we actually affected their business, but what we really did was just delivered was marketing materials. Great ads with great thinking, but in the end they were ads.

There were still things I liked about my profession. I loved design, more so than ever. I had discovered a design blog called Grain Edit, and I started tinkering with the simple “mod-style” of illustration that Charley Harper and Saul Bass pioneered, and that shops like Invisible Creature carry on today. I loved thinking and strategy—I just didn’t want that freedom of thought to be limited to ads. I had gotten my first taste of digital, and loved all the moving parts, and the need for collaboration that was talked about often but rarely put in practice at traditional shops. I had an idea for a creative school for special needs kids. I had ideas for businesses. And I really liked this thing called social media. But what was I going to do with all that?

With no finish line in sight, I pushed myself to be uncomfortable. I admitted what I didn’t know. I was willing to learn, in exchange for sharing the valuable things I did know. And I was willing to give up a position of respect in an industry that I had worked in for over twenty years, in exchange for something unknown, for psychologically starting over. There are lyrics from an old Yes song that say “don’t surround yourself with yourself,” and that’s basically what I did. All I had was experience, guile and my work ethic.

I was really good at making stuff like this. And then I walked away. (sorta)

Nothing would come easy. I moved back to Milwaukee from the Twin Cities (something I swore I would never do—heh) to work for Fullhouse, which at the time was a fast growing digital shop. It appeared to be a good match. They were interested in my experience developing creative and working on brand strategy. I was interested in taking that and applying it to digital, and learning as much as I could about digital, social, and technology.

I tell this story often. Having been spoiled by some of the strategic and creative minds I had worked with while in Minneapolis, I doubted I would find that back in Milwaukee. Call it snobbery, but when you work with some of the best, your expectations are forever changed. On my first day at Fullhouse, I was put in the third floor conference room with @deziner. I remember 15 minutes into that meeting I caught myself wondering about her: “What on earth are you doing here?” She belonged in New York or Minneapolis or London. I knew in a 30 minute meeting that Cindi Thomas was someone I wanted to work with and learn from for a very long time. I got the chance to work with a lot of other really smart people there as well. Perhaps some of you have heard of guy named @augieray who went onto Forrestor, and is now VP of Social Media at USAA. There was also @cullenob, still one of the most driven professionals I have ever met, and the wicked smart digital strategist @gkalantzis. I’m not sure what was more amazing about James Newell—his front-end development skills, or his ability to remain so centered with all the talent and intellect he possessed. I often commented it was a little bit like working at NASA in the late 60s. There was a similar attitude of just figuring out how to do things.

If you haven’t heard, things did not work out at Fullhouse. Ironically, ownership could not get comfortable with being uncomfortable at a time when the industry landscape was changing for everyone. Twelve months after I started, Cindi and I along with Andy Wright, left to start Translator. Within the span of just over a year, I was not only back in Milwaukee, but I was back to being involved in a startup agency. Add to that I felt a bit like an insect in mid-metamorphosis. I was completely out of traditional, but still not embraced by digital.

Translator got off to an unexpected slow start—a large local client that promised to bankroll our first year if we left Fullhouse, backed out after we quit. This was financially devastating to the three of us, to say the least. (See mile 18 of Fox Valley marathon above). The immediate setback challenged why we had started the agency in the first place. Was it the promise of money, or our belief system?  In a variety of rather surprising situations, my abilities were second guessed. This led to a stunning loss of self-confidence, something I hadn’t experienced in over 15 years. After only five months, we went through a partnership change at the agency. This contributed to us losing control over the product idea Translator had created—Meet-Meme.

When work finally did start to come in, it wasn’t a trickle, it was a flood. The zero to 120 mph pace led to more issues. I was left thinking, maybe I made a mistake. Maybe I’m too old for all of this. Maybe I can’t change.

It was all extremely uncomfortable.

But at the same time, progress was also being made. Through our former Fullhouse colleague (and all-around good guy) Micah Eberman, Cindi and I got a chance to work on a huge project for R/GA, an agency we both greatly admire. The work we did was extremely well-received, and it provided validation for the type of thinking the two of us had been collaborating on since we first met at Fullhouse. That style of thinking—what I would describe as a mash-up of the Diageo brand essence wheel, user-based behavioral research, and creative storytelling—is really the key to our current success. It results in complete stakeholder buy-in at the highest levels, and is what continues to attract new clients to Translator.

polish moon

Mod-style illustration and packaging hits the shelves soon.

We started to have success. My confidence came back. Not only in myself, but in delivering on the vision that Cindi and I had for what it meant to be a modern “agency.” We executed in what we believed in, even if that was outside the defined norms of what it is to be an agency. The compliments we receive from our clients are not ordinary. “You took what was in our heads and finally made it clear and actionable.”

Earlier this year, we were fortunate to be recommended to Brendon Thomas, who had an idea for a crowd-powered music booking platform. Shindig is about to launch in beta, and today we are closing on first round funding (w00t!). The hard lessons we learned on the first product partnership didn’t stop us from trying again. This time around the partnership was built upon mutual respect, and the experience has been vastly—and pleasantly—different.

We’re funded. Dig it.

My old ad colleagues ask me what Translator does, and when I explain it to them (without getting into deliverables), they say “I still don’t get what you do.” And that’s okay. We’re not defined by our work. We’re defined by how we think. Our clients—who are often C-level or company founders, are drawn to that and like it that way. Our approach to idea architecture and experience design is focused on transforming their entire business—not just their marketing.

In addition to morning lab sessions, we started the Translator XSMKE series. Rather than start or join yet another local committee to try promote creativity, we just decided to do our own thing. So far we’ve put on 5 events this year, including a live performance for the launch of Nineteen Thirteen’s first EP, a screening of the documentary Miss Representation, and a live staging of The 3six5 with @LenKendall. We’re interested in promoting and cross-pollinating all forms of creativity, in art, music and technology. It has nothing to do with being a typical agency—and everything to do with being us.

It’s often said about marathoners and professional endurance athletes that there’s no talent gap between winners and losers; rather, it’s the mental trait of not accepting your limits that decides who wins. Whether it’s growth, progress, innovation, change, none of it comes without a price. It’s human nature to stay away from things we don’t think we can pull off. Failure is embarrassing. And so we stick to doing what we know how to do. It’s safer that way.

Not that long ago, I seriously thought my best days were behind me. This weekend, I will turn 50 years old and I am here to say I survived being uncomfortable. I got through it, and I love what I do again. I’m better now than I was at 40, plus I can do a lot more things I never thought I could do. And what’s best, is that I especially love the people I work with everyday at a single long table we all gather around at Translator—Cindi Thomas, Kirsten Corbell, and Ben Leisch.

Yes, some days are still uncomfortable. That’s part of growth. As with running, I try to remind myself to breathe, ask myself why it’s uncomfortable, and remember that I am on the path day after day for a reason. When I stick to this the sky is the limit, and there’s never any finish line.

I’d love to hear if you have a similar story, or maybe if you’re going through the trials that come with being uncomfortable.

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¹Special thanks to my Kripalu Yoga instructor Heather Burkart for reading this during class on the night of November 2, 2011. Roughly translated, Sangha means a community with common goal, vision or purpose.

As @deziner has taught me, there are no coincidences. None.

On Death and Dying: the five stages of post digital grief

 

Could the good doctor be talking about advertising?

Sean Duffy wrote a provocative post recently on TalentZoo.com titled “Advertising Agencies: Kiss Your Creative Teams Goodbye.” He contends that to maximize the potential of digital media, traditional agencies must be willing to restructure the venerated copywriter/art director team. As you might imagine, the eye-popping title of the post led to a flurry of emotionally-charged user comments. Ah, digital. How do we love thee? Let us count the ways.

Reactions fell neatly into Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Let’s examine reactions to the post through the lens of each of these stages. When assembled, the individual responses paint a great picture of the psychological and emotional trauma the advertising industry as a whole is currently experiencing.

C’mon it’ll be fun, I promise.

Denial

So many quotes, so little time. I like this one:

The essence of a great, memorable and powerful advertising communication – that “killer line” and that awesome concept that expresses the idea – that’s still best born of the “arcane” marriage of writer and art director.

But I love this one:

First of all, what this article is actually saying is that the creative team became a creative herd. And I think we all know that too many cooks… What died is the idea, the concept. I agree that with a good concept anyone who has never written or art directed for the web would do a better job than those “experienced” in executing drek. There is so much shoved in our faces right now, it’s too bad that none of it has a concept. If it did, I’d probably remember it. I remember most of the great concepts in the One Show books before the book became one huge encyclopedia of everything out there. Quick, can anyone out there come up with a great campaign that’s currently running ON ANY MEDIUM?

Gotta love that raw emotion. Digital, you are so good. What did we do before you?

For those still in the denial stage, take a look at R/GA’s Nike+. It is not the work of an art director/copywriter team. To put it in proper perspective, it is the digital equivalent of Doyle Dane Bernbach’s seminal Think Small ad. I would argue that it is the most important work done by any creative agency—traditional or digital—in the past ten years. Listen to what Goodby’s Director of Digital Strategy Gareth Kay has to say on the matter. In traditional advertising terms, a committee created this. In the post digital age, it’s referred to as a cross-discipline team.

I think the problem lies in the fact that the great concept traditionalists are looking for is no longer a smart headline. It’s not a visual solution. Frankly, it’s not a message at all. The great concept is now an experience. To quote Gareth Kay, it is an idea that does. We need to stop using conventions we are familiar with to place constraints (or express our denial) on the emergence of new forms of communication and engagement. Read what Faris Yakob, Chief Innovation Officer at MDC Partners has to say about our new digital reality:

The emergence of a new media system is typified by a period of transposition, where the behavioural grammar of the previous system remains dominant. The first television shows were radio shows with people talking directly into camera. The first films were stageplays that had been filmed. And the first marketing forays online took what we knew about media and branding from broadcast media and applied it to a whole new space.

But digital is different.

Digital is not a channel. It’s a suite of platforms, channels and tactics that will, ultimately subsume its parents entirely.

Amen. All the denial in the world will not change this new reality.

Anger

This assault on the 2-person creative team is really becoming annoying. Two smart, talented creatives can take a business problem and develop an idea that addresses/solves it better than any other number. Then that idea can be executed appropriately in all the media.

What a dumb, misleading headline. Any agency that devalues its creative team does so at its own peril. Who’s going to create the um…creative? AE’s and coders?

Harsh. But I get where it’s coming from. I get it better than you think. For over 10 years, I regularly logged 70 hour weeks in the pursuit of the big idea. Some of those ideas can be found in The One Show and Communication Arts Advertising and Design annuals. It’s harder than hell to do great work. It takes a combination of talent and grind. And I would never suggest that traditional advertising is a) dead  b) irrelevant or c) unnecessary.

I think a lot of the anger that traditional creatives feel is that suddenly, out of the blue, you’re supposed to think about web, and mobile, and social, and now ads for the iPad. You have smaller budgets, less time to do it, and you probably took a pay cut in the last two years. And now there’s something called crowdsourcing that everyone is enamored with.

Yes, I get it.

But the fact of the matter is, it’s not a two-person job anymore. Brands still need to create awareness. They need great TV spots. They need great print ads. It’s just that these messages should not be replicated in digital. They need to be translated (insert shameless plug here) into digital experiences and that takes a broader skill set—a.k.a. the bigger team—which is the point of Mr. Duffy’s article.

Unfortunately, when you start off with “Kiss your creative teams goodbye,” you’ll lose the very crowd you need to convert.

Bargaining

It usually goes something like this: We’ve hired some geeks and they have their own area. Ghost of Transformational Change, would you please leave us alone now?

Sure, add more people to the team. Copy and Art Creatives always benefit from more input. But don’t make the mistake of equating technical advice with true creative development.

Ummm, ouch. Another sentiment I often hear is that as long as you add a web designer and a developer, you’ve got it covered. The box has been checked. Yeah, digital, we’re down with that.

Let me straighten myself up in my chair as I type this.

Between @deziner, @adny and myself, we spend a lot of time here reading, thinking, and writing about digital. It’s difficult to keep up, because every damn day there is a new development. What does @anywhere mean? What is Facebook changing this week? Which Mashable article should I read? How are all the different platforms, properties, channels and touch points best used to create an experience?

Bargaining in the post digital age offers little value to your client. Yes, you may be able to build a site. Maybe even an app. Congratulations on assembling the modern mousetrap. Now the question is, did you just spend all your client’s money on a trap for under the kitchen sink when the mice are actually in the pantry?

Depression

Of course, some in the industry are ready to wave the white flag:

Interesting article. I agree print advertising is dying, it is pretty apparent that people are cutting costs, and investing those funds into online marketing.

Honestly, I’m not sure that anything is dying. But it’s definitely evolving. There’s less to feel down about and more to be excited about due to the endless new opportunities that lie ahead of us. How can you watch the Wired approach to storytelling on the iPad and not be inspired? Print isn’t dead. It’s about to be reborn.

The media universe is expanding, and that reality includes consumers who now expect not only to be part of the conversation, but active members of the storytelling process. As creatives, have we lost control? Or is the cavalry finally arriving?

Acceptance

A month ago, I sat in the front row as Edward Boches gave a presentation during which he described himself as an “advertising refugee.” Yesterday, he posted this superb article on assembling and cultivating the new creative team. I had started writing this article a week ago, and planned on ending it with a reference to Edward Boches, and damned if he didn’t write the perfect conclusion for me. This is just one of many gems from his article:

So what do we make if we don’t make stories? Experiences. Experiences that earn attention, invite participation, inspire co-creation, provide utility and inherently generate more content.

Bravo, sir. That’s Friday Morning Bacon material. Rather than “kissing your creative team goodbye,” it offers positive ways to embrace the challenge that lies ahead for us all.

Please, go read it. Then be open to change, don’t be afraid of making mistakes, and always be eager to grow. We’re a smart bunch of people. Together we can deal with this.

Running, digital, and running a digital agency

Sara Santiago wrote a great little post (a love letter, she calls it) last week about dailymile. For those not familiar with dailymile, it’s essentially an unbranded descendant of the groundbreaking Nike+ site created by R/GA a few years back. dailymile has taken the concept a bit further, allowing not only runners, but anyone actively training (cycling, swimming, strength-training) the ability to track their efforts and share it with other members of the community.

“Methinks that the moment my legs began to move,
my thoughts began to flow.”  ~Henry David Thoreau

It’s amazing how well digital has connected the dots for runners, but that’s always a matter of identifying key user insights. Based on my own personal experience, there are a couple of givens about runners. First of all, the majority of us are fanatics. Why else would anyone go out and run all those brutally monotonous miles? Runners are also obsessive (no surprise) about keeping track of personal progress. The mileage. The pace. How did today feel? All those endless miles, all those hills, all those repeats become a body of work. They become a story of individual growth, an epic on a personal level. They are the equivalent of the most timeless of stories: the quest.

Fig. 1: An off-line running widget, circa 1996

The beauty of digital is that it not only allows for users to tell their own story, but it provides tools to make their pursuits easier. Read this great post by Gerry McGovern which deftly states the need to focus on tasks versus goals in experience design. dailymile understands users have a goal—an upcoming race, weight loss, fitness—it’s why they joined in the first place. They make it easy for you to perform some of the tasks needed to accomplish those goals. Back in the day when I was training and running in marathons, I spent a fair amount of time in the car mapping routes and mileage. See, I had this off-line widget called an odometer. Today, digital tools make this task ridiculously quick and easy. dailymile has a nifty utilitarian tool that allows you to map and save routes. What used to take upwards of 30 minutes driving around (and burning gasoline) in your car, can now be accomplished in a couple of minutes in front of your laptop. I now have a dozen saved routes, and add variations regularly.

But tools are only one part of the story. The daily experience of running is very often solitary—I compare it to a secular monasticism. Just do it after all is essentially a zen mantra. There is a rhythm to the endless miles that produces an inner meditative calm, and a certain cleansing that accompanies the sweat. (Okay, I realize maybe only runners will appreciate this.) But anyone who is a runner will recognize that sites like Nike+ and dailymile have provided a digital monastery for us. It is here where the temporal tribe congregates to provide support and encouragement, as well as to faithfully document their daily efforts. Many days the only motivation to get you out the door is the desire to perform the final act of documenting the distance covered. To say, “Yes, I ran.” Now add to that the benefit of a fellow runner’s pat on the back, and it’s no wonder membership is growing.

Rear view of a young woman running up a curvy dirt road in the rain.

Training for a 10k? Meditative stress release? Mea culpa for a lunchtime burrito?

Faith is something that is essential to a runner. Some days are effortless. Some days feel like drudgery. And other days are down right excruciating. In fact, one can experience all of these feelings in a single 5 mile run. That, in part, is the draw. The overcoming of adversity. The sticking with it when your rational brain tells you to quit. The parallel between this and running a business is noteworthy. Some days are exhilarating. Other days the work piles up and you wonder how it will all get done. And some days, you question the sanity of ever wanting to start your own business in the first place.

Ask yourself: “Can I give more?” The answer is usually: “Yes.”
~Paul Tergat, Kenyan professional marathoner

There’s a lot of great philosophy around the pursuit of running. The philosophers go by the name of Prefontaine, Sheehan, Bowerman and Salazar. Whether it’s a desire to regain a previous level of fitness, the renewed obsession of posting a few miles on dailymile, or the perspective the road provides for dealing with the trials of business ownership, I find myself running a lot more these days. I’m older, slower, and I stop to stretch more often. But nonetheless, I’m out on the road once again to see if I can give a little bit more.