Pursuing the Magic


Every kid dreams about what he wants to be when he grows up – a doctor, lawyer, astronaut, fireman, pro sports athlete, etc. And over time, these fantasies erode due to harsh reality or simply give way to other interests. After all, no right-minded 7-year-old aspires to become a commodities trader specializing in short selling put options in proprietary markets.

But how exactly did all of us actually end up doing what we do on a daily basis? It’s a curious exercise to reflect on the process and choices that have resulted in how we spend the majority of our waking lives.

For me, it all traces back to one ad:

I can distinctly remember the first time I saw this commercial. I was sitting in an armchair closest to the TV in the living room in our house in Cincinnati where I grew up and my parents still reside. The year was 2001 and I was a junior in high school who loved art and was looking into several art and design colleges at the time. After those captivating sixty seconds came to a close, I sat there in awe for a long moment. Then I turned to my younger brother who was watching on the couch. We simultaneously confirmed, “That. Was. Awesome.” It was a beautiful concoction of things I loved – sports and hip hop mixed together with a unique flair of energy and style. I wanted to rewind it and play it back on loop. If DVR’s or YouTube had existed at the time, I would’ve done just that.

The simple fact is, this thing moved me. I saw the magic. Although it wasn’t the first time I witnessed a memorable ad – I can recall a number of the great Nike (Jordan) and Budweiser commercials from when I was growing up – but it was the first instance I can remember seeing a powerful piece of creativity and telling myself, “That’s what I want to be doing.”

I’m making this sound like a Eureka moment, but the truth is that it was a bit more complicated that that. I happened to be slightly obsessed with cars and had a strong interest in becoming a transportation designer at the time (along with my buddy Marc Reisen, co-founder of this very blog.) Ultimately, I ended up applying to ten design schools, half for industrial design and half of them for graphic design.


Bob Barrie would be proud

Over the next year or so after seeing the Freestyle spot, I sought to learn more about advertising. I signed up for a subscription to Communication Arts magazine, immersing myself in the venerated Advertising Annual and guzzling Ernie Schenck’s brilliant doses of wisdom from issue to issue. I tore out scores of magazine ads I liked most and taped them into my sketchbooks (like the legendary TIME campaign above). I even set up conversations with my parents’ friends of friends at local agencies in Cincinnati to investigate what they did. And when the time came to make a college decision, I was undoubtedly infected with the ad bug. (Marc, by the way, did in fact become a car designer.)

From there, it took a 5-year graphic design degree (which, I realized after three of those years, that design is much different than advertising), a slew of internships and a whole lot of hard work to actually get into this business. What feels like a long journey was also a worthwhile one, providing the texture for which to apply to empty canvases of ideas.

I haven’t been in the advertising business for that long yet. On the rare occasion that I catch a whiff of conversation describing “the good old days” – flying first class to exotic locations for week-long print photo shoots – is even much further removed from Don Draper’s vintage glory days of the 1960’s, and I can’t relate to any of it. But although the duration of my advertising career has been relatively short, there hasn’t been a lack of change. The growth of digital and advent of mobile advertising is obvious, which combined with an economic recession, has accelerated fundamental changes in our industry. We’re working more hours on shorter deadlines and for slimmer margins. Tech startups have stolen some of the sex appeal that ad agencies once owned and the compensation for working i-banking hours seems to be less and less worth it.

But I’d like to think that now is as good a time as any to be in advertising. There are more ways to collaborate with smart, talented people and more mediums to play in than ever before – all in pursuit of that same magic. John Hegarty has a way of describing it like no one I’ve ever seen, as do legends like Dan Wieden, Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein. They’re the types that brought me into this thing called a job that rarely ever feels like one. And I am quite happy to be here.

What got you into doing what you do now? Was there a memorable moment or something inspiring that you saw? I’d love to hear your story.

Article Info
Posted by: Steve Peck
Thinking About: Advertising / Creativity
Location: New York City
Website: http://stevepeck.net
Twitter: @stevenpeck
  1. Paddy

    Nice post Steve.
    I think you’re lucky that it hit you so early. It gave you focus from an young age, letting you move steadily towards this point.

    I on the other hand entered and left college not knowing that this world existed. I found myself working in financial services, after completing a business degree.

    An old friend worked in the local Leo Burnett in Dublin. The more he told me about his job (a copywriter), the more I gravitated towards this world . I quickly quit the job, got some more education and got in myself.

    I think this illustrates another big change from the ‘good old days’. Back then, you looked around a creative dept. and you found people who actually wanted to be artists, poets, writer etc. People who looked down on what they did.

    You look around any creative department today and the vast majority of people are proud and excited to say they work in advertising.


  2. Phil Glist

    I was one year out of college with an English degree and no idea what to do. I went to live in London, where I noticed how funny and smart so much of the advertising was. When I got back home, I was fortunate enough to hear Walter Lubars, head of the advertising program at Boston University give a talk about how to be a copywriter. He showed all these hilarious, classic TV spots from the 60s he’d worked on, like Alka-Seltzer and Listerine, and I knew this was what I had to do. The next day I started working on my book without ever having taken a class or seen an issue of CA. I cold called copywriters all over Boston and met about 60 of them, only one of whom was unkind. It took three years of waiting tables and working on my book at night before I broke in, but I never doubted getting paid to think up ideas would be something I loved doing day in and day out. I’ve worked for a lot of people since, one of the best being David Lubars at BBDO. His dad came by the office one day and I was able to thank him in person for making the light go off for me.

  3. Norwegen Kreuzfahrt

    Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally, it seems as though you
    relied on the video to make your point. You clearly know what youre talking about, why
    waste your intelligence on just posting videos to your weblog when you could be
    giving us something enlightening to read?

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