You’ve probably never heard of Linds Redding. He was an art director who spent his life creating advertisements for other people’s products. Then he died. He was 52.
Shortly before his death from esophageal cancer, he wrote a blog piece called “A Short Lesson in Perspective.” If you aspire to work in a creative industry – any creative industry – in any capacity – you need to read it. Now. Because what Redding says about the advertising industry can also be said of commercial publishing, music, film, dance, art, and every other industry that attracts (and destroys) creative people.
He calls his deathbed perspective on his creative life in the advertising industry “sobering” and his colleagues “Deranged. So disengaged from reality it’s not even funny.” He says his career wasn’t worth it. He married his art to commerce, because that’s what art directors do, but he did nothing “of any lasting importance. At least creatively speaking.” He’s dying as he writes these words. You have to take him seriously.
Redding wants you to know how technology and modern management practices have conspired to destroy the very conditions that are necessary for creativity to happen. If you don’t see this as a bigger problem than being subjected to incomprehensible, annoying advertising then you haven’t been paying attention to what passes for “culture” in the past twenty years. Because when you kill creativity you kill the culture. And it’s all culture.
By “culture” I don’t just mean the arts. I mean us. Culture is the way we think, experience emotion, define which emotions we get to experience, heal, suffer, understand justice, understand each other, argue, compromise, educate, learn, value, condemn, work, advertise products, die.
Culture is fundamentally the story we tell ourselves about who we are. It is who we are. Change the story and you change us. That’s supposed to happen. That’s how history works. Kill the creativity that makes the story possible, and –.
We are characters in search of a context, or desperately trying to create a context out of a reality that increasingly resembles a Facebook newsfeed.
Forget the creative industries. They are always a special case. Redding’s experience mirrors that of most educated professionals in most industries. That’s why his piece matters.
You see, there was a time when Redding and his colleagues could go to work, play with all sorts of ideas (nothing was off limits), and reconsider them the next morning with the generous comments of other actual creative human beings. This was an “inexpensive and practically foolproof” way to eliminate the unworkable concepts, and develop the strong ones. But that allowance of time and safe space and supportive, informed responses that is essential for creativity, well, that’s been destroyed by idiots who don’t know how to make a profit without force-fitting the creative impulse into a reified accounting scheme.
The Overnight Test only works if you can afford to wait overnight. . . . during the nineties technology overran, and transformed the creative industry like it did most others. . . . With the new digital tools at our disposal we could romp over the creative landscape at full tilt. Have an idea, execute it and deliver it in a matter of a few short hours. . . .
Or as the bean counters upstairs quickly realized, we could just do three times as many jobs in the same amount of time, and make them three times as much money. . . .
Pretty soon, The Overnight Test became the Over Lunch Test. Then before we knew it . . . . As fast as we could pin an idea on the wall, some red-faced account manager in a bad suit would run away with it. . . . generally standards plummeted.
The other consequence, with the benefit of hindsight, is that we became more conservative. Less likely to take creative risks and rely on the tried and trusted. . . . It takes a certain amount of courage, thinking out loud. And is best done in a safe and nurturing environment. Creative Departments and design studios used to be such places, where you could say and do just about anything creatively speaking, without fear of ridicule or judgement. It has to be this way, or you will just close up like a clamshell. It’s like trying to have sex, with your mum listening outside the bedroom door. Can’t be done. Then some bright spark had the idea of setting everyone up in competition. It became a contest. A race. Winner gets to keep his job.
Redding doesn’t let artists off the hook, either. He smacks down the truest thing I’ve seen anyone say publicly about the relationship between creative types and creative industries in years. Possibly ever.
The scam works like this:
1. The creative industry operates largely by holding ‘creative’ people ransom to their own self-image, precarious sense of self-worth, and fragile – if occasionally out of control ego. . . . The bean-counters rumbled this centuries ago and have been profitably exploiting this weakness ever since.
2. Truly creative people tend not to be motivated by money. That’s why so few of us have any. The riches we crave are acknowledgment and appreciation of the ideas that we have and the things that we make. . . . Again, our industry masters cleverly exploit this insecurity and vanity by offering glamorous but worthless trinkets and elaborately staged award schemes to keep the artists focused and motivated. Like so many demented magpies we flock around the shiny things and would peck each others eyes out to have more than anyone else.
So who killed creativity? Bean counters. Demented magpies. Perfect. It’s like a cracked fairy tale, only real. Like I said, just go read this.
Linds Redding, a New Zealand-based art director who worked at BBDO and Saatchi & Saatchi, died last month at 52 from an inoperable esophageal cancer.
Redding also kept a blog, and after his death an essay he wrote about the ad business. "A Short Lesson In Perspective," has gained a new and sudden life on the SF Egotist and Adfreak.
It will not make happy reading for the many people who knew Redding or know of his work, or anyone who works in the creative department of an ad agency.
In sum, Redding wrote that life as a creative isn't worth it.
"It turns out I didn't actually like my old life nearly as much as I thought I did," he wrote, after he was diagnosed.
The screed addresses the existential problem at the center of anyone's career in advertising: Can you marry art and commerce and be fulfilled as a human being?Redding concludes the answer is no. His story could apply to anyone's job, in any industry. It's sobering stuff. Here's an excerpt of the most brutal bits — you can read the full essay here:
And here's the thing. It turns out I didn't actually like my old life nearly as much as I thought I did. I know this now because I occasionally catch up with my old colleagues and work-mates. They fall over each other to enthusiastically show me the latest project they're working on. Ask my opinion. Proudly show off their technical prowess (which is not inconsiderable.) I find myself glazing over but politely listen as they brag about who's had the least sleep and the most takeaway food. "I haven't seen my wife since January, I can't feel my legs any more and I think I have scurvy but another three weeks and we'll be done. It's got to be done by then The client's going on holiday. What do I think?"
I think you're all f------ mad. Deranged. So disengaged from reality it's not even funny. It's a f------ TV commercial. Nobody gives a s---.
This has come as quite a shock I can tell you. I think, I've come to the conclusion that the whole thing was a bit of a con. A scam. An elaborate hoax.
Countless late nights and weekends, holidays, birthdays, school recitals and anniversary dinners were willingly sacrificed at the altar of some intangible but infinitely worthy higher cause. It would all be worth it in the long run…
This was the con. Convincing myself that there was nowhere I'd rather be was just a coping mechanism. I can see that now. It wasn't really important. Or of any consequence at all really. How could it be. We were just shifting product. Our product, and the clients. Just meeting the quota. Feeding the beast as I called it on my more cynical days.
So was it worth it?
Well of course not. It turns out it was just advertising. There was no higher calling.