The name Dan Balser has appeared in nearly every issue of CMYK magazine over the past decade, listed in the credits beside the award-winning creative that appears inside this magazine’s Top 100 New Creatives Showcase. Not as a copywriter, although he has been one for over 10 years now, but as “instructor” to some of the smartest and most talented young minds in advertising. As head of the advertising department at The Creative Circus in Atlanta, Mr. Balser has developed a gargantuan list of budding copywriters and art directors he has helped to prepare for this business. Obviously, CMYK was curious to know what it is that makes his students so special. What follows are the personality characteristics, Dan’s own Top 7, of the common traits of a job-worthy young creative.
First, let’s make one thing clear: Ad school is not like regular school. As a student in a portfolio program like The Creative Circus’s, you’re not just doing two more years of classes and going to parties. You are starting your career and going to parties. So the decisions you make, and the commitment you demonstrate, will reverberate for decades. Our school—more a subset of the advertising/design industry than academia—requires dedication, focus, and professionalism. And success requires even more.
In my decade of teaching hundreds of incredibly bright, talented, inspired, and inspiring people, I have noticed seven traits that many of them possess. I’m sure there are dozens more, but I was given a word count.
1) CURIOSITY. I often wonder whether people value curiosity as much as they should.
Nobel laureate Isidor Rabi famously attributed his becoming a scientist (rather than a doctor or lawyer, like most other immigrant Jews) to the way his mother greeted him after school. While most Jewish mothers asked their children, “Did you learn anything today?” Rabi’s mother asked him, “Did you ask any good questions today?”
If you’re a person who has the aching need to learn why something is how it is and what makes people do what they do, you’re a step ahead of those who blindly accept the world around them or ignore their own curiosity.
[Shameless Plug Alert!] If you want to hear an example of my occasionally debilitating curiosity, listen to the first seven minutes of Episode 42 of my podcast. You can find it at balserville.com.
2) RESOURCEFULNESS. Quick: I need a short headline for a CMYK article about the value of resourcefulness.
The best students find a way to get it done. A few years ago at The Creative Circus, there was an art direction student who wanted to do some additional projects with writers outside of class. Occasionally, students will come to department heads to ask for help finding partners. That’s okay. But this student took it into his own hands. He created a screen image that mimicked a desktop with a warning/crash icon. He placed it, full screen, onto the computers in the lab. It berated writers’ lack of computer skills in a humorous way. It created buzz and got him some work.
Never wonder how you’ll get something done. Dream big, and then figure it out.
3) TALENT. Cruelly, it’s unteachable. Fortunately, it can be applied pretty much anywhere.
To a creative person, every problem, invitation, email, and tweet is an opportunity. When I was a junior copywriter, I got a call to send out my portfolio for a job. In the mid ’90s, our books were laminated samples. So when I discovered a typo in one ad in a print campaign, I had a choice. I could (1) take out one of the three ads, leaving it a two-piece campaign; (2) take out the whole campaign (but that campaign had already gotten me a job offer); or (3) hope nobody noticed a missing two-letter word.
Obviously, all three of these options were unacceptable. I was never a good enough art director to completely re-do that third ad. I was, however, good enough with page-design software to create a full-page coupon ad with the headline: FIND THE TYPO, WIN A PIZZA. I designed the page, wrote some copy, printed it, and dropped it into the case. It may have been the best idea in my book, because it solved an actual problem with my only real resource: talent.
4) MATURITY, a sense of responsibility, life experience. Yep, real grown-up stuff.
Many of the best students, year after year, are those who’ve had the distinct displeasure of having a lousy, grinding, brain-numbing career first. They inherently know that if you’re creating a portfolio to land a job as a creative person, nobody can do the work for you.
When a student comes into a graduate ad program right out of college, they’re eager, but they sometimes lack world-view, professional dedication, and drive. Twenty-two-year-olds occasionally treat ad school like two more years of college. But it’s not. Young parents and former retail managers, lawyers, salesmen, and Marines get that. I’ve seen at least one of each, and they’re now all working in the country’s best agencies.
Know this: You will not get a medal for trying. You will get a W-4 and an employee handbook for being good.
5) RESPECTFULNESS. What goes around absolutely comes around. Respectfulness is career insurance.
Ask anyone in this business, and they’ll tell you: It’s not a matter of whether you’ll ever see that partner, boss, junior, or account person again in your career, it’s a matter of when. Never burn bridges. Be there for your partners. Treat instructors with respect. Treat students in earlier quarters with respect. Ask how you can help. Show deference. Don’t be a pushover, but as the famous quote says, “Be nice to people on your way up. You’ll meet ’em on your way down.”
It’s no coincidence that the best portfolios belong to people with whom other students are vying to collaborate.
6) FEARLESSNESS. (This article was, very recently, a blank page.)
Two years of school is not a long time. Dive in and take risks. Now. At The Creative Circus, we work very hard at building an environment where it feels safe to be an idiot. Dan Wieden once said he walks into work stupid every day. That’s a good way to be. Thinking correctly or safely is, ironically, the most dangerous habit a creative can have.
A writer in a headlines class once brought classmates to tears with headlines for 1-800-FLOWERS. Coming off a recent breakup, he avoided student clichés (what I call “studentia”) by channeling his heart directly into his writing. Never be afraid to expose your fears and hang-ups. Be a goofball. And do it from your heart.
7) FORTITUDE. The best way to make it in advertising is to have the fortitude to actually make the advertising.
Decide whether your piece is worth keeping, not whether the idea is worth making.
Re-read that line.
Do it. Make it. Then figure out if it goes online, into your portfolio, or into the trash. The worst thing that can happen if an execution falls flat is that you will have learned something. Oh, and this is important: By finishing things, you have options. And having options is the whole point of hard work.
There are millions of reasons why not to do something. Ignore ’em all. Execute, don’t kill.
A last word … or five.
In addition to the traits above, I have a few more pieces of advice for anyone starting out in an ad program or an ad or design career.
Take advantage of teachers. Seek out their opinions on layout, copy, concept, and strategy. When asked, most creatives have opinions. But sometimes a teacher may not be looking at the same elements you are.
The most successful students are not always the most talented, but they often have the most stuff. I sometimes say, “Don’t work harder, work more.” Quantity very often will lead to quality.
Write shorter emails.
Don’t get hung up on media, apps, experiences, games, social, or environmental. Work on your craft. If you’re a writer, write a lot. If you’re a designer or art director, learn to kern. Design a lot.
And finally, have fun. Very soon, you’ll get to think for a living. It’s a privilege. Be grateful.
*Featured in CMYK 54 Winter Edition. Purchase Here.