I had heard the year’s CLIOs had been announced, and I couldn’t help myself. I pushed my copywriting project aside and Googled the recipients. As I scrolled through the ads with their beautiful/provocative imagery and witty/poetic copy, I yearned for a chance to stretch my own creative abilities. What could I accomplish given the right project, enough latitude? I scowled at the half-written FAQ about health deductibles on my desk, and I felt like a golden retriever whining at the screen door, tortured by the sound of migrating geese.
I sighed and turned back to my FAQs, all too aware of my adult responsibilities, and repressed my creative urges as I did so often, on a daily basis in fact. Trapped, like a dog, behind a flimsy screen that kept me from fulfilling my most cherished instincts.
But, you know what, it’s OK – I’ve learned that over the years. Because every once in a while, the sun will glint off the water in such a way it seems kissed by the gods, and the sight of waterfowl awakens those instincts so acutely they can’t be ignored. And at those times, we have the right—no, the obligation—to run without warning, to rip the leash out of the holder’s hand and leap into that murky water, to hell with being recently groomed, and swim like God intended to grab one of those birds, or at the very least send them into an agitated flurry of wings and squawks. Consequences be damned.
Leashing those God-given instincts
When I was at Aetna, I worked on a team that consisted of a musician, a screenplay writer, a painter, and me, a short fiction writer. We worked hard under tight deadlines and often delivered the impossible. But we were usually mired in projects that didn’t exactly stretch our abilities or our imagination. Often we were frustrated and daydreamed of more interesting ways to make a living, at least at some place free of cubicles. But we were prodded by bills and the promise of good health insurance benefits to come in every morning and slog our way through our tasks. Then we’d return home and carve out time whenever we could to do that which we truly loved.
Also while I was at Aetna, my family had a golden retriever, named Max. He wasn’t just any old golden retriever – Max was a field golden retriever. This meant he was more hyper and assertive than most goldens you might see, which tend to be the show variety. And unlike some dogs, who seem so domesticated they’re more like children in dog costumes than the descendants of wolves, Max still had a lot of his canine instincts. For instance, we would find a daily pile of stuffed animals and stray socks in the family room due to his retrieving instinct. And despite our efforts to make soft beds for him in our bedrooms, he insisted on sleeping on the hard floor next to the back door, as dictated by his watchdog instincts.
But like most goldens, Max was playful, gentle and adored kids. He put up a good front with his deep, impassioned barking whenever strangers passed our yard, but he was much more likely to nervously piddle on the floor than ever attack even an intruder.
Being a suburban golden retriever meant Max could never exercise to their fullest extent the instincts for which his forebears were bred. It was a little heartbreaking to hold Max back as he strained against his leash, wanting more than anything to swim after ducks in the neighborhood pond. The mournful look in his brown eyes was downright tragic. I always felt guilty that we didn’t live on five acres in the country and go duck hunting. That was the lifestyle a dog like Max deserved. He had to settle for a suburban backyard and daily walks on a leash.
The short, happy life of Flat Bertolini
Copywriting is a lonely business, which is why I always appreciated brainstorming sessions with my team at Aetna. Our director would give us the lowdown on some request, say a communications program for a sales contest, and the first thing we would do is hole up in the Spruce Room, your typical corporate conference room, not exactly an inspiring place. At first, the ideas came slowly, painfully. But once we got started, nothing was off limits. God, the crazy ideas we’d come up with, laughing indecorously until tears ran down our cheeks and dripped on the faux mahogany conference table.
Eventually we’d land on an idea so good, so potentially successful, we marveled at our own genius. Take that sales contest I mentioned: We didn’t have a lot to spend on prizes; it would be more of a pride thing, to get the regions to work as teams in a friendly rivalry. Mark Bertolini, Aetna’s CEO, is a bit of a celebrity in that company. Our idea was to award a team each month with funds for an outing and a life-size cutout of Mr. Bertolini. The team would then go out, bringing along “Mr. Bertolini,” and take a picture with him in some location that was iconic of their region: maybe Buckingham Fountain in Chicago or by the Arch in St. Louis, etc. It would be Aetna’s own version of Flat Stanley: “Flat Bertolini.” We would then publish that picture in a monthly newsletter designed and distributed specifically for the contest.
Typically, after landing on a good idea, one of us would volunteer to write up the proposal. And we’d wait until….it was rejected by management, who wanted something a bit more conservative (i.e., derivative of our competitors and respectably boring). Sadly, Flat Bertolini was also rejected. So, instead of visiting Times Square or the Grand Canyon, in my mind’s eye I saw him standing a little lopsided on the back of a barge, floating off into the sunset, a brave smile on his flat executive face.
One particularly beautiful September morning, I took Max for a walk at a large prairie and wetlands preserve near our house. The sky was that cobalt blue you see only in September, and Max’s blond fur rippled in the breeze making him look like a dog in a pet food commercial. I should have noticed Max eagerly snuffing the air every time the wind picked up, but I was too distracted by the early fall beauty surrounding me. Our pathway passed tall marsh grass and cattails, which eventually opened up to reveal a small pond. Max lifted his head high ,and he perked up his ears. We stopped to take in the marshland view, and Max stood very still, very quietly next to me. The only sounds were of the rustling grass and the soft honking of the geese floating en masse in the middle of the pond. I took a deep breath, filling my lungs with the fresh morning air. Peaceful.
Then Max bolted for the pond. He had been readying himself for it the entire time we stood there (I realize now), and when he sprung, the leash flew easily out of my hand. Down the incline Max flew and into the muddy waters of the marsh. My calls were in vain. He sloshed through the marsh and into the pond where he swam with expert ease into the gaggle’s midst. The uproar was tremendous: honking, flapping wings, what seemed like a hundred geese taking off at once. They literally blocked out the sun and their shadow passed over me as they flew away. I looked around guiltily, fearing some authority figure would admonish me for the disturbance. But no one was in sight. Meanwhile, Max paddled in circles around the now-empty pond. If dogs could smile, he had a big one plastered across that golden face of his. He eventually came out of his own accord, wet, muddy and dragging his soggy leash behind him. The fun continued when we got home and I hosed him down in the backyard — Max loved the hose. Even though he failed to catch a goose, it was probably one of the greatest days of his life.
I have to admit, I’m still waiting for the greatest day of my professional life. And I hope to God it hasn’t happened already; I hope bigger and better things are still ahead. I’ve had my moments — that I can say with pride and confidence. Despite disappointments like Flat Bertolini, every once in a great while (whether it’s due to a full moon, extra fat bonuses or temporary madness, we’ll never know), the execs are disposed to approve a great idea. Then the heavens open, and the angels sing Gloria Hallelujah.
Being humans still in possession of our creative instincts, we owe it to ourselves to exercise our imagination and skills and give the best we have to offer – even if our employers don’t recognize the gems they’re rejecting. We owe it to ourselves to trust our experience and skills, to not crawl inside some suit’s head to give them what they think they want. Being “creatives,” it’s our job to give them what they don’t know they want.
Besides, it’s about the journey after all, right? Brainstorming with a crack creative team and coming up with an idea that not only meets its business goal but is innovative, and dammit, beautiful or poignant or humorous or even just simply fun. An idea whose end product you proudly place in your portfolio. An idea the memory of which will warm your cockles during those long corporate winters of communications drudgery. We owe it to ourselves — and the world, in fact — to break from the leash every chance we get and plunge into those sunlit waters.