Posted tagged ‘Leo Burnett’

The power of an epiphany (or three)

May 31, 2011

Albert Brooks defending his life

I really enjoy being a graphic designer and marketer to the green and ecological. I get to spend my day doing what I love, which is coming up with ideas and designing things, and I feel like I’m helping contribute to the new green economy. The thing that gets me the most energized, though, is the people I work with. My clients and other associates are all either green entrepreneurs or leaders of vital nonprofits. Nearly all of them have made the commitment to use their considerable energy and talents into improving the lot of their specific corners of the world, and they are all completely driven by the work they do. Their passion and enthusiasm inspire me to no end.

Some of my clients and associates would probably be making more money if they had stuck with more traditional careers, but somewhere along the way each had some sort of experience that caused them to reassess their career and life goals, and ultimately choose the path dictated by their hearts. I’m guessing that at some points in their lives many if not most of these green leaders each had some sort of epiphany that changed the whole perspective of their role in the world.

As a vegan, I’m pretty familiar with the concept of epiphany. Many vegans can quickly recall the specific moment when the skies opened up, the light shone in, and they faced the sudden realization that they could no longer support the system that turns animals into food. I can readily recall my own vegan epiphany, though I promise I will not do so here.

My move into a green career was driven as much by opportunity as epiphany, but I can recall three simple but profound experiences that took place over the course of a few months that caused me to radically shift my worldview and rethink the direction I had chosen for my life. I’ll get to them in a moment, but first a little context:

From a very young age I had a fascination with the visual arts, and I always told people I’d want to be an artist when I grew up. I wasn’t exactly sure what this entailed, though, and it wasn’t until college that I realized I would have to figure out a way to make this passion earn a living for me. Fortunately, by that time I was becoming attracted to the work of some of the great designers and art directors of the time – people like Milton Glaser, Bill Bernbach and Herb Lubalin.

My passion became advertising art direction, and my dream was to create memorable ad campaigns that would become a part of the American experience. Over the next decade or so, I slowly worked my way up from one design shop or ad agency to the next until I finally got to a place from where I could see the pinnacle. I was working as an art director for Leo Burnett on famous accounts like McDonald’s, Miller Lite, Nintendo, and Sony. None of my work was famous yet, but I felt it was just a matter of time.

The problem was that the closer I got to the top, the less I liked the view. The money was good and the work was exciting and fun, but I often felt that my job was to entice people to buy things they really shouldn’t be wasting their money on, or worse, products that were actually contributing to environmental and health problems. Still, I was in the Leo Burnett bubble, and my whole professional and social life revolved around it.

After a couple of years there, I had my first epiphany. My writer and I were instructed to come up with a new TV campaign for McDonald’s McRib sandwich. I wasn’t a vegan yet, but I was a vegetarian, and I already felt conflicted about the work I was doing for McDonald’s. I had mostly been pushing their salads and pizza, so I’d found ways to justify it. This time, though, we were being asked to play up the sensuousness of the meat in the McRib (albeit in a G-rated, McDonald’sian sort of way), and the project kind of revolted me. I had expressed my concern to my creative director, and his retort rings through my ears yet today, “John, you’re going to either come up with some looser morals or a new line of work.” I had to admit that he was probably right.

Shortly thereafter, I was moved to the team trying to win the Miller Lite account, and when we won, I stayed on with them. I actually enjoy beer  (though I must admit Miller Lite was never among my favorites), and Miller Lite was the subject of some of the most famous TV ad campaigns ever. The work was fun, but moral conundrums were arising, and this time my teammates were sharing my concern.

Miller Lite always aimed for young drinkers, and our team tried to accomodate, but no matter what was presented, they always wanted to make it more juvenile. Then one day, I was attending a meeting between the creative team and some regional distributors from Detroit, when one of the distributors said, “Look, what you people don’t understand is that your target audience is four 17-year-olds in a beat up Chevy Nova, particularly the one who looks old enough to take their pooled money into 7-11 for a sixpack. We need that to be our sixpack!” The corporate officials quickly protested that this was not their intention, but the damage had been done.

A few months later, I spent three weeks traveling in Europe where no one had ever heard of Leo Burnett. On the flight home, there was a screening of “Defending Your Life,” the funny but thought-provoking film where Albert Brooks dies and has to convince a courtroom that he had led the kind of life that earned him the right to advance to the next level. The message was clear: The best life is one fearlessly led in harmony with your values. As I watched it, I recalled my two earlier epiphanies  (which until then I hadn’t thought or as epiphanies at all) and suddenly I realized I was living a lie and that in order to really feel good about myself, I would have to find a new line of work. By the time the plane touched down, I was already charting a new career course. It took a while for everything to fall into place, but eventually I found a way to use my talents in a way that satisfy me both artistically and spiritually, and I never looked back. Except to tell stories about it, of course.

Have you been guided to your current career path by an epiphany? If so, I’ll bet it’s a pretty good story and I’d love to hear it.