Death of an Ad Man: If You Were to Die, How Would Have Wished to Live?

"So was it worth it? Well of course not. It turns out it was just advertising. There was no higher calling."

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

If you were to die, how would you have wished to live? It's a question we constantly face but we go about our lives trying desperately to pretend this question does not exist. Yet from ancient times till now, it is still the only relevant question.

New Zealand-based ad man Linds Redding died in 2012 from inoperable cancer. When told of his diagnosis, he took to his blog and wrote an essay titled "A Short Lesson in Perspective" — a no-holds-barred retrospective on life from the viewpoint of inevitable death.

Knowing you will die changes everything — changes everyone. Intellectually we all know this, but we don't really know; it's abstract until it's not. But we do not have to wait to be terminally ill to reflect on our own lives, for we have been blessed with empathy. Just to hear the last words of a dying man can change everything.

Redding writes:

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 anymore 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?’

What do I think?

I think you’re all fucking mad. Deranged. So disengaged from reality, it’s not even funny. It’s a fucking TV commercial. Nobody gives a shit.

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...
(Linds Redding)

(Linds Redding)

This Faustian pact has been the undoing of many great artists, many more journeymen and more than a few of my good friends. Add to this volatile mixture the powerful accelerant of emerging digital technology and all hell breaks loose. What I have witnessed happening in the last twenty years is the aesthetic equivalent of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. The wholesale industrialization and mechanization of the creative process. Our ad agencies, design groups, film and music studios have gone from being cottage industries and guilds of craftsmen and women, essentially unchanged from the middle-ages, to dark satanic mills of mass production. Ideas themselves have become just another disposable commodity to be supplied to order by the lowest bidder. ...

That one thing that we prize and value above all else — the idea — turns out to be just another plastic gizmo or widget to be touted and traded. And to add insult to injury, we now have to create them not in our own time, but according to the quota and the production schedule. ‘We need six concepts to show the client first thing in the morning, he’s going on holiday. Don’t waste too much time on them, though, it’s only meeting-fodder. He’s only paying for one, so they don’t all have to be good, just knock something up. You know the drill. Oh, and one more thing. His favourite color is green. Righto! See you in the morning then… I’m off to the Groucho Club.’

Have you ever tried to have an idea? Any idea at all, with a gun to your head? This is the daily reality for the creative drone. And when he’s done, sometime in the wee small hours, he then has to face his two harshest critics. Himself, and everyone else. ‘Ah. Sorry. Client couldn’t make the meeting. I faxed your layouts to him at his squash club. He quite liked the green one. Apart from the typeface, the words, the picture, and the idea. Oh, and could the logo be bigger? Hope it wasn’t a late night. Thank god for computers, eh? Righto! I’m off to lunch.’

Alright, it’s not bomb disposal. But in its own way, it’s dangerous and demanding work. And as I’ve said, the rewards tend to be vanishingly small. Plastic gold statuette anyone? I’ve seen quite a few creative drones fall by the wayside over the years. Booze mostly. Drugs, occasionally. Anxiety. Stress. Broken marriages. Lots of those. Even a couple of suicides. But mostly just people temperamentally and emotionally ill-equipped for such a hostile and toxic environment. Curiously, there never seems to be any shortage of eager young worker drones queuing up to try their luck, although I detect that even their bright-eyed enthusiasm is starting to wane. Advertising was the sexy place to be in the eighties. The zeitgeist has moved on. And so have most of the bright-young-things.

So how did I survive for thirty years? Well, it was a close shave. Very close. And while on the inside I am indeed a ‘delicate flower’ as some Creative Director once wryly observed, I have enjoyed until recently, the outward physical constitution and rude health of an ox. I mostly hid my insecurity and fear from everyone but those closest to me and ran fast enough that I would never be found out. The other thing I did, I now discover, was to convince myself that there was nothing else, absolutely nothing, I would rather be doing. That I had found my true calling in life, and that I was unbelievably lucky to be getting paid — most of the time — for something that I was passionate about, and would probably be doing in some form or other anyway.

It turns out that my training and experience had equipped me perfectly for this epic act of self-deceit. This was my gig. My schtick. Constructing a compelling and convincing argument to buy, from the thinnest of evidence was what we did. ‘Don’t sell the sausage. Sell the sizzle’ as we were taught in ad school.

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.

Cynical? Yes. That’s what makes this piece so remarkable. In a time when the cult of positive thinking has invaded most workspaces, it’s a breath of air. Real air, not this perfumed and temperate air designed for maximum productivity.

We are told to meditate at our desks, focus on our inner beaches, be mindful, do yoga at lunch, never leave work, and make TED talk our personal Bible. The universe will answer all your prayers or vibrations, whatever spirituality du jour you are into, so long as you make the company lots of money and downward dog often. (The supervillains in Marvel movies also enjoy the same activities, FYI.)

Redding’s words are dark and authentic because he knew he was dying and no longer cared about selling. It is what it is. If you stop looking at all the decorations, you'll recognize it's still an assembly line. The industrial revolution never ended, it's still a factory, and people are still working from 9 AM to 9 PM. It's the moment Emmet from The LEGO® Movie understands why they're always singing, "Everything Is Awesome" — a lyrical opiate to keep the LEGO® masses docile and complacent. The trademark logo alone should clue us in that it's one big commercial. Selling again. (It also means everything is owned and protected by lawyers.) Freedom means free to purchase, and everything is awesome. Or else. Whether the glove is velvet or leather, it still rules with an iron fist.

In Hard Times, Charles Dickens writes:

How could you give me life, and take from me all the inappreciable things that raise it from the state of conscious death? Where are the graces of my soul? Where are the sentiments of my heart? What have you done, oh, Father, What have you done with the garden that should have bloomed once, in this great wilderness here?

Increasing productivity by double means an increase in expectations by triple. You are told if you double the input, you will double the output. If you are slightly suffering now, if you double the input, you will double the suffering. If doing the same thing and expecting new results is insanity, then doubling that will double the insanity (and twice remove you from new results).

A four-hour workweek means you can do 25 weeks of work in one week. Flexible work hours means you are on call 24 hours a day. Cool work culture comes at the cost of more work. And when you work for yourself you'll never give yourself a break.

The reason we had an industrial revolution was because there was more demand than there was an ability to meet them. We lacked in labor so we had to become more efficient. Now there are more goods than there is demand, more labor than there is a need. Have gotten too efficient, runaway efficiency without a purpose. So we put our heads down and toil, like we are told to, hoping not to get noticed, in fear of when the other shoe will drop.

We are ruled by fear. We think: no money, we die. But even with money, we will still die. It is what it is. Whether you toil or enjoy your life, it all ends the same way — except one has fewer regrets.

(Salesman | Jes)

(Salesman | Jes)

In Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller writes:

I saw the things that I love in this world. The work and the food and the time to sit and smoke. And I looked at the pen and I thought, what the hell am I grabbing this for? Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be ... when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am.

We used to be told to find a work-life balance. That you are not defined by your work, yet work takes up more of your life than all the other facets of your life combined. If you are the five people you hang out with most, you are your boss and your coworkers (rather than the people you love.)

Your lunch, your leisure, your relationships, your health, all revolve around work. So what do we do? We are told to make work your life (work-life integration), find your passion and make it your work (not your passion), and make lots of money and never retire and die working. When you are single and without kids, you do this because you believe this is all you have. When you are married with kids, you do this because you believe you do it for them. Both sides thinking things would be different from the other side, when it all circles back to the same conclusion: you don't do it for yourself or your family, you do it for work. (This may not be absolutely true, but it is true in gravity.)

Why can't our passions remain our passions? Why do we have to make what's so cool, our work? Why can't we work in a way that still allows us to pursue our passions? Think about it, you are told to make your passion your work if you only have time for one of them, not both. That's how you know you're being screwed. How will your passion remain your passion if you are never allowed to take a break from it? What happened to freedom and free time?

In Unto This Last, John Ruskin writes:

There is no wealth but life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest numbers of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest, who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.

This is what Redding realized — this is what Redding wants us to ask ourselves — what's it all for? Money and reputation? If that’s the case, then it's not that important. So relax, don’t take yourself so seriously, and live a little — especially before you die.

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