My new coronavirus-era gig doesn’t pay a dime, but it’s a total sanity saver—and I love it.

I never thought of myself as a political writer. As a matter of fact, there was a time in my life when I didn’t think of myself as political at all. For decades I’ve been in advertising, which is by nature commercial, not political.

Yet here I am, lead writer on the Shahid Buttar for Congress campaign.

If you don’t know Shahid (pronounced “SHAH-hid”), he’s running for Congress to represent San Francisco, in Nancy Pelosi’s current seat. A progressive Democrat who’s also a privacy protection attorney, he’s a veteran of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a kind of cyberpunk Justice League which successfully blocked the needless surveillance of Americans’ personal information.

It’s an uphill battle, but that’s the kind of challenge I like. Avis: We’re #2, we try harder. (Look it up, kids.)

The job is 100 percent pro bono/volunteer, and it’s taking up more of my time and energy than I anticipated. Between Slack, Zoom, and the actual writing process, I’m more drained at the end of some days than I was working for an in-house agency.

So why am I loving it so much?

Part of it is the way this work fits into my new sensibility. I was always politically aware, but as an observer, like a space alien curious about earthlings’ ways. In recent years, though, I’ve become more involved, and COVID-19, which affects an extraordinary range of life’s facets from healthcare to employment to the way we socialize, has only sharpened that involvement. (Shahid’s platform includes healthcare as a human right.)

Another part of it is that I’m just made to write. To paraphrase Twilight Zone and Star Trek writer Harlan Ellison, it’s what I’m for. Not having any assignments for a month or so should have felt like a fun break, but instead it felt like a piece of me was missing.

Finally, as a little bit of a celebrity stalker, I’ve enjoyed being on Zoom calls with minor political figures. I can’t say who they are, but if you follow progressive politics, you’d recognize their names.

Don’t get me wrong. I like receiving fair compensation for the work I do, and look forward to the day when I can do so again.

And I certainly would never work free for a for-profit company. That’s called slavery.

But with paying work hard to come by this summer, I have to admit nonpaying work is satisfying. It uses all the skills I used in advertising: Research, presentation, strategy and conceptualization, and writing itself.

Best of all, I don’t have to sit on a long train ride and go to an office I might or might not want to be in for 40 hours every week. I can just write, do virtual meetings, and have fun.

Find a cause you like and try it sometime.

You won’t believe it, but I had a funny feeling something like this would happen.

Once upon a time, I worked at a full-time corporate marketing job. I had a pretty good title (Senior Copywriter), pulled a halfway decent salary (none of your business), and enjoyed unlimited free snacks.

But every day, I left that place with a funny, nauseated feeling in the pit of my stomach.

This can’t last, I thought. Some day, it’s all going to collapse.

And now, it’s happening. On the heels of the retail and service sectors imploding, the same is now happening to white collar jobs. The tech sector will collapse last. But without support from the other sectors, its turn will come.

Now, I’m not going to tell you the name of the company I’m referring to, because the truth is, I’ve worked at several companies that had the exact same problem.

You see, it was never about the company itself. It’s about the parameters of the entire unregulated, quarterly report-crazed, market fundamentalist system, which no other developed country has.

Here’s what gave me such a stomach ache:

  • Talented designers and art directors paid to engage in repetitive, unimaginative tasks
  • Middle managers whose main job seemed to be glibly spouting platitudes and trendy B-school phrases
  • Top executives completely disengaged from rank-and-file employees
  • A strategic plan that, while never publicly discussed, seemed to consist of three phases: (1) acquire smaller companies, (2) grow to a certain predetermined size, (3) get acquired by a very large company—with all other decisions subordinate to those three steps
  • An advancement system that seemed to be based on the movie MEAN GIRLS, with endless gossip and backstabbing, no 360 degree performance reviews (or any reviews really), and no HR involvement
  • A weird and ominous quiet which permeated the office like a kind of poison fog

And here are the conditions that I believe led to this situation, which again are not unique to any one company:

  • An emphasis on short-term gain (i.e. quarterly reports and IPO fixations) at the expense of long-term planning
  • An obsessive focus on growth at the expense of customers, employees, and even stability
  • A tendency to put vaporware and PR before meaningful product features
  • An authoritarian, top-down orientation that kills insights and ideas (frequently disguised with New Age-sounding BS, to fool workers into believing it’s in their best interest)
  • A wild west mentality including “at-will employment,” which says employers can fire you at any time for any reason or even no stated reason at all

Chances are you may recognize some, or all, of these parameters. You may think, “I worked at that company.” And maybe you did. But even if you didn’t, you worked in corporate America. And corporate America, as it is, has written its own obituary.

All it took was one pandemic to push it over the edge.

Something’s got to change.

It’s time for creatives to take a long, hard look at how we got here

Why did you become a creative professional? A copywriter, designer, art director, creative director, video/film director? An ad person, in other words?

At the deepest psychological level, why would you voluntarily join such an unstable, unpredictable, unappreciated, and often scoffed-at profession?

I know why I did. And I’m not proud of it.

I hasten to add that I am proud of the actual work I’ve done over the years. Of helping to grow my clients’ businesses. Of getting paid to solve tough business problems with insightful solutions. And yes, of adding some thoughtful, well-crafted, and occasionally even funny lines to the business environment we all live in.

But between the pandemic, the insane unemployment numbers, and the continuing transfer of advertising dollars from thousands of venues to Google and Facebook, I believe it’s worth looking at how we got here, so we can see a little more clearly where we’re going.

Like all my compatriots of a certain age—like you, in all probability—I spent a lot of my formative years in front of the TV, and that TV was always trying to sell me something.

Sometimes that thing would even include a picture of the very characters I saw on TV, which seemed vaguely magical, as though the characters had somehow popped out of the TV and broken the Fourth Wall.

For example, a cartoon leprechaun would sell you cereal, and when your parents bought the cereal, there that leprechaun would be, right on the box. To a two- or three-year-old with a still-developing brain, this passed for a religious experience.

And where was those parents, by the way, when all this was happening? Either taking care of even younger kids and doing housework, or working, or attending night school, or simply finding themselves—as the TV also encouraged them to do. So they plopped the kids in front of the magical babysitter, where they then would be sold even more things that had pictures of TV characters on them.

Cut to several years later, the small child grew into a larger child and then a college student, who on some level, albeit dimly, realized the profound power and influence that advertising had held over his life.

In fact, many were the times, between parental divorces and separations and constantly changing schools and moving houses, when advertising characters had seemed more like friends than people did.

But what if that power could be reclaimed?

What if, after 20 years of advertising wielding immense power over a person, that person could turn the tables? What if they could wield that same power over not just other people, but the advertising profession itself?

And so, we learned to use Macs and design software. And brand voice and tone guidelines, and creative briefs. And video editing software. And whatever else was necessary so we could do this ourselves, instead of having it done to us.

And now, here we all are. We’ve mastered this craft which previously mastered us, so congratulations to all of us.

The problem is, it’s now a craft without a venue—just Google and Facebook. We’re like carpenters who can design and build wonderful imaginative chairs, suddenly transported to ancient Japan where everyone is expected to kneel on the floor at mealtimes.

So what do we do now?

In the short term, I imagine some of us will become Instacart shoppers, nurses, grocery store stock clerks, Amazon warehouse workers, and other essential employees. I myself made such a temporary transition just after 9/11, when agency jobs were tough to come by. I catered, tended bar, waited tables. I didn’t mind it, to tell you the truth.

But in the long term, something deeper has to happen. We need to focus on using our incredible creative potential to build something new.

Not to sell cereal, or beer, or the latest SaaS/cloud solution, but to sell ideas that change the very way we live, the way we see each other, the way we see fundamental things like money and time and human relationships and our place in the universe.

Call it anti-propaganda, or advertising in reverse.

Who’s going to pay us to do that? For a while, maybe no one. In that case, we’re going have to do it for free, building the world we want to see.

Meanwhile, to survive and support our families, we’ll do our old creative professional jobs as well as we can—for as long as they exist.

But that won’t be forever.

A whole new way may not be possible, but business as usual definitely isn’t.

This is odd: When you scroll down LinkedIn these days, about half the posts look like there’s nothing wrong. You definitely can’t tell there’s a pandemic going on. No reference at all to the genuinely weird context that we’re all working from home, and that many of us are in danger of catching a terrible disease if we go out—or, in the case of New Yorkers, even if we don’t.

The other half of the posts do acknowledge the pandemic, but in an anodyne, feckless way that suggests that if we just wait, everything will go back to normal. “We’re all in this together.” “Together, even though we’re apart.” “In these uncertain times.” “Stay safe, stay home, stay positive.” You know what I’m talking about.

In my view, neither half really gets it.

The denial crowd is hoping the tiger in the room will walk away if they just whistle and ignore it. Meanwhile, the meaningless platitude crowd thinks it will turn into a friendly pet, if they just speak nice words to it and maybe feed it a tiny bite of their burger.

Either way, I wouldn’t bet against the tiger.

This can all be explained by the class time lag. Blue collar workers like drivers, servers, and bartenders, who make up the quasi-invisible service economy, were laid off long before white collar managerial and creative professionals. Now the pandemic is starting to hit us too, but it still doesn’t feel quite real yet, even to those who’ve lost their jobs.

The only real solution, which no one wants to hear because it would involve some effort and adjustment, is a completely different approach to work and business, as well as, I believe, the role of government—both federal and state/local.

Some of these pieces are tied to each other, but some can be done by forward-thinking businesses independent of any government action, and I hope they will be:

  • Separate health insurance from employment and make it a human right for every American citizen
  • Add non-citizens too, since contagious germs don’t care who they infect
  • Ban quarterly reports, which force all business decisions to be made for pure short-term gain, and make reports annual, or even biannual
  • Require sustainability, health, and safety experts, as well as frontline essential workers, to be present at shareholder meetings and allow them to speak
  • Heavily penalize any company that violates worker health rights—the viewpoint of Amazon’s whistleblowing ex-Vice President Tim Bray, who just quit because he didn’t want to be a party to actual murder
  • Provide generous paid sick leave, childcare, and (when needed) protective gear for all employees
  • Raise the minimum wage so that one person can live on one job, including a one-bedroom apartment, and—as most developed nations have done—cap C-level pay ratios to make up the difference (right now the ratio of top exec pay to average worker pay must be disclosed, but there are no penalties for it being high)
  • Finally, and this is the overall rule that informs all the others, realize that if one worker suffers, we all do—regardless of status or pay grade—and that this isn’t some meaningless lofty platitude, but simply the way germs think

If Tom Hanks or the CEO of Morgan Stanley can be infected with COVID-19, anyone can. Next time, let’s make sure no one does.

Nostalgia is natural, but it’s hurting us. A lot.

It feels comfortable, like a favorite sweatshirt. Comforting, like a creamy cheesy winter casserole. It just feels right.

But it’s wrong.

We can’t go back to the way things were before the pandemic, because that way lies an end to everything.

We want to. Really, really badly. This has been such a disruptive experience on so many levels.

There’s the lifestyle level: Not being able to go out to restaurants, shows and clubs, not even being able to shop freely or get a haircut, being stuck in the same place.

Then there’s the more basic level of those who are laid off and suddenly lack healthcare (almost always tied to employment in the U.S., unlike other developed countries)—just when they need it most.

Some even lack money to pay their rent or even buy groceries.

And of course, for the unlucky, there’s illness and even death.

With all these changes going on, of course everyone longs to go back to simpler times. But they don’t exist, and never did.

Do we really want to go back to a time when this country had seven active civilian-killing wars going on? When Big Banks got trillions in bailouts, while regular people were thrown out of their homes and onto the streets? When there was a new school shooting every week, and a new group of promising creatives got gobbled up by hostile holding companies every month?

Or do we want to go back further than that, when American teens were being fed into the Iraq War hopper by the millions, in service of “evidence” that turned out to be a lie for Big Oil companies? Companies that now want yet another federal bailout because suddenly no one can drive, fly or take cruises?

Or even further than that, when it was routine for women and people of color to be treated as second-class citizens? When agency creatives, almost without exception, worked on cigarettes, disgusting unhealthy junk food, pollutive gasoline and gas-guzzling cars, or some other personal or planetary poison?

I don’t think any of us really wants to go back there. I know I don’t.

What we need to get to, rather rapidly, is a point where the future feels more comfortable than the past, because it’s the only real choice any of us has.

And we’re not going to get there by following big political organizations, on either the left or the right. One wants to go back to the 2010’s, so far away yet so tantalizingly close, while the other wants to go all the way back to the 1950’s. We don’t have the luxury of doing either.

We need a new way forward. And marketing needs to lead the way by:

  • Abandoning old models that don’t work any longer, such as basing all marketing strategies on short-term quarterly earnings
  • Asking questions about how our clients’ products and services fit into the new future we all face together, where we all either thrive or face extinction
  • Refusing to be satisfied with empty gestures that sympathetically intone “We’re together, even though we’re apart” while offering nothing to the increasingly large percentage of Americans struggling to make rent, buy groceries and receive basic healthcare
  • Being brave enough to call out denial when we see it
  • Understanding the difference between a brand—a promise that’s made to customers and truly kept, supported by marketing—and “branding,” a combination of logo design, trendy look and feel, and copy voice that’s meaningless except to other marketers
  • Staying aware, painful though it can be, of the inflection point we’re all living in, and making choices—in our jobs as well as outside of them—that build a more sustainable and equitable world

Marketing is dead. Long live marketing.

Once about every couple of years, marketing or advertising is pronounced dead, usually because of automation or the Internet or some other change vector everyone could see coming from a mile away.

This time feels different, though. Maybe it’s all the marketers who’ve now been laid off, even though they thought their jobs were safer than those of the restaurant workers, bartenders, and rideshare drivers they count on.

Or maybe it’s all the casualties, people who’ve actually died from coronavirus. If you’re a marketing professional of a certain age, you probably know one personally. If so, I’m sorry for your loss.

Some have said this pandemic is Mother Nature’s way of sending humans to our rooms to think about what we’ve built. I think there’s some truth to that and I think it goes double for marketers.

The standard drill for marketers is to drink a venti triple latte with oat milk, get pumped up about how great their product is, and then try to sell it through their channel of choice. But they don’t really believe it’s great. That’s why the latte’s there.

Steve Jobs famously said when recruiting John Sculley to run Apple, “Do you want to sell sugar water or do you want to change the world?” But now, everyone selling sugar water actually thinks they are changing the world. That’s a problem—even in Silicon Valley, where not every company can be an Apple including, these days, Apple itself.

I encourage my fellow marketers to spend the next couple of months—I hope for all our sakes that it is just a couple of months—asking ourselves some uncomfortable questions about what kind of people we want to be, what kind of companies we want to work for, and what kind of legacies we want to leave.

As an example, Ally Bank just announced that it would not apply any customers’ stimulus checks to overdrafts. All customers will get the full amount to spend on luxuries like, you know, rent or food.

This is a branding initiative that actually means something. It’s not just empty words, catchy slogans, or hip cool imagery, although it might be promoted with those things.

I hope my colleagues, as they sit at home drinking wine and baking homemade sourdough cinnamon rolls, will take a moment to contemplate why Ally Bank would pull such a Miracle on 34th Street type move. And even more to the point, to consider why the whole system is so tied to quarterly earnings reports that long-term, customer-first thinking like this isn’t more common.

Then maybe we can have advertising, marketing, and branding that’s actually worth the effort it takes to produce.

My super power is fighting cheerleaderism. Here’s why I do it, and how you can too (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this post, I talked about the disturbing trend of marketing stakeholders and clients reflexively responding to questions about their marketing problems with a lot of positive rah-rah nonsense that’s not only not helpful, but actually harmful to the strategic and creative process.

In this second part, I’ll list several possible reasons for this trend, a trend which invariably results in wasted money and bad marketing—and then follow them with a pathway to reversing it.

Here are the reasons why cheerleaderism might rear its ugly head:

  1. The stakeholder is in sales, or a sales-related position, and is so used to pumping up their company that that’s how they answer any question.
  2. The stakeholder has bought the fictitious line that thinking and acting positive all the time, and making positive statements all the time, no matter how terrible the situation, is the road to success. It isn’t. It’s the road to denial.
  3. The stakeholder just has a psychological need to please and impress people, even people whom it absolutely will not benefit them to impress.
  4. The stakeholder is simply not a very clear thinker. They are possibly the victim of 12-hour days, the stress of working for a volatile boss and driving in traffic and raising a family, the mental cloudiness of certain substances commonly used to alleviate said stress, etc.

Any or all of these may be true, but the result is always the same: When a creative professional asks the legitimate question, “What marketing problem are we solving here,” the response is either a blank stare or a bunch of positive-sounding but unhelpful gibberish.

Now, here’s what you, as a stakeholder, can do about it:

  1. Be candid. When a creative professional or strategist is smart and curious enough to probe, answer their questions openly. In other words, tell them what the damn marketing problem is. There must be one, or you wouldn’t have hired them. What are you paying them to fix, exactly? This is not the time to be Mr. Rogers and pretend everything’s OK when it’s not. If you’re not straightforward, you’re not “saving face” or “making the company look good” or “being a loyal employee.” You’re simply hurting yourself and hurting your company.
  2. Be proactive. If your copywriter or art director doesn’t ask you where your business is falling down, tell them. Don’t wait for the question. With some people, you might be waiting a long time. Tell them exactly where the holes are in your business model. Do you have renewal and customer success issues? Are there lead nurturing gaps where prospects show interest at first, then fail to engage? Is there a high price point that can’t be moved, so you need to show more value? Do your own homework, then be brutally frank. Remember, the first step to solving a problem is acknowledging that you have one.
  3. Be humble. This is not the time to talk up your product. You’re not trying to sell it, and the creative professional is not a sales prospect or a user. Don’t boast and brag about how your product is the greatest thing since sliced bread and creams the competition, or about all the great numbers you made last year and plan to make this year, or all the new demos you plan to crush. Instead, everything that you’re unsure, insecure and secretly freaking out about? Let it all out. That’s what we’re here for and who knows, we might even be able to help.

Dave Dumanis is a creative director, copywriter, and 25-year veteran of Bay Area advertising and marketing.