Though it was a great excuse to get away from the office grind, I was fully prepared for the barrage of buzzwords and bravado. It was, after all, a new business conference for advertising’s top brass—the crème de le crème of seasoned sales pro’s, spinning stories and selling dreams for some of the world’s biggest brands.
I’d been in advertising long enough to be jaded—exhausted by the echo chamber and marketese/mumbo jumbo that reaches a feverish pitch at conferences: “integration, transformation, disruption”…indigestion. Nonetheless, I was looking forward to hearing the war stories and hopefully walk away with even a smidge of inspiration amidst the talk of pitch strategies and procurement woes.
When the young, tan, whispy-haired dude from Boulder, Colorado, shuffled onto the stage amidst the slick-suited, stiletto-clad crowd, I knew this would be a different kind of talk. But I had no idea what deep, existential ponderings were in store for all of us in the audience that day.
The title certainly didn’t sound riveting: “Reframe Your Business: A Growth Strategy Inspired by Personal and Social Values.” But he came from a place and echelon of success in our industry that very few could even fathom to reach.
Alex Bogusky was an original founder and partner of one of the world’s hottest ad agencies, Crispin Porter + Bogusky. He was the “Elvis of advertising”—a superstar. In Ad Age’s words, he was “as clever, brash, and iconoclastic as the campaigns that earned him a reputation as the most dangerous weapon in advertising. He relished playing cultural deviant—creating brazen campaigns for Virgin, Volkswagon and most notably Burger King."
4 years ago, he left Crispin, Porter because he didn’t feel his values were aligned any longer with the business. He went on to found a series of companies and social related projects that “do good in the world.” He worked with Al Gore to raise awareness and action against climate change. He started Common, a creative community that helps social entrepreneurs “do shit that matters.” And just last month, he launched a new agency called Fearless, designed to help corporations, foundations and non-profits build campaigns around social issues.
It all sounds so lovely and idyllic—the former ad guru who cashed out, made millions by selling off his share in one of the most lauded ad agencies to “find his soul,” and is now spreading peace, love and pixie dust all over the world from his aptly named “Fearless Cottage” in Boulder.
The cynic in me scoffed. “Easy for him to say from atop his moral high horse,” I thought, reflecting on all of us poor schelps in Adland—and every other industry for that matter—who actually have mouths to feed and bills to pay as opposed to sinking riches into whatever cause du jour comes our way.
But when he hit the stage at the conference, he won me over—not with self-absorbed anecdotes from his glory days in advertising or business strategies to drive growth, but rather with personal “stories” and sage advice from someone who, at the pinnacle of his career chose to pave a different path—based on personal values and fulfillment rather than traditional notions of success.
7 Steps to Career / Life Fulfillment from Alex Bogusky
Below are some inspiring sound bites I scribbled into my moleskin almost a year ago at the Mirren Conference in New York. These thoughts have swirled in and out of my consciousness as I’ve transitioned to a new job, juggled the demands of work and family, and struggled to carve out the time for passion projects like writing my blog and photography, and even just unplugging from the chaos of daily life. The answers are far from black and white – but they’re nonetheless great reminders when you feel adrift or simply need permission: to dream, take risks or even simply baby steps toward the next stage of your own personal journey.
1. “Aligning your values and work can be so fucking hard.” The truth hurts, doesn’t it? But there it is. Someone finally laid it out on the table. Landing your “dream job” or even figuring out what that is—it’s nearly impossible when you’ve got bills to pay, rent, a mortgage, god forbid the money pit that is kids. Based on where you are in your life and career, you may have to suck it up for awhile: earn your stripes, pay back your loans, do whatever you need to do to earn a living now. And accept that that’s ok. But if your ultimate goal is to do something more, something different, something better—then it’s also up to you to define where you want to be and what you want to do. It’s hard. Brutal even. And even if that dream job is eons away from your current reality, you have to start somewhere, with even little actions that will set you off in that direction. In the end, if you can achieve that kind of alignment, when you know in your gut and heart and your soul—not just your wallet—that this is what you were meant to do, it will all be worth it.
2. Lycra: "It’s not always pretty… but it’s you.” This was the single best career advice I’d ever heard. Wear spandex to your first interview? No not exactly. What he meant was this: YOU have to decide what fits you perfectly. Screw what everyone else says about what path you should take or how to benchmark success. Wearing lycra means putting it all out there—every nook and cranny, every bump and blemish, every experience and talent that makes you uniquely you—and doing it fearlessly. There is nothing more empowering than finding your true, authentic voice…and screaming from the rooftops.
3. Now is the time. All white slide. No other words on it. I got chills. When it comes to work or big life decisions, it’s natural to focus on the end goal. And because of the weight, we often find ourselves waiting: for “the right time” or “the right opportunity” or whatever real or imaginary barrier to be removed before we act. And big changes are scary as hell. Often the person watching with judging eyes, anticipating our own imminent failure is ourselves. On the next slide: “Our own internal voices are fucks.” The key is to realize that you don’t need to solve the world’s problems right here, right now, in one fell swoop. That’s a surefire recipe for failure. Whether it’s a job or life choice, we’re all WIP (Works in Progress). Simply begin to take steps. Little wins lead you one step closer to the end goal.
4. Lay back and dream. As big as you can. Again, not the kind of advice I expected at a new business conference. There is a reason people like Alex Bogusky or Steve Jobs achieve unfathomable heights of success while so many others wallow in mediocrity. They’re dreamers. Disruptors. They challenge the comfortable confines of the status quo. He proposed an exercise: Describe your ideal environment. Ideal collaborators. Ideal role. Even if it’s only a dream now, the mere fact of articulating it crystallizes it into something real and tangible to strive for.
5. Do your little projects. You know, the ones you keep putting off, that you never have time for because they’re just “hobbies.” In advertising we are literally driven, often into the ground, by clients and deadlines and demands on our time. Every profession has its version of pressure or paperwork or pet peeves that drain your energy, rob you of precious time you wish you could be spending on things you’re actually passionate about. Make the time. Whether an escape or coping mechanism for your current state or an actual step, however small, toward the life or career you want, do it. Those “little things” go a long way toward making you a happier, well-balanced, more fulfilled human being.
6. “Success.” Bogusky left advertising at the pinnacle of “success.” In describing his career trajectory, he talked about the relationship between his core values and the size of the firm where he worked. “Small” was exciting and entrepreneurial, but stressful in terms of actually building a profitable business. “Medium” was a sweet spot, with just the right amount of creative freedom and fun, balanced with the sense of doing really “good” work for clients. Yet as the company started to grow, it became harder to find “goodness” along with “bigness.” In his words, the values had changed, enough to inspire him to leave. In society, success is generally gauged by title and dollars. But once you throw other factors into the mix: your health and well-being, stress levels, impact on your family relationships, what is the true measure of success? I think we all have to define what it means for us personally and challenge the notion that money or things equate to #winning in work or life.
7. Death goggles. Bogusky actually opened his presentation by telling the audience a very personal story about his mother who had just passed away. With voice quivering, he looked out into the audience and said: “When you think about what you’re doing in life, do you ever ask yourself the questions: Do I matter? Does what I do matter? When I die, and people are gathered for my funeral, what will people say about me and the impact I made?” Again chills. Heavy stuff for a morning keynote session. The question pretty much cut through to my core.
I thought about my own mom who had passed away years ago. She worked her ass off for 30 years—healing patients in order to fund private school, college, med school and law school tuition, helping family members with medical bills and miscellaneous expenses. Based on her staunch religious beliefs, sense of moral obligation, and desire to give her children all the things she never had, she felt this was her role in life. But the trade off: the romantic ideals that I only saw in glimpses from old photo albums of her glamorous, carefree travels with my dad— that she left behind the minute she donned the white coat and the title of “doctor.”
Her one dream in life was to go to Rome. To stroll the streets like Audrey Hepburn, who she watched on the big screen as part of the triple features in the air-conditioned movie theatres of the Philippines, long before she achieved “success” in the U.S. What did she get instead of her ultimate “Roman Holiday” after a lifetime of working hard? Kidney failure during retirement, excruciating rounds of dialysis, and a ticket to the Philippines for a transplant that ended in tragedy.
Such a harsh reality, but also an important lesson: Whatever path you choose in life, whatever decisions—big or small—make them count. Make sure that what you do matters: for yourself and those around you. Evaluate your priorities. Find “your thing.” Own it and live it, fearlessly…because it’s all you’ve got.