Much has been made of the ad on the left. Over the course of the past week, it has popped up multiple times on both my Twitter and LinkedIn feeds with people lauding its originality.

The ad on the right was an ad I wrote and designed in 1998 when the writer I was working with jumped ship for another agency.

 

 

About two weeks before my ad broke in the Houston Chronicle, we had run a standard 3-column ad listing all the qualities and requisite skills we needed for a new writer in a rather bland run-of-the-mill ad. The old cobbler’s children syndrome. We got almost no response, and any resumes I did receive from that posting were not in the least what I was looking for. We needed to take drastic, creative action.

I thought a lot about what attracted me to JWT in the first place. I had responded to an ad written by the guy I was looking to replace. Being a clever writer, he wrote an ad talking about things that go great together. “I’m looking for the peanut butter to my jelly…” (Something like that, although I can’t quite remember exactly.) Apparently I was one of the few people who responded with a cover letter that opened with “Dear Tom” and closed with “Your friend, Jerry”. We instantly hit it off and have been friends ever since.

With my writing partner gone, I had to take matters into my own hands. Having blown off most of my English classes all throughout school, I lacked confidence in my writing. So I wrote an ad from the perspective of how I felt. And Phil Hartman’s Saturday Night Live character Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer was probably in the back of my mind.

What happened next was crazy. Resumes were faxed so fast that our office admin kept feeding the machine paper all day. This went on for several more days. In total I received more than 200 resumes from a little local print ad, including one handprinted on leather delivered by hand. I ended up hiring a terrific writer who is now off shooting movies in Dallas.

What struck me as funny about the ad LA county did is that it got a ton of notoriety, but it is hardly original. Which begs the question, how much creative work is original? I think it’s a great ad, same way I thought my ad was great 20 years ago.

I looked online for another story about originality that has been stuck in my mind for years, but cannot find it. Might be sitting on my bookshelf. The story was about a speech Bill Bernbach gave an ad club back in the late 1950s or early 1960s, while the Creative Revolution was in full swing. He plainly stated that there was nothing new under the sun. What’s great about Bernbach making that grand proclamation, is that he ripped it off. He was quoting Ecclesiastes 1:9:

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be;
and that which is done is that which shall be done:
and there is no new thing under the sun.

Inadvertently, I stumbled into another example years later. I was working up concepts with the Executive Director of the Houston Chamber Choirs’ for their annual program. While looking for inspiration, I was excavating quotes about music, trying to find something original and nuanced to hang my hat on that would resonate with the Choirs’ patrons. When I landed on a quote from one of my favorite musicians ever, Thelonious Monk, I found my concept:

It’s not about the notes, it’s about the space between the notes.

Man, that’s what makes jazz cool.

Except he ripped that saying off from Miles Davis who ripped it off from Claude Debussy, who said the same thing a couple of decades prior.

In the end, some ideas just seem to work. Over and over again. Maybe it’s not about the ideas, but how you use them.