Advertising creatives are not artists.

In my lifetime, I have known poets, novelists, a playwright, sculptors, painters, musicians, ballet and modern dancers, choreographers and a film-maker or two. Artists all.

For a decade between the early 80s to the early 90s, I called myself a poet, more accurately a part-time poet. I read, wrote and taught poetry and published a fair amount in a variety of poetry journals, some noted, some not. No one I know of makes a living as a poet. Poets write and teach. Or they have family money. Often both.

But in 1986, I took my first full-time job as a copywriter at a small ad agency in Milwaukee. For the next 26 years I wrote copy and eventually earned a job as a creative director. In those years I came to know many fellow creatives. But one person I have never met is the advertising creative who called him or herself an artist. Not with a straight face.

Advertising creatives are not artists. Not by any definition of “artist” that I know or respect. I submit four axioms:

First, an artist creates in response to a personal, private vision, whereas a creative, e.g. an advertising copywriter or art director, creates at the behest of a client via a creative brief. The vision of an advertising creative is not their own.

Second, an artist answers to herself. An advertising creative answers to hordes: a creative director, the CD’s boss, the senior account director, the planner. We haven’t even discussed the client.

Third, an artist does not ask for or need feedback. The advertising creative cannot do their job without it. Repeatedly. Ad infinitum.

Finally, an artist’s purpose is to answer an interior need or desire for an audience of one. The advertising creative’s purpose is to sell a product to a (hopefully) well-defined audience of many, starting with the client.

When F. Scott Fitzgerald, Salman Rushdie, Elmore Leonard and Dorothy Sayers, among many others, stopped writing advertising copy (yup, they used to be one of us) and became novelists, they stopped being creatives and became artists.

Ad creatives have called themselves commercial artists and I think this is an acceptable descriptor. But why is there this insistence among so many in our industry that creatives must be called artists?

This pseudo-controversy speaks to a larger issue: a cri de coeur by some who are insecure and believe their work does not warrant respect. That belief is false, but it’s also stubbornly persistent.

There is a growing revulsion among a group of advertising professionals against the very thing we do and do well: sell. It is beneath this cohort. It embarrasses them. It makes them squirm.

What I don’t get is why this segment can’t see beyond their own noses. They can’t see the contribution their work, indeed their lives, makes to a broad group of people outside our elite industry. These discomfited ad folks earn their brand’s employees a good living, helping them send their kids to school, pay for mortgages, vacations, new cars and retirement. This is no small thing. I’ve written about this before in this space.

But it’s not enough. Now they also want to be called artists. As if the monicker would somehow elevate them in status.

I have no sympathy for these wannabes. If they truly wish to become artists, do what so many have done for centuries: start a side-gig and create. Whatever your personal vision is, start. If you achieve success and can quit the ad game, bless your heart. You will join the pantheon of the Fitzgeralds, the Rushdies and others like them. And then you can stop this incessant whining.

Advertising is a commercial endeavor whose purpose is to sell stuff. Ours is a small world. If you do it well, revel in your gifts. The best of us win awards for our brilliant thinking, maybe make it into the Advertising Hall of Fame. Those who need to call themselves an artist to atone for the selling they do reveal their disdain for our profession and some inner unfulfilled turmoil.

I find it embarrassing. I am proud that my copy has sold tens of millions of dollars worth of products in my 26 years working on behalf of brands. I’m not an artist, although that’s my side-gig.

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