Why Leonard Cohen's 'Anthem' Became My Anthem

Four lines that light my way in this business, and beyond

I didn't see myself as the kind person who has a mantra.

Mantra people meditate a lot, and I don't meditate. Mantra people think the world is far more coherent than it actually is. Mantra people favor soundbites over conversation.

Or so I surmised, for a time. But despite my best efforts, it turns out that I, too, have a mantra, and it has served me particularly well these past few years. It's a fragment from Leonard Cohen's song "Anthem."

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in

I don't know where I first came across it, but I'm pretty sure I saw it in print, as I'm not a huge fan of the song itself. I do recall that it made an immediate impression on me, along the lines of: "Pay attention, chucklehead! This will matter to you!!" And since no two people will hear it quite the same way, I'll explain what I get from it. For me, it's about three big themes that light my way in this business, and beyond.

Cynicism is easy; caring is hard.

In creative businesses, the first two lines in the stanza ring especially true: If we spend our time bemoaning the broken bells and disappointments, we'll miss the music altogether.

Because let's agree: It's tough to work in advertising for any length of time and not acquire a cynical take on the business. The meetings where everyone is quietly tapping on their laptops the whole time. The call for bold work from those who will never buy it. The silly jargon that's fun to use and more fun to mock. You could even think of cynicism as an occupational hazard in this industry.

But when I have a crazy brief to crack, the people I want in my corner are the ones who light up with excitement when we talk through possible ways in. Who connect the dots between culture and brands and social good in ways that illuminate and elevate the job at hand. Who realize that "It's just advertising" is actually an invitation to think freely and optimistically, and, sometimes, to invent stuff. It can be hard to care about the next brief after the last three have languished, unfunded or unloved, for months. But the next brief just might be the big one, and it's well worth keeping an eye out for it.

Feedback is our friend.

The last two lines in the stanza get to the flinty core of collaborative creativity: Feedback shows me the cracks, and that way lies insight.

Feedback is also super annoying, frequently off-point, and occasionally rude. But whenever I hear the deafening silence of no feedback whatsoever, and find myself staring down the rudderless path ahead, I remember how truly valuable it is. 

Annoying feedback shows you how to better protect your idea. Off-point feedback reveals a crack in your strategy that you hadn't thought of. And rude feedback—well, rudeness could mean many different things (some of which have nothing to do with you or your ideas), but it could also mean you've been offered that rarest of chances: an opportunity for growth. No one embraces these easily; they are by definition unpleasant. One of my favorite acronyms, AFOG, stands for "another f*cking opportunity for growth"—so you can imagine how much I look forward to them. But I'm generally better off afterwards, and that's more than I can say for many of the things that consume my time these days. 

Be a grownup.

Of course it's a young person's business, and God knows the last few years haven't been kind to the amazingly talented, experienced, accomplished, award-winning gray-at-the-temples crowd that I am proud to call my friends in this business. Actually, it's been brutal, as holding-company math turns the screw on talent until, in some quarters, you can hardly get a quorum of people who know how to run a creative account. 

But it takes experience to understand how to turn feedback into insight and strength. And it takes maturity to chew through cynicism until you come out the other side, blinking in the daylight. There are few shortcuts in this regard, which is why most clients and most agencies like working with grownups, if they can afford it. It may take a while before they realize they can't afford not to.

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Ali Demos
Ali Demos is group strategy director at StrawberryFrog.

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