Tracy Wong • Written February 2014
Tracy was practically born with a pencil in his hand, constantly drawing, convinced at an early age he would pursue a career in “commercial art,” despite the anxieties of an extremely practical Asian household. In an attempt to aid her son in his pursuit, his mother set Tracy up to meet Portland advertising legend Bill Borders. In that meeting, Borders handed the teenager a thick hardbound book full of tiny black and white ads, The One Show Annual. The silent, befuddled teenager would not understand the importance of that bookuntil years later.
Tracy entered the Advertising program at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and after graduation, left to hone his art direction skills at the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA.
Tracy began his career in 1984 at legendary Ogilvy & Mather/New York working on iconic brands such as American Express, Time Inc., Avon, Swanson Frozen Foods and Owens-Corning Fiberglas. His first award-winning campaign was for International Paper. After a brief stint at startup Goldsmith-Jeffrey, Tracy returned to the West Coast as a senior art director at then Goodby, Berlin, Silverstein, an up-and-coming regional creative shop.
With dreams of managing an entire office, Tracy took the position of Creative Director at Livingston + Company/Seattle. There he met Pat Doody and over a fateful dinner each professed dreams of starting his own agency. Within less than a year, Pat and Tracy left to start WONGDOODY in November of 1993 with no clients and no revenue.
In the twenty years since, WONGDOODY has acquired and retained accounts such as Amazon, T-Mobile, Alaska Airlines, ESPN, Scion, Microsoft Windows, VIZIO and The Seattle International Film Festival. In 2008, Tracy and WONGDOODY had the honor of helping tobring His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Seattle and market the 5-day event “Seeds of Compassion.”
This year, WONGDOODY was named Advertising Age’s Small Agency of The Year (75-100 employees), ADWEEK’s Top Agency in WA State, as well as one of Ad Age’s Standout Agencies for 2014.
Across the span of three decades, Tracy has won over 350 national and international awards for work. This includes work in the Clio Hall of Fame for his “Fresh TV” campaign for Chevys Mexican Restaurants, The One Show, multiple Gold Lions from the International Advertising Festival at Cannes, British Design & Art Direction, The Effies, Communication Arts, The Grand Prize at the Radio Mercurys and multiple Best of Shows from the Andys.
Other notable honors include the American Advertising Federation’s Silver Medal for Lifetime Achievement, Finalist/Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year, and Marketer of the Year for the AMA/Northwest. Last year, Tracy was named to a list of the top 25 “Most Influential Advertising Art Directors of the Past 50 Years” in an industry survey conducted by Graphic Design USA.
To those outside of advertising, he is most recognized for his appearance on the premiere episode of AMC’s “The Pitch,” a docu-series about the real “Mad Men.”
Being chosen to join this pantheon of Seattle advertising immortals is beyond humbling. We aren’t gods, but as I think on it, we do have something in common with the immortals of ancient Greek mythology: Zeus, Poseidon, Hera, Athena, Dionysius, etc.
They all had flaws, tragically human flaws, and committed acts of jealousy, cunning, vanity, greed, adultery, incest, murder. This is not to suggest that myself and those I join are adulterous, vain murderers, but we too are flawed.
What I offer the “mortals” who venture into this hallowed digital hall of Seattle advertising legends is a peek at some of the more flagrant flaws that plague creative people in our business, including myself. And from those flaws come lessons, lessons that took me years, even decades to realize.
I hope what I reveal here may be of some help to you on your own path to immortality.
Ego is the creativity killer.
After being in the advertising business for over 30 years, I’ve learned that dealing with big creative egos comes with the territory. Ad agencies are asshole factories. And 99 percent of those assholes come from the creative department.
We all have countless stories of creative people doing their best imitation of a tired toddler (or a tragically flawed Greek god); having daily hissy fits; berating account people and making the junior ones cry; throwing tantrums in client meetings; upsetting entire agency cultures.
They think they’re gods! But all of these self-proclaimed gods are driven by ego.
The dictionary defines ego as: “an exaggerated sense of self-importance; conceit.”
Ego, above all, is the biggest, most consistent tragic flaw of a creative person. The greatest impediment to better creative work. It stalls thinking. It thwarts collaboration. It can keep you from the big idea. It can even sabotage entire careers, or worse yet, hijack entire agencies.
Drown it. Stab it. Shoot it. Throw a lightning bolt through it. Do anything in your power to kill it.
It’s natural to believe our ideas are like our children, the offspring of our very soul. That’s what our egos tell us. We all hang onto ideas because we’re afraid. For years I did. Sometimes I still do. So what are we so afraid of? What is our ego protecting us from? Is it that we don’t want mortals screwing with our brilliant ideas? Or is it that the work isn’t that good, and we simply can’t handle the truth of that?
It’s vital to remember: we are not our ideas. The lesson comes down to two words: let go.
I am not advocating being a total pansy and not defending the work, or letting great ideas die. But realize your ego’s place in this equation. Letting go is about becoming egoless and separating yourself from your work. Not takeNot taking things personally. Being open to others around you.
How can you possibly get better or have better ideas if you don’t let go of them?
An idea is only as good as the asshole it came from. Yes, there are ideas that change the world. But most of the time, ideas are just brain farts. In an egoless environment, ideas can actually get better, because there is real collaboration.
Anything is possible, as long as no one cares who gets the credit.
Immortal basketball legend John Wooden once said, “There is no ‘I’ in team.”
I like to add, “But there is in ‘prick.’”
Listen to mortals.
Lacking the ability to listen is the by-product of the ego. What mortal dares to mess with your brilliant thinking? So you shut down. You refuse to listen. This is the second greatest flaw in creative people.
It’s my belief that the greatest creative tool at our disposal isn’t our imagination. It’s our ears. It’s listening. To mortals! Mortals who don’t have a creative bone in their body: account people, media planners, lawyers, procurement officers, people in focus groups, and yes, even clients. Great ideas seldom come like a lightning bolt that hits you on the head. Rather, they are constructed by exchanges that occur over time. Listening to everyone involved is a vital part of the creative process.
The roots of civilization were formed by listening, because listening is based on caring, caring about what someone else has to say.
Decades ago, I had the benefit of witnessing a true advertising immortal, Jeff Goodby, founder of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, listening in a way I could never have imagined. I was standing in the agency kitchen when I saw Jeff nonchalantly ask a mid-level account executive, fresh from J. Walter Thompson/NY, what she thought of a rough cut for a dog dog-food commercial.
What struck me was the fact that a true creative genius would even care what an account executive, from JWT no less, thought of anything. But Jeff was totally sincere and genuinely curious. Up until that point I thought that opinions outside of the creative department didn’t matter.
In that one moment I felt a real sense of respect on Jeff’s part. He wanted her to be invested in the work. That was huge for me to witness as a young creative.
To the tragically flawed creative person, listening isn’t “listening” at all, but rather thinking about how they will counteract everything that someone else is saying. The focus is not on what’s being said, but how stupid or wrong that “mortal” is.
Buddhists speak of listening with an “empty mind”, rather than an open mind. An open mind suggests that the door is open, but your brain is full of shit, which means no room for anything else. An empty mind means just that: it’s completely empty. Willing to accept anything. Open to the infinite possibilities that are out there.
In the early years of WONGDOODY, we produced a campaign for the Seattle SuperSonics, “The Sonics Are Coming To Your Home.” That work put WONGDOODY on the international creative map. The most lauded ad campaign in the world that year. Multiple Gold Clios and Gold One Show Pencils. The coveted Gold Lion at Cannes. ADWEEK’s Best Ads of the Decade. USA Today’s Best Ads of The Year.
That campaign might not have won a single creative award if it weren’t for my partner Pat Doody’s 15-year-old daughter Regan. Regan was having trouble tracking the logic of our launch commercial as she watched it on TV. She even suggested shifting the order of the title cards to make sense of it. But Pat was afraid I would reject the suggestion of a teenage, non-creative “mortal.”
But I did listen. She was right. We changed the order of the cards. And the rest is history.
There is a beautiful Native American quote: “Knowledge talks. Wisdom listens.”
No assignment is too small.
The ego will often whisper into your ear, “This assignment is crap. It’s beneath you. Ditch it. If you can’t ditch it, phone it in. You need great clients and great assignments to do great work.”
I enter this hall of immortals having built a career, and an agency, on assignments and accounts no one wanted. Things that were considered “crap.”
When I was a rookie art director at Ogilvy & Mather/NY, one of my first accounts was Owens-Corning Fiberglas, makers of that pink insulation you line your attic with. But I’m not talking about the brand television campaign that featured the Pink Panther, but rather a myriad of trade print ads for things like warehouse insulation, underground fuel tanks, plastic car car-door panels and industrial ceiling tiles.
You could not find a more unglamorous piece of business.
These trade ads seemed like a creative dead end. Shit work for shit products in shit magazines that no one would ever give a shit about. When an assignment came up, creative teams scattered like roaches when the kitchen lights come on. My writing partner, Mike LaMonica, and I were left holding the short straws.
Somehow I saw opportunity in the pages of publications like Petroleum Engineer, Fleet Week, and Industrial Builder. For one thing, we were the only assigned team, a rare exception at a behemoth agency. Also, the bar was extremely low. No one, not even the client, expected anything remotely creative.
Lastly, we had real freedom. None of the constraints set by the consumer work. (No Pink Panther! Hallelujah!) Just do the best ad for the project.
Somehow, some way, we started producing good work. So good, it landed in Communication Arts, the Art Directors Club and the One Show. Suddenly, obscure Owens-Corning trade ads became the hot account at Ogilvy.
Years later, when I was a Senior Art Director at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners/SF (then Goodby, Berlin, Silverstein), I was yanked from working on a global campaign for Finlandia Vodka and put onto a small Bay Area Mexican restaurant chain called Chevys. Once again, I found myself holding the shortest straws with my writer Steve Simpson. The TV production budget was $8000 per spot. That’s right. Eight thousand dollars. The resulting campaign, “Fresh TV,” where we made the ads that day to prove the freshness of the food, ended up sweeping every award show on the planet. In the time before “reality TV,” our reality TV campaign made advertising history. It put our names in the Clio Hall of Fame as well as into scores of advertising journals and textbooks. Sure enough, this crap restaurant account became the envy of the entire ad industry.
Ego has no problem telling you to jump on the bandwagon of an account doing awesome, award-winning work. Creatives move in herds — only going where the grass is already green. But the ego blinds you to the opportunityopportunitieswhenwhere good work has yet to be done.the work is all shit. Creative egos move in herds — only going where the grass is already green.
One final story about crap accounts.
In the early days of WONGDOODY, Pat Doody got a call from an ex-colleague who was the marketing director at the Seattle SuperSonics. The client was working with another agency, but was upset that they weren’t returning her calls to do below-the-line jobs — what I called “the crappy little assignments.”
This particular job was to design a co-op bumper sticker for the Sonics, KJR Radio and local-area BP gas stations where it would be given away for free.
We gladly took the assignment, doing our best to squeeze three sponsors and an ad message into a 3-inch x 10-inch space. A few days later, we presented a handful of options.
She loved them.
After doing a few of these crappy little assignments, the client decided to give us the entire account — without a review. Because she knew she could count on us, not just for the high-profile TV campaign, but for everything.
Looking back, the Sonics account gave us financial stability and would eventually put us on the international creative map. It changed everything. All because of the most magnificent little sports marketing/radio station/gas station bumper sticker you’ve ever seen.
The lesson is simple: don’t turn your nose up at any assignment. Below-the-line, above-the-line. When a client needs something, there is no line. And each job, regardless of what your ego may tell you, is an opportunity to do great work.
I once saw this tT-shirt that read in really big type, “DON’T EVER COMPROMISE. EVER!” Under that in really small type it said, “until someone makes you.”
The flaw of the immortal is to believe there is no room for compromise.
But, in truth, everything in the advertising business is the result of compromise. No ideas are absolutely pure. Once produced, they will have scores of fingerprints on them. The goal is to understand the reality of this and deal with it.
The best creative people I know are able to accurately assess a situation and arrive at a creative solution that makes the compromise look like no compromise at all. The work actually gets better.
Another story from my time at Goodby: Jeff Goodby had just come back from Royal Viking Cruise Lines, their most high high-profile account and the most heavily decorated print campaigns in advertising 3 three years running. But our ship was about to get sunk. The cruise line had won a few industry awards itself and the client wanted to tout those accolades with huge sunbursts at the top of our pristine ads, screaming things like “Rated #No. 1 Cruise Line By Conde Condé Nast Traveler Magazine!” Jeff gathered all four creative teams into a small office to deliver the bad news. After a few minutes of complete despair and utter silence, art director Betsy Zimmerman came up with an idea of doing a violator in a “Royal Viking” way — making it look like a prestigious award itself. We ended up creating a beautiful plaque that was actually engraved in bronze. So instead of a sunburst becoming a hole in the hull of our campaign, the plaque became a jewel in the new layouts. And the client loved it.
Creative work that feels unblemished by compromise is the work of a true immortal. The way to achieve this is through acceptance, an empty mind and true collaboration.
Build a “creative democracy.”
I believe it’s vitally important not only to engage with mortals, but actually share your coveted throne with them too. To empower mortals to create with you. To make decisions with you. To have the entire agency fully invested in the creative process.
To build a “creative democracy.”
Advertising has changed more in the past 5 five years than in the past 50 years. It seems that the very definition of “advertising” changes on a quarterly basis. The proliferation of technology will not stop, and its influence on what we do makes collaboration of disparate disciplines necessary at an unprecedented level.
Keeping the process siloed among “creative types” is a one-way ticket to oblivion.
I believe great ideas can come from anyone. Not just the creative department. This notion is considered heresy among my creative creative director peers who prefer to keep their monarchies intact, and let their egos rule with iron fists.
Creativity is often commonly defined as the “unlocking of human potential.” You don’t do that by cutting off 80% percent of an agency. The way I came to this realization was in WONGDOODY’s very first month in existence, in a moment of desperation.
Turn back the clock to the agency’s first month in existence. The entire staff was 5 people. Pat Doody (president – the “Doody” of WONGDOODY), our first and only employee Rene Huey (AE/planner), Gwenne Wilcox (graphic designer), a part-time freelance copywriter named Craig Hoit, and myself.
Our first big advertising assignment for our first big client, K2 Skis, was due in a matter of days.
Craig and I were the only two creative people available to work on it and we were already working on multiple projects for other clients. Time was short and I really needed ideas.
So I asked Pat and Rene to contribute. Why the hell not? They understood the business, wrote the strategy and were avid skiers.
My old creative bosses would have thought this was complete lunacy. “You’re asking account people to come up with creative ideas? You’re completely nuts!”
Desperate times. Desperate measures.
On Monday, I gave the assignment: ideas, ideas, ideas! Forty-eight hours later, we came together. WONGDOODY’s first-ever creative internal consisted of us sitting on the floor of our windowless 10x12 hovel of an office tossing scraps of paper into a pile.
On those scraps of paper were half-baked concepts; garbled headlines; chicken scratchings for layouts; ripped out photos from ski magazines. I asked everyone to comment on each scrap and discuss what was working and what wasn’t. We formed three piles. One: “yes, this has merit.” Two: “nope, not working.” Three: “maybe.” It was my job as creative director to facilitate the discussion, keep us focused on strategy and to push ideas from the “maybe” pile into the “yes” pile.
From that internal came an award-winning campaign where each of us contributed something to each ad.
Up until then, I had never seen a creative internal where everyone was asked to contribute ideas and then comment on them collectively. Utilizing and harnessing the energy of the entire agency, even if it was only four of us, was fulfilling for everyone. I had abdicated my creative crown, and magic happened. And it became the model for our agency moving forward.
A “democracy,” however small, was birthed.
Love your client like you love your dog.
An art director friend of mine told me a story about an early-morning presentation he had with an important client. My friend Dave arrived at the office, went to the kitchen to grab a cup of coffee, dashed into the conference room and seated himself across from the client. Just before Dave flipped over the first piece of foam core, the client got this odd, rather disturbed look on his face. Dave realized the client was reacting to something on his coffee mug. Dave turned the mug around and emblazoned on the back were the words “FUCK THE CLIENT.” The meeting did not go well.
The mug, as it turns out, was a remnant from the Los Angeles office of Chiat/Day. Their legendary mentality: fuck the client. It’s all about the work. The client is the enemy, because it’s their job to screw things up.
Even without the mugs, this mindset is still common among creatives today. Even immortals.
I say the client is not the enemy. You must be on their side. You cannot succeed without them. They give the agency money. They pay your salary. You need them. They do not need you. There are hundreds of agencies out there. And thousands of creatives who do what you do.
The first guiding principle at WONGDOODY has been “the relationship is everything.” If we don’t establish a good relationship with our clients, we’re out of business. Pat Doody has always professed that we, as an agency, are only 49% percent responsible for great work. At a minimum, the client is responsible for 51%. percent. It’s their money and their final decision.
We have done our best to be on the side of our clients, no matter how difficult they can be. We instruct our employees, and especially the creative department, to follow suit. Clients know when you hate them. When you’re with them, you don’t have to say a word. They see it on your face. They see it in your body language.
It’s so important to recognize that flaw and reverse it. Get to know them as people. Understand that you both want the same thing: great, successful solutions to their marketing problems. Like it or not, you and the client are creative partners.
These are names you will never find engraved on any shiny trophy, or listed on agency credits in a fancy award award show annual. But they should be. These are the names of the clients who I worked with, who helped create the advertising I would build a career and an agency with. I would be nothing without them.
Resilience trumps brilliance.
The term “creative genius” gets thrown around too much in this business. Geniuses are rare. I am not a genius.
But I believe coming up with ideas that are considered brilliant or revolutionary is not usually reliant on “genius.” Based on what I’ve observed these past 30+ years, brilliance is the result of discipline and resilience.
This business is merciless. It will beat the living shit out of you. It is a business of extremely high highs and extremely low lows. And the lows outnumber the highs tenfold.
You keep birthing beautiful, radiant babies of ideas — only to have them hacked to death right before your very eyes with a very dull machete. How many of those brilliant ideas could have sent you walking down the red carpet at Cannes cradling a Gold Lion? How many countless hours will be spent wallowing in tears and thoughts of what could have been?
Truth is, you can’t count to infinity.
Moving on and re-energizing yourself is extremely important when you’re on the tenth round of creative and thinking to yourself, “I have completely run out of ideas.” Genius won’t save you if you don’t have the energy to keep going.
A good friend of mine who works in the military lives by this philosophy: The last 5% percent of effort often defines the difference between mediocrity and excellence.
On a difficult assignment, idea #No. 57 may be the brilliant idea. Resilience is that magical ingredient that keeps you going past idea #No. 56. There is a liberating realization that “there is always a better idea out there, I just haven’t thought of it yet.”
Basically, you have to learn NOT to stop.
I see new creatives that come from other agencies that are completely exhausted after coming up with five ideas. And it takes them a week to get there. To build resilience, you need to build metabolism.
Creativity is a lot like athletics. The more you practice, the better shape you’re in and the more skillful you become. The better shape you’re in and the more skillful you become, the more games you’ll win.
There’s a great story about NBA Legend legend Larry Bird, who back in his playing days was notorious for coming to practice long before other players and staying long afterwards, shooting hundreds and hundreds of extra shots. Bird, now President president of the Indiana Pacers, was sitting in the stands after a practice. As he watched all of the Pacers file off the court, a reporter asked him, “Why aren’t they staying later to shoot more like you used to?”
Bird’s reply, “I guess they think they’re good enough.”
What lies behind the curtain of genius is completely unglamorous and utterly mundane. It’s hard work, discipline and resilience.
Use your superpowers for good.
I have found that, as immortals, we really do have god-like powers. Super powers.
Years ago, I attended a First Nation circle where an elder asked me what I did for a living. I said advertising. She responded, “Your medicine is very powerful. Your messages, your words are broadcast to millions of people. You must be very careful with them.”
I interpreted that to mean our industry is our “super power.” Our advertising messages invade people’s minds in the hopes of informing and persuading them into some kind of action.
Our influence is huge and mighty. And we must bear the responsibility of that.
Four years later, I travelled to Dharamsala, India, the “Tibetan Palace palace in exile” of the Dalai Lama, as part of a team whose mission it was to bring His Holiness to Seattle for a five-day event called Seeds of Compassion.
WONGDOODY’s job was to market the event and promote “compassion” to a global audience, our super powers literally at full force. We produced great, compelling work that, in the end, drew 144,789 people to Seattle and hundreds of thousands to the live web Web events.
Just travelling to India and being a part of the event were some of the proudest, most fulfilling moments of my career. What better product to sell than compassion?
Good karma is especially important in a business like advertising.
Be grateful for the mortals that got you here.
No one makes it to this hall of advertising immortality alone. Unlike other creative pursuits, the advertising business is not a solitary endeavor. We are not painters, musical composers, poets. We all struggle to find our “art” in commerce. We must create with teams of others.
There are too many people to thank who have helped me on my path. But here is a short list. Thank you:
To Pat Doody, without whom there would be no WONGDOODY.
To my second family, all of the incredible people at WONGDOODY who have made me look good and have inspired me for 20+ years.
To all of the egomaniacs, jerks and assholes I’ve witnessed in my career. There is a First Nation saying: “You never know who your teachers are going to be.”
To my professors at the University of Oregon, Roy Paul Nelson, Willis Winter and Ken Metzler, who introduced me to advertising and sent me to New York City as an intern.
To Ray Engle, my first ad teacher at Art Center College of Design, who taught me just about everything I needed to know about creative direction in one class.
To Gary Goldsmith, who pulled me out of the rubble of my first job and became my mentor.
To Jeff Goodby for showing me that the terms “humility” and “creative genius” are not mutually exclusive.
To my wife, Jennifer, for her unbelievable support of my passions and dreams.
To my mother, Ellen Wong, who helped me channel my creative interests and ambitions to discover and make a living out of something I love.
To my father, Dr. Victor Wong, who made sure I had the very best education available to me.
To my aunt, Grace Wong, for her unconditional love and unwavering support over the course of my entire life.
Lastly, to my grandmother, May Wong, who taught me firsthand about humility, integrity and honor through action, not words.