After working at over 100 agencies -- Goodby, Leagas-Delaney and Crispin among them -- Steve finally found his dream job – as creative lead at Yamaha, where he's been able to combine his two biggest loves (behind his family, of course): writing and music.
Steve’s award-winning journey began after leaving LA and its agencies behind and driving north to Cole & Weber where he found peace, microbreweries and won his first One Show pencil. San Francisco soon called and he wrote campaigns for Levi’s and Sega at FCB, leading to a four-year run on adidas at Leagas~Delaney.
A group creative director position at Publicis/Hal Riney followed, where he co-led, co-created and managed work for GM’s EV1, America West Airlines and Sprint. He later returned to LA to surf warmer waters and be a creative director on Nissan at TBWA/Chiat/Day. He also spent four years as the brand creative director for Mazda North America at Garage Team Mazda, producing what Mazda Japan considered the best commercial to ever capture their brand essence.
With a career like this, Steve doesn’t just leave us in awe, he leaves us inspired that our best job might just be ahead of us.
Is ageism in the industry something you thought about in your 30s? Your 40s?
When I was in my 30’s, I was always working with people who were older, wiser and more creative. I sponged up everything and didn’t dwell on my age much. I was having fun in my personal and social life, funded by the money I made working with cool people called, “creatives.” When I hit 40, part of my brain knew that an ad industry age-related milestone had been reached. But I didn’t give it a second thought because I had finally attained “The Kwan” – love (my wife and child), respect (from my ad peers), community (a circle of good friends) and financial prosperity (a comfortable salary). Naturally, once I had it, my life became a quest to preserve it.
"I was working longer hours but not doing better work. I’d also seen what happens when someone sacrifices too much to the alter of award shows."
Is ageism something that’s affected you? What are some of the challenges you faced as a person who was getting older in the business? Do tell.
Any “ageism” I experienced was profoundly self-inflicted. I’d torture myself with stupid mental loops and I venture many of us ad folks do when we get overly anxious about aging-out. At those times, I reminded myself I still look young, we’re all getting older, and plowed on. But to work at the best agencies you have to hit triples and home runs on a regular basis to stay in rotation. This was a lot less challenging when I was younger, single, and could think about solving ads all day and night. With age, came marriage and home. With promotions, came meetings, left-brain tasks, and massive time-sucks away from concepting ads. I was working longer hours but not doing better work. I’d also seen what happens when someone sacrifices too much to the alter of award shows. Their shelves may get heavier with metal, but their personal lives can turn to ash. I was determined to maintain a balance very early on in my career.
Tell us about your own creative journey. What are your thoughts on where you are now, compared to your mindset when you were in the beginning of your career?
Growing up in San Diego, my creative outlets were drumming, writing and surfing. I was getting pretty good at all three, but not great at any of them. At college, I discovered advertising when I took a course in it as an elective in Journalism. I thought I’d go down the path of a journalist, but I found concepting ads way more fun. I moved to LA, got an interview with an agency, and showed an art director a handful of spec ads I had hand-comped and written in the class (one was for Bird’s Eye frozen corn and its headline was, “Uncanny Flavor”). I’ll never forget the expression on the art director’s face as he nodded silently and gave me the name of a good ad school nearby. Since then, I’ve worked for at least a hundred agencies. It sounds trite, but I’ve learned something valuable from every one. And I owe so much to the brilliant partners I’ve worked with and the various people I’ve met at agencies who helped me make great work. Then again, I’ve had tough times at agencies working with difficult people, but even those roles were somehow key to the opportunities that followed. Now, coming up on 30 years in advertising, it feels like I’ve crossed the return threshold of the “Hero’s Journey” and can now share my knowledge and help inspire others to manifest their creative visions.
"Now I work in the music industry where age isn’t a factor like it is, for the most part, in the ad world. Artists, producers, executives, and songwriters all respect each other no matter their difference in ages."
Did the reality of the ad industry contribute to the decisions you made/the path you’ve taken?
My life could have been more drama-free if I’d gone down a conventional path, but I liked advertising because I could be rebellious and anti-establishment in my thinking. There were times I could have left the west coast for a great job far away. But I got tired of upending my family for what I knew would only be a stepping stone. Could my career have been better? Who knows? Every move’s a gamble. And my family comes first. In the last few years, freelancing was getting harder with so many of my peers in the “gig economy,” a depressing and stupid term meant to sound liberating and cool. I’d also seen a lot of smart creative being done in-house, so I started sleuthing. Then out of the blue, a good friend recommended me to the new head of integrated marketing at Yamaha music who was looking for a creative director who was also a “music head.” Now I work in the music industry where age isn’t a factor like it is, for the most part, in the ad world. Artists, producers, executives, and songwriters all respect each other no matter their difference in ages. Plus, now my financial success is directly tied to how well Yamaha is doing. In fact, every time I take a shortcut through our warehouse, I imagine the shelves emptying.
What do you feel creative people over 50 can offer over someone 20 years their junior, things that are unappreciated, or just plain overlooked?
Movie, music, and cultural references that seem recent yet in fact could well be ancient (see: Kwan). Finely-honed tales of now-defunct agencies and the so-called glory days when it was easier to get award-winning work through the gauntlet. A quasi-crankiness when it comes to old-school standards of craftsmanship. Someone who can put your lunch on their company credit card. Someone who can approve your expense form without a receipt. Aside from those, a deep well of experience concepting ads, navigating agency waters, and knowing what has and hasn’t been done before.
What is your advice to people who are nearing or over 40 in the ad industry?
Have a goal every day you walk into your agency. If it’s only to do the best ad possible, you’re not thinking big enough. Think of where you want to go and if you need to walk or take a risk. Sometimes I think I didn’t venture enough outside the creative department, spend more time with agency people who did different things all day. I’ve seen other creatives rise up the ranks faster, or start agencies, because they knew to achieve more, they’d have to develop deeper relationships, focus on the entire business. So if I have any advice worth pondering, it’s do not get tunnel vision. Look up once in a while and anticipate change. Your universe can go upside down in an instant, for better or worse. We know the ad industry is built on perception, because its capital is intellectual. What’s tangible one day, is gone the next. The ground is never permanent. If you have another creative talent or passion, consider a way you could parlay that and your ad skills into a whole new way of making a living. You never know, right? Finally, it took me a while to learn how to be a good copywriter but even longer to learn how to be a good creative leader. It’s not easy and it’s not for everyone in the long run. Is it for you?
"What’s amazing is I didn’t know then that playing music again, which was so cathartic and joyful, would have some connection to my job now, which I consider the best of my life."
How are you approaching the next 10 years? What does your future hold?
After a long hiatus, in 2008, I started playing the drums again. I had just lost my job during the worst possible time – the great recession and frankly, locking into grooves while playing drums was the only thing that kept my mind and body occupied and the anxiety away. What’s amazing is I didn’t know then that playing music again, which was so cathartic and joyful, would have some connection to my job now, which I consider the best of my life. To concept on all kinds of different musical instruments and audio gear is fun. I hang all day with a bunch of smart, nice, laid-back musicians and music lovers (and other drummers!). Our mission is to make more music makers. I like it. I’m home.
What do you see as potential solutions for ageism in the industry? Any thoughts on possibly unionizing?
It will take all of our culture and media’s combined power to upend ageism in society, and can anyone see that happening soon?
What are some positive things you’ve experienced as you’ve grown older in the business?
A couple years ago I was freelancing for a car agency when the art director they paired me with greeted me with a warm smile and called me a “veteran.” At first, I felt the twinge of potential ageism, but then I realized it was with honor and admiration that he had said it when he mentioned some of the campaigns on my site that had inspired him over the years. It’s times like these that keep me humble and at the same time passionate about the work I do.
Who do you look to for inspiration?
Bruce Lee, for mental toughness and will power.
Monty Python, who remind me not to take life too seriously.
Drummer, Benny Greb, who teaches me to stop thinking so much and to just let the limbs move along with the natural rhythms of the universe.