Ask the Ad Expert

Q&A With Arnold Worldwide Creative Director Dan Madsen

by Randi Cantrell
Working Associate Editor & Portfolio Studio Copywriting Student

I have a lot of questions. About advertising, creativity, portfolios… oh, I don’t know, life in general. So many questions, in fact, that on more than one occasion I have referred to myself as a walking question mark. So, when I get the chance to ask even just one of those questions, I’m all over it. That chance came this week when I got to chat with Arnold Worldwide VP Creative Director Dan Madsen.

Dan started his journey into the industry with an internship at Crispin Porter & Bogusky before snatching a Junior Art Director role at David & Goliath. He also worked as an Associate Creative Director at Mullen and Creative Director at Fidelity Investments before landing at Arnold earlier this year.

If you take a look at his book, you’ll see a lot of funny, inspiring, award-winning work. I watched all of it, and you should too, but if you only have time for a few pieces, start with his work for Kia and JetBlue

The Super Bowl spot for Kia above earned a gold pencil from The One Show. The lovely “human-powered initiative” for JetBlue below, titled Flying it Forward, landed on the Cannes Festival Shortlist, twice.

There were a lot of questions I could’ve asked Dan. Here’s the one I did:

Think back to your first day on the job in advertising. Knowing what you know now, what wisdom do you wish you could share with your younger creative self?

Dan: There’s a lot I wish I could tell myself, but at the same time there’s a lot I wouldn’t tell myself, because I think a lot of my hunger and drive came from not knowing the answers.

People coming out of school or trying to get into the industry will think that what they don’t know, or the experiences they don’t have, actually hurts them. The first thing I’d say is: embrace the fact that you don’t know a lot because it will make you so eager to learn and get your hands on anything. Also, it sounds weird to say, but it means you haven’t been ingrained to typical advertising patterns and thinking, which can be a good thing.

For example: these days when I get put on a brief, I’ll sometimes catch myself going down the same routes, in terms of conceptual solutions, that I’ve gone in the past. I’ll think to myself, “Oh, this really worked well... it was a great spot, great campaign, the client was happy.” So I stay safe and head down that same way. But then I have to stop and remind myself to try new thoughts and directions. There are a lot of avenues of originality I might not be allowing myself to venture down because of the fear of the unknown. But when you’re new, everything is unknown, everything is terrifying, every thought is like… "I don’t know if this is good enough, I don’t know if this is gonna be good.” So what do you have to lose? Try everything. The lack of experience, the lack of campaigns you’ve sold... those things are actually a huge strength you should try to use in your favor.

A lot of my hunger and drive came from not knowing the answers.

The second thing I’d say is: think common sense first. When I was in school, I felt like I had to think on some higher level when it came to creating good work. I’m realizing, through my time in the industry, that the things that sell and get really good results, in terms of impressions and views, are actually just simple, common sense ideas. Sometimes we think the harder something was to solve, the more successful it will be, but we forget that some of the best things ever created were just based on a common sense thought, or presented an easy solution to a problem.

Especially as a young creative, it's easy to think, “Oh, I don’t know. This just feels too easy.” You might think to yourself, “I’m not creative enough or smart enough for something to be this easy to solve, so I have to think of something mind-blowing.” And then you’re sitting there, banging your head against the wall, and someone will just walk in and say, “Hey, what if we did it like this?” And you think, “Oh that’s so simple. Why didn’t I think of that?” That’s where we get hung up. We try to think on this higher level and the answer is right in front of us. So, I’d say, anything you work on, any brief you’re given, even starting in ad school, think simple.

Finally, I’d add: try to solve a problem for the world. A good example is the Boost Your Voice campaign for Boost Mobile from 180LA. That’s an example of common sense thinking. They weren’t thinking about a print ad or what to put on a 8 ½ by 11 sheet of paper. They were thinking in terms of, “Hey, here’s a real problem.” And then offered a solution. It’s so simple but at the same time the campaign solves a real problem.

I’d say, anything you work on, any brief you’re given, even starting in ad school, think simple.

We're ALl FIguring It out As We Go

My chat with Dan made me realize a few things. For one, I am not the only one with questions. A lot of creatives start this way, and figure things out as they go.

So then, maybe having questions is a good thing, as long we're okay with admitting we may never get all the answers. As Dan said, if we embrace what we don't know, it can be the thing that drives us, rather than that which pulls us down. Let's get comfortable with what we don't know, and be curious enough to figure it out. With that, if I can be so bold as to add to Dan's message, I'll say this: if you have questions, start asking. 

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