‘It's all personal, all of the time’: Beyond the Brief with Norm Shearer, Cactus

Norm Shearer, Cactus

To celebrate its 100th anniversary, the 4A’s has partnered with The Drum to pull back the curtain and look at an industry full of problem solvers, creative types and analytical minds. But what keeps them going once the briefs are written, the campaigns executed, and the pitches won (or lost)?

The Drum is now interviewing 100 people at 4A’s member agencies — across all disciplines, levels, regions, and agency types — to get a glimpse into what drives them at work and what fuels them in life.

Norm Shearer is partner and chief creative officer at Cactus, an advertising agency founded in 1990 in Denver, Colorado. According to Shearer, he won an 7th grade art contest with a drawing of an X-Wing fighter. Since that experience, Shearer said he has had a passion for design, the power of creative thinking and hard work.

As a graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder and the Art Center College of Design, Norm holds degrees from two creative advertising programs. He’s also served as an adjunct professor of advertising, design and digital at his alma mater, CU Boulder.

Shearer’s passion for good and creative advertising, in addition to give back, shows how he is living beyond the brief.

How do you explain to your parents or children what you do for a living?

My mom totally got it. Thanks, mom. But my dad wasn't as easy. He's a retired banker. He still gives me crap for wearing jeans and t-shirts to work. It's really cute. Love ya, dad.

Who or what influenced you to get into advertising?

Brett Robbs. One of my first teachers at CU, and today a great friend. Brett tossed out the text book on day one. He wore crazy psychedelic colored ties and black jeans. He read poetry and showed us art films. We talked about life and ideas and thought process, not course-work or assignments... After that semester, I was on fire with inspiration. I said to myself, "Whaaat?! I gotta get into this creativity and design thing immediately."

I had no clue you could make a nice living thinking of business problems that way. Brett taught me how to think and live a creative life, not just a career.

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned in your advertising career?

It took a while, but to have standards. Standards for the types of clients we'd take on, the type of partners we'd work with, and the type of work we are happy doing. No regrets on how I spent my early years.

It helped me learn. But now, I know the boundaries and standards that work for me and have gravity toward success and happiness for myself, my team and my business partner.

What’s a virtue that you live by?

"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." — Philo

What is a guilty pleasure/vice you can’t go without?

Really, really good coffee. A chocolate raised donut from voodoo. Good coffee and a Voodoo donut at the same time.

Is work too personal or not personal enough at times? Why is that?

I promise this to be my only soap box moment. But it's all personal, all of the time. At least for me and my fellow Cacti. We make art on behalf of our clients. And great gestures, well crafted, executed at the highest level of thoughtfulness — it's gonna get personal. You can argue all you want that advertising and design is not art, that it's fragmented by commerce, and the process, and the client. You might argue that advertising and design may be "artistic", but not "art".

Well, not for us.

We see ourselves as pioneers, poets, engineers and painters all Frankesteined together into one beautiful mess. We are pranksters who toy with pop culture and daring rebels of social norms. We use culture, metaphors, language and symbols to form powerful ideas. Ideas for good. We help grow brands that help people thrive. And at the core of it, we use art and the power of art to connect with people in meaningful and human ways.

OK, all done. Soap box, over. Can we got back to the coffee and donut thing?

To pitch someone from a 4A's member agency for Beyond the Brief, please complete this linked form.

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Haley Velasco

Haley Velasco is a writer based in Chicago, IL, who has a background in PR for a sports media company and has reported on a variety of topics, including sports, opinion, politics and celebrity news. Based in the Windy City, she covers industry happenings in the Midwest and throughout North America. She has been reporting for The Drum since May 2016.

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