For advertising creatives, fear operates at a different register. Not for us the conventional creeps of ghouls, beasts and bogey people. The horror stories that liquify our marrow don’t take place in haunted houses or gloomy forests. They take place in well-lit offices, usually with a complimentary latte at our elbow. And the antagonists in these stories are not there to gobble our brains or guzzle our blood, they are there to tell us what they think of our ideas.
The horror, our horror, is the book crit. Or, at least, it’s what we tell others about our most frightful book crit experiences.
Nowadays, the truly gruesome book crit stories seem tamer, or more obviously embellished, than what they used to be. I can’t think of any young(ish) creative ever telling me about a creative director dunking their book into the nearest bin.
And yet, even without the sort of weight-throwing malice that has either been abandoned – or was always largely apocryphal – young creatives still hold a terror of being told their ideas are not good enough.
Regardless of how you take this news – whether you value the honesty of the feedback, burst into tears, or both – the episode implants in you a powerful new motivation: the ‘fuck you’.
The ‘fuck you’ is not exclusive to advertising. Anyone who has ever been told they are not yet good enough to do what they want to do breathes a glow into this small, internal spark.
A misconception is that the ‘fuck you’ is somehow an act of proving your critics wrong. It isn’t. At its most valuable, the ‘fuck you’ manifests as a determination to show that you can listen, grow, improve and return. A ‘fuck you’ will never drive a bad idea to be seen as a good one, but it will inspire a flawed creative to address those flaws.
You may apply your ‘fuck yous’ liberally and enthusiastically. The creative directors who provide your book crit may warrant a ‘fuck you’. Your creative betters when you land your first real job will regularly earn your ‘fuck yous’. I teach creative advertising at an undergraduate level and I would be dismayed if I thought I was inspiring anything quieter than a symphony of ‘fuck yous’ on a weekly basis.
But really those ‘fuck yous’ are not about the people who have told you to have better ideas. They are a ‘fuck you’ to a snapshot of your creative self – what you can do and what you wish to do in that precise moment.
Even without any sense of indignation or unfairness, you should feel that ‘fuck you’ murmuring every time your creativity falls short. Equally, returning to that same creative director, teacher or employer with a vastly improved set of ideas isn’t your opportunity to show how wrong those people were – it’s where you demonstrate the ability to recognise how wrong you were, and how capable you are of making it right.
There’s an exchange in a Raymond Chandler novel called The Little Sister that perfectly reflects the book crit dynamic – or, rather, the misunderstanding of that dynamic. In it, Marlowe, the private detective, is talking to a police officer, Beifus, about being stabbed with an ice pick by a villain.
‘It could have been a beautiful friendship’ Beifus said with a sigh. ‘Except for the ice pick, of course’.
The people who give you advice, suggestions or even naked criticism about your ideas are not wielding an ice pick. They are simply trying to help you extract one from between your own finger bones.
The ‘fuck you’, then, is ultimately about nothing other than your own determination to be better. If anything, the people who plant these feelings inside of you are, in a way, irrelevant. You have come to them facing in one very particular direction and they have turned you around and sent you back the way you came. Not to close the door and not (hopefully) as part of some weird power perversion. But to fill your creative ambition with the most powerful fuel there is – a tank full of fuck you.