Marketing Agency Models Brand Strategy

8 lessons marketers can learn from a drag queen turned art director

By Lane Hedler | Art Director

June 2, 2023 | 12 min read

Lane Hedler is an ex-drag queen and a current art director at DDB Chicago. Here, he tells us how selling creative ideas is just like hosting a drag show, but with much more boring outfits.

lane hedler as a drag queen

Hedley, pictured above in drag, says the world of drag and the world of advertising are more similar than you may think. / Credit: DDB Chicago

Wearing a corset and collecting crumpled bills may seem diametrically opposed to sitting behind a computer writing headlines. Ignore the instinct – drag entertainers and ad men are first cousins.

When I landed my junior agency gig, I found myself surrounded by overly-critical, lovable narcissists with a wicked masochistic streak … I knew I was home. I realized very quickly that ad men are drag queens, just in really lackluster clothing.

The knowledge I gleaned during my time as a drag queen wasn’t going to be put to waste. In fact, all I ever really needed to know about advertising I learned while dressed as a woman in the basement of a bar.

Without further ado, here are eight things drag has taught me about advertising.

1. All tea, no shade

Sasha Velour, drag queen and winner of Rupaul’s Drag Race Season 9, describes drag as “radical honesty dramatized by complete over-the-top fantasy.”

Humans can sense truth like a shark can smell a drop of blood a mile away. As humans, I think we are drawn to truth (optimistic, I know).

There is truth at the center of drag, just like there is truth at the center of every good idea. Anything worth making needs truth in it. I think, as advertisers and marketers, we often forget that.

Take an undeniable truth, a hidden truth, a truth so obvious and present in our lives we often forget it’s there and transform it into something beyond recognition. That’s drag. And, that’s why drag will survive. It will survive no matter how much it’s legislated against or used as a political pawn. Queer expression and all its glittering facets will survive – because it’s the truth.

2. Keep it pumping, queen

There’s never enough time; that’s how time works.

Time is the natural enemy of drag queens and creatives alike. Oh, how fast the evening passes when perfecting your makeup. Even then, your eyebrows aren’t sisters, twins or even neighbors. You’re lucky if they’ve even met. When it’s time to leave, there are still 100 things to do and 100 things you wish you had done differently.

So, if time is the perpetual antagonist of creativity, there’s no use fighting it. Keep a level head, wear long bangs and keep it pumping, queen.

3. Be an optimist, dammit

The advertising industry is predicated on death – the death of ideas. Hours of work are hastily nullified and all-nighters are voided by having to redo it all in the morning. Client budgets shrink, client appetites shrink even more and, now, you’re planning a funeral.

Sadly, there’s no swift hand of judgment, nor is the blade of the reaper razor sharp. Ideas die slowly. The best ideas die slowest – first a finger, then an arm, a leg and, finally, a few botched beheadings.

Optimism has to be your superpower.

Sorry, tricking yourself into optimism has to be your superpower. I know asking the advertising set to be optimistic is like asking the sun if it wouldn’t mind being the moon.

But, you have to find some way to keep coming back with a refreshed attitude, unfazed by the latest gory execution. Dwelling on the many losses spoils the few successes.

I’ve lost count of how many nights my heels were two sizes too small, my corset too tight. I’ve had duct tape medically glued to my temples yanking my face so taut it would make a drum set jealous. There’s no shortage of pains to ruin the evening. Every booking poses the question, ’Why the fuck am I doing this?’ But you have to make yourself excited, even when you can’t find the answer.

4. Maintain the magic

Never let them see how the meat is made … or do, but just a little bit. Let them think they are in on a secret when they really aren’t. Arm them with the information they need to look smart in front of their direct reports. But, don’t let them lose the magic of an idea.

When you realize a drag queen is 30% couch cushion, 20% steel-boned corset, 40% duct tape and 10% surgical glue, it all seems a little less special. As a drag queen, I am the worst person to see a show with. There’s a reason magicians don’t reveal their secrets. It’s not because you’re going to steal them. It’s that it ruins the magic for next time.

5. Put on a show…ish

Think of presentations as a performance. I’m not suggesting you bust out the clown makeup…but if you did I would start with Kryolan TV Paintstick in shade 070.

If the client is the audience and you’re the host, it’s imperative to put them at ease and make them feel safe under your care as soon as possible. People can’t be entertained when they don’t feel relaxed or when they fear the captain might sail them into iceberg-infested waters.

Don’t let the stonefacing psych you out – it’s the Botox. They might actually be having a good time! Don’t forget: you set the tone and need to maintain it against all odds. Using non-verbal feedback as fuel will leave you stranded on the side of the road.

Intuit what the client wants. Don’t lip-synch to some mid-tempo swan song to a drunk audience of twos and threes. When you’re depending on someone for cash, it’s best to give them what they want instead of giving yourself what you want.

If you follow your intuition and give them something they weren’t expecting and didn’t know they wanted until now…you’re in the money.

But, don’t lose you. You’re as much of the product as the work you’re selling. Clients want to see you, not some over-caffeinated used-car salesman.

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6. Now, get off the stage

Once it’s sold, get off the f!#*ing stage! The audience may love you, but eight minutes of Britney Spears is enough to turn anyone against you.

People love to chime in during meetings and rephrase what you just said because they fancy themselves more articulate. Once it’s sold, stop selling. Once you’ve made your money, take your padded ass home. You’d rather leave and have them wish you stayed than stay and have them wish you left.

7. Make them eat it

Failure is inevitable. Drag is predicated on the notion of failure. Trying to resist failure is like tensing up in a car crash – you’ll end up breaking more shit.

I’ve learned to fail early and often because nothing facilitates learning like making a complete ass of yourself.

Come up with an idea so wild your team questions why they hired you, watch that idea go down in flames and do it again like nothing happened. Shoot for the moon, land somewhere in Indiana, then shoot again. Like Latrice Royale says, “Fall down. Get back up. Make them eat it.”

8. You’ll come back, they always come back

In science class, you learn that the nature of a gas is that it expands to fill the container it’s given. I know you didn’t pay attention in science class, but, if we are working with that definition, creativity is a gas…a deadly one.

This is definitely true for drag. And every dollar you earn seems to go right back into drag. Instead of a closet filled with normal things like spare linens for impromptu house guests and half-broken appliances, your closet overflows with expensive wigs pinned to cheap Styrofoam heads and faux furs that you’ve Febreezed to cover the odor of cheap faux fur.

You go to sleep thinking about what the next outfit will be, or the next campaign, and how will I sell this spot to the client? You wake up thinking about it. Is this healthy? It’s not, according to my therapist.

No matter how many times I say I’ll quit – quit to work client-side, quit to work at a small shop, quit to work at a fucking hot dog stand ... I can’t. I don’t think I would be able to bring myself to do that. Advertising may be a honey trap, but, hey, there’s honey.

I look around at the communist-gray-colored walls of the office, look at my colleagues who have become family, reminisce on all of our sparkling successes and spectacular failures and I can’t help but wonder … where else would the freaks go?

In closing, some a la carte musings:

  • If you don’t look back at your old work and cringe, you’re doing it wrong.

  • The dumber you feel, the better you look.

  • If you’re going to be a bitch, be a talented bitch.

  • Use more glue than you think you need.

  • Nothing looks good until the last minute. Until you put an eyelash on, you’re going to look like an over-painted brick.

  • Whatever the wig budget is, double it. Then, double that.

Lane Hedler is an art director at DDB Chicago. During his first few years in the industry, he has received accolades from Cannes Lions Festival for Creativity, D&AD, The One Club, The Clio Awards, The Andys as well as the Art Directors Club for his work on Coors Light Chillboards and Miller Lite Beer Drops.

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