What I Learned in 2014: Tom Scharpf, Creative Director, Venables Bell & Partners

By Egotist / /

Advertising takes up an embarrassing amount of my time, so I suppose there should be things that I learn from it. The fact is that I think I got into this mess because I like to make things. Maybe it’s some attempt to leave some sort of mark or evidence that I lived. A small way to prove that I once existed. Or, perhaps more likely, the things I create act as a sort of bowel movement for my brain. If I don’t keep making things, the plumbing gets a bit backed up in there. And I become irritable.

And yet, in an era when making things has never been easier, it seems that getting clients to buy things has gotten much more difficult.

As you can see in Figure 1, the percentage of time I’ve spent thinking of ideas has gone down in recent years in proportion to the time I’ve spent trying to sell them. (Meanwhile, the time I’ve spent eating cookies has, for the most part, remained constant.)

Which brings me to share what I’ve learned:

The idea is the easiest part.

Anyone can have an idea. Even a great idea. But the real gift, the true gift, is making other people see the strength of your idea. Your partner, your creative director, your account team, your planner, your client, your client’s boss, your client’s employees. The real trick is to be able to look through their eyes, to know their concerns, prejudices and fears, and to eliminate them. Every one of them. When you can convince someone that they’d be stupid not to produce your idea, that’s when you’ve really accomplished something. Until you’ve done that, you may as well have not come up with the idea at all.

Great ideas don’t just happen. There’s not some little fairy that takes a great idea off your page and goes through the trouble of bringing it to life for you. A great idea is brought into this world through sheer tenacity, and usually must overcome a fair amount of fear, apathy and misunderstanding along the way.

I guarantee you that the easiest part of Uber’s success was coming up with the idea. And I imagine there’s a slew of blowhards out there in the world, sitting on a barstool, saying that they had the idea of Uber a long time ago. Here’s the thing though: you don’t get credit for all the ideas you’ve thought of. You get credit for the ideas you’ve actually brought to life.

My point is that not only are ideas easy to come by, but that we tend to spend too much time on this earth deliberating which ideas to bring to life, or worse, wishing they would become real on their own. There’s too much doubt, analysis and handwringing going on. I do it myself in my own life. There is a desire in me to be many things at once. To write more, draw more, play music more, take pictures more. But you can’t live these lives all at once. You have to live them one at a time. When you spend your time wishing you could do them all, or debating which one to do, you end up doing none of them.

So I’m hoping that in 2015 we can all start doing more and deliberating less. (That goes for you too, clients.)

In the end, the goal for an ad should be strangely similar to that of a life. To never be a burden. Nor to be some forgettable, trivial event. But rather, the goal should be to leave a mark, and to be remembered fondly.

But if you want to be remembered, you’ve got to actually make something.


  1. Fatima Silva December 12, 2014

    Love it! and well said Tom!
    Love it! and well said Tom!

  2. Tom Kubik December 12, 2014

    It’s easy to get stuck in the
    It’s easy to get stuck in the hole of looking at creative work, thinking about creative work, talking about creative work. We all just need to get out there and MAKE something. Great article, Tom!

  3. CJ December 13, 2014

    You’re a good man, Tommy.
    You’re a good man, Tommy.

  4. Jeff December 13, 2014

    I couldn’t agree more.

    I couldn’t agree more. I plan on making, and eating, more cookies in 2015!

  5. Matthew Himelstein December 13, 2014

    having gone the startup route
    having gone the startup route as a VB&P alumni, I can attest that there are a slew of ideas out there. But the trick to success isn’t going after them ‘one at a time’ – it’s actually to attack them all as quickly as possible as see what has an immediate response and where.

    Everyone in SF knows why uber succeeded – not being able to get a cab was the norm until it was created. But many new yorkers still question if uber will ever succeed. Same idea – but an immediate response in one market and not in another.

    Uber now does promotions that deliver ice cream and cookies, so I think the orange bar will be increasing slightly one of these days.


  6. Anonymous December 16, 2014

    I have been trying twice a s
    I have been trying twice a s long as you but you said it much better than I could-If cookies are life, keep doing that-
    Bob H.