The Soon-To-Be-Former-Sycophant

I typically dedicate this blog to the celebration of existing or rising hyphenates. In this case I want to use all my limited powers of persuasion to inspire a new one.

The Soon-to-Be-Former-Sycophant.

Obviously, we’re all pretty disgusted by the sort of sleazery and misogyny we’ve seen coming out of the Weinstein case. Men of power who think they don’t have to live by the normal, civilized rules of society. There are people just like this in every sector of public life. Politics (obviously, famously), sports, business, music, film, advertising, even the medical or military worlds. Overall they’re a minority, yes. But, these predators are out there. Doing their thing right now. Imposing themselves on the less powerful of all ages and genders. Sometimes it is sexual. Other times it is simple dehumanization—treating others like pets or furniture. How are these remorseless pigs created? Some were raised that way in ugly Darwinian-based households. But, I have a theory on the rest.

Without a doubt, these modern-day Caligulas hold most of the blame for their actions. They’re indefensible. But, behind every abuser is a battalion of sycophants. And the next rung down is an even larger army of worshipers. The press. And all of us in the fanbase. You see, the strange irony is that here in America we love to chide the British for their Royal Family and the near-dei-fication and worship of certain people over others. The idolization of powerful personalities, classes and bloodlines runs deep. Supposedly, American culture is more of a level playing field though, right? A meritocracy where all people are created equal? Well, yes and no.

Sure, we have plenty of rags-to-riches stories here. But, the truth is, we Americans still love to thrust people onto pedestals as well. We rally around those with money, celebrity, charisma, talent, success, looks, domineering personalities, physical prowess, notoriety as well as notoriousness and treat them like demi-gods. And our culture collaborates by hoisting them up into near mythical status by endowing them with unimaginable power. With almost no accountability. Then, they surround themselves with Sycophants who attend to their every need, laugh at every little joke, pump them up with praise, tell them they’re special--even infallible--and look the other way when they act like old-world Sheiks. Just watch any episode of HBO’s “Entourage”—basically a 16-year-old boy’s vision of what “making it” in America looks like. The theme is Success = Pussy.

And I venture to guess that more men laughed and elbowed each other in the ribs during the wildest, most ribald scenes in “The Wolf of Wall Street” than cringed or considered it a cautionary tale. Because, sadly (very sadly) we expect this of our most powerful. It’s the stuff of legend. And people like Weinstein and Trump whisper in private that this is how all civilizations have conducted themselves for eons. “To the rich go the spoils”, they chuckle. The “spoils” being, getting to do whatever the fuck you want to whoever you want. “They’ll let you do it!” was Trump’s other most infamous hot mic line. While Sycophants look the other way. Or worse yet, corral young girls into hotel rooms and then magically melt away. Or cover the abusers’ asses by making conciliatory phone calls, threats or installment payments.

While there have been high profile cases of Senators and their pages, Presidents and interns, CEOs and secretaries, Guitarists and groupies or Athletes and fangirls--Hollywood—in all its liberal glory—has probably been ground zero for this phenomenon more than anywhere else. Hollywood seems to be the mecca of sycophants—those who hope to cling to these demi-gods and parlay that job into their own creative ascension. Nearly every creative force in Hollywood is a magnet for these barnacles. One cannot blame the attraction. But one can most certainly hate the impending result. Worship. Unchallenged allegiance. Blind obedience to people who happen to possess uncanny talent. Or a list of credits. Or gold statuettes. Or a budget to exploit. Firsthand, I have seen this both imposed and willingly lapped up to varying degrees and it is one of the most disgusting human displays of inauthenticity you can imagine.

Respect, reverence and admiration are one thing. But, it is this army of morally-ambiguous and desperately ambitious Sycophants who are the answer to the moral blight we face. They alone face the choice of digging deep, finding their souls, containing these monsters, curbing their impulses or…sharing the blame. When Donald says, “Watch me grab this pussy”, they need to say “To hell with your loyalty pledge”. When Harvey mutters he wants to corner a girl in a hallway and masturbate into a potted plant, they need to look him in the eye and say “Get some help”. When some musician or athlete or corporate douchebag says “This is just how things are”, someone in their entourage needs to step in the way and say “You do not get to be alone with her”. No matter how close to the sun that young girl wants to fly.

Because Moms and Dads, brothers and sisters and good honest cops can’t be everywhere all the time. In the same way that General Kelly and General McMaster are supposedly “separating us from the chaos” (i.e., President CheetoHead from the nuclear football), the everyday Sycophant (malignantly-ambitious Hollywood assistant) needs to shed his/her team uniform and step the…hell…up. Because a Sycophant is like kindling for that fire known as abuse. The abuser thrives on their winks, giggles, high-fives, knowing nods or silence.

Well, we know who you are, Sycophants. We know where you work. We know what your job titles are. We know there is no union for Sycophants. And we know you probably don’t have the money for an army of high-powered attorneys. So, you need to seize this chance to rehabilitate. Now.

I call for the extinction of the Great American Sycophant.

This sub textual job title needs to disappear. Like, yesterday. Only then, maybe—just maybe—those empathy-challenged abusers will realize that “power” can still bring them plenty of creative autonomy or business innovation or standing ovations or your name on a building or political self-determination or personal wealth or even mind-blowing personal fulfillment. But…not without following the rules of civilized behavior. That shit will not stand.

No winks. No nods. No elbow to the ribs. No giggling in the motorhome. No plausible deniability. No hush money. No semi-circle of exorbitantly-paid lawyers providing cover for some Sodom and Gomorrah tribute party. The Soon-To-Be-former-Sycophant—if he/she can conjure the balls—just might be a cure for all of that. They could be behind-the-scenes Hollywood heroes in all this. Like those valiant Production Designers. Script Supervisors. Best Boys. Colorists. Or a thousand other unsung heroes. By simply refusing to play the game. The Soon-To-Be-Former-Sycophants can decide as a matter of honor to lock arms and be the firewall for abuse. This is more than possible. It’s ridiculously necessary.

We’ve all driven through neighborhoods with lawn signs that read, “Drive like your children live here”. And like you, I do think twice and I do slow down.

Well, maybe we need a sign in every corporate break room, every locker room, every talent agency, every backstage green room, every law firm, every publicist firm, every motion picture studio, every production company, every advertising agency, every Senate chamber and every C-level washroom that simply reads, “Conduct yourself like your daughter or your sister works here”.

And then, watch the soul of the Sycophant be the next Great American Comeback story.

For Your Consideration

Well, it is officially award season. And I don’t just mean the ad industry shows like The One Show or D&AD that have recently clogged your mailroom with exceedingly creative entry forms. The boozy, schmoozy Golden Globes took place this month, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (Oscars) just unveiled their nominees this week and the Independent Spirit Awards are about to happen in a big tent in Santa Monica somewhere.

What these shows represent is more than self-love, political correctness, fair-weather topicality or the blinding glamour of an $800,000 dress. They represent respect. Respect for artistry and achievement. ‘Achievement’ meaning the ability to become a part of cultural conversation by applying that artistry to the timeless museum we call “the screen”. Agree or disagree with the nominees, these ‘best of the best’ are proof that a killer story in your head can be more than a killer story in your head. They’re proof that--with the right cocktail of creativity, dogged perseverance, money(!) and the right band of allies—that story in your head can grow up to be crowd-pleasing, insight-blooming, tear-jerking, gut-busting, culture-shaping, peer-worshipping realizations. They are proof of the universality of a story well told.

That’s why I watch them. To see great stories (not bejeweled human beings) get their just rewards.

The best of the best stories in film, television (and even advertising) help all of us in ways we rarely ever acknowledge. They give us a common reference point for life. They allow us to feel like we’re not alone in our experiences. They---like every form of storytelling going back to the ancient Greeks—help us to make sense of the world around us. Even if you’ve never mentally or physically experienced what a character experiences in a great story, you still take away from it common emotions. When you love a bit of storytelling or feel like a narrative really resonates with you yet cannot quite put your finger on why (because we’re not all the late Roger Ebert, after all) that is the power of insight working on you. You feel a distinct connection in the way of subtext or theme or metaphor or the choices a character makes. The things that cause you to walk away saying “Man, that was powerful”.

Here’s the part I offer For Your Consideration: More and more of these great stories are being told by those immersive compulsives who are determined to put their busy hands on all aspects of the tale. Hyphenates. They tend to have a deeper connection to those characters because they actually dreamt them up or embodied them from inception to completion. As Writer-Directors or Actor-Directors they understand how to chronicle their characters’ internal and external experiences through artful coverage because they carefully crafted the action description and have an innate sense for what the emotional impact of a scene should be. They think about casting and location as they write. They dream about the edit as they shoot. Rather than pretentious, self-indulgent auteurs, these folks are simply “fully vested” --as your HR person or broker is so apt to say.

Just look at the examples of fantastic Hyphenate-ology we’ve been treated to this past year.

Damien Chazelle for “La La Land”. I’m not here to tell you that you have to love this film. But you have to acknowledge it is a pretty amazing piece of filmmaking. Beyond all the calculated hype about how “arduous” it was to get a modern day musical made (about the cute, quirky Hollywood lifestyle of two Caucasian, adorable A-list stars directed by a guy coming off a huge Oscar favorite like “Whiplash”), I still think Writer-Director Chazelle’s achievement is pretty stunning in that so much of the action in scenes was absolutely interdependent with technique. None of the bigger dance-set pieces would’ve worked had Chazelle not been determined to deliver them in single takes which in turns implies the universality of the LA experience. I’m betting that technique was scripted long before the shooting boards were rendered. And this surface level story packed in tons of great other insights that even a mail carrier in Marfa, Texas could relate to. It was about dreams. It was about the dueling pace of relationships. It was about allegiance to your own sense of destiny. And it was about bullshit, believe it or not. Hollywood bullshit. Which LA is the galactic epicenter of. These are notions we’ve all bumped up against in our lives.

Kenneth Lonergan for “Manchester by the Sea”. This is such a highly internalized story that it’s really tough to imagine anyone other than the screenwriter directing it. In fact, I’m willing to bet that--on paper—Lonergan’s script of an emotionally-wounded janitor suddenly confronted with custody of his teenage nephew--is really quite a dry read. But, on film, it really hits you in the gut. Because just as much is revealed in the long, awkward, silent moments between dialogue as in the brief explosive moments with words and action. Casey Affleck’s character has such a self-imposed numbness that the film really maneuvers you into imagining his anguish while still dancing humor on the head of pin. That’s a dimension of filmmaking that might feel throwaway but which I have to believe was painstakingly choreographed into the shooting of this story. I suspect Casey Affleck will continue to be awarded most of the credit, but Lonergan was clearly the architect and the builder.

Ted Melfi for “Hidden Figures”. Melfi wasn’t even alive yet when these three unsung African American women made their contributions to the space program. That—or sensing the potential skepticism of a 2016 audience--might have been the impetus for him to dedicate so much research (according to trade press lore) to the accuracy of the story and the little details. It seems he went out of his way to make sure to scrub out all the hyperbole and leave the goosebumps to Pharrell’s soundtrack. This isn’t to say the story did not get the Hollywood treatment. It clearly did. But much of that was in the actual marketing of the film and in the tone, not the mechanics of the story itself. You don’t have to be African American or female or a genius or even versed in science to walk away with a sense of belonging in this story. All you have to understand is the experience of being told you cannot do something when you know damn well you can. You ever been there? I have.

Barry Jenkins for “Moonlight”. Empathy, complexity, point of view.. I didn’t love every little thing about this film but I did love the iron grip Jenkins had on those three things. This has been a year of particularly complex characters and the lead character here stands as a prime example. Have you ever known what it was like to feel an ocean between you and the ability to love or be loved? Boom.

Kelly Freemon Craig for “The Edge of Seventeen”. Even the most resonant stories still tend to get channeled through an audience’s own personal spectrum and life experiences. And part of those life experiences actually happen to be the previous films we’ve consumed. This teen-angst genre is such a well-worn one but Craig was able to navigate it with particular freshness, avoiding clichés like traffic cones. I’ve often said in creative meetings that a fresh insight can be defined as something that many people are thinking but few/if any have ever articulated (yet). I have to believe that Writer-Director Craig’s steady, unflinching hands were responsible for that.

Denzel Washington for “Fences”. If you have any doubt that Actor-Director Washington totally nailed an inside-out, outside-in perspective on this highly complex character that speaks to damn near anybody with a head and a heart, then I don’t really know what to tell you.

Of course there are scores of amazing screenwriters who never direct and mind-blowing directors who never write (much) and an ocean of actors who never direct. They are--without a doubt--accomplished, enviable storytellers in their own ways.

But, there is a very special place in my heart for those who throw their arms and mind around a story and don’t let go until they are convinced that every audience member has had the chance to feel or experience what these complex characters felt or experienced. Even if that audience may never articulate back the full intent, theme, symbolism or subtext to a focus group or in some ‘man-on-the-street’ promo ad, at least Writer-Directors have the satisfaction of knowing they left everything on the field.  They are essentially “authors” --who did not put down (or pick up) the pen after Chapter 3. The next time you hear the term “Writer-Director” in any medium, I sincerely hope you think about him or her in those terms.

Lastly….

Meryl Streep for her role as Actress-National Conscience. Streep brilliantly couched her outrage within the confines of “performance”. By calling out the “stunning and breathtaking performance” delivered by an unnamed candidate who physically mocked the special needs of a reporter, it was like calling out Sean Penn for “I am Sam” if he had waltzed into that role armed only with malice. After all, Trump was essentially acting. And remember, acting and storytelling are supposed to consummate expressions of empathy. So—as the greatest living actor on Earth--she is absolutely, 1000% qualified to judge him or anyone else on this basis.

Tip o’ both hats to Meryl.

Let’s see now if the Commander-in-Chief’s deep-black-void-where-his-empathy-ought-to-be lands him a Golden Raspberry this year--a dubious achievement award typically reserved for the tone deaf and miscast who should’ve never been let out of hair and makeup.

The Art of the Hyphen

Every month, some conference, roundtable, festival interview or trade column presents another “thought leader” offering a jargon-infested declaration stating that whatever you currently accept as normal is dead now.

The AOR is dead. The 30-second spot is dead. Creative Departments are dead. The commercial production company is dead. Print and radio are dead. Storytelling is dead. Your marketing model is dead. All soon to be replaced by whatever the heck that particular pundit is currently schilling.

I know it’s a sexy, ballsy way to make your case but F all the DOA. Are you really adding something? This is people’s livelihoods you’re talking about.

We all know that every production company, every Agency Producer and every Cost Consultant is now muttering the same nervous refrain that “Clients are expecting $800,000 in production for $200,000. And somebody is going to find a way to give it to them”. 

Yep.  But, rather than an ominous death knell, some very interesting “somebodies” are being born into the world of content creation.

Brands now have a literal Cheesecake Factory-sized menu of ways to get stuff made. Which I think is fantastic. The more ways brands have to make things, the less excuse any of us has for turning out crappy content.

Consolidation seems to be the skeleton key. Production companies bringing on creative teams. Agencies bringing directors and editors in-house. Brand consultancies hiring producers. PR firms now producing broadcast content. Strategic consultancies taking on execution. Experiential marketers creating films. Whoever has a storytelling capacity is out there telling them. Often, these multi-skillsets reside under one skull. Meaning, specialization has become considerably less special.

I call it The Art of the Hyphen.

The Art of the Hyphen is the ability to do more than one thing—at a high level. And this meta-model is emerging fast. Just look at today’s younger agency creatives. They don’t sit around waiting for someone to anoint them or hand them new titles. They learn more than one discipline, grab the ball and run. The Writer-Producer. Planner-Art Director. Designer-developer. Director-Cinematographer. Writer-Director. CCO-CEO. The list goes on. This is not where things are going. This is where things are. Rather than aspirational, it is head-slappingly practical. And it makes me very, very happy.

I began my career as a copywriter with a film degree in hand. I wanted to write, direct, edit, finish and launch content. This was my training. And the advertising portfolio sequence I completed helped me synthesize brand stewardship into the mix.

But, the second I arrived at an agency, the cubicle walls shot skyward. No copywriter could direct. An art director could not write.  No creative below a CD level could speak to clients.  Directors could never engage a client or help in creative development. And CDs, GCDs and ECDs needed to brush their innate talents aside and relegate themselves to oversight. We were expected to be multimedia but never multi-disciplinary. Trans-genre but never trans-skillset. These were the same years in which Quentin Tarantino wrote-directed-produced-starred in “Reservoir Dogs”, for crying out loud! I could not understand why so few people in the brand world looked at storytelling holistically.

In the entertainment business the Writer-Director has long been the darling of every Oscar, Emmy, Golden Globe and Independent Spirit Award ceremony. From Wes Andersen to Spike Jonze to Nora Ephron to Spike Lee to Alfonso Cuaron to scores of other Hyphenates, the evidence clearly indicates that, In the right hands, this model really, really, really works.

And, in this new Platinum Age of Television, the Showrunner is a Swiss Army Knife of a creative mind that juggles writing, directing, producing, executive producing, story breaking, postproduction supervision and studio relations while being the literal face of his/her show in the trade press. Weekly. Did he/she just stumble into the deep end of the pool? Or did the culture of that business invite them there? I think we all know the answer to that. 

They’re mutants, these people. X Men. X Women. They re-constitute fear into a singular, cohesive vision with a steady pair of hands that does not accept that awkward baton pass between thinker and maker. They represent efficiency without compromise. Passion over timidity. Accountability not land grab. 

These entertainment world Hyphenates create the very pop culture resonance we Ad people dream about. Why else would we keep trying to lure them into directing branded content? To help them pay for a new boat? Hell, I hope not. I think--in our gut--we’ve always trusted big-brained, clear-eyed, committed, accountable, end-to-end storytelling.

We innately believe in The Art of the Hyphen. Yet we are late-ass adopters.

The hyphen is not merely a slice of punctuation. It is a powerful demonstration of 21st century, badass can-do-ness. It is weapons-grade aptitude. Admittedly, it may not be for everybody and no one is telling you that you’re extinct without two hats. There’s great honor in dedicating yourself to refining a singular craft, collaborating with others or inviting a fresh pair of eyes and ears to something.

But the hyphen is accountability dialed up to 11. And, in this hyper-competitive, blame-rich industry, it’s unquestionably wise to be 200% competent. Call it future-proofing if you want.

When you become a Hyphenate—and I mean the real deal—you aren’t just adding a title. You’re eliminating a line item in the budget. The prolonged partner search. The extra week of production. The question mark. The buck to pass. The excuse for failure. And you’re adding value. Because, let’s face it: Sometimes that baton can become a hand grenade.

One of the best reasons to earnestly Hyphenate is that it helps you to understand the challenge and craft of those you’re currently collaborating with. Empathy is a massive part of the creative process.

In the same way that our brothers and sisters in Hollywood, Burbank, Park City and Tribeca have road-tested this notion, the ad world Hyphenate can be that faster-leaner-nimbler-no compromise option as well. And, let’s not forget that those “YouTube Influencers” your clients are salivating over are all Hyphenates too.

Lurking in the shadows of skepticism, these X Men and X Women and trans-creatives are in our midst now, dying to stretch their legs, pull one hand out from behind their backs and fulfill a creative vision. Let’s let them.

The Art of the Hyphen isn’t about slapping a DOA on the toe of the old way. And it’s not about self-aggrandizement, seeking extra credit or bragging rights. A truly dedicated and qualified Hyphenate is about story, not glory.

Hyphenation is happening, folks. You are wise to happen along with it. But, does it mean something else must be pronounced dead?

Honestly, I’d love to proclaim that fear, waste, obsolescence and the old “church and state” model are quickly going the way of a parrot in a classic Monty Python sketch.

Rung down the curtain and joining the choir invisible”.

Or, “Ceasing...to…be”.

 

Tim Roper is a 20-year agency veteran who is now the Founder-Creative Director and Lead Writer-Director at F. Yeah & Associates, a branded Content Engine that is home to Writers, Directors and--you guessed it--Writer-Directors.