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I took the first-ever MasterClass in advertising. Here’s what I learned

In a few hours, the founders of award-winning agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners outline their prescription for successful brand creativity.

I took the first-ever MasterClass in advertising. Here’s what I learned
[Photo: courtesy of MasterClass; BMW; E-Trade; Sega; Cheetos]

Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein have not only won every major advertising award ever invented, but more importantly (especially for their clients) they’ve made ads that have become a part of pop culture. Got milk? That’s them. The Sega scream? Yep. The E-Trade Super Bowl monkey? Uh-huh. Budweiser’s talking lizards? Indeed. This year’s big game Doritos dance-off between Lil Nas X and Sam Elliott? Also them.

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Their MasterClass, the first from anyone in the business, is pitched as a behind-the-scenes look at their creative process, a breakdown of some of their best work, a deep dive into working at an agency, and a perspective on how to look at the world through a creative lens. The result is basically as advertised! If advertising has a reputation for the sleazier aspects of its trade, Goodby and Silverstein come off as the kooky, nice uncles of Adland. Silverstein, the designer, is a ball of barely contained energy, while Goodby, the copywriter, is all long-haired, Birkenstocked chill.

They don’t get into some of the broader shifting landscapes in their industry, avoiding holding companies versus independent agencies, consultancies, and in-house brand competition, in favor of setting a general tone and approach for the job at hand of making brand communication. It’s an optimistic antidote (or smokescreen) to the levels of panic, paranoia, and politics around job security and industry volatility regularly on display in the steady flow of trade news reporting layoffs and major account changes. This is more like a history lesson combined with a pep talk from two guys who’ve built a career and business on being creative thinkers open to new ideas. They know they’re not curing cancer or working the salt mines and have fun accordingly, and they seem genuinely interested in making ads that don’t suck.

Here are the four most interesting things I learned:

Denial might be a job requirement

If you hang around the advertising industry enough you’ll hear it. Ad agencies claiming they aren’t ad agencies but creative shops, culture communication firms, and any other name they can pass off without expressly referencing their prime reason for existence. Same can be said for the people in advertising: They’re creatives, filmmakers, artists, musicians . . . anything but advertising folk. This cliché doesn’t stop here. In the first lesson, Silverstein describes advertising as art serving capitalism.”We want to be artists in a business world,” he says. And Goodby follows that up with, “We try to make things that aren’t advertising.”

But of course, it’s all advertising.

In later lessons, Goodby acknowledges the identity crisis: “Advertising people have a built-in feeling of guilt about what they do on a daily basis.” While Silverstein says, “It’s not an advertising agency, it’s about how do we communicate to people?”

The entire MasterClass addresses that very question, and turns out the answer is . . . through advertising.

Ad Agency Work 101

For students, the Adland curious, or really anyone interested in how the bajillions of ads we see start out, between the videos and accompanied workbook Goodby and Silverstein actually delve beneath the surface and diagram out things like the taxonomy of an ad agency, breaking down the responsibilities, expectations, and roles across all the major departments: creative, strategy, production, accounts, and culture.

Specific instructions include How To Tell a Story in 30 Seconds. Step 1: Start with the ending, so you know where you’re going. Step 2: Plan everything down to the second. Step 3: Diagram it.

On that last one, Goodby adapts his diagramming technique for his current employees working in the digital age, making a hand-drawn iPhone movie version that ends with the message, “Please learn how to make iPhone movies like this one that will tell you whether your film makes any sense and is actually 30 fucking seconds long . . . . This film was exactly 60 seconds long.”

Even founders get their hands dirty

Given their stature within the ad industry, you wouldn’t expect that these guys need to hustle for new business. But advertising is a nomadic field, with both employees and accounts moving around like chess pieces on a branded board. The lessons go to lengths to show both founders deeply involved in the process of making the work, whether through small video clips of office conversations or breaking down specific campaigns new and old.

But one anecdote stuck out.

Back in 2018, the agency was awarded creative account duties for BMW. But that win began when Goodby flew down to an event at Pebble Beach, somehow wrangled himself a press pass, then just happened to bump into the carmaker’s head of marketing. That move is what got the agency in the room to pitch.

This is all a commercial

If the ad industry needed an ad for kids to consider it for a career, they need look no further than No. 2 of Goodby’s Rules for Creative Vandalism.

“Part of your job is to not do your job: If you, like Jeff, are a writer, you’re going to do a lot of writing. But if you don’t have a boots-on-the-ground mentality—meaning you don’t get out of your cubicle, experience the world, and take the time to refuel your cultural curiosity—you’re going to run out of things to write about. So it’s important to take the time to surf the internet, see movies, travel to foreign lands, and get beat up at punk shows. It may sound crazy, and good luck ever explaining it to your parents, but living your life is as much of your job as your craft.”

It’s also worth reiterating Goodby’s last words in the class workbook, as it can apply to both anyone making ads, but also the brands themselves in how they approach, hire, and approve ideas.

“You’re selling stuff, of course. But in the end, you want to be remembered for things that are human. You want to be remembered for things that are funny and beautiful. You don’t want to be remembered for numbers. . . . If you are appreciating the things around you and communicating that to people, people will listen to you. They’ll care about what you say.”

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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