Compromise Kills

There’s evil in our midst. An evil I, and most of my peers in this business, know all too well.

Compromise is the way of the world, and totally unavoidable in many circumstances. Begrudingly, I’ve learned to accept this fact of life. But I also know what a destructive force it can become. If you let it, compromise will eat you alive, cell-by-cell until there’s no you left, just a vacant shell that looks like you.

In the political arena, Bill Clinton gave compromise a decent name. He had to get things done, one way or another. So he moved his party to a centrist position in an already stifling corporate atmosphere. The nation may, or may not, recover from his practical approach.

On the environmental front, compromise leads to all sorts of compound problems. For instance, otherwise sane people are currently arguing for more nuclear power and the use of clean coal (an oxymoron, if there ever was one). I don’t believe we can stand much more compromise when it comes to the health of our planet.

In the ad industry, where client-service–not content, nor concept–is king, we eat compromise for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And snack on it too. We are so full of compromise that it’s no longer separate from us, it is us.

So what’s the solution? The best answer is don’t do it. Don’t compromise. Stick to your guns at all costs, even if it means pissing people off and being labeled “hard to work with.” I’ve been stuck with that label from the beginning of my ad career and I don’t imagine it’s going to vanish anytime soon. Not because I like the label. I don’t. But I live with it because it’s better than the self-inflicted punishment that comes with compromise.

Fact is, I need to take my own advice, for I compromise way more often than I’m comfortable with. Which is what leads me to air this out in a post. I don’t want to lose my creative soul to this business. I don’t want to diminish my vision or sacrifice the work, just because that’s the path of least resistance. I feel weak when that happens. And I don’t want to feel that way.

I’d love to hear from you on this. What have you compromised in order to make a paycheck? And what do you do to rid the toxic residue from your psyche?

About David Burn

Co-founder and editor of AdPulp. I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. I worked for seven agencies in five states before launching my own practice in 2009. Today, I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.


  1. The great compromiser says:

    Funny, I used to see things in black and white and thought it a strength. As I aged the shades become more lucid and the issues nuanced. And what I thought was strength now seems to have really just been a mask for my youthful ignorance. Perhaps I should try another business?

  2. Interesting post, and I really feel the struggle in your words. What I myself have tried to do is evaluate the client before taking an assignment. I freelance for the most part and I understand it’s difficult if not impossible for fulltimers to do this. I judge the past work of the client and decide before joining if I think I’ll end up compromising and ultimately creating bullshit. If you’re fulltime take a light hearted, laid back approach. Joke around in meetings and toss some shit out there just to gage feelings. Life’s too short to stress ads. In the end if you’re producing work you can’t stand by then yes I say sacrifice the check. Every creative in the industry makes enough to buy their own freedom and sanity every so often.

  3. Dale S. says:

    When it comes to the act of creation, I wholeheartedly agree. Don’t lower your standards, don’t accept mediocrity from yourself or your planners or your partners. Do the best work, and hustle to sell it. Short term battles will pave the way for a stronger, longer career.
    The last part reads “sell it” for a reason. We are not artists, ultimately. We are salesmen. *Commissioned* salesmen, on someone else’s dime. At what point would you refuse to compromise with a client? Up to the point of dismissal? What good does that do — you or them?
    Not only does it hurt your bottom line, it also sends the message that you presume yourself infallible. I wouldn’t for a minute suggest you go willy-nilly with the starbursts and snipes, and add a subhead and cast a supermodel … but I *have* learned, over the last couple of decades, that my way isn’t always the only way. Hell, for all we know, the Mona Lisa was first painted with blue eyes and seated in front of a pier, and someone said “Tuscan hillside, hazel eyes. Now.”
    Fact is, many an ad to sell many a widget, or to show up in an annual, actually wasn’t hurt by the client’s request to explore options.
    I guess I’d just add to your post by reminding younger creatives that there is a huge difference between compromising your solution (permitted) vs. compromising your standards (bleak).
    My 2¢.

  4. @Dale – In the ad industry, where client-service–not content, nor concept–is king, compromise is unavoidable. Because it’s the client’s money and ultimately we are their servants. That’s the set up. I don’t care how creative you, or your shop is, you’re going to be asked to to do things against your will.
    Bob Dylan said it best:

    You may be an ambassador to England or France,
    You may like to gamble, you might like to dance,
    You may be the heavyweight champion of the world,
    You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls
    But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

  5. Dale S. says:

    “I don’t care how creative you, or your shop is, you’re going to be asked to to do things against your will.”
    Yep. The good ones know how to receive those “things” and, hopefully, come back with great solutions. Alternate options. “Third ways” that work just as well –- sometimes [gasp], maybe even work better.
    They also know that sometimes, you just have to choose your battles.

  6. @Dale – I’m fine with “choose your battles,” as long as those three words don’t become a crutch. That is, eventually one actually has to choose a battle.

  7. Burner,
    Reading this post transported me back in time to our lunch conversations over burgers and gyros when we were both inmates on Cell Block I, ranting and raving about clueless account people and spineless CDs. Do what you can to keep the fire burning, brother. That’s why you’re a great guy. Nearing my 3 year mark freelancing, I’ve found the idea of compromise much easier to deal with than back in agency life. But I never want to get too used to the feeling. The cool thing about freelancing is if a project or client becomes too much of that, I suck it up for the near term (I do still want them to be happy with the product they receive) and at the same time start strategizing on ways to replace that client. The goal is to keep things cool with those types on the surface and not tell them my true feelings, but evolve my business to the point where I can deliver really high bids if they call me. Then either I’m too expensive and don’t get the job or I get the job, get really annoyed, but get payed well for the annoyance.
    All of this was a long-winded way of saying Burner, you rock man. Do what you can.

  8. Thanks Chris. Freelance is certainly a tempting way to go.
    Time for some more lyrical inspiration:

    Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose

  9. Nothing gets done without collaboration.
    If collaboration turns to bad compromise, then it’s up to you whether to swallow and smile or walk away.
    But the minute we start to believe we are infallible we stop learning and then we are really screwed