The Brave Men Of 706 Union Avenue

I saw Walk The Line today, the film about Johnny Cash and June Carter. There was one poignant scene early in the film that I’d like to discuss. After happening upon a session with Elvis at Sun Records in Memphis, Cash came back around and asked Sam Phillips for an audition. At the audition, Cash and his two cohorts–Marshall Grant on bass and Luther Perkins on electric guitar–offered Phillips their best gospel song, but Phillips was underwhelmed. Cash asked Phillips what was the matter. Phillips said, “I don’t believe you.”
He then challenged Cash to offer something real, something truly original. He asked Cash what he would sing if he were hit by a bus and had but one song to sing before he died. Cash responded with a song he’d written in the Air Force, Folsom Prison Blues. The rest is, as they say, history.
Cash came in to his audition with a sound he thought would sell. That’s what ad people do everyday. We’re conditioned to bring to the table what we think the client (not the customer) will buy. Over and over and over again, we willingly dumb ourselves down. In order to sell. Unless there’s a Sam Phillips in the room, these half-hearted efforts go forward and weak communications result.
There is only one way advertising is ever going to improve and truly reach people. We need to care more about pleasing the customer and ourselves than pleasing the client. Kirshenbaum and Bond talk all about this approach to the work in their seminal book, Under the Radar. A few visionary (and ballsy) people practice this art. Everyone else tries to please the client, for clients pay the bills. The great majority, therefore, are driven not by the desire to connect, but by fear of rejection. I, for one, am disgusted by this formula. Yet there seems to be no way out. Unless you’re entire team is on board with pleasing the customer first and the client second, business as usual takes the day.



About David Burn

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. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.