Sunday, February 8, 2015

Your Inner Critic Is A Jerk.

He resides under your skin and over your shoulder. Breathing down your neck. Whispering behind your back. Ceremoniously leading the war within while unapologetically telling you how it is.

He offers snarky feedback like, “Wow, did you really just say that? Man, you sounded like an idiot.” Right after he insults your wardrobe choice. (Well, let’s be honest, velour is not a good look on most people.)

You don't need this lover of bad hair days. This heckler of good intentions. This taker of parking spots that you clearly claimed with your blinker. He'll continue to trade confidence for doubt and minimize success.

Don’t listen to him.

He knows nothing.

He's a jerk.

Your Inner Critic Is A Genius.

He knows good work when he sees it. And, because he’s tasted it, he’ll settle for nothing less. His discerning taste took years to refine—all in the name of protecting you from becoming a hack.

He offers road-tested advice like, “That. That part you’re overlooking. That’s the idea. That’s what matters.” Right after he sends an epiphany rush through your soul.

You need this honest collector of influence. This critical evaluator of performance. This never-satisfied driver of betterment. He'll continue to make you stronger and remind you why you love what you do.

Listen to him.

He knows.

He's a genius.

You Are Responsible For Holding Yourself Back.

Don’t be so hard on yourself. Think about obstacles you've encountered. Were they real, or were they in your own mind? Were they built on facts or assumptions? Chances are, you can remove most hurdles.

You Are Responsible For Moving Yourself Forward.

As humans, we possess the blessing and burden of self-awareness. (Well, some more than others.) However, sometimes we just need to get out of our own way. Never let the past dictate the future.

Find your voice.

Follow your passion.

Each and every day, go forth and set your respective worlds on fire.

Show your inner critics who’s boss.

“Be stronger than that which holds you back.” – Shiza Shahid
(Especially if that which holds you back is you.)

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Thursday, July 3, 2014

The power of perspective.

Shantanu Starick, international photographer and founder of The Pixel Trade project, is changing the perspective of commerce by using his trade in exchange for life's basic necessities—bringing the bartering system into day-to-day life. After his talk, he took a reverse-perspective photograph of the audience by asking everyone to turn around except for one gentlemen in the middle.

Early May I ventured to New York for the first time. After years of hearing about the 99u Conference, I was lucky enough to experience it for myself. It’s led by one of my favorite creative entrepreneurs, Scott Belsky—author of  Making Ideas Happen, co-creator of Behance, and now VP of Adobe’s creative community. Much like his book, the goal of the conference is to shift the focus from idea generation to idea execution.

“Genius is 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration.” – Thomas Edison

Two things struck me about all of the speakers and sessions. In each case, there was a high-level realization and a corresponding action. Road-tested insights that made me think… we are often our own roadblocks. And as Mimi brilliantly says, maybe we all need to get out of our own heads. Our minds want to make everything about us and cling to what’s been safely done. Instead, let’s meet people and challenges where they are, in the moments—emotionally, adaptively and intuitively.

This conference hit creative values, how we work, leadership, sustainability, entrepreneurship and innovation. I’ve got a ton of insights, but wanted to touch on what really resonated with where VJ is and where we are going with our new approaches.

What if there’s a group perspective, but it’s collectively adaptive?

My first studio session was at Undercurrent, a strategic powerhouse. They steered us through an exercise showing how responsive organizations can work in this rapid, project-based world beyond agency-of-record relationships. Agencies need to start working like complex adaptive systems. Self-organized empowerment based on the task at hand, like ants or the immune system—all maintaining a simple rule set, processing data and adapting often.

How do we pivot our perspective?

In further support for responsiveness Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote, gave a very grounded perspective on motivation. We have to avoid the over-pursuit of goals that are unattainable, or that need to shift. This leads to inhibited performance, unintended consequences and even cheating. There’s something called summit fever. It’s where a climber will relentlessly keep going to the top of the mountain through bad weather, personal injury or even lack of oxygen. They want to reach that goal more than anything and it consumes them. On a good day, they’ll make it. And on a bad day, they may die. Though our day-to-day is much less dangerous, we always need to reassess why we are doing things as variables and environments inevitably shift.

What if we really listen to other’s perspectives?

Graphic journalist Wendy MacNaughton, author of Meanwhile in San Francisco, encouraged us to not just talk to strangers, but to listen to them. She captured strangers in their “meanwhiles” – the times when they are going somewhere and between things. There’s an intrinsic vulnerability during those moments. She illustrated their character, got to know them and captured glimpses of their unique perspectives. The collective result is both beautiful and profound.

Let's embrace and challenge perspective.

We’re working for unique audiences every day through the brands of our clients. With both content and context in mind, how can we make those engagements more meaningful to them? That’s how great work becomes great work—through personally listening, critically processing and responsively adapting. Let’s harness that power of perspective, and make groundbreaking ideas happen.

That same 99u crowd photo taken from another perspective. See if you can spot me.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Manhattan musings.

For the first time, there I was. Standing in the middle of Manhattan's Madison Avenue. Flanked by rows and rows of towering buildings, all cultivated through decades of advertising greatness. Wondering what stories the infamous street quietly harbored.

Throughout Manhattan, commerce is king and appearance is everything. Souls are stirred and whims are encouraged. You could be anybody. Or nobody. Shifting, blending or reinventing at will. 

In the city, anonymity is inevitable. Off the grid while at the center of it. Alone in the crowd. Solitarily connected. 

I could feel the city's energy. It was a rumbling undercurrent, tugging at my sleeve like an impatient child. A constant stream of culture and curiosity, haphazardly forcing my gaze.

The city lives outside the walls of their small-yet-expensive apartments. I imagine life in the thick of that advertising epicenter. How the greats toiled away through the night—likely finding camaraderie with the city that, like them, never slept.

Like most things pitted against imagination, the dream is better than the reality—though the reality is an amazing sea of inspiration. It's really about clinging to what the city famously represents—the dream of endless possibilities. I'll happily keep that with me. Right where I am.

[ I will be following up with some posts inspired by the 99u conference.]

In the middle of Manhattan. In the middle of Madison Avenue. In the middle of the day.

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Monday, March 31, 2014

The Thinking Behind Creative Thinking.

My Caffeinated Mornings presentation from December 6, 2013. I walk through the world of creative thinking—offering career advice, providing behind-the-scenes creative tips, and showing side project examples.

The Thinking Behind Creative Thinking from Jennifer Hohn on Vimeo.

Event information:

(Work reel from my agency, Vladimir Jones. Side projects displayed in this video are personal or feature creative partnerships from Ryan Johnson, Matt Ingwalson, Jim Elkin, Bryce Boyer, Ryan Bramwell, David Meijas and production help from a number of talented folks through Ad Club Denver.)

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Sunday, February 2, 2014

Welcome to the VJ Collective

Every Friday someone from my agency sends out an email to everyone in the company. Emails that are centered around new learnings, timely advice, profound thoughtfulness, or hilarious entertainment. Last October, I was up. We were at the forefront of a courageous agency-wide restructure for 2014. Here's what I wrote and why I'm ecstatic to be the new Creative Director at Vladimir Jones.


First of all, it’s not about you.

Well okay, actually it is about you.

And him. And her. And everything that makes VJ culture the advertising industry anomaly that it is.

Those who have worked for lesser places know what I’m talking about. (Ad veteran tip: Sometimes the grass seems greener elsewhere because it’s actually AstroTurf. And much like The Brady Bunch backyard…it’s all fun and games until Marcia gets her nose broken.)

What makes VJ different? 
It’s the people. The intelligence. The leadership. The juxtaposition of precision and soul. Oh, and the fact that we’re a seasoned independent agency teetering on the edge of becoming a creative powerhouse.

So, how do we get there? You know, the powerhouse part. Do we all have to embrace Dohan’s relentless training regimen? (Well, not necessarily, but don’t make him show you his disappointment stance.)

We unite forces and work together.
We take our places in the trenches alongside talent, strategy and possibility. When a teammate gets entangled in a client force field or marches into creative battle, we selflessly cover them. We don’t make excuses. But, we do take responsibility. No one is in this alone.

We trade expectation for execution.
Unentitled hard work pays off. And over time, you are the one empowering your own future. If you think you should be involved, prove it. If you want your ideas heard, bring them to the table. If there’s a better way to do things, figure it out.

We value collaboration and humility over ego.
Now don’t get me wrong, there’s a time for both solitary incubation and group iteration. But, if everyone shares the same passion and connection to what we’re creating, greater things get produced. Better placements get made. And bigger results happen. So what if it wasn’t your idea or your design or your client—make it better. Add value with your expertise…without any expectation of credit. Because we’re all accountable for what comes out of this agency. And that’s our most valuable currency in the powerhouse quest.

We respect and protect the bus.
VJ is a certified mix of eclectic brilliance, unique skill-sets and personality quirks. Everyone here has an important seat on this bus. So, let’s try not to throw anyone under it. Instead, help them back up. Sometimes people just need a different seat or a new view.

We do this.
And by this, I mean the VJ Collective powerhouse thing. Clearly we have many individual rock stars in this agency. But, what would happen if we truly combined forces and legitimately challenged the advertising world? Well, I have no doubt that we’re about to find out.

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Monday, January 13, 2014

Dear Me, On My First Day of Advertising.

Part of an end-of-year series originally posted on The Denver Egotist.

Dear 1998 me,
First of all, what the hell is going on with that outfit? Seriously. Do they even make things out of rayon anymore? Between that and the hairspray, pretty sure you’re a walking fire hazard.
Oh hey, if I remember correctly, you’ll get to see Pearl Jam at Fiddler’s Green next month. So that’s cool.
You have no idea who you are yet. And that’s okay. Take the time you need to figure it out. But be aware now, if you really want to be in advertising, you have to love it. So much so, that you can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s very hard to break into this industry, and staying relevant is even harder. However, getting paid to follow your passion is an honor never to be taken for granted.
As you nervously sit in that agency lobby, completely intimidated by everyone walking by, know you deserve to be there. It’s just the beginning. And beginnings are scary.
People are not judging you – because, like you, they are probably also self-conscious. Smile, laugh and relax. You’ll be fine.
Over the course of your career you’ll have many successes and many failures. You’ll learn from them all. I guarantee everyone that does great things had to overcome adversity in some form or another. The defining difference is what you do after a door is closed or a tough card is dealt. Do you pick yourself up and push harder? Or, do you cower behind defeat? Either way, don’t settle for the status quo. Do something.
Don’t try to plan everything, and stay flexible. In 2009 you’ll show up late to your first Ad Club meeting and miss out on volunteering for The Fifty – which was first on the meeting agenda. Instead, you’ll get the opportunity to launch a new intense portfolio program. This, and the talented people you meet through the club will change your career path. And don’t worry; you’ll get to do The Fifty later.
After all those years of getting lost in your own head, you’ll realize your brain’s not wired like most people who can clock in and clock out of a job. You have to create and help others create. There’s not much you can do to change that, but work to balance life better. (If you find your mind wandering when you need to be present, wiggle your toes. Trust me, it works. And it’s only weird if people see you do it.)
These will inspire you in your work and will help you see other perspectives. Never underestimate the power of empathy and divergent thinking. Creativity is simply the ability to combine things in interesting ways. And, without a good idea, the rest is irrelevant. Remember that.
Take great advantage of every small opportunity you get. The more you exceed expectations through seemingly insignificant things, the more credibility will start to stick. And you’ll get bigger opportunities.
You’ll learn on both sides of that equation. These relationships are your quickest route through the creative ranks. Helping others grow will help you grow.
If you’re not getting the experience you need at your day job, find ways to make those opportunities happen through side projects and volunteering. There’s no short cut for experience. Put in your time and never think you’re entitled to anything. You’ll go much further with hustle and humility than with excuses and ego.
In your career, there will be one thing you’ll deeply wish you could have changed. At an award show, you’ll run into one of your favorite young creatives that you mentored years ago. With his quirky smile, he’ll tell you things are going great. His distant eyes will tell another story. This will be the last time you see him. And that final memory will haunt you. The most important thing I can tell you is to always be there for your network.
Well, I’ll let you get back to your meandering path through this treacherous, yet exhilarating advertising adventure you’ve chosen. Good luck out there and I’ll see you down the road.
2013 me
P.S. I really hope this future-self advice doesn’t mess things up in a Back-to-the-Future sort of way. Well, I suppose time will tell, right? (By the way, did you get that winning lottery number list I sent you last month? Judging from my bank account, I’m guessing no.)

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Sunday, March 3, 2013

The 3% Conference Makes the Business Case for More Donna Drapers.

It’s fairly mind blowing. Eighty-percent of all household purchases are determined by women, while only three-percent of our nation’s advertising creative directors are women. (And let’s be honest, women probably practice veto power over the other twenty-percent of purchase decisions anyway.)

But, in a study where female consumers were asked if brands understood them, ninety-percent said no.

So there it is. As advertisers, we’re tasked with marketing to women for much more than the stereotypical lady brands. You know, the spots featuring freshness-challenged women running through flower fields, dancing with mops, or sniffing scent illusions.

In fact, much of our challenge lies in coming to terms with bigger misperceptions.

Believe it or not, women currently out-use men in all social media channels except for LinkedIn. Statistically, they’re also bigger gamers and they watch more television. Women demonstrate more technology usage and more social influence.

Kat Gordon, founder of the 3% Conference said, “It’s not about equal rights, it’s about serving our clients better.” And women are notoriously bad in focus groups. They’ll tell half-lies because they self edit. However, when they’re on the other side of the agency table, they bring unfiltered intuition to the mix.

Let’s rethink how we market to women.

The key is to have people on your team that are not all like you. That’s how you find the uncharted truths. Fear not, marketing with women in mind does not have to alienate men. When positioning a brand – make it human, think collectively, don't sanitize, show diversity, and practice storytelling.

There are inherent differences between how men and women think, and divergent perspective is a good thing.

It shows up in childhood play. Boys enjoy reigning over their toys, and when they destroy things, it’s merely an act of fun and power. Girls empathetically imagine themselves as the toys and become part of the make-believe worlds. So, if a boy comes along and takes out the meticulously arranged princess castle, the girl is devastated. And the boy has no idea why.

So, what is it that’s making it so difficult for women to advance to ACD, CD, or beyond?

Times are changing. This is by no means a pity party for creative industry women. It’s about supporting talent. At all levels, advertising industry women are negotiating for the same salaries as their male counterparts. The biggest difference is that women are unlikely to ask for raises. It’s largely a matter of teaching women to be assertive and confident.

As a creative builds career momentum, this often coincides with family growth. The industry demands full commitment for advancement, and those with young families require more schedule predictability and flexibility. Many struggle with the challenge of work/life balance.

Mentoring enables advancement.

After Gordon’s keynote, the audience enjoyed mentorship from a truly stellar regional panel consisting of Dave Schiff, Partner/Chief Creative Officer of Made Movement; Charlotte Isoline, Executive Creative Director of Karsh Hagan; Jonathan Shoenberg, Executive Creative Director/Partner of TDA Boulder, Rachael Donaldson, Client Services Director of Made Movement; and Dani Coplen, Vice President/Creative of The Integer Group. Our excellent host Serena Wolf, Founder of Wolf Creative Company, moderated the panel.

"Women have to help other women. The greatest mentors I've had have been a combination of nurturing and badass." – Rachael Donaldson

"It's not about if you're male or female, it's just about who's good." – Dave SchiffHe also hilariously thanked his many mentors that may or may not have been state-appointed. And, he’s convinced that rock star ladies will inevitably phase him out.

Jonathan Shoenberg told us how he rose through the ranks, which involved a former employer liking his “country-ness.” Apparently, he had a great deal of farm experience on his resume back in the day.

Charlotte Isoline advised us to not be the genius in the room, but to maximize the collective genius.

Dani Coplen encouraged women to avoid invisibility. Say what you want to say.

Some of the advice from the panel that really resonated with me was the emphasis on mentoring. It’s crucial for career advancement. And in my mentoring experience, I’ve learned a great deal from those I’ve mentored. Always take time to help the driven ones; it’ll come back to you. The event was a full house, men and women. Everyone left inspired and excited about how they were going to move this knowledge forward. So, let’s empower some future Donna Drapers and keep this moving forward, shall we?

This piece is cross-posted on The Denver Egotistdesign TAXI, and the Vladimir Jones Blog

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Sunday, February 24, 2013

The new business battle.

The new business pitch experience is kind of like a slow motion, extended director's cut fight scene. You have no idea where your competition or your breakthrough idea will come from, but you must be ready to defend it. All while maintaining your now business. And maybe some semblance of sanity.

(More specifically, I picture this way over-the-top scene from Boondock Saints II. Although, for what it's worth, I totally would have paired that scene with Conscious Killer from BRMC. I mean, come on, the MacManus brothers were religious vigilantes. It just fits.)

So, you get the new business creative brief. You may or may not have a clear weapon, but you most definitely will be blindfolded. That's the thrill of it though. In most cases, you have no idea who you're up against. What insight will your competition have that you don't? Are they close friends with one of the potential clients? Will they be smarter, or more funny, or find that one thing that the client can't deny?


Don't think about any of that. You have to put all that anxiety aside and work harder to create something undeniably true. Something right. Be certain that everyone will be bringing their best to the table and push yourself and your team harder.

The whole process is a grueling mental spectacle clouded with adrenaline and anticipation. You'll wake up in the middle of the night and send ridiculous emails to your team. (Sorry team, it felt like urgent genius at 4:00 AM. At 8:00 AM, though still entertaining, clearly not genius.) You'll forget to eat. (However, you probably will not forget to drink coffee.) You'll annoy your family and friends who maintain a normal work/life balance. (Yeah, during a pitch, 'work' holds its side of the teeter totter down like a relentless schoolyard bully while 'life' gets stranded in the air. Legs flailing.)

Time stands still, but there's never enough of it. You fill the wall, your sketchbook, and your free-time with conceptual angles. Then, just when everyone has second-guessed themselves to death and almost lost hope, you get the inspiration when you're not looking for it. A big idea effortlessly launches more supporting ideas. And it all starts to make sense. You build it as quickly as you can.

Then, pencils down everyone. You submit the idea. And you wait.

Coming off the high of a pitch is both exhilarating and exhausting. Those of us who seek the thrill of new business will continue to collect our arsenal of randomness and find satisfaction in the delirious aftermath of the pitch. We'll gladly subject ourselves to the uncertain creative smack-down. We'll build our team and hone our plan of attack. Growing from mistakes and briefly relishing victories.

Wait, what's that? There's another new business opportunity? Already? Alright. Cover me, I'm going in.

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Sunday, October 28, 2012

How to survive in advertising.

A lot of extremely credible, and no doubt, scientifically-tested rules that apply to horror movie survival can be used to ensure our own advertising industry longevity. 

I'll get back to that in a minute. First, we must be aware of another potentially scary situation…

Years ago, a software program became capable of doing our job. Well, kind of. It produced mass quantities of ad ideas – all in blandly-adequate fashion. Acceptable creativity in ten seconds. About two coffee or martini sips worth of creative team time.

Is creativity merely an algorithm? Can a machine do that thing that not even strategists can realistically explain with a set formulaic definition? I've actually seen it defined with whimsical hand movements placed mid-sentence.

BETC Euro RSCG Worldwide, creators of the Creative Artificial Intelligence (CAI) technology, determined the software is only so clever. It's built with existing creative connections. Thankfully, enlightened humans are still superior. CAI was an experiment to demonstrate just that. 

...But don't let your guard down quite yet. That's rule number one in advertising survival.

1. The moment you get comfortable and complacent is the moment you become obsolete. Think about it. If your "character" is not contributing to the main plot, you are potential prey. (Especially if you go off on your own, mock someone on the team, or live in Maine.)

2. The junior creatives are always right behind you. Always. They're hungry and they don't sleep. (Encourage them and let them inspire you. Seriously, you really don't want them turning on you.)

3. Anything you think you know about advertising you probably don't. The rules are always changing. Go with it. Arm yourself with current knowledge and collaborate with other creatives. (Whatever you do, do not take that shortcut you heard about from one of the locals. It never ends well.) 

4. If an idea is dead, don't assume it's going to stay dead. An ambitious idea always has one last shot at reality. Theoretically, it could resurface at any time – with more power. Ideas love to avenge their own deaths. And, idea sequels are always in the works. (If the idea has access to a hockey mask, get the hell out of there.)

5. Do not try to unmask creativity. It shows up where it wants, when it wants. It's everywhere and nowhere. It laughs maniacally and probably hangs out in a sweet lair during it's downtime. Whatever it is, it's certainly not a single software program. (Sooner or later, in a shocking orchestra-crescendoed plot twist, you'll realize it was actually you all along.)

Thanks to everyone who voted this October's Post of the Month in Neil Perkin's Think Tank Hall of Fame. 

This piece is cross-posted on The Denver Egotist , Uprising, design TAXI, and the Vladimir Jones Blog. It's also cross-posted throughout the Egotist Network: AustinBostonChicago, Des MoinesDubaiKansas CityLondonLos AngelesMemphisNew YorkOklahoma CityPhoenixPortlandSan FranciscoSt. LouisSydneyTorontoTulsa, and Vancouver 

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Friday, August 31, 2012

Dinner with the grandparents.

In a world where things move fast and everything gets overlooked, I'm endlessly amazed by the lives my grandparents have led. They did not disappoint tonight. Spinning new stories and revisiting many favorites. I've written about them before. They are responsible for my appreciation of travel.

My grandmother threw out philosophical gems like these, "Everyone is like you, if you just let them in." And,  "Respect all religions. They are built on similar beliefs."
The seemingly-amplified prolificness this evening was a bit unnerving. As they both approach 90 years of age, there was a sense that they were telling my sister and I things they wanted to make sure to pass on. Like how very proud of us they were. How much they enjoyed taking us grandchildren on adventures. How lucky they were to have lived through the depression to truly appreciate what they have. How they still remember things from so long ago. Like when my great grandmother carried my grandmother out of their burning house at age four. How happy they were able to take many of us to my father's Cave family castle in England. (I could play princess there if I could foot the back-taxes on that thing. However, with the maintenance bills and my significant lack of a trust fund, holy-woodland-creature-cleaning-assistance-needing hell. Oh, and I can't sing either. Instant princess disqualification.)

My grandmother has broken her hips. She uses a cain with extreme disdain for that unfashionable accessory. At almost 90, my grandfather just finished designing a home for my parents and they're headed to Europe next month (after we discouraged their extended travel adventures years ago.) Other people have even called them recycled teenagers. Do we worry about them with their blend of stubbornness and physical unsteadiness? Yes. Could I take away their crazy zest for living life to its fullest? Never.

If I end up with a fraction of what they've gleaned from life, I'm a very lucky person.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

At the end of the day.

In advertising, it's an overused phrase. For clients and brands, it gives us perspective. But what about our own expectations?

At the end of the day, all you have is... 

your relationships.
your work.
your reputation.


another night to work until failure.
an opportunity to change everything.
a chance to appreciate what you have.


At the end of the day, all you have is tomorrow. 
And, at the end of most days, tomorrow is enough.

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Saturday, July 28, 2012

Beauty, imagination, and the what if?

I'm not sure what I like most about this spot. The graceful overlapping of reality and surreality. The perfectly-woven dreamlike music. The regretfully-romantic voiceover of a favorite actor. The nostalgic-yet-timeless art direction. The flawless final scene transition, lingering on a fleeting look before taking us to a present day self actualization.

The idea that you could put an ad like this out into an audience that has previously been treated to humor, hijinks, and shallowness is impressive. Sure, they're supporting the concept in funny and less epic ways through social media. But still, they've hit on something that not only speaks to the AXE-drenched teenage kid who just wants to get laid. It speaks to anyone who's ever been in love. Or in high school. So, will guys in their forties be buying more AXE? Well, hopefully not.

Of everything, the copywriting gets me the most. It's the hopeless romantic in me. Every word is heavy-hearted, yet quirky. A man poetically lamenting about an intriguing girl next door. Not the cheerleader, but the universal girl who got away. Not a girl, the girl. BBH New York has crafted an unexpected masterpiece that plays to our own sense of what if.

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