My First Principles

Earlier this month, Contents Magazine asked seven very smart people about their first principles – the things that ground every part of their work, whether in content or beyond. You should probably go read that.

Then, Contents asked us to fill in the spaces by submitting our own answers to the question, “What are your first principles?”

There’s difficulty in nailing down those first principles – especially for me – because our first principles are constantly changing. They adapt. They are found wanting. They slip out of our hands and are rarely in our control.

That’s kind of the point, I think. There’s a reason Contents asked not just WHAT, but HOW – specifically, “How have your first principles changed over time?”

What are my first principles?

1. We all want the same thing…

We all want to be loved, right? We all want to feel special. We all want to be included. The need to belong is a basic human need. Specifically, according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, love and belonging make up a third level of needs, trumped only by basic physiological and safety requirements.

A core element of belonging is communication. To be with others – by which I mean, to truly understand each other in a way that breeds friendship and trust – you must understand the basics of communication: truthfulness, clarity, the exchange of ideas, feedback. Which is what we do, people. We communicate. We help foster communication. We tear down the roadblocks that keep us from communicating.

Rah rah sis boom bah. Communication. Everybody wants some.

2. …unless we don’t.

Except that, you know, no one likes being exactly like everyone else. In other words, to go completely against my first principle, we have to forget everything I just said.

While we all strive to communicate and be part of the world’s conversation, the simple fact is that we’re all individuals. We work in different ways. We want to communicate in our own ways. I probably talk too much about the differences in how people work, specifically the fallacy of following a blueprint without considering the methodology behind it. But I do this because I know firsthand how impossible it is to communicate and work in lock step with someone else. I work differently from you. How can I expect to follow your process word for word?

Our work suffers if we assume one size fits all. Likewise, the people we communicate for suffer. I go into every project understanding that my number one goal is to effectively communicate the benefits and personality of the client, but that this goal is separated into sub-goals – that Goal 1A is to effectively communicate to THIS important group, and Goal 1B is to effectively communicate to THAT important group.

3. Nothing is concrete

The boundaries of what we do shift constantly. The things we hold dear will change. Someday, we’ll look back at our processes and methodologies and client work and laugh and laugh and laugh and that is okay because we will have learned and learned and learned.

And if we haven’t learned, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

How my principles have changed

How haven’t they changed, AMIRITE?

SRSLY, THO: In the few years I’ve been employed by the web, I’ve stopped thinking of others as adversaries.

That means clients. The eternal battle between client and consultant tends to be a vestigial part of any ex-advertiser. We’re groomed to believe in the power of creativity for creativity’s sake, that our client is too dumb to understand our delicate process and that we’re sent from GOD HIMSELF to place a dollop of MIRACLES upon our client’s brand. (Look at any recent Skittles commercial and you’d have a hard time thinking otherwise.)

That means colleagues, too. I’m still amazed at the camaraderie and open-mindedness within the content industry – how, as evidenced in the last issue of Contents, we’re all responsible for furthering our field and passing knowledge to each other, stealing from each other and high-fiving each other and not being territorial because, let’s face it, there’s not a lot of us. And there’s a lot of ground to cover.

We’re all in this together. Kumbaya and all of that.

Where I come from

I am a reformed copywriter, but at heart I’m a planner. One of the first things I learned as a copywriter wasn’t how to write headlines – it was how to develop and write marketing plans for small, local businesses. It was the most valuable thing I learned. I could never write great radio scripts, and my print ads were probably horrible, but I could look at a company, identify its biggest needs, and try to find solutions for those needs.

Writing marketing plans forced me to look at the big picture. It also provided enough detail and experience to make the push from writer to strategist four years later.

I don’t have 10+ years of experience, and I think that’s fantastic. I’m hoping I never lose the excitement for learning more, of being able to apply everyone else’s first principles as my own and, most importantly, of never understanding the One Way To Do Things.

(A note on that picture: almost everyone interviewed for the Contents article included an image of their workspace. So I did too. See first principle #1. And, introducing first principle #4 – make sure you hoard lots of books. Apparently.)