For Clarence Bradley, Advertising Is About Legacy
A conversation with the veteran creative who's had stops at Ogilvy, McCann New York, Campbell Ewald, and more in his lengthy — and legendary — career.
To “make it” in advertising, you have to stick around when everyone else calls it quits. You don’t just have to win awards, you have to make shit that people care about, time and time again. You weather the storm, you remain resilient, and you continuously learn and stay hungry.
For Clarence Bradley, his lengthy career in advertising isn’t just because he’s done all of those things — he also loves helping people, too. “My real passion is helping young leaders, the people who do get to the ACD and CD levels,” he says over a Zoom call. “I want to help those folks so they can matriculate to the higher specialized agencies.”
Over the course of more than two decades, he’s held major positions at every major agency you could think of like The Martin Agency, McKinney, and Ogilvy while climbing up the creative ladder.
Now, the copywriter turned creative leader is preparing for his next act. “I would say what's left for me to do is really work on stuff that I enjoy,” he says over a recent Zoom call. “That way I can pour more of myself into it. I always tell people I love working on brands that you don't have to explain. You don't have to explain soda, you don't have to explain social media, you don't have to explain lifestyle brands like sneakers, and all this other kind of stuff”
Here’s Clarence Bradley on his career, what he’s accomplished, and what’s left for him to do.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
What got you into the creative industry? Was it something that you always knew you wanted to do?
When I was 15 years old, I went to the movies and I saw School Daze. When my dad picked me up from the movie theater, I told him it was amazing. Spike Lee, writing about black colleges and black people, had created something that I didn’t know that (at that point in my life) black people could do. I decided then I was going to be the next Spike Lee.
I went to Clark and studied film and television production. My roommate in college was in the Ad Club at Clark and asked me to come to a meeting. It would be a great networking opportunity, so why not? I met copywriters who spoke about their jobs and I remember thinking, “that seems like a great thing to fall back on.”
The closer, I got to graduation, I recognized that I couldn't afford the tuition for film school. So, I started investigating advertising a little bit more and saw that there were portfolio schools in Atlanta. I learned about another one in Miami called Miami Ad School. I went down there, checked out the program, really liked it, and decided that's what I was going to do. I packed up all my crap in a U-Haul truck, moved down to Miami, and went to Miami Ad School. Two years later, I got a job at BBDO New York and started my career.
What was that initial transition period to agency life for you? And how long do you think it took for you to really get the ropes?
Well, programs like Miami Ad School do a really good job of preparing you for what it's like to be an agency creative. They hold a high bar, because you're taught by working agency professionals at really, really good agencies. When you graduated, you had a pretty decent book that could land you a pretty decent job.
And so, when I got to BBDO New York, the biggest transition for me was the lack of camaraderie. I’d come from a previously collaborative environment at Miami Ad School where we were all cheering each other on and we had friendly competitiveness. At BBDO New York, where it was the tail end of the “Mad Men” era, I sat at my desk and no one talked to me.I did feel like a cog in a massive machine. And even though I learned a lot there, it never felt like home, if that makes sense.
But it was not until I got my second job, which was at BBDO in Atlanta, where it really, really felt like, "Oh, wow. I love advertising. This is cool. And this is fun." Because I went from an agency that had 900-plus people with a creative department of 200 people, to an agency that had 115 people with a creative department of 16. And it felt like ad school again. We all hung out with one another. We had a friendly competitiveness. We were all rooting for one another.
Did you have any mentors on your journey? How did they impact your journey?
I had several mentors. When I was in Miami Ad School, there was a woman who was on the board of my ad school and she worked with BBDO. She took me under her wing when I got to BBDO in New York and gave helped me to really function in New York City. The chairman of the board of my ad school at the time was a woman named Bonnie Lunt who explained to me what to expect during job interviews and my when I got my first position. When Lunt found out I got the job at BBDO New York, she asked me if I’d gotten a signing bonus. Since I didn’t, she made calls to get me a $6,000 bonus that was instrumental in me moving to New York.
There are several others that I’ve been fortunate to learn from. Gerry Graf helped me a lot at BBDO. He told me, "You need to get out of this place and go to a place that's going to help you grow." It wasn't a very junior-friendly place. So he was like, "You need to go to a place that's actually going to take the time to grow and mature you.” He took me under his wing and shared all of his opportunities with my partner and I. Peter Moore Smith helped me secure a 10-grand bonus that helped me to move out of a cockroach-infested apartment.
For my next question, I wanted to ask you about elevating from role to role and the changes that come with expectations. Each transition brings different sets of responsibilities for the work. So, when you transition, what does that feel like? How does that impact your approach to creative?
When you go from junior to senior… it's all the same thing. All it is, it's just you're learning how to get better at the craft. That's it. And the faster you get, the more reliable you can be, in regards to your leadership, that's how you raise in the ranks.
But what they don't do is teach you what it means to be a creative director. You may have worked and experienced creative directing but you may not have an understanding of what the managerial component of it is. There are some people who have a natural affinity for that type of thing, who are just very buttoned up and organized and how to do those types of things. And they kind of glide right into the role.
But a lot of creative people aren't necessarily managerial material. They're creatives. They know how to make cool stuff. And the idea of being a manager or "leader" is not really in their field of interest. And the industry kind of forces you, after a certain period in your career, to become a leader.
But one of the things I'm always trying to push for as a leader at agencies now is kind of teaching that skillset of management, what it means to be a creative training director, what it means to be a manager, what it means to be a part of leadership, not just the mentoring component of knowing how to work with your new talent, but the business component of it is super important. Having a good understanding of the piece of business that you work on, the budgets, the real business problems, building relationships with your clients, all of that stuff really matters once you get to the director level. But again, this is stuff that most people aren't taught.
So, I take it upon myself to try to teach that, especially to people of color, because most of the time we're overlooked anyway. So, what I always try to do is just to arm them with all those skillsets.
I wanted to ask about burnout. I’ve spoke with creatives that have talked about dealing with it at different points in their career. Have you ever dealt with that and, if so, how have you overcome that hurdle?
Burnout is definitely real. I think what it is, is it's about the environment that you find yourself in. And it's also about what kind of rules you set for yourself as a person, as a professional person. If you allow yourself to be comfortable working late nights and weekends on a regular basis, you're setting yourself up for burnout.
But if you're in an environment where that is just kind of the way they do business, then you should take yourself out of that environment, because there's only so much you can take. And what burnout does, it leads to questioning yourself, are you good enough? It leads to bitterness. And then it leads to hopelessness where you just figure, "This is my life now. I can't get out of this. I'm on this hamster wheel.”
Avoid burnout by taking your vacation time. It doesn't matter what is going on at the agency, regards the client deadline and stuff like that. If you make time to go on vacation, go on vacation. Don't let anything change that. Because the thing about the agency is it'll always be busy. There'll never be a great time to go on vacation. So, if you make time, take your time. Do the things that you need to do to keep yourself creatively refreshed. Go to museums, go to comedy clubs, go to concerts, read books, listen to music, go for a long walk, exercise. You've got to fill and replenish yourself. Mentally, emotionally, creatively.
You’ve had the ideal career progression that many dream about. Being that you've accomplished so much, what is there still left in your career that you want to do next?
I would say what's left for me to do is really work on stuff that I enjoy. That way I can pour more of myself into it. I always tell people I love working on brands that you don't have to explain. You don't have to explain soda, you don't have to explain social media, you don't have to explain lifestyle brands like sneakers, and all this other kind of stuff.
I also want to mentor young people and help them get into great agencies and great spaces. My real passion is helping young leaders, the people who do get to that, ACD, CD level. I want to help those folks so they can matriculate to the higher specialized agencies. Because without help, that CD role is a glass ceiling. In your career, you might see one GCD, ECD, and maybe rarely a CCO that is black. It's a very rare occurrence. And without the proper training, that will always be. So, I take it upon myself now that I'm in a position to maybe help with that, I really lean into that. And I just want to make sure that I'm going to be in the legacy of great leaders.
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