The most creative city in America.
Updated: Aug 1, 2021
I grew up in Houston and got my first ad job in Chicago. There are two kinds of people who grow up in Texas. The ones who never leave and the ones who take off the first chance they get. I love Texas. I did not leave because I didn’t like it. I just wanted to see what other places were like. I wanted different. And Chicago delivered on different. I lived there for three years and had an amazing time. But…
I’m a child of the suburbs. I like having a car. I like parking lots right in front of restaurants. I love Chili’s for God sakes. Growing up, I remember when there was only one of them. We’d go there for dinner every Sunday night.
Chicago was too big. I never knew where I was. I was perpetually lost. It’s not even like New York where all the streets are numbered and you can sort of figure it out. I have an insanely lousy sense of direction. I was always disoriented. Plus, I never had a car. Which sucks. So it was all about taking the train and catching a cab. You didn’t just go to a restaurant. You got close to the restaurant and then you walked a few blocks. And there were no Chili’s. What the fuck is that?
Then I got a call from a headhunter about a job in Detroit. I had never been to Detroit and I was starting to wonder what else was out there, so I took the interview. The day I returned, the agency I was at in Chicago did a major re-org and I got dumped into a group that I was not particularly pleased to be getting dumped into.
So I called up the headhunter and said I’d take the job.
Two weeks later I moved to Detroit, bought a Jetta and found the nearest Chili’s.
My partner, Brad, was a great guy. When we got sick of working in the office, which happened often, we’d go over to Brad’s and work there. He’s a drummer and I’m a shitty guitar player so sometimes we’d take breaks and play around a little.
I remember I was standing outside the agency having a smoke with an editor named Gus. We used to hang out and talk about music a lot because he was in a band that played actual gigs. I was telling him about Brad and he suggested that I go check out this new band that was just starting out and all they had was a drummer and a guitar player.
So later that week I went to a small club in Ferndale called the Magic Bag to see a band called The White Stripes. There couldn’t have been more than 100 people at that show. I remember standing in the crowd and looking around and seeing everyone with the same, holy shit, look on their faces.
As I dove in deeper into Detroit’s local music scene, I soon discovered that The White Stripes were just the tip of a very vibrant iceberg. On any given night you could not only catch a White Stripes show but bands like the Von Bondies, The Detroit Cobras, The Dirtbombs, The Electric Six, The Go, The Gore Gore Girls, Brendan Benson, Blanche, The Henchmen and 100 other great bands were letting it all hang out on tiny little stages all over town.
Downtown Detroit has come a long way since I first moved here in the late ‘90’s. We’ve got new stadiums, lofts galore, amazing restaurants and even a Warby Parker. But back then, it was the wild west. There were no fucking rules. As long as you weren’t shooting anybody, they didn’t give a shit what you were doing. It was sketchy as hell. Nothing but abandoned buildings, wig shops and liquor stores. But the one thing it did have plenty of, was live music.
I was in heaven.
I soon discovered that the Detroit creative community went well beyond just music. There was an entire tribe of outsider artists down there doing anything they wanted wherever and whenever they wanted. There were no rules. If you wanted to put on a show, you just found an abandoned store front and turned it into an art gallery for a night. Nobody cared as long as you adhered to the “just don’t shoot anybody” policy.
An artist named Tyree Guyton took an entire street in one of Detroit’s most blighted neighborhoods and turned the whole block into a living art exhibit called The Hiedelberg Project. The houses (the ones that were standing) were painted with bright polka dots, covered in baby dolls, plastered with pennies and decorated with salvaged items to create a constantly evolving visual landscape that turned the entire neighborhood into a wonderfully bizarre artistic experiment.
Rent was dirt cheap. And if you couldn’t afford dirt cheap then you just squatted. Zero fucks were given. The whole place was an incubator for people who had nothing to do except create shit.
The Detroit creative community had a very DIY, blue collar sensibility with absolutely no pretentiousness. These weren’t over educated fine arts majors. These were Detroit kids who knew exactly which factory they’d end up in after they graduated high school. Their only chance to escape that fate was to pick up a guitar or a paint brush and do something amazing.
That’s why I always say Detroit is the Liverpool of America. There’s just something about bleak industrial landscapes with harsh winters and harsher socio-economic realities that inspire creativity. But it isn’t just the ordinary “I want to express myself” creativity. It’s a more authentic and compelling creativity born out of desperation and the very real notion of having absolutely nothing to lose.
Whether it’s rap, techno, rock n’ roll or any other artistic endeavor there’s an amazing amount of raw talent walking around. I sincerely believe that in Detroit, there are Beatles everywhere. You just might have to loan them some gas money to get them to show up and play.
I once heard an interview on NPR with a man who had written a book on why Motown happened in Detroit. He described how the first generation of southern black immigrants came looking for jobs in the booming auto industry of the early 20th century. They earned decent wages so instead of living in cramped housing projects or crowded apartment buildings they were able to raise their kids in single family homes. Because of that they were able to have pianos in their houses and carry on the musical traditions of their Southern Baptist roots. The booming auto industry supported arts education in the city’s public schools. It all culminated in the perfect conditions for talent and creativity to flourish.
But then you get to advertising and it’s a different story. Though it’s changed a bit, Detroit has always been known for car advertising. To be specific, shitty car advertising. It irks me because everyone thinks that the creatives here must suck. I’ve seen it time and time again. People come here with the idea that all they have to do is show them how it’s done and they’ll turn Cadillac into the hippest brand on the planet.
But it’s just not the case.
I’ve worked at advertising agencies all over the country and with creatives from all over the world. None of them are any better than the creatives here. The God’s honest truth is it’s incredibly hard to sell a really great ad to a big car company. It’s not impossible. But it’s an enormous task. The Big Three do not take big risks. They want to be all things to all people and it shows in both the work and for many years, the product.
But that doesn’t mean greatness can’t occur. Which is the carrot none of us can seem to stop chasing. It's one of the biggest challenges in advertising and once you get a taste of it, it's hard to refuse when offered another bite.
In my mind, anyone can do a great Nike ad at Wieden. Come to Detroit and do something spectacular for a Chevy Malibu or a Chrysler Pacifica, that a client will actually buy, and you’ve accomplished something much more substantial.
But here’s the thing that fascinates me most about working in Detroit. I can think of no other place in the ad world where the people who do the advertising, the clients who buy the work and the folks who build the products live in such close proximity to each other and depend on one another so much.
In Detroit, the success or failure of the work you do is so immediately linked to the city you’re actually living in that you can actually see its impact at the ground level. Do work that sells cars and your neighbor keeps their job. Fuck it up and the consequences are different. It’s really as simple as that.
The car companies have a lot to lose, so they play it safe. The kids with guitars have nothing to lose, so they go balls out on everything they do.
That’s Detroit. In my mind, it’s the most creative city in America. And every once in a while, if someone works very hard, gets extremely lucky and all the stars align just right– you’ll see it in the work.