A Spalding MFA lesson pays off in the workplace

By Lia Eastep, Spalding University Low-Residency MFA Alum

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I make my living as a full-time senior copywriter in the marketing department (think internal ad agency) of a large educational publisher. About a year ago in a weekly team meeting, our videographer shared a video he’d recently completed. The discussion that followed surprised me.The four-minute clip was undeniably impressive, made up of skillfully edited footage from a full-day shoot at an elementary school with a scripted voice-over laid overtop. The students were not actors, which lent authenticity but also meant the videographer must have waded through a massive amount of footage to make it authentically match the script.

 

When the presentation was over, the lone comment from the group was from a designer who questioned the color saturation of a shirt in one particular shot. While I didn’t expect a full-on discussion during this kind of weekly touch-base meeting, I was genuinely surprised that no one else offered up any kind of praise or even broad acknowledgment of the work. My only reasoning was that the team must have already viewed the clip on a day that I wasn’t there.

After the meeting, I regretted not saying anything and quickly caught up to my coworker.

“That was amazing,” I said.

“Thanks,” he responded politely but kept walking.

“No, really,” I added, catching up. “Was that the first time you’ve showed that to the group?” I asked, hoping for an excuse for the lackluster response of an otherwise generous team.

“It was,” he said.

I repeated my assertion that the video was amazing, but even as I said it, I realized that a vague superlative wasn’t really what I wanted to offer. Nor, I surmised from his non-reaction, was it much use to him. Standing there, I realized that an overcompensated apology was only going to generate diminished returns. So I followed him to his desk and listed off three or four specific things from the video that impressed me. I didn’t offer any critique of what could be better because it was a finished product and it wouldn’t have been appropriate given the context.

Eastep Workspace

A few weeks after that conversation, my coworker called me over to his desk to ask my opinion about a new work-in-progress. I knew his impulse wasn’t simply because I had praised him in the past. I believe he connected to at least some of the things I had specifically said about his work, and that I had value as a pair of fresh eyes and an additional perspective.

Once it occurred to me that my impulse was a direct result of my experience in the MFA program at Spalding, I began to apply the practice more broadly. I’ve made it a point to be more purposeful and specifically articulate in my discussions with coworkers about their creative work. It also helps that while I am not in a supervisory role, I am older than a number of my peers and no longer overthink what such comments might mean.

This means that when I walk by someone’s desk and see work that impresses me (many of my coworkers are designers with 24-inch monitors, which makes it easy), I say something. Mostly, I comment on how different (in a good way) the design has come out for a piece of writing I’ve done. This is important because in the retail marketing game, all too often the creative work of a single artist gets “frankenfitted” to meet the needs of many stakeholders. Even in copy (or especially in copy), an impactful headline gets grafted onto a paragraph someone else wrote that does not exactly support it. Or sentences from one concept are combined with those of another for arbitrary reasons.

Even on the smoothest of days, creative marketing work can be tedious and repetitive. For every assignment I get for a clever campaign encouraging kids to read, there are two dozen requests to advertise sale materials or an assignment to proof the three-page references section of a repurposed white paper. Developing strong bonds with the fellow artists you work alongside is, therefore, essential to striking that balance between making a livable wage and maintaining a level of artistic integrity.

Eastep and Co-worker

Eastep & colleague

Last month, two other copywriters and I decided to begin a weekly writers’ meeting where we could touch base in ways not typically addressed in the larger gathering, which is mostly dominated by designers. Recently, the topic came up of reviewing one another’s work while it was still in progress. We all agreed that this was a good idea but were unsure of how to translate it into a process. One of my coworkers said, “No matter how we do it, I think it’s important to be both kind and clear.” We all nodded in agreement.

Then he turned to me. “You talk all the time about how you did this kind of thing in graduate school. Do you think something like that could work in this kind of instance?”

Indeed I did.


Lia Eastep is an essayist, journalist and playwright. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Spalding University and lives in Columbus, Ohio.