“There are no straight-line projections. The only one is, you’re born and you’re going to die.”
I’ve known Brian Pluta a long time. Since we were kids, really; we did plays together as teenagers. Brian is now a creative director at a giant ad agency in New York City.
Here’s a partial list of some of the folks he’s worked with over the years:
- Capital One
Here is the sum total of what I know about being an advertising creative in New York City and working for such clients as these: It’s hard, and not everyone gets to do it.
When Brian and I were teenagers we went on a school band trip somewhere a few hours away from home.
We were at a McDonald’s and someone had one of those paper placemats for kids and there were some pencil activities on the placemat: a maze, a crossword, that sort of thing.
Brian and our friend Nicole — who always called him “Sunshine Face” because he was always smiling and always laughing; I might never have reminded him about this because it’s probably the kind of thing that would embarrass him, and it’s not relevant to this story, but nonetheless it’s true—anyway, Brian and Nicole got their hands on the crossword and here are the clues I remember:
“Not mineral, not vegetable, but _ _ _ _ _ _.”
“Let’s have a three-legged _ _ _ _.”
“_ _ _ _ _ _ McDonald, the happy clown.”
For the record: “Animal.” “Race.” “Ronald.”
But here’s what they scribbled in:
Not mineral, not vegetable, but CHEESE. Let’s have a three-legged CILD. And, because of a few awkwardly placed letters reading in the other direction: HOOCUB McDonald, the happy clown.
I can remember we were all laughing so hard we could barely breathe. Even today, nearly 30 years later, I can’t think of “Hoocub McDonald” without laughing audibly, which I’m happy to pass on to all of you now.
This might just be a story about a silly thing that happened when we were teenagers.
Or it might be about something more, and if I tried to make it more, here is the shape that would take:
- My friend Brian has a brain that works in ways that no one else’s brain works.
- My friend Brian will look for and find a moment of creative expression in just about anything, and thus, in everything.
- My friend Brian was about thirty years ahead of his time to the concept of clean comedy that punches nowhere except perhaps outer space, and imaginary worlds of his own invention.
It is nearly impossible to reconcile this idea of Brian — the creatively funny space alien is as present today as it was in 1993—to my image of successful New York City advertising professionals, which is mostly derived from Mad Men, which I have never even watched.
Still, Brian’s not a Mad Men type. He’s not even from the same galaxy.
I ask him about that dichotomy.
“The silly side is encouraged from creative bosses,” he says. “When you’re making work, it’s always better when you bring yourself into it. Your professional self and your real self shouldn’t be completely divided.”
So he will allow himself space for the weird, but says he will always, even in presenting, hold some part of himself back, as a refuge, because it’s quite vulnerable to put yourself out there in that way.
For financial clients, especially, they will be looking for things to be done by the book, and they’re particularly reliant on buzzwords. He pointed out, and I’d never realized this that you don’t often see funny banking ads. Insurance companies will sometimes opt for funny, but banks, particularly investment banks, often shy away from funny because “people don’t trust funny.”
There are so many things in this world I had never even thought to consider. It’s been one of the joys about this project.
He goes on to tell a story about how vitally careful they have to be in his line of work.
He and creative partner, Jon, were handed a brief from Gillette, highlighting their partnership with the NFL, which stipulated they create a father/son story(s) and include shaving in some way. The team broke the rules in making it about a specific player and his family — which they felt compelled to do when they learned Shaquem Griffin’s story.
Griffin plays for the Seattle Seahawks; he’s a defender. “There’s not a cynical bone in that guy’s body,” Brian says. “It’s amazing.”
Griffin was born with amniotic band syndrome, which constricted part of his left hand in the womb. The ad focuses on Griffin’s dad, teaching Shaquem and his twin brother Shaquill, who’s also with the Seahawks, to play football as children. Dad is shown insisting that neither of them could let anything hold them back. “You gonna let your brother beat you? Come on,” the ad asks, right before I started openly weeping.
The end line language was originally centered around the idea of "reaching for your best."
But Brian said they realized they needed to avoid the word “reaching” in context of still shot of Griffin, lest someone grossly misconstrue it as a play on words. They replaced the intended line with something even better, a modified version of Griffin’s family mantra: “Your best never comes easy.”
It’s a beautiful ad.
Brian says it’s one of the best things he’s ever been a part of. In a follow-up email, he said, “The best accolades I’ve ever felt are the ones from the Griffin family and, even more so, parents of kids with limb differences, who said how much it meant to see it portrayed on TV.”
Gillette recently launched a product for caregivers, TREO, which is the first razor specifically designed to allow a caregiver to shave another person.
Brian directed the projects, and interviewed a wife whose husband had been in a debilitating bike accident, a mother taking care of a son with Downs syndrome, and a man taking care of his 90-year-old dad.
The budget was on the small side for that project, so Brian says they spent the bulk of the money on a director of photography and a fantastic editor—“so it would look gorgeous”—and handled the direction in house. Leading up to the interviews was terrifying, he says, because of the high emotional stakes, but the interviews themselves were great.
“To see the finished product,” Brian says, “you get choked up: This is a real thing and I’m not a screw-up.”
How admirable is that. Some people, and Brian is one, are able to make creative and intellectually fulfilling work that makes a difference in the world on their own terms and also make money doing it.
It would be easy to believe that people who have achieved this level of success have it all together in some ineffable way that’s unattainable for everyone else.
Not so, says Brian.
“I would’ve had so many more opportunities,” he says, “if I had just really believed that I could actually do it.”
He continues, “People that do make things are not gods. They’re not like this special class of being that is able to pluck divinity out of the sky and craft it out of their copious spare time. They’re just idiots, who choose to think of themselves as not idiots, decide that it’s good, decide to put it out in the world fearlessly.”
In the early 2000s, Brian moved to St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands. He had done so on a sort of whim, because the woman he was dating at the time had gotten a job there, as a veterinarian, and he opted to go with her.
“It wasn’t a great idea,” he says. “But it’s funny how a bad idea can be the right idea.”
Brian says you don’t just live in a place like the Virgin Islands. Your focus is actually on surviving. Even on a small level, like how Brian had to keep all their food inside a sealed refrigerator or freezer because the ants would find their way into everything otherwise. Or the importance of placing mosquito netting around the bed.
He once saw a car accident where a woman’s brakes gave out halfway down a hill, she plowed through a stop sign and into a tree. When everyone ran out to her, she was bleeding from a head wound but also laughing hysterically because she was alive, and okay.
Brian and his girlfriend had an empty cistern once that necessitated a guy named Six Pack who had the only truck on the island that could make it up the mountain to them to refill their water tank.
He witnessed death there, too. Every year, a local resident would skydive onto the beach during a festival, and once, an accident or perhaps a too-windy day caused him to hit the sand at the wrong angle, or too quickly, and he was killed.
And at the animal hospital where his girlfriend worked, they were constantly rescuing animals from death. Brian himself rescued a puppy from the womb of its mother when all the other puppies had died.
“You put two drops of something on its tongue, and someone else shakes to get the fluid out of its lungs,” he says. “And we did it. The mother dog lived too.”
These experiences, he says, opened his eyes to what it’s like to live in a non-first-world country. It taught him two things: 1) that life is fragile, and 2) that he has to participate.
In New York, he says, things just happen to you. But living on an island like St. Thomas, to opt out of participating is almost literally to risk death.
Brian’s sense of humor is from outer space, outer-orbit lightness. It is helium.
As always, with light comes darkness. Brian has a lot of light, so this next part shouldn’t have surprised me.
“I realized pretty recently,” Brian says, “I actually did have depression, and the funny thing about that is, I didn’t think I was worthy of the depression. People say, ‘I can’t get out of bed,’ or ‘I hear these voices that tell me I’m worthless.’”
Brian says he occasionally hears similarly tortured inner monologues from himself, but has written it off. “I’ll think, ‘I’m just being melodramatic.’”
He says he came to terms with his depression symptoms during another health problem he went through a few years ago. The problem was related to his large intestine, and he went through a period of not being able to eat or drink most things, and so, not going out, and so, not having a social life. He said he even unfollowed close friends on social media because it hurt not to be able to participate in their lives in the same way.
He’s only recently begun reintegrating that part of himself, which he says he ignored for years.
Brian says that mental health is a definite area of concern in the advertising industry. He went to a panel on mental health that talked about the psychic trauma of being in such a hectic business. Some people have had to leave the industry completely; there’s a tough-love component to it.
Brian’s period of health challenges — mental and physical — made him realize how important it is not to cling to phantom anxieties.
“You can lose up to a decade of your life just internalizing bullshit things about your age,” Brian says. “Like if you forget something, okay now your memory is starting to go. And like, you might not know what Tik Tok is. But so what. Time is limited. You’re not gonna get anything done, unless you do it right now.”
Brian Pluta is a creative director and copywriter in New York City. He lives with his girlfriend, Ash, and their cat, Mischa Barton and dog, May.