Network interference: a necessary evil in Adland

The Simpsons presented in a style made famous by Steffan Postaer and Mark Faulkner's Altoids ads

The Simpsons presented in a style made famous by Steffan Postaer and Mark Faulkner’s Altoids ads

“Much of The Simpsons success can be traced
to two main sources:
an independence
from network interference
and a complete dedication
to the writing…”

— John Ortved,
The Unauthorized History of the Simpsons

The Simpsons TV show is the creative standard by which all comedy writing (perhaps all script writing) is measured. Few ever meet those standards. Many duck them altogether. It is also one of the most successful things ever created. Period. No part of popular culture (ours or anyone’s) is unaffected by this quirky cartoon.

How and why can be summed up in the above quote.

As you might imagine, the above quote is sweet music to any creative person’s ears, especially the copywriter’s. Unfortunately, it is a song we seldom get to play or hear in the creative department. We get “network interference” all the time, so much so that it is considered part of the “process.”

And while we may have a complete dedication to the writing, few others in a typical agency do. And why should they? Writing is not their skill set. They are executives, strategists, and managers. Their skill set, if you get right down to it, is to affect the writing, generally via “comments.”

Comments can be good. Comments can be bad. My point is that we don’t work in a vacuum.

An Altoids ad by Steffan Postaer and Mark Faulkner
An Altoids ad by Steffan Postaer and Mark Faulkner

The “curiously strong mints” campaign is my Simpsons. In my own unauthorized untold true story of Altoids, I make a similar statement to Ortved’s. A great campaign for many reasons, but in the early going, its meteoric success comes down to the same two things: autonomy and an obsession for writing.

I obsessed over those headlines while my partner Mark Faulkner obsessed over images, color scheme, and typography.

In that first year we answered to no one, save for our creative director, who was appreciative and supportive. Obviously, the client had to sign off (they were a joy by the way), but “network interference” was negligible.

Why? No one in the agency cared. The budget was tiny and TV never an option. (Remember this was 1995 and this was Leo Burnett, where TV was king.)

Anyway, the rest is history: Wrigley bought Altoids and Lifesavers for $1.5 billion dollars.

Eventually, many would contribute to the Altoids case study (I’ve named them in previous posts as well as in an Adweek story), but it began as a creative team and an assignment in its first year.

So, what do we make of “network interference,” aka the age-old battle between suit and creative? We are both on the same team, working for the same “network.” But the partnership is strained. Necessarily perhaps. And maybe that’s healthy.

But for those once-in-a-lifetime campaigns — Think Different, Just do it. Curiously Strong Mints — I’m guessing it was the lone creative who called the tune.


Steffan Postaer
Steffan Postaer

A copywriter by trade, Steffan is perhaps best known for his provocative and iconic work on Altoids, The Curiously Strong Mints. Early into his long tenure at Leo Burnett, Steffan co-wrote “Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile,” which (for better or worse) became a part of the lexicon.

Steffan currently provides creative leadership at Jumbo Shrimp, a San Francisco boutique responsible for elevating the creative product across a broad range of B2B and technology clients.

A one-time recipient of Crain’s prestigious “40 under 40,” Steffan is immersed in new media. His popular blog, Gods of Advertising was recently ranked top 20 by Business Insider.

He’s the recipient of advertising’s most prestigious awards, including numerous One Show Pencils, the Kelly Award for best print campaign in North America, and gold and silver Lions from Cannes.

Steffan has written three novels, all of which are available via online booksellers. His horror screenplay, Belzec: The Made Undead won Best Horror Screenplay at Action on Film, Chicago’s Horror Fest and several other festivals.