By Callie Oettinger | Published: August 20, 2010
The film “Lemonade” was my introduction to Erik Proulx. It is inspiring, uplifting, motivating—all the good stuff—and is a strong reminder of our abilities to reinvent ourselves—hard-charge our dreams, at any moment. A 15-year veteran of the advertising industry, Erik created commercials for brands like Volvo, Fidelity Investments, GMC Trucks, and Perdue Chicken. Then, two days after being offered a raise and a promotion, his agency laid him off without ceremony. He responded by creating “Lemonade” and the blog Please Feed The Animals. His experience, combined with the collective experience of the hundreds of people he’s interviewed for Lemonade (the book), has made him an insightful speaker, author, and advocate for personal and professional reinvention. He has appeared on CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, NPR’s On Point, ABC News with Tory Johnson, and several other national print and broadcast media to discuss his front-line exposure to the shifting attitude around work and careers. Erik has been a contributing writer to Advertising Age, Adweek, and Creativity Magazine, and his “Dads Without Dads” column is a regular feature in The Good Men Project Magazine. Erik is currently filming “Lemonade: Detroit” about the reinvention of a city trying to redefine itself after the collapse of the auto industry.
When you decided to make “Lemonade,” you had just been laid off, and said “not doing it wasn’t an option.” What drove you to knock down Resistance, leave your safety zone, and go after something that wasn’t a sure thing?
Catholic guilt. Let me explain.
I’m not a very devout churchman these days. As an adult, I’ve either come to question most of what I learned in Catholic school or simply dismissed it outright. But there was one lesson that always stuck with me, and it was when Sister Claire told our 4th grade class that we were all endowed with unique talents, and that wasting them was a sin in the eyes of God.
Making “Lemonade” was the first time in my career that I felt like I was doing something bigger than myself. I spent most of my 15 years in advertising trying to please bosses or clients or award-show judges. But helping people see that they could turn a seemingly tragic event into something life-changing and positive was supremely motivating. It felt right, as if I was being absolved for the sin of misappropriated talent. Finally, I was honoring my responsibility to myself.
Secondly, it became clear to me after three layoffs that there is no sure thing. You can turn your life over to your employer, give them your nights and weekends and holidays, win them clients and awards, do your time sheets on time and abide the employee manual, and even then your job is not safe. Making “Lemonade” was as much about survival as anything. The worst thing any unemployed person can do is camouflage themselves into the wallpaper of resumes and job fairs. I needed to make a movie if for no other reason than to stand out.
“It’s not a pink slip, it’s a blank page” is a stand-out from “Lemonade.” How have you found the ideas to fill your slate? And, how do you decide which to juice?
Advertising creatives are always looking outward for inspiration. We tend to ingest lots of film and museum art, and articles in Rolling Stone, in order to feed our brains with the necessary creative soup, so that one day it will all be reassembled into something original. That’s important.
But there’s another important element in idea generation, and it’s looking beyond the information in your brain, past cerebral conscious and unconscious thought, down deep into what is primal and idealistic. This place exists somewhere in your stomach. It’s fed by oxygen and is predetermined by genetics. The best ideas live there. They are the really important ones that cannot be ignored. Those are the ideas I’m trying to pay attention to. And they’re not always easy to find.
Once you find the idea, how do you move forward? In what form does your personal kick in the butt arrive?
My friend Adam Kuhr told me about a JFK quote, and it pretty much sums up how I confront the Resistance:
“The Irish writer Frank O’Connor wrote how, as a boy, he and his friends would make their way across the countryside. When they came to an orchard wall that seemed too high and too doubtful to try and too difficult to permit their voyage to continue, they took off their hats and tossed them over the wall—and then they had no choice but to follow them.”
“This nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space, and we have no choice but to follow it.”
If I have an idea that I want to execute—I mean, really, really want to see through to completion—then I announce it. I blog about it. I tweet about it. I get my bullhorn and a microphone, and make my intentions known to anyone who will listen. I don’t try to keep it to myself so no one else steals the idea, because that would be a guarantee that it would just stay in my notebook. Basically, I paint myself in a corner, so the only way out is to do what I said I would.
You’ve said that your mother, a single mom, is your inspiration—she’s the first person you saw create lemonade. When you’ve faced roadblocks in your own life, is there any one experience in particular that you remember her going through, which helps you move forward?
About 15 years ago, my mom had risen to become the executive director of the very same non-profit organization that provided the clerical training she needed to get off of welfare. On her desk, she had a picture of the two of us. I was 23 at the time and looked older. She was 42 at the time and looked younger. When one of her colleagues saw the picture, they asked her, “Is that your boyfriend?”
She laughed, and politely told this person, “No. That’s my son. We’re best friends, because we grew up together.”
In many ways, my mom and I are still growing up together. At any given time, we can share just-learned life lessons with each other, and know that the other is going through the exact same period of growth.
It taught me that no matter what we achieve or what obstacles we overcome, we’re always still growing up.
Your hope is that more people will choose to “do what we are,” rather than define themselves by the job they perform. In your case, as an example, you realized:
“I didn’t want to get into advertising per se. What I wanted to do was tell stories. I wanted to connect with people emotionally, and help them overcome this fear of their circumstances—the same way my mom did back in 1971. It took lots of relocating and a few layoffs to realize this, but, advertising for me is just one way to do what I love. I can have a moviemaking career, I can have a blogging career—pleasefeedtheanimals.com—I can have a book-writing career, I can write grants, I can speak . . . I can blog, I can do all this, and it all adds up to a much more worthwhile career than the single definition of advertising copywriter.”
What’s the next step for you? How will you continue to evolve? The next time someone asks what you do, how will you answer?
You had to ask me this question. The elevator speech is the bane of my existence. As I mentioned, even though I still write television commercials, copywriting is just one way to do what I love. I’m also making a second film called “Lemonade: Detroit.” But does that make me a filmmaker? I blog, but I’m not just a blogger. I’m writing a book, but I’m not just an author. The best summation I can give is that I’m trying to use my storytelling powers for good. But just try telling that to someone who asks what you do for a living. I can already picture the 10-minute explanation that ensues.
The biggest push in my life right now is “Lemonade: Detroit.” I’m applying the same theory to a whole city that I did to laid-off individuals: that when circumstances reach their low point, possibilities suddenly become infinite. People—and cities—with nothing to lose can do anything. Despite everything you see and read about Detroit, there is still this incredible optimism and confidence.
I went out to Detroit last December to screen “Lemonade” to a group of about 400 advertising industry professionals. It was right when one of the city’s biggest agencies (BBDO) had announced it was going to close.
I was petrified. I thought, this crowd is too raw. This movie is too Pollyanna. They’re gonna think it’s bullshit. I’m going to get stuff thrown at me.
But, they were inspired and motivated to move beyond. To them, a shuttered ad agency was just another temporary setback. I was taken aback by the optimism and resilience in that room. And the more I asked around, the more people I talked to, the more I realized that it’s in the culture. The people who are left in Detroit are the one’s who are going to reinvent it, and it’s already happening.
You’ve given a lot back via the creation and distribution of “Lemonade.” How would you like the giving to move forward?
I want what I do to resonate with people, to help them in some way. As much as I love coming up with advertising ideas, very little of what I did motivated anyone to do anything except buy something they probably didn’t need. The best way I can continue giving is to do work that gets people off their asses, motivates them to make good use of their God-given talents, and frees them from the wrath of Sister Claire.