“What we do matters!” a friend said to me in a tone that was half exclamation and half wish. “Stop kidding yourself,” I said. “You will never accomplish anything in life.”
Recently, we’ve been talking a lot about whether “we” matter or not. Does a single individual matter in the grand scheme of things? If you're normal, I suspect you change your mind on the subject of mattering depending on the day and how life is treating you. Most of us seem to believe we matter to our family and to our closest friends, and that the things we do can have a profound effect on their lives. But whether we matter beyond that sphere is a hard question to answer. Even the greatest people come and go and the world barely skips a beat. When my grandfather died, part of me kept expecting something more from the world. Some sort of sign that the universe noticed. But the sun shines on just as brightly. So if there is a sign that we matter it has to be found in our living, waking moments.
Some of us wish we mattered but worry that we don’t. But just as many seem to be hoping that we don’t matter and worrying that we might. A lot of these people are in advertising.
My good friend Dave Schiff was one of these people. He would work on and sell anything because he was comforted by the fact the world was too big and too fucked up for him to ever matter. What he did was of no consequence so he was free to do anything. He held onto that belief like a spiritual life preserver.
Then one day he and some friends had an idea for an agency that would exist solely to support American manufacturing. Not an earth-shattering idea, but based on trying to change things for the better. They weren’t sure how an agency could actually help but it just felt right. Right enough to leap off a cliff and plunge into the uncertain future of the small agency owner. The agency would set out to build advertising like any other but also build community around a new vision for a sexy, cool and inclusive buy American movement. “This is the greatest job I’ve ever had,” Dave was soon heard to say. More and more brilliant people in and out of advertising began to show up to help. Dave said it felt good to be part of something that it seemed like everybody loved.
Then it happened. Somebody didn’t like it. They said it was a fool's errand. US Manufacturing was gone and would never come back. And furthermore Dave was disingenuous in his work. He was only trying to pretend to be part of a movement he had no business or expertise to be in. And this person didn’t just say these things, she wrote these things after interviewing Dave for a story.
And suddenly the question loomed large again. Maybe she was right and Dave didn’t matter. Maybe we were powerless and couldn’t possibly change anything. It’s so easy for us to give into these ideas. Just a little nudge can send the most firmly planted feet scrambling to find level ground again.
“What we do matters!” Dave said. We had just gotten off the phone with a client that had planned to offshore production and after conversations with Made had decided instead to manufacture here. The client was buying an old Walmart to turn into a factory - factory that would be filled with high-tech manufacturing jobs. Dave was feeling good. But I could see a new unease growing, too. If what we do really does matter, then what happens?
Maybe we choose to believe we don’t matter because to come to the understanding that we’re actually in the game may be the most terrifying realization of all.