How I explained what I do to my 8-year-old

Advertising is more complicated than ever and difficult to explain to our clients, let alone an 8-year-old, writes the president of SS+K

My wife and I recently had dinner with my 8-year-old son and his friend. We asked my son’s friend what his parents do for a living, and he knew—I mean, he really knew.

He not only told us his dad is a surgeon, but what kind of surgeon, the surgeries he performs, and the instruments he uses during his procedures. Our jaws went slack. This kid not only understood his father’s trade but also how to explain it clearly and articulately to others.

I turned to my son and said, "Do you know what daddy does?"

He answered confidently: "advertising."

I smiled at my wife as if our little boy just completed a tumbling double-half layout, complete with a full twist. I looked back at our son and said, "Go on..." but that’s where his knowledge ended.

He looked down, then back up at me sheepishly and mumbled the words, "Something to do with TV and the Internet?"

That’s as good as a lot of us could do. Advertising is more complicated than ever before and thus quite difficult to explain to our clients, let alone to an 8-year-old. That’s when I told him this story:

This summer, I meandered into a shop in Montauk. The owner was in the back of the store making jewelry in front of a glass case full of silver ornaments and charms she created. Each was meant to dangle from a necklace or bracelet.

I don’t wear any jewelry beyond my wedding ring and a durable plastic watch but I recently had a birthday and found myself interested in buying something meaningful to wear around my neck and close to my heart. I looked at dog tags, sailing anchors, hearts, coins, bullets, tusks, locks and lockets, but none appealed to me. Each charm represented something different but none of them told my story.

I kept coming back to a small silver ring in the glass case. There wasn’t anything ornate about it but it was beautiful—simple and raw. I'm not sure why I was drawn to it but I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

I finally asked the shop owner to tell me the story of the ring. She looked at me, head half cocked, and said, "Story?"

I said, "What does it mean?"

"Oh…" she said, "Nothing—it’s a ring."

I told her I really liked the ring but I can't hang something devoid of meaning around my neck and close to my heart. It needed a story, some significance.

She said, "I’m not sure what to tell you."

Dejected, I began to walk towards the door, when she said, "Wait...rings are symbols of the circle of life, of the connections we make and keep with us."

Without hesitation, I pivoted in her direction and said, "Yes…perfect…the circle of life…yes! How much do I owe you?" That was something I could put around my neck. Now, when I looked at this ring, I instantly thought of my wife and children, my parents, and my brother. In a fraction of a second, this small piece of silver symbolized the single most important aspect of my life —my family.

You see, in advertising, we’re in the business of telling stories, uncovering meaning and infusing symbolism where none exists. Often times, our job is writing the backstory, the mythology, and helping people connect with brands, products, causes and issues in ways they never envisioned.

My son looked at the ring around my neck. I wondered if the friend would go back home and say, "I have no idea what his dad does for a living."

"You got it?" I said.

My son nodded. "Yep, and I think I want to be a surgeon."

—Brad Kay is president and partner at SS+K.

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