Interview with Martin Bihl from United States

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Martin Bihl

Martin Bihl is the Executive Creative Director of LevLane – an advertising agency in Philadelphia and has worked with national and local clients for a number of categories and in his spare time, he runs a site called where he reviews books on advertising.

Interview with the 2023 MUSE Creative Awards Winner -
Martin Bihl

1Please give us a brief bio of yourself and your creative background.
I was born on a small island off the coast of America. My father and grandfather were in advertising. My writing has appeared in several publications as diverse as McSweeneys, Advertising Age, MORE, New York Magazine, Adweek and others.
2What made you become/why did you choose to become a creative?
It turns out I’m not really capable of doing anything else.
3Tell us more about your business/company, job profile, and what you do.
I’m the Executive Creative Director at LevLane, an advertising agency in Philadelphia. We have national and local clients in a variety of categories – hospitals, banking, insurance, auto, senior living. Also, I run a site called which reviews books relevant to advertising. And since I believe that advertising is where culture and commerce collide, that pretty much covers all books. From time to time I teach advertising at universities. Once in a while I sleep.
4What does “creativity” mean to you?
Creativity has to do with inventing something that doesn’t exist to solve a problem that does. Could be an idea, could be a process, could be a painting, could be an advertisement, could be a joke, could be a cake. It could be anything.
5To you, what makes a “creative” idea and/or design?

Lots of things I suppose but the two that come to mind are surprise and risk. If a thing doesn’t surprise you, it’s probably not solving the problem in a new, innovative and, dare I say it, “creative” way. It’s probably solving it in a slight variation of the ways people have tried to inadequately solve it in the past.

One sees a lot of examples of this because they’re comforting, and often, I suppose, “comfort” feels like a solution to a problem, because a problem by definition involves some form of stress. But it’s not. It’s like you break your wrist and so you drink a tremendous amount of whiskey until you can’t feel the pain any more. You didn’t fix the broken wrist, but it doesn’t hurt so, hey, problem solved right? (Full disclosure – I am not projecting this example from my own life. Probably). Me, I’d rather fix the wrist than just anesthetize the pain.

“Surprise” of course is imbued with “risk”. And risk has a lot to do with vulnerability and re-contextualizing and thinking about things in ways that others are telling you are wrong or inappropriate, and telling people that they’re thinking about things the wrong way, and… oh man, no wonder this stuff is so hard…

6Tell us about your creative and/or design process.

Oh jeez. Who knows. If I could quantify it I’d shoot videos of it and create a subscription service on Youtube.

First, to be clear, I’m a writer by trade, and while I manage and direct visual artists, motion artists, composers, whatever, when it comes down to my creative process, it’s really focused on writing, or using writing to express something else (strategy, concept, etc.)

So with that in mind – I have noticed that distraction has a lot to do with how I work. This may sound like I’m just trying to justify surfing the internet when I should be writing (which, hey whatever stops the timesheet police from hounding me) but I think it’s actually true. I find that I need to put my brain in a state that makes it easier to connect unconnected dots.

So while I absolutely cannot write while watching TV or listening to music that has lyrics, I will often find myself writing two or three completely unrelated things at the same time. Say, an essay on AI while writing a strategy for an automotive client while answering interview questions for an esteemed award show (*cough *cough).

I also am very aware that sometimes – maybe often – it’s useful to just get the broad strokes down first, and a lot of them, which you can go back to later – the next day maybe - and tease out the good stuff. Phrases, sentences, concepts, 40,000 foot stuff. Some painter friends of mine work this way – maybe I got it from them. And for what it’s worth – and as inappropriate as this may sound – alcohol is a great facilitator for this. Which I definitely learned from Hemingway (spoiler alert: not a fan of that old man nor of his sea).

But you still have to go back and finesse it. You can’t just turn in the first draft without looking at it afterwards. Now, you may discover that it’s perfect as is – I believe that’s what happened to Hunter Thompson with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Tom Wolfe with The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby – but, okay, those are 2 examples in the entire history of the written word, so, you know, the odds are that you probably will need to work on it a bit to get it good.

And lastly, I learned way too late in my career that you don’t have to write a thing sequentially even though that’s how people will read it. Write the middle first if you know that part but don’t know how you’ll get into it or out of it. Write the end if you know where you want to wind up but no idea how to get people there. If you only know the second paragraph and the fifth paragraph, well, write those and then figure out how to get from one to the other. I wasted so much time because I didn’t know what the opening line would be that if I could get it back I would be a significantly younger man.

7What's your favorite part of the creative process and why?

My favorite part happens about a year later, sometimes longer, when I look at something I’ve written and am surprised that it doesn’t suck. That may sound like false modesty, especially if you’ve ever met me but it’s the truth. When I’m working on something I work on it until I can’t stand to work on it any more. That’s usually when I know it’s done – even though there will undoubtedly be things about it that still annoy the hell out of me.

But after a year or so, I can come to it with fresh eyes and be surprised by how well it works. (oh, there’s that word again.) And that’s very gratifying. The rest of the process, however, is awful. I hate every second of it.

8Describe your creative style and its main characteristics.

Whatever it is, it goes on for a while, that’s for sure.

I think I have sort of two styles – one for my agency work, and one for non-agency work. Though I think there’s a place on the Venn diagram where they overlap.

Where they overlap is I try to find something inside of what I am working on that is new and different and interesting. So it’s never a matter of bolting something on to a client’s product or an essay I’m writing or whatever. It’s all very organic to the truth of the thing I’m focused on.

That may sound obvious but I’ve found it isn’t. Most people work from the outside and stay on the outside. I try to work from the inside out. I’m not always successful – but it’s what I try to do. And I think that impacts the style because it’s not about me, it’s about, you know, the thing and each thing has its own style. Where the two styles don’t overlap takes a little longer to explain.

When I’m doing something for a client, I’m very aware of the people who will be consuming the message and what their frame of reference or context will be. Like in the Capital Health Cancer site that we did that won a gold MUSE – we were very conscious of the frame of mind of the user – someone who was, as we said, upset – either they were just told they had cancer, or they were told someone they loved had it. So how do you communicate to them in THAT state? What do they need to know? How will they best consume the information? Understanding – or trying to understand – that is vital, and impacts the style.

When I’m writing something like an essay or a review or if I’m covering a sporting event or something like that, well, I care a bit less about the reader. Well, no, that’s not quite accurate. I almost don’t care about the reader at all. Sorry. I’m more interested in trying to figure out what I’m trying to figure out, and writing it in a way that I find entertaining and interesting. I think that’s because I believe that if someone is reading one of those things, it’s highly likely they’re reading it because they want my particular perspective on it. Like when I’m writing about soccer, no one is coming to what I write instead of ESPN, right? They want my thoughts, so in a sense, it’s sort of more about me then.

Which means, I suppose, that if you wanted to see my own really purest style, you should read those secondary things. And heaven help you if you do...

9Do you think your country and its cultural heritage has an impact on your creativity process?

Well I can’t imagine that it could not, but because I’ve been swimming in my country and cultural heritage my whole life, I am also certain I could not tell you how. I mean, I’m an old white guy in America – it would be a level of hubris exceptional even for my peer group to pretend otherwise. So it would seem to me that to get any real concrete answer I think you’d have to talk to someone who’s functioned in multiple countries and has multiple heritages.

That said, I recall years ago having a conversation about this with Chacho Puebla who was developing the agency LOLA as an independent venture at the time (I believe now it is a part of the MullenLowe group at IPG). He and his team were very distinctly building that agency with a Latin perspective, with a Latin personality and way of doing things. I conceded that it was probably different from how I did things, but I was – and still am – not sure how and why it would be perceived as an advantage to a client. I mean, I love Chacho and I think he’s a god damned genius, but I’m not sure that he’s a god damned genius because he has an abuela as I do because, you know, he’s just a god damned genius.

10Congratulations! As the winner of the 2023 MUSE Creative Awards, what does it mean to you and your company and team to receive this award distinction?

Don’t let the cynics kid you, winning any award is nice. Especially in advertising where our audience is usually so circumscribed – our boss, the client, a data point on a chart from the analytics department – that the opportunity to find out that some people you don’t know actually think what you did doesn’t suck – is great.

The thing about winning a MUSE Creative Award in particular is that you’re on an international stage. So not only is the competition that much broader and the stage that much larger, but winning says you’ve done something that transcends your own culture, something that’s universal - and frankly, that’s kind of mind-boggling.

But either way, winning an award means that we can exhale a little, for a second. Tell each other “good job” and “hey, we did it, it worked” and step back from the constant noise of meetings and briefs and revisions and say “oh yeah, we don’t suck. Cool.”

And then get back to it again.

11Can you explain a bit about the winning work you entered into the 2023 MUSE Creative Awards, and why you chose to enter this project?

Okay, so we were fortunate enough to win several awards this year, and while that may sound like unnecessary bragging (and maybe it is – I am, after all, only human), I’d like to answer this question in the context of all of them, as a sort of group.

I’m really proud of the breadth we were able to show. Look, I am constantly fighting against that Korzybski thing - “to a man with a hammer everything is a nail”. Or said another way, I’m always trying to make sure that we’re solving problems for clients that are right for those clients, and that it’s not just, you know, the stuff we do. You know, you bring your marketing problem to a shop that specializes in TV spots, well, they’re damn well going to solve your problem with a TV spot, whether it needs it or not.

I hate that. I mean, if a client’s problem needs a TV spot, great, we’ll do it and love doing it. But maybe their problem needs something more interactive. Or more “stop them in their tracks”. Or more educational. Or whatever. But start with the problem, then find the tactic that helps deliver the solution to that problem. I think that’s a much more interesting way to work – and a much more useful way to the client because it tends to be more successful for them.

So that’s why we entered what we did – a TV spot, a social video, a medical website, some educational work, some B2B work, some guerilla, some integrated – and why I’m really chuffed that they all won something.

12What was the biggest challenge with this project?

One of the things that people don’t understand about this business is the mind-boggling amount of rejection there is. We reject 90% of the ideas we have before we show them to the group. Then, the group rejects like 90% of the ideas it sees. Then, the Creative Director rejects like 90% of those. Then the head of the agency rejects like 90% of those. A HUNDRED PERCENT OF THOSE SO YOU START THE WHOLE GOD DAMNED PROCESS OVER AGAIN.

It's soul crushing.

And when you’re young that can make you doubt your instincts and that’s a disaster because, well, the only thing any of us are really selling is our instincts. So if you lose your faith in those, you should get out and go do something easier. Like brain surgery or rocket science.

But let’s say you survive that with your instincts more or less intact, then all that rejection starts to make it really hard not to doubt your team, your co-workers, the other folks at the agency. And sure, some of them are probably idiots (I mean, the simple law of averages, right?). But if you lose faith in their ability to evaluate the work through all those rounds of rejection, if you lose faith in their ability to take your nascent thinking and turn it into something you couldn’t imagine, well then you’re screwed. Because when that happens, it becomes almost impossible to keep going to the well, to keep pushing yourself to come up with the great stuff. Because if you feel like you’re constantly throwing pearls before swine, well hell, why not just go piss in the ocean, right?

And if you survive that? If all that rejection doesn’t make you think you’re a talentless hack and that everyone you work with are a bunch of mindless jerks who’ll be the first against the wall when the revolution comes – then what?

Then the rejection starts to make you doubt your clients.

What is this brief? What is this budget? What is this timing? You show them great work and they send it back. You show them even better work, and they hate it even more. You ask them why and what they say doesn’t make sense. What is wrong with these people? Do they have any idea what they’re doing? Who put them in charge of anything? Why are they ruining my life?

Or said another way, the challenge is to not let all that rejection make you give up, make you stop going to the wall. The challenge is to keep running into that wall and inspiring your team to keep running into that wall. That was the challenge with these projects and it’s the challenge with every project, you will ever do, every day, over and over again, work without end.

13How has winning an Award developed your practice/career?
I don’t know that it ever has, really. Like I said before, the nice thing about them is they get you off the little hamster wheel for a minute so you can feel a moment of pleasure for the hard work you’ve been doing. But they’re not something I’ve ever aimed at and they’re not something anyone has ever sought me out because of. I’m not sure. I’m sure it’s developed other folks’ careers. Perhaps I’m just the wrong guy to ask.
14What are your top three (3) favorite things about our industry?

Fear, surprise and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope. No, hold on, that’s the Spanish inquisition, not advertising. I always mix them up.

Well one right off the bat is, that if you’re a curious person, advertising is the best place in the world for you. It’s insane. How stuff gets made, how stuff gets sold, how stuff gets from where it’s made to where it’s sold, who does every step and why, and on and on and on about things that you didn’t even know existed and about things that you did know existed but never really thought about. Like I said, if you’re a curious person, it’s great. If you’re not, it’s a version of hell that even Dante wouldn’t have attempted.

Another is the opportunity to really understand why people do what they do. Not what they say is why they do what they do, but what really drives them. Even when it doesn’t make sense, even when it runs counter to what they are literally telling you is why they do what they do. Especially then. Why do I find this fascinating – especially since I am in no way a “people person”? I don’t know. It is, as the fella says, a mystery. But it does.

Well, despite the fact that the vast majority of people dismiss advertising as the meaningless drivel of pretentious hacks and talentless charlatans sometimes we create things that remind us what it means to be alive. Yes, really. Not often, I grant you, and it would require a level of vanity that even I lack to try to convince some poor slob who’s re-writing FSI copy for the umpteenth time that what she’s doing has any meaning whatsoever. But sometimes you do. Stuff that makes you smile or pause or god, even choke up a little, even decades after you did it. That almost feels like you couldn’t have done it and that it couldn’t have been something as tawdry as “advertising”. Like I said, it doesn’t happen often – the planets have to align in ways not even the solar system would bet on, and then you still need a lot of luck. But when it does, it does. And I love that. I really do.

15What makes your country specifically, unique in the creative industry?

It’s funny you ask that because I was just talking about this with a creative director in Chile. No, really.

I think the thing that makes the United States unique is its mind-boggling bigness. It sounds obvious but it’s hard for American creatives to really process just how much work, how many brands, how many industries, how many channels and disciplines there are and that you can work in. And frankly, why would they? Unlike creatives from other countries who tend to be much more mobile, they stay here and thus have nothing to compare it to (hell, most of them won’t even leave their city, let alone their country).

But elsewhere it’s much different. My experience is that often there’s often one primary city where the advertising, industry and media are focused, so the opportunities for variety by region are fewer. Then, because the countries are smaller, there are often fewer categories with large enough budgets for advertising, so that limits things further in a way that the United States doesn’t quite experience.

And to be clear, I don’t mean that this bigness means creative in the United States is better. Quite the contrary. It occurs to me that perhaps because advertising in the United States is so big and because advertising in the United States is so much more ubiquitous across so many more industries and so many more companies than it is in other countries, it is far more commoditized, treated far less importantly – is just less “special” - and therefore more mediocre than in other countries. I confess this is hard to prove – no one shares the crappy work so the only thing we see from elsewhere is always genius. But I wouldn’t be surprised.

It also occurs to me that, for America, the internet may fast become that “one main city” where advertising, industry and media all congregate to the exclusion of other “places”. So perhaps in a few years things won’t be so different after all. Oh well.

16Where do you see the evolution of creative industry going over the next 5-10 years?

What a curious question.

I confess that I have struggled to answer it because I think it implies that any kind of creativity industry is linear. And maybe even singular. But creative industry is not one thing, any more than creativity is. There are many strands composed of many threads and we pick them up and drop them and pick them up again over time. Where is music going, where is film going, where is interactive going, where is experiential going, where is literature going – let alone where is advertising going. Are any of these not part of “the creative industry”? Are they all going in the same direction? Hell, they’re not even going in the same direction within themselves.

Invariably some will say “it’s all going to the internet” or perhaps worse “everything will be replaced by AI”. But my experience is that even with massive disruptors like these, much in creativity is a pendulum – we swing in one direction in order to figure out something new, then everyone follows, then it’s not new, then someone starts swinging back in the other direction – informed by that first swing to be sure - to figure out something new again, which everyone follows as well. Rinse. Repeat.

17If you were a student entering this industry or an aspiring MUSE Creative Awards submitter, what advice would you give them?

For a long time I taught advertising and marketing at a variety of universities. So I was around a lot students and aspiring submitters (which is a crazy expression, isn’t it?) So people actually have asked me for that advice. And here is what I have always told them:

Don’t unpack.

Work at a big shop, work at a small shop. Work in a big city, work in a small town. Work in a foreign country. Work in a different part of your own country. Work in famous shop. Work in a shop and make it famous. Try, fail, try again, fail better. Go back, jack and do it again.

But whatever you do, don’t park yourself in front of your computer one day only to find yourself getting up from it 15 years later. Take each job with the expectation that you’ll be there for a year and you’re going to spend that year sucking as much marrow out of everyone’s bones as you can. How do they come up with the great ideas? Why do clients hire them? Why are other people there? How do they make money? Why did they lose clients? How does their process work? What are they good at, great at, horrible at?

Then move on to the next place and learn the answers to these questions there too. And compare and contrast and while you’re at it, meet people and pick their brains and break their hearts and break your own and do great work and do terrible work but keep moving.

And along the way, find that you’re becoming a more interesting person – not just a more interesting “advertising person”, a more interesting human being – because you meet people not like you, worked in places not like where you grew up, thought about things not the way you always thought about them, and on and on and on.

So that when you get to the end of your life you can say “Yes, I actually was alive. I actually lived a life.” That, after all, is the whole point, isn’t it?

18What resources would you recommend to someone who wants to improve their skills in the creative industry?

Is it inappropriate to promote one’s own business here? No? Phew, what a relief.

Okay, so… as I said above, one of the things I do with the copious amounts of free time that being as an Executive Creative Director at an advertising agency in the first quarter of the twenty-first century affords me, is to run a site called, which reviews books relevant to advertising, (which, because I think advertising is where commerce and culture collide, that’s pretty much all of them).

How does this improve one’s skills in the creative industry? Well, a couple of ways. Some of the books are the classics of advertising – you know like Confessions of an Advertising Man and Scientific Advertising and A Big Life – so you can learn from the giants – or at least, learn from a bunch of poor bastards who were facing the same damn problems you’re facing now, so you don’t go invent the wheel for yourself every time. And you’d be surprised at how much of what we’re faced with today is really just a version of something faced 50 or even a hundred years ago. So that’s one.

Then there’s exposure to discussions about what it’s like to do this stuff, day in and day out – in the reviews themselves of course, but also in the interviews with some of the authors (like Sir John Hegarty, George Lois and others), and with the content that a range of senior marketing people have shared. And a lot of this is, without meaning to be, inspirational. That is, you see these people fighting the fights you’re fighting and you feel, well, maybe I’m not alone in this battle. Or at the very least, you’re reminded that the hardness of it isn’t a mark of your inadequacy, necessarily, but a mark of just how hard this stuff can be.

But there’s also the culture part of it. Like I said above, I believe advertising is where culture and commerce collide, so understanding as much as you can about culture – about art and science and music and comedy and history and whatever – always pays dividends because it makes your work resonate better in the lives of the people who are looking at it. And anyone who tells you different has no business being in this business.

And lastly, it’s a good resource because sometimes you just need to stop thinking about what you’re thinking about and do something really different to try to jog loose some new creative connection. So read the interview with Joe Boyd, who recorded Nick Drake and discovered Pink Floyd. Read the review of Ron Chernow’s Hamilton. Or of Michael Palin’s diaries. Read a couple of the year end reviews where smart folks from around the world reveal what makes their brains hum.

And then get back to work.

19Tell us something you have never told anyone else.


20Who has inspired you in your life and why?

I don’t have a life per se, so I can only answer this question in terms of work. And I am too competitive (and frankly, too egotistical) to admit in public to being inspired by anyone else. So let me change “who” to “what” and answer the question this way:

There are moments when you’re brainstorming or writing something or designing something when the answer appears. Not the answer the client will buy necessarily, or that your boss will approve, but that is IT. Maybe you say it, or your creative partner does, or an account person says something that suddenly throws the switch in your brain and you see it or whatever. But when it happens, there’s like a sort of vibration in the room. Like you’ve released some kind of hidden energy. I mean, you can feel it. It’s hard to explain but if you’ve ever experienced it, you know what I mean.

The only thing I can compare it to is when I was a kid and my uncles would take me sailing out on the Chesapeake, and when the boat was really catching the wind, there was this sort of “thrummmm” sound that vibrated the whole boat (the first time I heard/felt it, I thought the boat was coming apart and we were about to die. I think I was seven. So that was fun…). But it’s like that. Sort of. And I can tell you exactly where I was and what I was working on every one of the rare times it's happened to me – and I would be willing to bet that so could anyone else who’s felt it can too. And I would bet you something else -that most people in most professions never have that feeling. And frankly, if you’re in this profession and you never feel it, then you should get out. Because it’s not worth it otherwise.

But to feel that. It’s why I get out of bed every morning. It’s the dragon I chase every day at work. It’s what inspires me to do things that have never been done before.

21What is your key to success? Any parting words of wisdom?
Isn’t this a question you’re supposed to ask people who are actually, you know, successful? Like say, Nick Law or Rob Schwartz or Tiffany Rolfe or just about anybody else? Me, I’m just a simple writer who is always just one client interaction away from being crabwalked out of the office. Hardly success, hardly wisdom.
22Do you have anything else you would like to add to the interview?
Good grief no. Haven’t these poor readers suffered enough? If they need to know something not covered here, they can ping me on LinkedIn. Otherwise, let’s put them out of their misery and send them home.

Winning Entries

Martin Bihl

Martin Bihl is the Executive Creative Director at LevLane – an advertising agency in Philadelphia and has worked with national and local clients for a number of categories and in his spare time, he runs a site called where he reviews books on advertising.

Read more about this interview with Claudia Chung for Hai Life, the Gold Winner of the 2023 MUSE Creative Awards.