Lessons from a Career – Part Three

At the beginning of this year, I said I would use the Cog Blog platform to publish some lessons learned over the course of my career. My plan was to do four posts over the year, one a quarter, to try to stick to one key lesson per post, and to use examples. I have been at this a long time (over 50 years) and would have to be a complete fool not to have picked up a few tips along the way. 

March’s Part One (here) was about respect for others’ expertise, and recognising that no-one, not even you, can be expert in everything. 

June’s Part Two (here) was about curiosity. 

This time the theme is collaboration, and the benefits of working together.  

I spent a large chunk of my career at Leo Burnett. At the time Burnett was an independent company, owned by its employees. This was of course way before Publicis bought the agency.  

There existed a strong culture which incidentally continues to this day amongst Burnett alumni. Leo himself fostered this – when I joined, I remember being shown a speech he made called: ‘When to take my name off the door’, which was all about respecting each other and the work we all did. 

Burnett (the man) was a great one for aphorisms. One that stuck with me was: ‘No one of us is better than all of us.’ 

As the ad business started to fragment into different specialisms, leading eventually to the emergence of the media agency sector, so collaboration became less a ‘nice to have’ and more a necessity. 

Leo Burnett (the agency) was one amongst many to realise that as the marketing budget was larger than the ad budget, expanding the service offering into areas like packaging and in-store was a promising idea. This was called ICS, Integrated Communication Services (I probably got that wrong – someone will correct me). 

I was part of the team that presented ICS to Cathay Pacific, a client known to be both loyal and innovative. We used seatback anti-macassars as one example of an owned medium that would benefit from inclusion in our integrated plan. 

We were asked for our experience delivering designs on anti-macassars. Had we ever worked with suppliers of these things before? We hadn’t. We tended towards the arrogant in such matters of detail. 

I see the anti-macassar story as being less about an opportunity and more about a land-grab. Let’s say Burnett had been awarded the anti-macassar brief and we had messed up (quite possible given our distinct lack of specialist knowledge), then the client’s trust in the agency would have been eroded. 

Trust is an invaluable commodity, why would you risk it by taking on something about which you clearly know little?  

Why spoil the ship for a ha’porth of tar? 

If on the other hand, we had contacted Cathay’s anti-macassar supplier and found a way of working with them to incorporate our big advertising idea into their product then not only would the client have benefited but the agency’s status as a trusted and collaborative partner would have been enhanced. 

The best ideas can come from anywhere, including media vendors. I sometimes invited creative teams to present certain campaigns to key vendors. There are rules to doing this. 

Pick the client and be sure that you can deliver. We had a wonderful client in Perrier who were always up for innovative ways of using media channels. There is nothing worse than talking big to a vendor, then expecting them to spend time on an idea that never had any chance of going anywhere. 

Trying and failing is fine; talking your influence up and then never taking the idea forward is insulting. 

At the end of the day no-one knows more about a media vehicle than those selling it; use their expertise and share the credit. 

Even today too many buyers seek confrontation and delight in displays of one-upmanship. 

The best know that ‘no one of us is as good as all of us’ and live by that mantra. 

The best clients know this too and encourage a sharing culture amongst their agencies. The worst foster a culture of anxiety fuelled by threats of reviews. 

Being less confrontational and more collaborative is good for business. Everyone’s business. 


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