Wise Guy

You may have noticed me banging on about the benefits of experience lately – here – along with a defence of the older adman.

You may very well ask: what do you know? Who are you to lecture the young and vibrant with your talk of the last century, of full-service agencies, of long lunches and longer afternoons?

It’s a fair point, so from time to time (depending on the response to this post ‘from time to time’ might well turn into ‘never again’) I’m going to try to illustrate some lessons that I’ve learned over the years, sprinkled with real-life examples.

If you’re reading this and you think, yes I have many examples of lessons I’ve learned, and if you’re prepared to be quoted and to share them then let me know and I’ll try to feature them.

Buckle up.

Lesson 1: You have to love ‘the work’

When I got my first proper job in an agency, Davidson Pearce, Norman Berry then the agency’s Creative Director and beating heart told me: ‘You have to eat and breathe advertising. You have to think about it the whole time. You have to love ads.’

Norman may very well have been a tad obsessive, but he had a point. Back then we all, from media research junior (me) through to CEO were all more than aware of, and proud of the agency’s creative work.

Ben Langdon, hiring me decades later at Universal McCann said something similar. When I asked him why he had hired me he said: ‘You are interested in ‘the work’. You care about it.’

At the time I really wasn’t in any way unusual.

I think today I would be. Far fewer people, certainly outside of creative departments, care about the ads. The centre of gravity within the business has swung from creative to media – which (and I’m a media guy) is akin to removing its heart and replacing it with a machine.

If we don’t care about the ads, why should the public?

Lesson 2: Take responsibility

At Davidson Pearce, through a strange set of circumstances I found myself, by now head media research person (within a department of one), getting the agency into a position from where it had a good chance to win ‘The Observer’ account.

I worked with Norman on the pitch, persuaded him he had to break his rules about speculative creative and together we won the business.

I then asked if I could double up, which is how I came to be head of media research and account director. I argued that if the agency had a category expert in house then that person should run any account within that category. I was modest as you can tell.

It seemed to me that I should take responsibility – which, after all is what I had told the client in the pitch.

‘The Observer’ advertising won a string of awards, mainly for this film.

I am proud of some things I’ve done but throughout my career I’ve also made any number of mistakes. One of my TV buyers once forgot to buy a minor ITV region for a brand launch; we miscalculated the savings to be made on a particular negotiation and over-promised to the client; I (more than) once failed to check charts before a presentation. And many, many more.

I’ve learned that if you make a mistake own up to it immediately. Assuming it won’t be noticed, or that someone else will cover it up only ends badly.

And if you’ve never made a mistake then you’re either delusional or you’ve never done anything great either.

Lesson 3: Clients are always right, except when they’re not

Clients hire agencies to help them sell more stuff, enhance their reputations, persuade investors to back them and so on.

They don’t or shouldn’t hire agencies to agree with them.

Yet we so often do this.

At Leo Burnett one of the international account guys once announced he intended to start a new type of agency, the Yes Agency. Whatever the client wanted, however foolish or mundane that would be what the agency would do. Luckily, he wasn’t serious (about starting it; he was deadly serious about the fear we all had that such an agency would succeed).

Richard Wheatly, Leo Burnett’s Chairman once fired Alka Seltzer when the client organised a focus group of his own staff to vote on whether or not our print ad featured a sufficient number of bubbles (we felt it fairly represented reality; the client wanted, needed more bubbles).

Admittedly this was the last of a very long line of straws.

When it comes down to arguing not about the ad but about this or that number of bubbles it’s time to say goodnight.

Lesson 4: It’s the client’s money.

At the end of the day, you can argue all you like but if the client wants to waste his money on this or that channel or medium then it’s his to waste.

I worked on P&G for many years, including a spell in the US. At my first meeting with the global team in Cincinnati the client said something like: ‘You should always recommend what you think we should do; but sometimes your predecessor didn’t know when to stop. We’ll always listen to you, but at the end we may decide to do something different, quite possibly for reasons you’re not party to.’

You have to know when to stop.

You may ask: why is media stuff different from bubbles? One’s art, one’s sophisticated guessing. One matters, one really doesn’t.

If you’re working in advertising today, you’re incredibly lucky. Savour it, love it, care for it.

Pass it on.


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