sleepinggiantbuddha

“Hey you!”

Someone I greatly respect expressed concerns that my recent post documenting “bad client behavior” and “deeply challenging agency politics” was just inviting trouble. In other words he was afraid I was angering sleeping giants and that said giants would hurt me. To quote him: “Do you think the people you’re criticizing will repent or resent?”

First of all, I’m not so stupid as to call anyone out by name that could hurt my interests or me. Secondly, I look for bigger themes than straight up hating. For example, my last post was more about the rampant fear of creativity in Adland than difficult clients. The corrosive effects of fear on creativity make for bad clients, bad creative directors and bad ads.

That said my respected peer’s concern is a valid one. Or it was, anyway. Commenting about one’s clients, even positively, used to be grounds for swift reprisals –from them as well as your own superiors, whichever came first. These days, things are a lot more socially transparent. Casual Friday has extended into just about every facet of our work lives, creating open and even chaotic working environments. Everyone has strong opinions and most of us express them freely.

Like it or not, the days of companies “controlling their message” are over. Corporate PR might well be a relic of last century. Facebook, twitter and myriad other online critics, watch dogs and finger-pointers will not tolerate “spin.” They call bullshit at the drop of a buzzword. Not too long ago I would get into fairly contentious debates with principals in my own company about what was appropriate social behavior for our clients and us. Allegedly controversial things I wrote about on this blog were just icebreakers to far bigger discussions. Yes, there were consequences.

But what the hell else am I going to write? Pimp jobs for my agency? Ad reviews? Come on. Look, there are things I love and hate about this business. Covering those topics is what makes Gods of Advertising special –to me anyway. Call me crazy but I believe sharing on what works means it’s incrementally more likely to keep working. Conversely, writing honestly about the negatives might just nudge Adland in a slightly better direction. Naïve? Of course. But what blogger isn’t?

I think fear of creativity is a legitimate theme and a provocative one. Ergo it’s the perfect stuff for we ad practitioners to think, write and talk about. I’m utterly convinced that bravery in writing –any writing- is, after craft, all that matters. Anyone disagree with me? I rest my case.

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Why are client’s so difficult?

Those of us in the creative department have asked the question so many times it has become rote. Clients are difficult. Period. Especially when it comes to buying and approving work. We expect them to demand changes to the concepts, to the script, to the voiceover, to the scene, to the CTA, to the size of the logo and so on.

We have become uncomfortably numb. We expect our work to be criticized. So much so the creation process has “revisions and changes” baked right into it. Furthermore, we are told –indeed, I’ve said it myself- if we were in our client’s shoes we’d do the same thing. To use the ultimate cliché “it is what it is.”

But you know what? That’s bullshit. I am far from perfect but I am usually an accepting and grateful client. When I hire someone to do a creative job –be it a director or an architect or whomever- I never give him or her the kind of scrutiny that is typically given to me and/or my team. At home an interior designer shows me some designs I tell him which one I like, we discuss time and money, and I pay the man. This even when things are late and over budget, which they invariably are. Once in a while I have a question or an honest mistake has been made. We address it. Done. On to the next. Even though it’s my money I am seldom a dick.

Chances are you’re the same way.

So, why are advertising clients so difficult? Why all the concerns, tweaks and rejections? I think the answer is fear based. CMO’s and their get are terrified (sometimes understandably) of losing their jobs. Often their counterparts at the agency feel the same way. Every tree we plant better bear fruit. Or else! With all that pressure (much of it self-imposed) it makes me wonder how they (or we) even get up in the morning.

Yet the resulting behavior –hacking at the tree- absolutely guarantees the tree will be barren. Or its yield will be paltry. In the end death by a thousand cuts is no different than doing nothing at all. Either way, the very thing one fears happening… happens. The team is blown up. Another CMO is brought in and in turn another agency. The process begins all over again.

Creating campaigns is thrilling. Yet, their potential is and always will be unknown. Hence the thrill. No one can be sure how an audience will react to a thing until the thing is out there. What makes a client nervous might be what makes the thing truly great. We all know the story behind the world’s greatest advertisement, Apple’s “1984.” When it was screened to dealers everyone except its creators and Steve Jobs hated it. The agency, Chiat Day was asked to fire-sell the media, which happened to be two slots on the Super Bowl. One insertion was not sold. The spot ran. And the rest is history. Granted the follow-up commercial, “Lemmings” was an abject failure. Still, was Apple really hurt by it? No. Being reckless and cavalier has never hurt the brand. Frankly, Apple could stand to be more brave. Again.

So put it out there. Instead of ‘why are we so afraid?’ let’s ask ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ If it doesn’t work as planned we try something else.

Were it that simple, right?

pornhub-times-square-hed-2014

So Pornhub (a popular pornographic website) puts up a billboard in Times Square. It’s cute. Plays off of the obvious reason why people would traffic a site like Pornhub: to masturbate. For those unawares (all 3 of you), Pornhub curates and displays thousand of Porno videos, categorized every which way you can imagine. People go there, choose a video that suits their fancy, and well you can guess the rest. Oh, the horror.

Look, I’ve got nothing new to say about pornography. It’s been around since the beginning of mankind. Have you seen some of the content meticulously etched upon the interior walls of the Pyramids? Pharaoh so horny. We all are. And looking at pictures or video of people having sex is a very popular way of satiating one’s sex drive. Very popular. Every day, I’m guessing as many people go to Pornhub and myriad other such sites than visit CNN, Gawker or Gods of Advertising. Combined.

ancient Egypt - erotic drawing looks like fresco
Oh, Mummy!

Porn was always popular. The Internet made it, if you’ll pardon the expression, explosively so. No more stealing and hiding dad’s old Hustler’s under the mattress. No more skulking into a peep show. No more fast forwarding the VCR. All one has to do was open his (or her) laptop.

I’m old enough to remember the advent and subsequent collapse of the VCR. For about 15 years, videocassettes ruled the world. And pornography entered what many connoisseurs refer to, as it’s golden age. Not counting the obligatory college outing to Behind The Green Door, the VCR is where I watched my first porno video. There was a shop on every corner. The only problem was you had to go behind a red curtain in order to procure your, ahem, film. Pornography still managed to be the number one seller in home video entertainment. I don’t have the numbers but I know from reading up that porn movies kept a lot of mom and pop video stores open for business. Not Star Wars. Not Back to the Future. But hardcore pornography. These video stars all but killed the porno mag.

And in turn the Internet killed the video store. Online pornography flourishes like blades of grass in the suburbs. Or should I say blades of grass flourish like online pornography in the suburbs?

What this essay is about, then, is not the fact that this mildly provocative billboard got put up but that it was soon taken down “for unknown reasons.” Why are we so afraid of our own sexuality? On the surface I get it. I’ve got three daughters. If my wife is taking them to Times Square I’m guessing she’d rather not explain what Pornhub is. Not that they would ask. Not with all those scantily clad Calvin Klein and Fredericks of Hollywood models staring down at them.

We have such a f-cking double standard in this country. Frontal nudity warrants an NC17 from the MPAA. Viciously depicting the killing of hundreds of people in a film and it will receive a ho-hum PG. The Pornhub billboard showed neither. It was a silly pun and a pair of hands. Below it was and likely still is a gaudy vodka ad. Booze has caused a lot more problems than pornography, let alone masturbating. Trust me.

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“He who is without sin…”

Honestly, it’s more than a gross double standard; it’s hypocrisy. Made even more ironic given Times Square used to be the peep show capital of America. I’m guessing to a man that every person who had anything to do with taking down Pornhub’s billboard has gotten it up to Pornhub as well. What did Christ say about casting stones? Oh yeah, we always forget.

m004_burningheretics

“Serves ye right for Tweeting about thy Lord!”

I’ve had a mild case of heresy all my life. Like alcoholism or diabetes, there is no cure. In some ways there’s not even a treatment. I just sort of deal with it.

So, what does mild heresy look like? First of all –and this is an important distinction-we rarely act upon our heretical instincts. That’s good for society and us. We may, however, flirt with our alleged defect, like writing a blog post about it. Here a mild case of heresy mimics symptoms of the provocateur.

In the broadest sense mild heresy is playing the Devil’s advocate. It means entertaining the possibility (or downright committing to it) that dissenting to what is considered normal belief is, in fact, the correct view. Zigging when others zag. Not believing what a majority of others steadfastly do. It is the contrary, unpopular and often dangerous opinion that marks a heretic.

The original heretics were those who dissented from the Roman Catholic Church. They paid dearly for doubting the Lord’s existence. History was rough on heretics. Thankfully, today I will not be pulled apart by my arms and legs for being agnostic. Though I do risk being de-friended on Facebook. Whatever. I do not believe in a Christian God or, for that matter, any of the deities that have edifices built in their name. Is this heresy?

In the 18th century a bunch of heretics went against their King and God, creating a place in which to live and worship freely aka The United States of America. Today, in this country, a lot of folks do not fully trust their leaders or governors. Power corrupts. Yet, we elect them anyway. However, we also mandate term limitations to mitigate dictatorships. Is hating (even mild hating) the government heresy? The other day I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Protesting is a patriotic act.”

Let’s dive into deeper water, shall we?

A heretical view is that racism and prejudice (hot button issues right now) are “normal” human behaviors. People have always organized themselves by tribe and naturally are predisposed to rally around their own kind. Pretending otherwise, the heretic believes, is pabulum. All men are not created equal and never were. Hardly a welcoming thought but it might explain a host of good and bad human behaviors, like why so many Asians are engineers or why white men can’t jump. The heretic (in this case racist) would simply say: It is what it is. Why are we so fixated on making it seem otherwise? It helps to bear in mind that not very long ago believing all men (and women) were created equal was heresy. Big time.

Life is a teeter totter. What is normal belief today will be heretical tomorrow. Or is it the other way around?

Advertising likes to bob and weave the strange waters of popular culture, occasionally making waves as well. Back in the day ad campaigns vaunted the status quo. There were considerably less media outlets for it, so being homogenous made sense. Now there are myriad platforms supported by advertising, reaching all sorts of indigenous tribes. Provoking specific populations requires stronger more provocative messages, sometimes heretical.

Thank you for indulging me on this post; I know it’s an odd one. But consider the source.

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To: Agency Re: Gang Bangs

Much cheering has gone out for a resurfaced 1994 memo written by the legendary UK adman, David Abbot (Abbot, Meade, Vickers) proclaiming contempt that his agency could take part in the practice of “gang bangs.” Lest ye shudder at the onerous term, in Adland gang-banging means throwing numerous creative teams at a single project, thereby pitting colleagues against one another, in hopes of winning a pitch or retaining a client. The idea is based on a simple truth: Shoot many arrows at a target and you are more likely to hit it. All agencies do it, some more so than others, particularly if the stakes are high.

Abbot’s piece is, of course, a fine piece of writing – witty, philosophical, and even brilliant. He writes:

“We have always believed that one creative team should own a project until they have either completed it or have been taken off it by the Creative Director… We do not believe in internal creative shoot outs or ‘gang-bangs.’ They are inefficient and more often than not de-motivating.”

The entire type written memo can be found here. I urge you to read it. It’s good stuff.

However, I did not come here to praise Caesar. I’m going to take the other view, primarily for the reason stated in my opening paragraph. More arrows mean more chances. Philosophically, I agree with the old man but realistically I cannot.

Though Abbot builds a failsafe into his argument (the bit about a Creative Director being able to make a switch), in many cases that would be too late for most clients, especially now, where so many of our engagements are projects rather than based on long-term relationships.

Rightly or wrongly, the vast majority of clients don’t have the patience. If a creative team owns an account and is struggling (and struggling happens) we must be in front of that at all times. Seldom do we get a second chance to get it right. And I do mean seldom. For even if we are blessed with a reprieve, the cliff’s edge haunts us from then on. Therefore, we hedge our bets when we put other teams on a project. It also makes our clients feel better. Again, I use the phrase rightly or wrongly.

Seven Arrows
More arrows, more chances…

Most clients want options. To count on one team for several different but equally exceptional campaigns is not just naïve; it’s absurd.

In terms of pure capitalism, it also makes sense for multiple teams to work on a single project. They bill their hours accordingly and the agency gets paid more. I don’t like it but there it is.

Finally, and this is the reason I appreciate the most, some accounts are just too good to only allow one team a crack. From a creative perspective, not all clients are equal. An agency is lucky if they have several accounts that typically ask for and approve excellent work. The fact is many clients have rigid marketing formulas they adhere to or are run by people with (and I’m being kind) a very specific vision. If there are but one or two gems, as a Creative Director I feel it is imperative I give as many of my troops as possible an opportunity to mine those gems. To not would be “de-motivating.”

For seven years, I was Creative Director on the award-winning juggernaut of Altoids (Leo Burnett 1995-2002). I built a creative group around it. Not only did I have to curtail writing copy for my beloved account so that others might, I also had to allow everyone in my large group to work on it. Actually, I didn’t have to do anything. I wanted to. For me, it just seemed fair –the right thing to do. To only let myself and/or a select few create copy for Altoids, while others toiled on less sexy accounts, seemed bogus to me then and still would now.

If my partner and I refused to open things up resentments could form, eroding the personal and professional integrity of the entire group. In addition, I wanted everyone to have something golden to put in their portfolios. Altoids was by far our most lucrative mine, if not in the entire agency. I don’t think gang-banging Altoids made anyone miserable. Frankly, I recall many awesome Fridays, when the entire group would paper the walls of my office with Altoids’ posters. We all talked about which ones we liked the most. The work speak for the results.

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“You’s gonna let us work on dat -or else!”

In my view, what my partner and I did is a crucial part of the Creative Director’s job. I’ve worked for CD’s who cherry pick assignments and people to work on them. That sucks and they suck.

In his memo, Abbot makes all kinds of good arguments against the practice of gang-bangs but none, in my view, override those above-mentioned.

I won’t pretend to be the Creative Director David abbot was but I am disputing him. Yes, gang-bangs are imperfect. Yes, they can be ugly. But I believe in a meritocracy (best idea wins), which usually starts with some form of democracy. Sometimes gang-bang means just giving everyone a chance.

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