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Just add hot water…

Time for a true and funny story and, as it happens, the learning of one my new favorite phrases: Chocolate Teapot. What the hell is a chocolate teapot you ask? I’ll get to that. But first the story…

Partly because of my agency’s history and also our Bay Area location, at gyro we handle a lot of technology clients. On our roster we have some of the biggest tech firms in the world and just as many small. All of them are dear to us. The big ones keep us honest. The small ones keep us sharp. Or is it the other way around? Suffice to say, we are fortunate for having all of them.

Like any agency, when a RFI (Request for Information) and/or RFP (Request for Proposal) comes over the transom we quickly assemble the management team to see if the company would be a good fit –for both parties. Like any agency, we are reluctant to pass on new business. It happens. But usually we at least opt to meet the prospect.

A while back a query arrived from the new CMO of a technology company based in New Zealand. The fellow was planning on expanding operations in the US and was looking for an agency to help him to it. Without naming names, his company did have credibility as a going concern in its country of origin. The business model intrigued us. We scheduled a meeting.

So the guy comes in. He’s a nice enough person and the senior members of the agency carved out two hours for credentials and conversation. We had coffee service and bagels and everybody was up for the meeting. After going through our “creds” we got into the man’s business, talked strategy and outlined various scenarios we thought might be of interest to him. A spirited and fun discussion followed.

Somewhere along the way the man uttered the expression “chocolate teapot” as in ‘the website was as useful as a chocolate teapot.’ I’d never heard the expression and neither had my colleagues. We all appreciated the poetry of it. Pour hot water into a chocolate teapot. Useless!

Two hours go by and the man is completely engaged –a good thing- so we all silently agreed to go over our allotted time. About three hours in our Managing Director steered the conversation to the sensitive topic of budget. We rightly assumed we had a willing prospect and besides, at that point, what else are we going to discuss?

This charming, bespectacled New Zealander replied, “I have five or six thousand dollars to play with.”

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You should have seen our faces. Our smiles looked like they had been carved out by a plastic surgeon. Not to be crass but if one added up the salaries in the room and multiplied them by three hours we’d already eclipsed that number. With politeness we resolutely ended our meeting.

Afterward, one of us joked: “Well, that was about as useful as a chocolate teapot.” Though thankfully seldom used, the phrase became part of our vocabulary. Which, I guess, is the icing on the teapot.

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I like to think I’m a good writer. I like to think I’m a good presenter. Alas, I still haven’t figured out how to sell a client a piece of work they do not want to do. Has anyone… really? Precious few clients are predisposed to do breakthrough work. For most, advertising (regardless of platform) is just a line item. An ever-smaller box to be checked. That these clients don’t behave more bullishly or even see the virtue of truly creative marketing is their part of the problem.

But what is my part? I believe in options. I like to show clients several campaigns for any given assignment. Of these we of course make a recommendation. Sometimes they go with it. Many times they don’t. We still consider it a victory (for both sides) if a client gloms on to one of the other campaigns. If none of them are runts then we have nothing to worry about. Right? Wrong?

Either way, that’s been my policy. But I do wonder. Should we/I have pressed harder for our recommendation? Certainly my creative team would want as much. Yet, if a client desires a hamburger you can sell the steak all you want the client will only get frustrated and maybe even to the point where they balk at the goddamn hamburger. Then what have we got? That’s right: a pissed off client and no sale.

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So, we ask: What do you want on your burger?

Yet, when I look back at some of these outcomes I second-guess what might have been had we gotten our way. In order for an agency –any agency- to get to the next level it has to demonstrate extraordinary creative and have at least one iconic campaign to its name. Iconic work rarely comes from compromise or committee. So, I wrestle with the vogue notion of collaboration. Tissue sessions are practical as they vest client participants in the eventual outcome but they also corrupt the outcome, playing to a common denominator.

We all know this but what’s a girl to do? If we force a piece of work down a client’s throat they will most likely spit it back out and usually in our face. Produced ideas –bad, good or great- often don’t reveal themselves in the first weeks of communications, let alone a creative presentation. If a CEO questions the CMO about newly approved work it rarely ends well for all parties, including the agency. Therefore, the CMO is risk averse. Questions turn to concerns, which quickly become issues and then the kill switch is pulled. Second chances are rare. Therefore, doing work that instantly appeals to the many tends to be the safest bet. Rare is the CMO who stays fast with a seemingly risky bet, or makes one in the first place.

Do not assume strategy plays a decisive role in choosing creative. Filet and hamburger are on strategy for meat dishes. Alas, hamburger is a crowd pleaser. Adding to that, it is faster and cheaper.

I’ve worked at enough places to know there are plenty of creative chefs in the kitchen. Dissing agencies for dishing out burgers is easy but perhaps unfair. Not when precious few customers appreciate the cuisine.

It’s maddening. What I can control is putting out a good menu and pitching the top items to the best of my ability. After that I can use all the help I can get. And divine intervention from the Gods of Advertising.


“In the room the women come and go,
Talking of Michaelangelo.”

-T.S. Elliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Although completely irrelevant, I always think of Elliot’s line whenever people come and go in Adland, which happens more than ever these days. Turnover at agencies and other marketing companies is at an all time high. Many of our denizens last only a year or so in their current positions, coming and going with little fanfare. Often of their own volition. Other times not.

Either way, the migratory patterns are erratic, frequent and seemingly inevitable. One day Jack is cranking out a media plan and the next day he’s gone. Granted, the dissolution of company incentives, paired with challenging economic realities, make transience in the work force a reality for many professions. But in few more so than ours. “That’s advertising,” sighs a bewildered colleague upon discovering another cube mate has flown the coop.

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“Job hopping” in Adland. Common as crappy stock photography.

Some of us also jump to conclusions, reckoning a few departures denote an exodus, “It’s like a revolving door around here.” We blame the agency, citing a rote list of flaws. We wonder if we should jump ship as well. We “feel” it’s time for change. Use caution, boys and girls. Feelings are not facts.

I especially love it when clients raise their eyebrows at agency turnover, especially given their rampant infidelities, most hardly willing to make agency commitments lasting longer than a few quarters. In addition, it is well documented that CMO’s have among the shortest tenures of any profession.

Ah, but the grass is greener at the agency down the street. Your paycheck might be incrementally greener but often that’s about it. Be wary of seductive new bosses, promises of better assignments and that badass floor plan. The “geographic cure” is a futile one. Two months into a new gig and the job hopper feels as he did before: restless, irritable and discontent. Alas, it has always been easier to change surrounding than one’s self. Ask any alcoholic.

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“I’m certain there’s greener grass on other side of the hill!”

Besides, if turnover is necessarily a symptom of agency malignancy then why are even the best agencies in the world rife with it? The headhunter’s siren song compels people out of Goodby same as into it.

Regarding agency culture: It is as ephemeral as a sunny day. A few clouds roll in and it withers. No matter where you are, lose a few pitches and the air gets really hard to breathe really fast. And do not mistake an agency’s credentials for a winning culture. A slick website could be masking a sick job site. Similarly, don’t judge an agency on its best campaigns. For every princess in the castle there are three ugly stepsisters. Alas, even Paris has its ghettoes.

For better or worse, we have become tribal nomads, forever moving and hunting smaller and thinner prey. In this lean and hungry context agency turnover makes complete sense. I suppose it’s bittersweet. The fat and happy lifer is a thing of the past.

There are many more facets to this discussion, variables I have not valued here. While my history is one of staying put, I do not disparage those of you who’s resumes are long. But take heed. Some of the very best decisions I’ve ever made involved saying three words: “No, thank you.”

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Hell’s clicker…

The other day we were preparing for a new client presentation and one of my colleagues suggested we abandon the PowerPoint format we were working on and go with something more organic and less formal, to “stimulate conversation” and “meeting flow.” He thought maybe just a handful of title cards. Someone suggested Prezi. This is not the first time I’ve heard such remarks. Frankly, I hear them all the time. Hating on PowerPoint is commonplace in Adland. We are in the image business and God forbid we come across as process driven or, worse yet, old fashioned.

Being a creative, you’d think I would have wholeheartedly agreed with my colleague. After all, nothing symbolizes corporation and process like rusty, old PowerPoint.

I did not.

I softly suggested that this particular client (and perhaps quite a few others) might actually prefer PPT versus something more organic, artsy or minimalistic. We deal with technology companies. Many are engineers cum marketers. They are comfortable with linear process. They appreciate eye charts. They might actually like PowerPoint. Frankly, most clients are MBA’s. They are left brain thinkers and they might want a beacon to guide them.

Either side. Either way. Used properly and with prudence PPT does the job exceedingly well. Besides, if our content is good, no one will deduct points from us for using it. I wonder if hating on PPT is based on insecurities deeper than a screen? Maybe some of us wonder if our process and methods are old fashioned and thus take it out on the presentation format.

Furthermore, I submit, choosing the new, new thing over PPT (presumably to come off as hip or modern) is a bit like chasing fool’s gold. The latest presentation tool might be attractive but it could also be a glitch-filled nightmare. I recall being trapped by a Prezi that had a mind of its own. The motion graphics took over rendering us powerless to stop it. Not good.

Finally, I also wonder if most people secretly appreciate having something to look at in front of the room. Being an audience is easy. Engaging in meaningful business conversation is not. For one thing, who’s leading the meeting? Get a few Type A’s in the room and control goes to the Alpha. Even more common is the likelihood of someone getting off point. Tangents are great at a dinner party. Less so when you have a hard stop in an hour.

In general, PowerPoint gets a bad rap. It is like a clock face. Old fashioned, sure. Yet utterly and completely functional.


Even the stars are dim.

In the absence of new briefs most ad agencies flounder. Having not planned for drought (we never do), the lack of organic growth or new business is almost always painful. Unfortunately, we are seemingly incapable of healing our own wounds. And bullish to a fault, we never see them coming. It’s not a good formula. But we’re smart, right? We can sell sand in the desert. So why is it we only know what we’re doing when we have something to do?

I’ll start by looking in the mirror.

For all our advertising awards, and the big salaries that go with them, most hotshot creatives have no clue how to help the agency out. Suddenly, the idea people are bereft of ideas. We bitch and point fingers. Our humor grows dark. Instead of working (on what?) we surf the net forwarding racy videos to one another. When that grows old, we update our portfolios.

And account people sans accounts are just as clueless. Fred has been milking the same cow so long he doesn’t know how to do anything else. He’s frustrated at Betsey when her milk runs dry. Dumb fucking animal! But just below the surface he blames his agency. They didn’t give him what he needed to take care of the cow. And it’s not like he didn’t ask them and warn them. Deeper down Fred blames himself. It’s his account for Christ’s sake. He could have done more or done differently. And now it’s too late. Instead of thinking what he might do for the agency to make up for the shortfall, Fred runs to his office and updates his Linkedin account. After all, he thinks, “they don’t pay me to make rain.” Wonder why?

Who’s “they” and “them” anyway? It’s your agency. Here’s an idea: Why not get together and try to figure out ways to help out the firm? In over 20 years working in numerous creative departments, I’ve never seen that happen. Not once. Which makes me just as culpable. What excuses did I make? That they didn’t pay me enough? That they wouldn’t listen to me anyway?

And so it goes during dry spells. From top to bottom, agencies fall apart. There are many reasons for this. One big one might be that ad agencies are not built for anything but growth. Holding companies demand profits that might otherwise be allocated to prudent reserves. Somewhat irresponsible for agencies during good times, it can be downright fatal during bad. When the hallway chatter turns to ‘cuts’ everyone becomes a headless chicken, both in courage and intelligence. Yet, even if privately owned companies endure hard times longer and/or plan for them better, I can’t help feeling there’s more we all could do to mitigate the problem.

I’m in my own little dry spell right now, but if/when I get my next job I’m vowing to initiate planning for tough times. Maybe it’s a think tank wherein the agency’s best and brightest brainstorm ideas. Maybe it’s a redo on the website. Unfortunately, fear cripples planning right when one needs it the most. Management tends to hunker down, invariably settling on cuts. And why weren’t contingency plans created during flush periods anyway? It’s a cyclical industry; tough times befall all agencies. There has to be a better way for us to handle them.

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