It’s only a metaphor… It’s only a metaphor…

I don’t know if every agency has this double-edged sword slicing through it but every one I’ve ever worked for has. I’m talking about one conspicuously large client that takes up as much space as all the others put together. Obviously, this “problem” has its upside. Namely billings. Giant clients bring agencies money. And, well, the importance of that cannot be underestimated.

Ironically, it is often underestimated. Budgets have a way of shrinking. Like any client big ones change their mind. First quarter projections are seldom realized. Half way through the fiscal year agencies are typically chasing a number. It’s never quite what it once seemed. Sometimes it isn’t even close.

In theory, big clients provide numerous big creative opportunities. But that has not been my experience. Why? Big clients are big companies. And big companies are layered, rife with politics. Marketing is no exception. Indeed, it is often the department most challenged by bureaucracy. Marketing is divided into silos. Each silo has a group head. He reports to a marketing director, who, in turn reports to the CMO. The CMO must deliver results to the CEO. The CEO is beholden to her shareholders. Getting work in front of him or her who matters is a merciless gauntlet. Risk aversion is the result. Decisions are made by committee if they are made at all. Really smart people become less so. Fear permeates these ecosystems, obvious as algae on coral. In these conditions, saying “no” becomes the easiest option. This translates into endless, futile presentations, where your audience is mostly worried about what his many superiors will think. Kicking the can is what happens. And that can is creative.

Alas, this is only the tip. Monoliths dominate an agency, changing it, dividing it. There are those who service the big client… and everyone else. A house divided takes its toll on everyone. Resentments develop between sides. The money is over here but the creative opportunities are over there. Some staff work harder than others, logging grueling hours on thankless tasks. When certain individuals get to go home for dinner and others never do, it’s patently unfair. Or the opposite happens. Those not working on the “important” client feel left out, less than. Rightly or wrongly, they may wonder why no one in management cares about what they’re doing. Perception is reality and the perception ain’t good.

The ‘us and them’ scenario is very common in Adland but that doesn’t make it okay. Agency culture, the thing so many of us like to wag about, becomes agency dysfunction. Often the two sides separate, forming agencies within agencies. This works until it doesn’t. Before you know it these kingdoms grow weary of sharing resources. The strong tire of helping the weak. The poor turn bitter from subservience. I give you Game of Thrones.

While the holding company model is often rightly criticized for this very thing I’m saying it can and does happen at any agency, regardless of affiliation. The whale –a dream come true for every agency- can quickly become a nightmare.

What’s the solution? I can assure you it isn’t rejecting big clients. Having been through the looking glass numerous times, I can only offer these suggestions. If camps are inevitable do not allow fences to go up. Smash them wherever you see them. Be open about what is happening but refrain from judgment or cynicism. Rather, think about what the other is going through. Appreciate their value even if you question it. This goes for everyone in the company. Newer recruits must respect the complexities of management and management must remain sensitive to what everyone in the company is experiencing. Easier said than done. But trying to remain right sized in an unbalanced boat is paramount to staying afloat.

Where to next?

September 2, 2015


After almost 4 years, my agency and I are going through a conscious uncoupling. No tears. It happens all the time. Besides, four years in Adland is a good, long ride. Still, I loved that agency and I believe it loved me back. We were good. The admiration and fondness I have for my former colleagues cannot be understated. In particular, my creative team. You’re the best.

So, in the most sincere sense of the word: Good-bye!

I try (and even succeed) at being a glass half full type person. That means no looking back with squinty eyes. And why should I? My former agency got me to the Golden State and the gorgeous Bay Area. I have been smitten ever since.

That job also got me deeper into high tech than most people in Adland ever go. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that many of the clients we worked with are changing the world. And we presented to them! Of course bringing creative business ideas to highly technical companies is a daunting job. But when you click, man is it ever rewarding.

Let’s do it again.  Or something like it. Perhaps we can build the creative capability inside a technology company. That is the new normal. Media companies are looking to evolve the same way. Let me help. Sure, it would be a gas finding my new home in a traditional advertising agency. Like going home. But I’m open-minded.  As anyone in my field ought to be.

So, Hello!


Creative Portfolio


Walt Whitman

When I was a teenager, I worked one summer at my Grandfather’s can factory on the Southside of Chicago. Dominic was not my biological grand parent but I grew up knowing only him on my mother’s side. Dom was fierce, funny and a very loyal man. He treated me like blood.

His can company, called (for a reason I forget) Wisconsin Can was a line factory. Each person occupied a spot along a conveyor and did one menial but critical job. The end product was an aluminum can, usually for cookies or candy.

A log-haired, pot smoking dreamer, this was not my fantasy gig. I wouldn’t have lasted a week if not for Dom’s patience – if that were the right word. He would call me in to his office constantly to reprimand me for doing a half-ass job. During those sessions he’d also throw in various criticisms toward my liberal upbringing, castigating my parents for divorcing and other bon mots.

Yet, I actually preferred his berating me to working on the line. Partly because it took me off the line but also because it made me feel good –somehow- to be in his presence. In his own way, the man loved me.

Once, when I dared question him on the sanctity of factory work he told me something I’ll never forget, even if I don’t agree with it. He said, “Steffan, work isn’t supposed to be fun. Why do you think they call it work?”

Much later, I got into the advertising business. And I had fun. But I also knew I possessed a skill and that I was getting better at it. Unlike sticking a wrapper on a can, writing was (and still is) something I can sink my teeth into.

Yet, as we all know, this business is not always fun. Pressures mount and fears take hold. Work can become a trying experience, like a factory. Or worse. A factory that doesn’t make anything. I think of my grandfather during those times.

I know he had a point. One must earn a living. So, maybe “fun” isn’t the right word. Let’s try some others. If one feels “useful” and “purpose-driven” then that is better than fun. Wouldn’t you agree? Suffice to say, I wasn’t feeling either on the can line.

Give me this. Working in our business should at least aspire to be fun. Data be damned, creativity will always be more art than science. And art is about passion and, yes, having fun! When a creative is feeling it there is no better feeling. It’s like your Walt Whitman singing the Song of (Your)self. It’s glorious.

So, here’s to feeling it and being of maximum usefulness to your company, your clients and, most of all, yourself. May all of you find that happiness. It does exist.

Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”


Most people require a lifetime to decide…

I’ve been thinking about something my father once told me and I’d like to share that with you here. But first some history…

Newly married, I had just bought my first house – a brick cottage in a sketchy but up and coming neighborhood in Chicago. The place was a dump and I’d hired a number of people to help with the rehab. We found a young architect with no track record but a lot of big ideas. He’d drawn up plans, which, in retrospect, were ridiculous… and way over our modest budget. He wanted to blow up our warren-filled bungalow into this huge open space, with soaring ceilings and a catwalk! Like a fool, I green-lit the whole thing.

My solution for underwriting the high costs of his grand designs would come from hiring a cheap contractor: a guy named Wayne who said “no problemo” a lot. Guess what? We had problems. Turns out not pulling permits in Chicago is a bad idea – the first of many implemented by a man who proved to be nothing more than a drunk and a con. A month after demolition I had a huge mess on my hands –our hands. After all, I’d dragged my new bride into this shit show. Irate inspectors, a growing pile of bills, and a new mortgage on top of rent. We were in deep.

In my adult life I can count the times I’ve cried on one hand. The first such time came then. Sue and I were in a theater parking lot, a few blocks from our demolished house. I broke down. I was a new husband and so-called young urban professional. And I was failing. Miserably.

Exasperated, I called my old man and basically asked for help. If memory serves, that was the first time I ever had to do such a thing. God, it was difficult but I was bereft of ideas. Long story short, my father saved us. He “loaned” me 30 grand and I was able to clear my debts and finish the work with more reputable help. In addition to the scratch, my father also gave me a piece of advice. “Son,” he told me, “possessions possess you.” Obviously, he didn’t coin the phrase but I heard it from him first.

Decades later, I think about those words, especially when I open our credit card statement. Stuff. And more stuff. A cornucopia of swoon! Yes, we are blessed. But after I say my prayers at night, counting those blessings (literally counting them) I often recall my father’s words and shudder. For the genie is out of the bottle. And while he may grant wishes they are never given freely.

Yet, I also know:

Some day not too far from now my house will belong to another family, as all houses will. Our girls will be women. Our many things will have been rid of – perhaps at an estate sale. How classy is that? Flocks of young couples will pick through our belongings like carrion birds, eyes full of hunger at such prized possessions. They will gorge themselves. And I will smile and say to my wife: “honey, it’s their turn now.”


Choose wisely…

Has anyone read The Paradox of Choice (Why More is Less) by Barry Schwartz? I started it the other day. His premise that our “culture of abundance robs us of satisfaction” captivated me. Deep down I’ve always felt –in spite of being a capitalist and an ad man- that having too many choices makes life chaotic. Mine anyway. Here was a book espousing the same idea!

The pressure to keep up is real. In high school and college we are given a syllabus: a defined and finite list of books we had to read. For most of us that was all we could handle.

Upon graduation, we create our own reading list –presuming we still read. I certainly do. However, I also love movies. I make it a point to see every best picture nominee in the Academy Awards. Recently, Oscar expanded that list to what, nine? How am I supposed to see all these films (not to mention the genre pictures I adore) and finish that book I just started?

It would help if I got off the damn computer…

Ah, the computer. Like many of us, I’m hopelessly addicted to the Internet. The trade blogs, the film blogs, the book blogs, and all those I-can’t-believe they’ve-got-a-site sites. Nothing says choice like the Information Superhighway. Damn you Al Gore for enriching my life! Damn you, Apple computers, for creating such glorious shiny, silver hardware.

On my devices I sail down the Amazon. There I can get anything I want -fast, cheap, easy. Do you like Ebay or are you a Craigslist guy? Perhaps there’s another etailer you prefer more – one that really knows you and what you like.

Am I missing anything? That’s the big question, isn’t it? Am I missing anything? The answer is yes. And that makes me nervous. Irritable. Discontent. It’s sort of like New Year’s Eve. No matter which party I chose I was missing another far better one.

But we prefer having choices, right? Sometimes I wonder. I’m relieved when a restaurant has only three dishes on its menu. The chef has chosen for me. Picking one of his specials is a no-lose situation. It’s even relaxing and enjoyable, which, come to think of it, is the whole point to going out for dinner.

Schwartz opens his book by recounting a visit to the Gap to buy blue jeans. Instead of merely having to find his size, which is daunting enough, he is faced with myriad styles to choose from: boot cut, relaxed fit, skinny, distressed, button fly or zipper. Black, brown, white or blue. And so on.

He wanted jeans. Not choices. What should have been a simple task became complicated, even fraught with peril. Yes, freedom of choice is the American Dream. But is it turning into a nightmare?


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