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Recently, I read an essay from an anonymous copywriter that struck a chord. I did not save the link (my bad) but the gist of his/her argument was that within marketing services companies far too many big talkers are achieving way more success than they deserve and, moreover, they are effectively degrading the profession (even more so). The author observed how smooth talking, jargon-dropping, critical thinkers have become so prevalent and dominant in our industry that we’ve become a business of talkers not doers, endlessly revising briefs and tweaking PPT’s instead of producing actual work. We are making many meetings but few campaigns. This, of course, suits the talkers who, by endlessly analyzing and criticizing, continue to bake in more process.

Are we having fun yet?

It goes without saying that these machinations are antithetical to the flow of any decent agency and the creative department in particular. Yet, before we go off and blame the strategists for all this hot air, it’s only fair to point out slick talkers and their myriad sins have plagued Adland since before the Mad Men era. Then, it was the evil account guy. Only interested in pleasing clients, he made lives miserable for countless sensitive creatives. “It ain’t right yet. We need another round.”

That said, at least back then agencies produced work. And lots of it. So much so there were actual production departments. Now many agencies don’t even have a producer on payroll, let alone a department, opting instead to bring in the occasional freelancer for the role or, more typically, relegating the job to hardscrabble project managers. So much is hypothetical. Recycling stock. Fodder.

According to Anonymous it is indeed “strategy gone wild.” The pandemic of verbal diarrhea is especially acute in the technology and B2B arenas, where strategists often define the marketing department. As new platforms and complicated algorithms take over Adland, the talking will only get louder.

Sadly, it seems many clients would rather pay for barbless strategery versus actually fishing. And so we keep tying and retying flies. Red feather. Yellow feather. No feathers. Two. Maybe try spinning gear? For Christ’s sake put a line in the water! This vicious cycle hurts everyone caught in its sucking funnel. Except for the big talkers. Under guise of “getting it right” they have become manifest, perpetuating their self-made roles as agency gatekeepers.

This piece originally ran week prior in Reel Chicago I am available for writing projects 

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How in hell do you scope this?

From a business perspective, “creative process” is an oxymoron. Yet, every agency has one. In the age of projects versus client relationships, the process looks like hours worked. PM’s and AE’s must estimate how many people to put on a creative project and how many hours they will spend doing it.

With clients choosing agencies like restaurants and ordering a la carte off our menus, a neophyte might think it would be easy calculating the bill. Unfortunately, it is harder than ever.

From a creative perspective, the process defies accounting. The time frame for making creative was, is and always will be a guessing game, fraught with variables. How long does it take to come up with an idea – Two hours? Two days? Two weeks? And how long does it take to flesh out the idea? And how many ideas do you require?

When guessing how long a project will take to complete the guessers would ideally need to calibrate how different individuals create, which is unique. For example, Sally likes to work alone. Jack and Jill work best as a team and Bill, Fred and Mary love collaborating. And what about nights, when I like to write? If one calculated how many hours I play with a paragraph of body copy we’d be over budget on everything.

In the good old days, an agency had a relationship with a client (with a yearly nut augmented by media commissions), which allowed for expanding and contracting creative resources, contingent upon the growing or shrinking demands of each assignment. Therefore, creative directors could deal in real time, adjusting resources based on immediate needs, wants and capability variables. In a fire drill, we called in resources with impunity. On a pitch, we might give a bunch of newbies a crack. And so on. Though still a process, it was far more fluid and organic than what we have now. The creative department did not have finite budgetary limits.

As a manager, I’m all for tightening the screws and figuring shit out. As a creative director, I know it seldom works that way.


I maintain a 180-gallon reef aquarium in my home. Try to anyway. That’s it up there. The coral reef is the most complex, delicate and beautiful ecosystem in the world. Lighting. Filtration. Water parameters. Flow. Everything has to be calibrated and monitored in order to even passably mimic a real reef. One or two miscalculations and your reef crashes. Suffice it to say, this is not your father’s guppy tank.

Still, or maybe because, I am an addicted reefer. I can easily spend two hours in twenty-four with my hands in the tank and even more online doing research. Nothing tweaks my nerd DNA more than scouring websites, gaping at corals, bidding on equipment, or contributing to a forum. Reef porn is real.

An ad agency has a lot in common with my reef. Though typically more polluted (joke), the hallways and cubes of this ecosystem are populated by equally diverse and complicated organisms. Some species, like the showy creative, can in fact be very sensitive. While others, the account director for example, can be very aggressive. Given the two must live together the experience can be challenging. Certain aggressive species torment smaller creatures, nipping at their work, crushing them. Biting criticism takes its toll. The wounded creative hides in his cave, camouflaged by ear phones, avoiding the persistent predator. If the biggest fish in the tank is a bully, everyone suffers. When the tank becomes mired in territorial disputes, the whole thing crashes. Sound familiar?

It doesn’t have to.

Last night I observed my cleaner shrimp nibbling parasites off a troubled yellow tang and I realized that there is wonder here. When all these myriad creatures work together, giving and taking in harmony, the results are truly breathtaking. The solitary superstar flashes brilliance. A school of darting Anthias show the awesome power of collaboration. If the tank masters accept the occasional skirmish, providing nourishment to all, then the ecosystem will flourish.

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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.

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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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Getting treated like shit gets old…

I got an inordinate amount of traction from a link I shared on Facebook about a leaked memo from Cramer-Krasselt’s Chief Executive, Peter Krivkovich, regarding his agency’s resignation of the Panera Bread account. Claiming the client was “much too much even in this crazy business” what with “the constant last-minute shifts in direction, the behind-the-scenes politics, the enormous level of subjectivity that disregards proof of performance…” Well, it got to the point where “enough was enough.” Here is the story: http://adage.com/article/agency-news/cramer-krasselt-panera-part-ways/293668/

Wow.

Inside an agency comments like these are often voiced but they are seldom put on paper and distributed. Even rarer is resigning an account. Here we are privy to both events. And while the matter is basically none of our business, it hits home. Why? Well, first off agencies don’t resign business because for most of us winning it is so damn hard. That’s an obvious thing. A money thing. Providing reasons for firing a client in a memo is virtually unheard of because bad clients do not get outed in Adland. Period. Sometimes for legal reasons (fear of reprisals, etc) but mostly because we are scared other clients might think ill of us for doing so. The reasoning, I suppose, is that we do not want to be perceived as weak under pressure. Deeper down we do not want to be associated with failure, even when it most definitely isn’t. Our insecurities (financial as well as psychological) are profound. It’s kind of like admitting divorce in the 1950’s. A stigma.

That said, I would bet the ranch not a soul reading Krivkovich’s memo, or the news about it, feels anything untoward about CK. On the contrary. Thank God, we think, someone finally put principles before business!

But you know what? A despicable client is bad business. Peter’s memo provides ample proof. And while none of us were there, I know for a fact that this particular client is not nearly as delightful as the wholesome products they sell.

At my previous agency we pitched Panera. During a critical conference call the client neglected to press the mute button. My team was subjected to a litany of mockery and abuse from them. Ouch. Awkward but shit like that happens, right? Thinking we are in confidence people say mean things. Make bad jokes. Et-cetera. I don’t necessarily begrudge Panera that. The thing I’ll never forget was hearing the pitch leader, a punk consultant they’d hired, tell his colleagues that my agency stood no chance of winning, and never had; when just moments ago he’d outlined expectations for all this work he demanded we do. That is unconscionable. We work too f*cking hard, almost always on spec, to be treated so shabbily. Like tokens.

Of course, we abdicated from the pitch. Yet, bitter as we were we didn’t go public about it. We never even told the client what we’d heard. We did what most every other agency in our unfortunate position would do: Nothing. But like a dead rat caught behind the drywall the stink lasted a long, long time.

And so I’ve no doubt my peers at CK came to the same conclusions about this client and resigned the business, albeit after servicing them for nearly two years. By the way, the agency before CK (Mullen, the one we’d lost to) also parted with them in similar circumstances.

And so whether Krivkovich intended his memo to get out or not, I’m glad it did. Maybe the next group of agencies who go after this client –perhaps yours- will think twice. I doubt it. But consider yourself warned!

Finally, I had to roll my eyes at Peter’s closing lines in the memo, the part where he claims Panera’s food is so good “that many of us will continue to eat there.” I know he was trying to be gracious but trust me, no one from that agency who worked on this account will ever eat there again.