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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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Happy handicapper, Cadillac’s Craig Bierley

I’m not sure why newly appointed Cadillac advertising director, Craig Bierley chose to give an interview to Adweek about Cadillac’s agency review, which has been going on since early this year. According to Adweek, he and his cohorts listened to four presentations last week from the contenders, comprised of agency groups from Interpublic, Omnicom and two teams out of Publicis, including the incumbent Fallon.

But interview he did. Bierley merrily goes on the record stating the agencies delivered “really solid work.” He qualifies the remark by saying “some were better than others.”

Doesn’t that go without saying?

Sounding a bit like a sports DJ, he then offers this morsel: “There’s parts of each team we like better than other parts of each team. Strategy over here might work better with this creative but you don’t get to do that [laughs].”

This definitely should have gone without saying. Or laughing.

In my opinion, the whole interview should not have happened. It’s bad form, plain and simple. First of all, if someone from any of those agencies had spoken to the press about the Cadillac pitch they’d have been doomed. Clients loathe when agencies go on record about anything really but especially pitches. For example, if a copywriter were to Tweet “Just finished our Caddy pitch. Killed it!” he’d have been called to a corner office and reprimanded, likely even fired. We are taught to keep our mouths shut… or else. So, yes, I think it’s crappy when a client does so just because he can.

Writing about the interview on Adpulp, Dan Goldgeier weighed in as follows: “There’s a lot of money, pride, prestige, egos, and jobs at stake. Frankly, I feel for anyone laboring in the lower ranks of agencies involved in this pitch.”

Honestly, I feel sorry for the senior pitch teams as well. If I’d put months of time into this pitch I would feel awful reading such an article. Pitch teams go through the wringer getting ready for their presentations. Dozens of brutal meetings. Even more late nights. Enduring withering criticism from your peers and senior management from New York. Making countless changes (some of it against your will). Mortgaging your family life (again). And practicing…all that soul-crushing practice.

Then to go online and see the man you’ve worked months to impress, the penultimate decision maker, glibly calling it all “iterative,” saying the winner “could be Fallon. It could be IPG.” If I’m not part of one of those agencies what am I to think? Or even if I was? Either way, I don’t like being talked about like a racehorse.

In fairness to Bierley, he discusses the painstaking measures his team took to insure the process was “fair” and “transparent.” That may be so but he should have declined giving such an interview until after a verdict was given, if at all. There’s a reason jurors (let alone the Jury Foreman) don’t talk about trials until after they’re done. While a trial isn’t the same as a pitch (necessarily) accounting for human decency is.

“I don’t know.” It’s a simple comment and usually the truth, yet we don’t like admitting it and when we do it’s often a last resort. God forbid we actually don’t know something!

By now you’ve seen the video of Herman Cain trying to fake his way through a question about Libya. Afraid of appearing ignorant he ends up looking like an idiot. He should have said, ‘I can’t answer that right now.’ Or, ‘I’ll get back to you.’ Or, simply, ‘I don’t know.’ At minimum, he chould have asked the reporter to be more specific. Eventually he does push the reporter…sort of…but the damage was done.

Before most Q & A’s politicians are given talking points to myriad issues (irritating in their own right) but often those are still not enough. Sometimes they just don’t know. But instead of saying so they feign knowledge, hoping to muddle through. It’s not just politicians who bullshit their way through answers; it’s all of us. Why are we so afraid of saying we don’t know something when, in fact, we don’t?

We in Adland are no exception. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in client meetings and listened to colleagues’ bullshit their way through a specific question. It’s painful to watch. Especially when the person won’t shut the hell up. He or she keeps digging and digging. The hole grows. Sometimes we all fall in. By the end of the meeting there is often a vague stench in the air, of bullshit. No wonder we are labeled talk artists and confidence men.

Is there a latent gene in people, especially (and ironically) in the smart ones, to constantly have an answer? The answer. Why do we process every interrogative as if it’s a college essay question, whereby saying “I don’t know” is unacceptable? Not knowing something is acceptable and reasonable. We are not gods. Yet, we are hell bent on making a statement, especially in groups. Eagerly, we often jump on questions clamoring to answer them. Frankly, it’s rude. I’d like to think I’ve outgrown my fear of ignorance but it can rear its ugly head at anytime. Why? I don’t know.