My 50 years in Advertising, Larry Postaer

I first wrote this post when dad’s book came out a few years ago. Happy to publish it again – the least I can do for a man who’s inspired me so much…

In my father’s memoir on his career in advertising, Pickett, Plunkett & Puckett he mentions a test he had to take in order to qualify for a job as copywriter on the Sears’s catalog. In the early sixties Sear’s Roebuck (and its iconic catalog) was literally the textbook for retailing in the United States. Called the “Wish book,” anything and everything could be found in the Sear’s catalog (even houses!) and it was a staple in every home, kind of the Amazon of its day.

Yet, the job was hardly glamorous and wasn’t supposed to be. Sears Roebuck was about as old school as it got: dress codes, pneumatic tubes, and a cafeteria.

All his pages detailing the inner workings of Sear’s marketing department are fascinating but, for me, it was the test he took to get hired that stands out. Anachronistic now, back in the day, psychological profiling was used at companies all over America to determine whether an applicant was the “right fit” for the job and company. Back then folks entered into a career hoping –nay expecting- to work at a given firm the rest of their lives. The companies’ wanted that too and so standardized tests, however futile, were developed to insure its likelihood.

The “Wish Book.” You know you want it!

My father singles out one question from the test: Would you rather write the play, star in the play, or sell tickets to the play? My father rightly guesses they are not looking for big creative egos at Sears and answers “sell the tickets.” However, like any writer, what he really would like to do is write the play. These days, I’m guessing that’s what every aspiring writer would like to do. Honestly, the way things are now, I’m betting quite a few young creatives would just assume star in at as well.

It’s easy making fun of this archaic test, so corny and out of touch. But the question is pretty damn interesting when you think about it, as I have. From day one copywriters have wrestled with their urges to be creative versus their mandate to sell. Even now the challenge is still a major aspect of the job. Whether one works at a conservative shop or some rogue boutique, all on staff struggle with it. The lame rejoinder “Well, you gotta do both” is generally where everyone nets out. Sears had no such dilemma, which makes my father’s anecdote provocative nostalgia.

My father writes he faired poorly on the test but got the job anyway. As I said, the stories around this are fascinating and, like many others in the book, well worth reading. It’s available in paperback or on kindle, via Amazon.

The Sears Catalog stopped printing in 1993. Today, the company struggles to remain relevant.


I found myself watching the movie 300. Again. Have you seen it? You should. Redemption, revenge and freedom. We are taught to be careful about the first two. And to passively appreciate the third. Civilization, I suppose. But King Leonidas would suffer no one to protect his freedom.

And so a fantasy, which, as many do, must start grimly…

The fields of Adland may be fertile for some, but many of us are bound to servitude. We make content. Blunting our God given skills at copywriting and design in order to fashion “tool kits” for unappreciative and faceless entities posing as marketing oracles. But they are demons. Takers. Deceivers. “Gives us weapons for our sales force!” they demand. For pittances our task masters yield to them, turning to us with expectations as sharp as dragon steel. Not wanting to be thrown outside the gates, we bend into our computers and render slide after slide after. All these good sons and daughters strapped to machines forging power(less)point presentations to satiate a box checker, who’s only mandate is to appease his own pitiless master. And so is weaved the self-fulfilling prophesy of sorrows. For no one in this chain will ever see the freedom true creativity can bring.


“This is madness!” we whisper to ourselves, and those closest to us on the wheel. Speak up and you may not be heard from again.

Oh, to be the brave Leonidas. To say back: “This is not creative!” Then to kick the stunned whip holders into the pit.

Can any creative deny herself this fantasy of being a great deliverer? It’s in our DNA. We want to make things that make things happen. To be able to point to our creations with pride of ownership – not to bow our heads with apologies and excuses. When our children ask what we do we want to show them. Answer with proof not jargon.

That film. This poster. Those bright, shiny objects that shape popular culture.

But the wheel needs turning. Seven days a week sometimes. The false oracles threaten our bosses turning them into cowards and monsters. Fear ripples down. Dripping into a sweatshop. The chain of sorrows has no give.

Or does it? I have seen creative Utopia. There, enthusiasm reigns over fear. Ideas command respect and are worshiped for their amazing powers. I have harvested fruits from these fields and will do so again. I hope all of us do.


Yesterday, as a freelancer, I presented some work at a small shop in the city. Let me first say, I loved being back in the trenches and, thrillingly, on the working side of the table. Camaraderie with a dose of healthy competition tempered by humility is a recipe my creative soul thrives upon. Indeed, I think all creative people in Adland are nourished by this activity. How could one not be? Putting what comes out of our heads up on a wall for others to see is central to what we do. It’s exciting, humbling and deeply satisfying. It’s not easy. But appreciating and respecting that process is part of maturing into a seasoned advertising professional, for the audience as well as the presenter.

So many skills are required in order to do it well.

If you are receiving the work you must be paying attention (that means phones down!) You must be patient. Let the ideas unfold before you. Try to free your mind of expectations, which taint reality. You see a morsel of copy you don’t like don’t reject the whole dish. A campaign has many courses. Perhaps there is more to redeem it. Let the presenter finish. Before commenting remember that you are dealing with humans, who, despite any evidence to the contrary, care a great deal about what you think of it and them. Note also that creatives in particular are egomaniacs with inferiority complexes. This comes from a lifetime of being praised and belittled. Speak wisely to us. Be constructive. Not destructive.

I’m delighted to report that today’s presentation was free and clear of any negative energy. Such a blessing.

Presenting work well is a gift. Whether earned through learning or divinely given or, as is usually the case, a combination of both, the ability to get up in front of people and advocate for an idea is never to be taken lightly. We must not be glib about our ideas, nor apologize for them. Speak to strengths, not weaknesses. Shortcomings will be probed, if they exist at all. At the same time, we must not be defensive about our work. This is a common sin among young creatives, almost unavoidable. Take heed. Fighting for one’s work sounds like something we’re supposed to do but it seldom works. Let the person finish his argument. Wait and see if someone else stands up for the idea. If the strategy director, or an account person, has your back it will be worth far more than your complaints. See what the creative director does or doesn’t say. He or she will address most feedback. The good ones always do. Lastly, nervousness is okay. It is not a sign of weakness. Being nervous is a sign of respect: for the material and the audience. Ask any actor about stage fright. They’ll tell you it’s not only natural but something to embrace. Heart pumping. Perspiring. Yes, it’s scary but this is when we are truly alive.

On that day I felt truly alive. While not all of my ideas (and my partners) moved forward, a couple were revered. In addition, I got to see other ideas. Though I wasn’t asked to be a creative director, I am one. Regardless of title, a good creative pays close attention to his peers. She knows viewing other people’s work is always a revelation. If you are schooled by someone have sense enough to learn from it!

If anyone who was in that room today is reading this: Thank you! It was a pleasure and a privilege. It almost always is. I can’t wait to do it again.



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!


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