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Before I was offered a new job, I visited a lot of agencies. Typically, I met with people representing the management team. It was a gauntlet. But I always expected a positive reception, from both the interviewers and myself. However, that was not always the case. At one agency, a number of the folks I met were down on their company and told me so. There were politics. There was unfairness. Dead weight permeated the company. One interviewer asked: “Steffan, do you know what you’re getting yourself into?”

Sad but true.

Complaining is common in Adland. Granted, usually not as part of a first impression but typical nevertheless. It’s not a good look. Seldom is it useful. Startled, I told the above-mentioned complainer a parable, the best thing I could think of at the time. Here is part of it:

Every day a group of men set out to forage in the desert by their village. They ventured far in order to get to the forest and its abundance of resources. At the half way point of their journey was a lone, large tree in which they took a break to rest and eat lunch. “A shame this tree,” one man said. “It has no fruit for eating.” The others agreed. “And its wood isn’t suitable for building either…”

And so on they complained. What the complainers failed to realize was the great benefit the tree provided. In fact, the old tree was a refuge. Seemingly barren, it provided shelter from the noonday sun without which their journey would have been infinitely more treacherous. This critical benefit was lost on the men. As was the unity this resting place fostered among the travelers. All was taken for granted to spite the obvious.

I recall a company meeting at a previous place of employment, a long time ago. We’d had a tough year. Morale was low. The employees were skeptical about their agency’s future. Many used the setting as a forum to voice their complaints: Management was inept, they cried. Our clients are bound to mediocrity. Woe is us!

During my turn to speak I told the story about the old tree. Our agency was beleaguered but I wanted us to appreciate all that we had: jobs, community and a place to voice our grievances freely and without fear of reparations.

In some respect I was talking to myself. Though I harbored many of my fellow’s misgivings I wanted healing words. Not apathetic ones. We’d had plenty of those already. Change was needed. And change would come. But on that day I needed gratitude. We all did. I worked for one of the greatest advertising agencies in the world. It had been hobbled but it was still there. Despite our weakened position, so were we.

Author’s note: I published a version of this story some time ago, while I was looking for my next job. Having found one, I am filled with gratitude. Here’s to never forgetting what matters…

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Is your agency like this…

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Or this…

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Creative boutique. Process driven. Sweatshop. These are some of the terms we use to describe one advertising agency or another. And while they are often accurate descriptors –delightfully or painfully so- what is less true is that the agency chose to be defined that way.

Allow me a metaphor. In the fish keeping hobby, of which I am a passionate member, we are all familiar with how corals get their beautiful colors.  They do so via a symbiotic relationship with algae called zooxanthellae, which provide nutrients to the host animal. (Yes, corals are animals not plants.) One square inch of coral may contain millions of these microorganisms, which transmit their iconic gorgeous colors. Or they may be drab brown, depending on the zooanthellae.

For better or worse, an agency becomes the clients they work with. If an agency has one dominating and difficult client it will become a dominating and difficult place – a sweatshop. It matters little if the agency’s beloved mantra extolls a different and virtuous path: “The Power of One” “The Truth Well Told” “Human Relevance” If its clients demand, for example, an endless slew of cheap “how to” videos and “creative wrappers” for their email campaigns and tool kits then that is what the agency will be. Conversely, an agency that is hired to make sexy brand campaigns, and actually produces them, will be known for doing that kind of work. Everyone wants to be the latter. Many become the former.

The coral reef is a fragile ecosystem. Without the right nourishment it bleaches and can die. With fewer and fewer bright corals, it loses its ability to attract. Usually what happens is the reef becomes an ever uglier place, even hostile, with its beleaguered inhabitants struggling to survive, using all their resources just to maintain.

Large reefs can tolerate a fair amount of blah corals and still be healthy. The ugly stuff is swept under a carpet of jewels. Smaller agencies do not have this luxury. Many of those succumb to the prevailing currents. “This is what we do,” they say, about making Power Point for example. And they survive, albeit one dimensionally.

Improving the reef (agency) is rarely just about chasing after better fish (talent). Desirable species would come if the reef were healthy. Management isn’t the solution either, although predation at the top is often an outcome. Above all, the solution is not about redoing the agency website. The mission statement is always aspirational. Who doesn’t want a creative culture? But it matters not if clients don’t adhere to it.

The solution, obviously, is to find those clients –even just one- that arrive with creative zooanthellae alive in their DNA. Even a small “zoo” culture will inspire the host and all those considering residing there. If a small agency cultivates one of these it quickly becomes a “creative boutique.” Big agencies on the cusp of bleaching need to make room for these delicate corals, even if it means expending valuable resources. The smart ones do. The puzzle is how do you attract them if your current culture is meh? It can be done. Back in the day, Fallon McEelligott became synonymous with awesome creative by committing to myriad tiny clients, fanning gorgeousness out of them. Much later Crispin, Porter & Bogusky did the same, using burgeoning social media as their live rock. The corals grew fast and furious. Grey in New York was a big gray slab that hit it big with E-Trade babies. Leo Burnett in Chicago rose above its bedrock of CPG coral with its “curiously strong” campaign for Altoids, which was a tiny speck when it arrived. Later, they achieved amazing results in unexpected places by creating Mayhem for Allstate. Transformation happens. But not without catalytic clients.

Though few like to admit it, luck plays a big role.  Without the right clients, a talented crew and a good leader is a meeting you don’t want to be in.

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“I will protect the creative with my life!”

We’ve been very busy at the agency, developing campaigns for a diverse and interesting array of fabulous clients. (Dear clients, note I said “fabulous” and that I lead with it.) That said, our ideas are now being “socialized,” a lengthy and treacherous path in which all work must pass. Few make it. We will do everything in our power to see that ours do…

In Adland, guiding a truly great idea through to completion is not unlike facing the many hardships Sinbad endured during his seventh treachery-laden voyage in 1958. (Not really, but humor me.) In that quintessential B-movie, the legendary special effects genius, Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013) pitted the seafaring swashbuckler against an armada of spectacular pre-CGI creatures that not only took Sinbad to the brink but also changed Hollywood forever.

But I digress.

My point is that it’s soooo difficult producing excellent work in a business built by process and mired in fear. Whether it’s a quick and certain death by the brutish Cyclops or killing by a thousand cuts from the many-armed Serpent Queen, getting our best work in market (unmolested) is, alas, damn near impossible. It can be done, obviously. But you can only lead the horse to water.

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“I will defeat your idea!”

Notice I wrote “produce” and not “create.” Contrary to popular hater belief, I don’t think most agencies are shit when it comes to creating excellent work. I’ve been doing this a long time and worked in just enough places to know that the ‘most agencies suck’ criticism just isn’t true. Most of us know what we are doing and generally get it up creatively for every brief.

I see spectacular work all the time. Hell, sometimes I even create it myself. But hard as that is, that is the easy part. Because for every hundred truly special campaigns generated inside a given agency perhaps five make it into the culture; and of those five only one gets out with all its feathers intact.

Experience the journey in terrifying Dynarama! See…

The vulnerable idea face its first hurdle of potential despair: The slew of the Internal. Hopefully, the idea’s champion (it’s Sinbad!) can protect it. For while the internal meeting starts with best intentions it may quickly devolve into chaos. (Fortunately, that never happens at your agency.)

And then, if we are lucky, the idea sails on to the client. Sinbad or not, these rocky shores have claimed many an agency’s idea. For it is here the Beasts of Doubt are unleashed. Up the organization it goes, suffering withering scrutiny. The Medusa of Research can and does turn our ideas into stone. That or something unrecognizable: a creature that is neither fish nor fowl. Pig Man!

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The many daggers of research!

During the lengthy ordeal a new King or Queen of Marketing may take the throne. Happens all the time. This ruler often has other ideas. Back you go! If an idea moves forward slashed budgets may take their toll, rendering your concept ill equipped to take on its daunting task of myth making and persuading certain masses.

In the end it is usually time that defeats an idea. Even Sinbad cannot battle time. A few months into the process of creating/selling/producing an idea and folks begin to second-guess it. If it was so good, comes the question, then why is it taking so goddam long to make?

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“By the Gods, will this ever end?”

So, here’s to the one in a hundred. The great idea that somehow grows stronger as it moves through its voyage. The concept that won’t die no matter what anyone throws at it. The great irony is these precious ideas are so rare they don’t even need a Sinbad to protect them. For they are legendary.

The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad

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We’re all a little batty…

Last week, a team from my agency was talking with a new client in the technology space. “Onboarding,” if you’ll pardon the trendy expression. While speaking to us about her company’s robust software solutions, she confessed that her company had only adopted some of them and, in fact, in terms of reconciling her own firm’s internal IT had “a long way to go.” Among other things, she pointed to various schisms in the company, suggesting that some of her colleagues were holding on to old ideas –about IT management, transparency and corporate philosophy.

Sound familiar?

After some nervous laughter, I offered that it was much the same in Adland. We also brag about our robust solutions (boy, do we ever!) but in terms of adopting our own wisdom we, too, have a long way to go. But there is hope! In my own inimitable way I called it the “insane shrink” phenomenon. A shrink may be a total whack job but that doesn’t preclude him or her from helping other whack jobs. No offence to the psychiatric profession but I’m guessing it happens all the time.

Lord knows it’s common in our profession. It’s easy to get cynical. We talk about having an intricate process for helping clients create integrated marketing campaigns but not so deep down we all know its guesswork and hypothesis. For every case study we (or you) have proving out our process (for developing strategy and creative) another one exists that didn’t work at all. Obviously, we don’t talk about those. Moreover, our agency is likely dysfunctional around the corners. We bicker. We politicize decisions. We hold on to old ideas.

But just like our clients, we evangelize our process and tools. Unlike the client above, however, we don’t make hardware or software. We create ideas and campaigns without any possibility of a guarantee. When they fail we are removed from our duties. When they succeed we are hopefully not removed from our duties. Such is life in Adland.

However, I’m not being cynical when I call what we do “mythmaking” or “propaganda.” Creating an aspirational myth for our above client’s suite of software is the job. By her own admission her brief is aspirational as well. It’s about tomorrow not today. And I know damn well we can help.

I also think it madness to think our method is infallible.

An off kilter comparison but sick people are often the most capable of providing aid to others in need. Look at any 12-step program. Dysfunction exists. We have it in spades. But as I live and breathe so does every other group of people on earth. Trying to align groups –be it via manifesto or merely an ad campaign- takes counseling. Of course clients want guarantees. Unable to provide that we offer assurances. We provide methodology. Then, if the Gods of Advertising are willing, the magic happens.