“Awesome strategy, Ted! Next week’s meeting is gonna be killer.”

Recently, I read an essay from an anonymous source in our industry that stuck with me. (I did not save the link. My bad.) But the gist of his argument was that within marketing services companies far too many big talkers achieve more success than they deserve and, moreover, are exponentially degrading the profession. Paraphrasing further, the author observed how smooth talking, jargon-dropping, critical thinkers have become so prevalent and dominant that we’ve become a business of talkers not doers, endlessly revising briefs and tweaking PPT’s instead of producing actual work. The front end has become so bogged down by process that we are making lots of meetings and few campaigns. Which of course suits the talkers who, by endlessly analyzing and criticizing, merely create 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 one usually pointed to the evil account guy. He made lives miserable for countless sensitive creatives. “It’s not right yet. We need another round.”

Still, 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 one producer on payroll, let alone a department, opting instead to bring in the occasional freelancer for the role or, more typically, leaving the job to hardscrabble project managers. It’s all hypothetical. Recycling stock. Fodder.

According to the author 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, it seems likely the talking will only get louder.

With less output and more input, the vicious cycle hurts everyone caught in it. Except for big talkers. Under the guise of “getting it right” they have become manifest, perpetuating their roles as agency gate-keepers.

For brilliant copy and adroit creative leadership (even if just for a goddam powerpoint), hit me up: https://steffanwork.wordpress.com/



“Expectations are resentments under construction,” wrote Bay Area author Anne Lamott. There is much wisdom in her statement, but for most of us it takes a lifetime to learn. Or unlearn. It boils down to this: Every time we enter into a conversation, meeting or transaction we bring with us a set of expectations. When positive expectations are unmet or negative ones confirmed the interaction falters.

Face it. We all have expectations about how other people will or should behave. They are like prejudices, creating barriers between the people holding onto them. Invariably, the interaction is crippled before it even begins. In politics, we see this all the time: when each party assumes the how the other will behave, regardless of the situation.

In dysfunctional families, each member has drop-dead certainty how the other sibling will behave, shaping all intercourse. Dad believes his son will be a defensive contrarian. The son expects his father will be an inflexible brute. And so on. Every fruit on the family tree is spoiled this way.

What does this look like in business, and in particular Adland? Well, I’ll tell you. And once you recognize it you’ll see how commonplace and destructive these forces can be.


Illustrating bad blood with even worse stock photography!

Jack in an Associate Creative Director. Jill is a Senior Account Executive. Jack and Jill have some history. They’ve worked on a few projects together. Perhaps not all of them went smoothly. And even if they did, both individuals quickly developed a read on one another, and now base all interactions upon it. To an extent, this is normal and healthy. Yet, in the crucible of business it quickly becomes a defect and sometimes a serious one. If Jack expects Jill to only see his work through fearful and conservative eyes, he will soon dread showing it to her. Why bother, right? She’s only going to throw shade…like she always does.

Jill is no innocent, either. However reasonable she fancies herself, Jill expects Jack will be defensive and obstinate. A typical creative. Ergo, she enters into every meeting with Jack bracing for a fight.

You know where this is going. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Both parties have expectations (fomenting into resentments) and, as soon as they spot anything confirming said expectations, they lock into patterned behaviors, souring the meeting and insuring the next interaction will be even worse.

In some ways, having locked-in negative expectations is no different than racial profiling. Though obviously less despicable, the office variety is still quite destructive. Especially in front of creativity. Looking at new ideas, let alone brave and unusual ones, is deeply difficult when everyone involved has negative expectations about the other. These prejudices can become so ingrained they close minds, hindering the ability to appreciate creative. Often, the room divides into fronts, inducing an unstable even volatile climate. Debates become rife with arguments ad homonym. The creative product is ruined in the deluge.

The solution is obvious but not easy. Against our own defective natures, we must let go these leaden bags of expectations, lest they crush our ideas and us.

“Good morning. I hope you like this presentation because I sure as hell don’t.”

As a copywriter I’ve presented countless campaigns to both clients and creative directors. As a creative director, I’ve been presented to just as many times. Presenting work and having work presented to you is one of the tougher aspects of a creative professional’s job and it’s one I’ve written about often. To become good at presenting and, in turn, processing presentations is learned behavior and remains woefully underrated. No creative, however talented, ever gets to the top without at least becoming competent at both.

When it comes to making a presentation, it helps to love the rush, which I now do. At first, of course, it was terrifying. One of the many mistakes –and it is a mistake- I made during this early phase of my career was apologizing for work in advance of showing it. You all know what I’m talking about. The art director who says the imagery isn’t quite right. The copywriter who says the line isn’t there yet. The creative director who wishes he had more time. Or my favorite, when the account director says the work you’re about to see isn’t “fully baked” or that it’s “still in rough form.”

Those observing can only scream in silence.

Folks, now is not the time to hedge. You know how annoying it is when you’re mother gives you a gift and then says she’ll be happy to take it back if you don’t like it? Apologizing to bosses or clients is even worse. It puts the receiver in a mindset of doubt instead of excitement. You would never introduce someone by stating his or her flaws. Why are we so inclined to do so with our work?

Never grovel!

Alas, we are insecure. We have become conditioned to receive criticism and are in essence bracing for it.

Stop it.

Half-baked or not, present your work directly and with confidence. (And I don’t mean pre-sell, for that is a sin as well.) Recognize your audience with a simple greeting and perhaps one sincere flattering remark. Above all, get to the work as soon as possible. Present your ideas with understandable enthusiasm, brevity and clarity. Say thank you. And sit your ass down. Easier said than done, I know. But this is the best tack. Trust me.

When the questions and criticisms come –and they will come- we must avoid being defensive. If we are human, our hearts are pounding. Yet, we must listen. Take notes. Pretend to take notes. But whatever you do, refrain from debate unless you are absolutely certain it is the right thing to do. If you are asked a question answer it. Better yet, let the team leader do so. Hopefully, he or she is capable. Again this is all learned behavior. And it starts the moment we open our mouths.

“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.

I’m sorry, folks but I need to go on a rant. Worse, it’s a vaguely political rant. Worse yet, it’s right winged! So bear with me and please DO let me know what you think.

Without going into specifics, I attend a meeting after work that has one primary purpose: helping afflicted people find a solution to a vexing and dangerous problem in their lives. It’s a good thing and I’m proud and privileged to be a member. So much so, I volunteered to be a part of the group’s governance; it’s secretary to be exact. This job requires I take meeting notes, update the phone list and other housekeeping tasks. Fine. I’m happy to do it. Service work is good for the soul. For me it’s necessary.

But then it got weird. At last week’s business meeting we bogged down in our own bureaucracy. One member wanted detailed records from previous meetings. Why? I don’t know. Not much had happened but he said it was “important that we maintain good governance.” Another member wanted one of us to call every single name on the meeting list to codify it. That’s a big homework assignment. I’m thinking why not just pass a pen and paper next meeting and get a short list of current members? “Not acceptable,” replied a meeting journeyman. “We have a process.” Yes we do. Unfortunately.

Needless to say, as secretary for this meeting I began to feel guilty for not doing my job. And something else: I got pissed off. It’s a neighborhood meeting for Christ’s sake. What the hell do we need all this government for? We collect a few bucks. We pay rent. We show up. In my view having precise and meticulous records has nothing to do with helping the sick people who come in. Frankly, it gets in the way. It makes helping feel like a tax instead of a blessing.

And thus I realized the part of me that is and always will be (gasp!) a Republican. In general, I don’t like big government because it consumes time and resources. Specifically, I don’t like big government because it hides its unctuous righteousness behind a screen of altruism: We “care” therefore we’re right. But not once during our 45-minute business meeting did anyone talk about how we were going to improve care to those in need. Instead it was all about finding busywork for an overabundance of dubious jobs.

After all that, I come home to a letter from the IRS requesting documentation on some aspect of my 2008 tax return. Argh! I wonder what bureaucrat was fulfilling his or her quota by sending me this intimidating letter. I pay my considerable taxes promptly and with precious few deductions. Now some drone in sector G wants more…

A lot of people might generalize that creative folks are democratic because they’re more soulful and artsy. Lord knows Democrats are friendlier to the arts than their Republican counterparts. Maybe so, but the creative process itself favors a more solitary existence. Less is more. One artist creates novels and paintings not several. Likewise ads made by committee are bound to mediocrity.

I don’t know where this is going. It’s a rant, right? Yet, with a number of big elections in November, I just might be annoyed enough to vote against type…against candidates who mistake process for progress.