More input and less output. Under the guise of strategy, have slick talkers taken over Adland and made it their bitch?
April 6, 2017
“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.
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?
Alas, we are insecure. We have become conditioned to receive criticism and are in essence bracing for 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.