I can’t see the logo…

We were previewing numerous campaign ideas today, tacked up in the wall, comprising the usual bits: potential tag lines, assorted copy, found images and various “ad-like objects.” Being the first internal round of discussion the work was still quite primitive. This meant the usual caveats had to be given to those seeing the work for the very first time: it’s not ready yet… it’s not right yet… etc. God forbid anyone judge our earliest efforts as finished products. Alas, God has little interest in creative presentations. Regardless of set up, someone invariably criticizes ad like objects as if they were completed ads.

Inevitable as it is painful.

A while back I prefaced a creative presentation by telling my audience that the work was in its first trimester, barely more than a nucleus of an idea. I figured someone viewing an early sonogram wasn’t going to comment on how handsome or ugly it was. At this time we should only be concerned about the embryo’s validity. Is it legitimate? Is it growing properly?

The second view of a sonogram is when we see the child for what it will become, it’s vital organs, the sex, and perhaps certain features. The same applies for the second round of creative. This is when we can see if there are any abnormalities that require serious intervention or, forgive my frankness, termination.


But does it have legs?

If we are fortunate enough to have a third internal viewing, this is where our babies better be in good shape and ready for delivery. Like prepping a child’s room, now is when we begin building the presentation in earnest. More pain. Preparing the “deliverables” is always stressful for the expecting.

Finally, The delivery day is upon us! Hopefully, the client (our adoptive parents) adores the baby as much as we do. Yet, even then we caveat our creation. Or worse manufacture a Frankenstein right before their eyes.

Still, it beats digging ditches.

For the delivery of excellent copy and ad like objects, I’m your daddy:



“Does anyone remember laughter?” For some reason, Robert Plant ad-libbed the question during Led Zeppelin’s classic rock anthem, Stairway to Heaven. It’s a wincing sort of line, now relegated to music trivia.

I was reminded of Plant’s exhortation, however, during a recent creative presentation to a client. Bit of set up. On WebEx, our audience was an unseen entity. This is seldom a good thing, like talking to a brick wall. Still, my team had done an exemplary job creating and executing campaigns and I had high confidence going in. After the preamble from the account person I launched the artillery. Sometimes it takes me a minute or two to get my mojo but once I’m rolling it’s like dealing cards. Ace. Ace. King. Boom! God, I love that feeling.

When I completed the volley I looked at my colleagues, valuing their reactions in lieu of clients I could not see. (This always makes me feel the way a dog must after doing tricks for his master.) Thankfully, my team nodded in the affirmative. Good boy, Steffan!

But from the dreaded Polycom: Silence.


Nervously, the account person asked if everyone on the line was still with us. After an interminable silence: “Yes… proceed.”

Okayyyy. I guess that’s a positive reaction. Beats “we’ve heard enough.” And yet, like any creator showing his wares I crave so much more. But like any professional you soldier on. Surely, the next campaign will get a reaction. When the client sees those blessed ad like objects then…

Then they will provide some muted feedback and get back to us. Which is more or less what happened. Which is more or less what always happens. In fact, one of the clients had actually dropped off the call at some unknown point during my presentation.


I ask you: Should not seeing creative be the most exciting part of any marketer’s day? Isn’t that the good part? It is for me, at least I want it to be. Desperately.

Alas, client expectations breed fear and anxiety. Even the most enthusiastic agency executives have built a tolerance for it. Perhaps naively, the best of us hope for the best. But a muted or concern-filled reaction is frankly the norm. Even the greatest ideas are met with frowns or, if we’re lucky, polite consideration. We all know how Chiat Day’s “1984” commercial for Apple was at first poorly received. We all know Van Gogh died poor and insane.

What a freaking shame. I think what we do is magical and fun… That is until I’m brought down to muddy earth by frowns and polite consideration. I guess I am a fool. For I always think next time will be different. Does anyone remember laughter?

“Employing Steff’s system improved my presentations…and my life!”

I learned how to present creative ideas (mine and those belonging to others) by watching the best of the best and modeling my game accordingly. At Leo Burnett, we typically competed (if that’s the right word) with other teams within our creative group, during internal meetings and even in front of clients. As for agency recommendations, if a client preferred another idea or disliked the hero, the tables would turn. This happened all the time. Still does. I learned that sometimes, as in a horse race, it’s almost better not to be the frontrunner. In any event, every presentation was a golden opportunity. They still are.

Every presentation is also a trial by fire but some fires burn hotter than others. Therefore, when you have an internal meeting, this is when you audition your presentation. This is when you consider your narrative. Am I aligning my pitch with the strategy deck? Are my pieces in the right order? You can get away with mistakes, especially if you acknowledge them. Own your presentation and learn how to course correct.

Don’t ramrod through your blunders. Tell your work family that you value their criticism and are hell bent on being solid for the client. Easier said than done. But it’s good advice.

In either case, observe other presenters as much as their work. Consider their performances with the eyes of a client. Take notes. The night before a presentation I often wrote down what I thought I should say. I obsessed over it. Being prepared, my confidence grew rapidly.

When my turn came to face a client, I held up my notes and told them this meeting was too important for me to wing it, that the creative was too good for risking an adlibbed, tangential preamble. By making fun of myself I could brag about the work. I owned my nerves instead of trying to hide them. There are few bigger fails than when the nervous feign otherwise. It is like trying not to look stoned when you so unquestionably are. You fool nobody and project discomfort to your audience. Tell folks you are nervous because you care. It’s the truth. And it’s a gateway to excellent technique.

You have visual aids that have been slaved over. Make them the hero. Not you. Show and tell the work. This is your priority. Over time you can begin to incorporate your personality. Chances are, this will happen organically. But never go about it the other way around. Eventually, when you’re a creative director, certain new demands will be put upon you. Until then, bide your time, aiming for sincerity and competence. Confidence will follow. It almost always does.

Practice humility like this until you become comfortable on your feet, enough to show some swagger. Even now, I am perfectly fine working from notes. Eye contact is overrated. Chemistry in a meeting is different than on a date. Your sex appeal is secondary. You can be a nerd here and win. How the hell do you think I succeeded?

“Behold, my creation!”

Lately, ny agency has made a slew of creative presentations. Two or three a week. Likely your agency is experiencing something similar. It’d better be. Like sharks, creative agencies don’t do well sitting still. We must hunt as vociferously as we farm, if not more so. The days of long-term relationships are so damn over I feel like it almost goes without saying.

Create. Present. Repeat.

For obvious reasons, most creative departments are built focusing on the talent piece, finding the right people, nurturing them and tweaking when necessary.

Typically, we hire folks based on their credentials. That and a couple of meetings. Barring a disastrous interview, if the copywriter or art director or designer, et cetera has a good book and solid references we hire ’em.

Alas, the presentation aspect of the candidate’s game is almost always underestimated. What choice do we have? Other than first impressions how can one really know if a creative person is tight when it comes to facing a client? I ask a guy if he’s good at presenting and 8 times out of 10 he’ll answer affirmatively, claiming he likes the adrenaline rush, and is a pretty decent closer. “I can always get better,” she might say, earnestly. “But, you know, my main focus is on the work.”

The proof is in the pudding, as they say.

Well, forgive my frankness, but most creative people aren’t very good at presenting their work, let alone someone else’s. Often a man might think he is; after all, who wants to believe otherwise? Being a charismatic and articulate advocate is so tied with self-esteem. It takes a very honest soul to admit mediocrity. Most of us end up fronting. Unfortunately, cocksureness is no substitute for a compelling presentation. Often it is detrimental. Few things gall as much as the defensive and preening creative. Even a kiss-ass fares better.

Because most agencies can’t afford to treat a single presentation as ‘practice’ a vicious cycle develops. ‘Show talent’ does not get properly developed. While the same two people end up presenting over and over again. Couple that with the fact that by definition people are crummy at public speaking until they’ve done it dozens of times and we end up with creative departments long on craftsmen and short on showmen.

The straight dope is one must really pay attention to his or her presentation skills, either making it a point to demonstrate improvement or be resigned to letting your hopefully more capable boss or partner do it. This is not unwise strategy. At first. But eventually you’re going to want to speak up, especially if you have designs on becoming a creative director.

Rest assured. The cycle can be broken! What does success look like and how do you get there? That’s the subject of my next post. (Hint: you won’t have to go to Toast Masters or take some weird class in a strip mall.) Until then, here’s a fairly recent piece I wrote on the very same subject.