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An account strategist for Ogilvy & Mather in the Philippines died at his workplace, sick from pneumonia but apparently unwilling (or unable) to leave. I don’t want to comment on this particular man or his firm. It’s a tragedy and I’m sure everyone feels bad about it. Especially the man’s family. Yet, I’m pretty sure the root behavior won’t change. Not at that agency or all the sweatshops like it.

Here’s why: Fear. Be it of a losing a pitch or one’s job, fear of not getting what you want (raise, promotion, attention) or having it taken away, is insidious.

Fear is a powerful motivator but it comes at a tremendous price. (Look what it is doing to our country.) When fear creeps into an agency’s culture, it is always toxic and usually incurable. Fear makes people do bad things to other people and to themselves. Fear creates an environment of hostility and mistrust. I’ve seen it and felt it and have been hurt by it. Likely so have you.

The occasional all-nighter to win a pitch is NOT what I’m talking about. This is a good thing, bringing people together to win a glorious prize. However, when such activities become an expectation the bonding soon becomes bondage.

Mocking the so-called trend to “work from home,” people are afraid to leave at a reasonable hour, aware of the critical eyes upon them. The creative director who wants to see work at 10PM quickly turns from hero to heel. Yet, he or she is likely afraid of not calling the meeting as well. Probably because the agency’s managing director is expecting to see work first thing in the morning. If the presentation is not perfect then the MD will blame the CD for not working harder and longer. The cycle gets repeated. The virus of fear spreads.

While literally dying on the job is thankfully an ultra rare exception, there are far more commonplace consequences that are lethal. For example, each affected human is in turn hurting his or her family. Continuity at home becomes hopelessly disrupted. Marriages suffer. This makes everyone resentful and bitter: the employee to his boss for not giving a shit and to his spouse for not understanding. Resentments at home and office fester. The bitterness may lead to isolation, anxiety and depression. Alcoholism and “acting out” thrive in these conditions. Finger pointing. Blaming. Misconduct. People become the crappiest version of themselves. All because of fear.

But so what? Sweatshops work. For a period of time results are wrought. But it never ends well. For the individuals and eventually the agencies. Like an over-watered plant, the tips look good but everything below becomes rotten. I once worked with a guy who wanted a sweatshop more than life itself. He got his wish. I left that job. And he his home. Everyone loses when fear takes over.

For fearless creative hit me up: https://steffanwork.wordpress.com/

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Delightfully tacky stock photo of a “difficult client.”

Had coffee with another soldier in Adland. “Why are client’s so difficult?” he asked, rhetorically.

Those of us in creative departments have asked the question so many times it has become rote. Clients are difficult. Period. Especially with regard to buying and approving work. We expect them to demand changes to the concepts, to the script, to the voiceover, to the scene, to the CTA, to the size of the logo and so on.

We have become uncomfortably numb. We expect our work to be criticized. So much so the creation process has “revisions and changes” baked right into it. Furthermore, we are told –indeed, I’ve said it myself- if we were in our client’s shoes we’d do the same thing. To use the ultimate cliché “it is what it is.”

But you know what? That’s bullshit. I am far from perfect but I am usually a damn fine client. When I hire someone to do a creative job –be it a director or an architect or whomever- I never give him or her the kind of scrutiny that is typically given to me and/or my team. An interior designer shows me some designs I tell him which one I like, we discuss time and money, and I pay the man. This even when things are late and over budget, which they invariably are. Once in a while I have a question or an honest mistake has been made. We address it. Done. On to the next. Even though it’s my thing and my money I am seldom a dick.

Chances are you’re the same way.

So, why are advertising clients so difficult? Why all the concerns, tweaks and rejections? Like most things in the negative pantheon, I think the answer is fear based. CMO’s and their get are terrified (sometimes understandably) of losing their jobs. Often their counterparts at the agency feel the same way. Every tree we plant better bear fruit. Or else! With all that pressure (much of it self-imposed) it makes me wonder how they (or we) even get up in the morning.

Yet the resulting behavior –hacking at the tree or chopping it down- absolutely guarantees the tree will be barren. Or its yield will be paltry. In the end death by a thousand cuts is no different than doing nothing at all. Either way, the very thing one fears happening happens. The team is blown up. Another CMO is brought in and in turn another agency. The process begins all over again.

Creating campaigns is thrilling. Yet, their potential is and always will be unknown. Hence the thrill. No one can be sure how an audience will react to a thing until the thing is out there. What makes a client nervous might be what makes the thing truly great. We all know the story behind the world’s greatest advertisement, Apple’s “1984.” When it was screened to dealers everyone except its creators and Steve Jobs hated it. The agency, Chiat Day was asked to fire-sell the media, which happened to be two slots on the Super Bowl. One insertion was not sold. And the rest is history. Granted the follow-up commercial, “Lemmings” was an abject failure. Still, was Apple really hurt by it? No. Being reckless and cavalier has never hurt the brand. Failure can be the most excellent teacher.


Follow up to Apple’s “1984” was considered a failure. So what?

So put it out there. Instead of ‘why are we so afraid?’ let’s ask ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ If it doesn’t work as planned we try something else.

Were it that simple, right?

Timely piece in AdAge on the virtues of failure.

Virtues of being “unpopular” from Tedx presentation.


Tears of joy…or relief?

Over the years, I watched Jerry Rice catch an awful lot of touchdowns and so on Saturday night I watched him give his induction speech at the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton Ohio. Many people consider Jerry Rice to be the best who ever played the game. I wanted to hear what motivated the best of the best.

Like a short screen pass, Jerry got right to it. He said it was “fear” that got him where he is today. “Fear of failure,” to be exact. He was scared to let his father down. He was scared to let his coaches, teammates and fans down. Not the fastest guy in the NFL, Rice claimed no one could catch him because he “ran scared.” The remark got laughs but they were nervous ones. He correctly added that this fear factor flew in the face of most sports psychologists’ theories of winning strategy. So be it. Rice understood the idea of letting go one’s fears but, apparently, he just couldn’t do it. Or wouldn’t do it? Hard to tell from the speech he gave.

I worry and wonder about that. Typically, I find fear to be a defect of character, maybe the worst one there is. Yes, fear is what keeps us from bodily harm. It’s what makes us get off the subway when a bunch of gang bangers get on it. Fear also prevents us from doing stupid things, like jumping out of airplanes or swimming in shark-infested waters.


Jerry Rice & Eddie Dibartolo -NFL Hall of Fame ceremony, Canton, Ohio.

But obviously that’s not the fear Jerry Rice was talking about. His fear was more interesting and, frankly, worrisome. By his own admission his fears kept him from enjoying himself. It was like living with a gun to his head 24/7/365. Yes, he went on to become perhaps the greatest NFL player in the world but instead of exultant tears of joy, he stood before his peers, on national television, looking more relieved than anything else.

So, was it worth it? Was Jerry’s fear-driven path to greatness a good one to take? If we take him at his word, the best answer is… maybe. For how can it be anything more definitive? Fear of failure is strong coffee. I think too much and you become miserable. And chances are you make those around you miserable. People driven by fear are sad spectacles and worse. They can infect their families with it, causing loved ones to cower or eventually resort to the only reactions possible: fighting or fleeing.

The same thing happens in companies, ad agencies being no exception. I’ve known several people whose fear of failure drove their every move at work. God forbid we shared meetings. Evaluating creative in an environment of fear is awful. Risk taking goes out the window. Creative recipes quickly become mashed potatoes. The only thing worse is trying to create something when one is scared. Frankly, I’m not sure good creative, let alone great, is even possible if and when the creators are scared.

That said we are all driven to some extent by fear. As it was for Jerry Rice, it can be ambition’s coal. While I loathe the fear Jerry spoke of I cannot deny how ever-present it is –in my business, in my life, in me.

I admire Jerry Rice for his many, many honors but I also can’t help but feel sorry for him. His candid speech made me sad. Every morning and night when I say my all-to brief prayers I almost never fail to ask God to take away my fear and anxiety. Unlike Jerry Rice, I’m no good to anyone, especially me, when I’m scared.

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