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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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Looking for my next gig, I have visited a fair number of agencies. Typically, I meet with people representing the management team. It’s a bit of a gauntlet. In that context, one expects a positive attitude throughout, from both the interviewee and the interviewer(s). However, that is not always the case. At one agency, a number of the folks I’d met were pretty 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?”

Sadly. Yes.

Despite the awkward frankness (exceptional in those circumstances), 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 one of my complainers a parable, the best thing I could think of to say 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.

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For the refuge it provides…

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I’m compelled to speak about gratitude. After all, gratitude is the very definition of giving thanks. Many of us (myself included) often experience a lapse in gratitude. We get caught up in the business of work and the mostly silly dramas that govern our lives.

I once heard a parable that I’d like to paraphrase here:

Every day a group of men set out to forage in the savannah 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 existed 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 men failed to realize 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 resiting place fostered.

I recall a company meeting at my previous agency. 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. Though our agency was, in fact, beleaguered 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 respects I was talking to myself. I shared many of my fellow’s misgivings but 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. 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.

That first winter for the pilgrims was a brutal one. Many did not make it. Yet, a precious few did. With help from the Indians, they not only survived the second winter; they thrived. Despite their many hardships the frail community held a great feast. The rest is history.

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Integrated shop. Unified model. Gyro refers to it as “Uno.” Call your agency (its culture, its model) what you will. And on some days those terms can be pretty brutal. As some of you know I’ve likened working in an agency to being on a submarine: We’re at sea. We’re at battle. We’re in this thing together. Because, after doing good work, that’s what it’s all about: working together. That’s what the word “integration” originally meant before all these holding companies got a hold of it.

But today the glass is half full. If I think about it it’s more than half full. Our cup runneth over. Therefore, in this good mood, I’d like to give you my spin on integration, paraphrasing a parable I heard some time ago. I’m sure you’ll agree, it applies now more than ever…

On the outskirts of a small village, the farmers, loggers and hunters would gather under a lone, ancient and leafless tree, everyday at noon, when the sun was most high and the heat was too unbearable for working.

The farmers threw down their bags of apples, giving a snort to the fruitless limbs towering over their heads. “Without any fruit, what good is this tree, anyway?” The loggers shook their heads in agreement. “The old wood from this tree isn’t fit to burn.” The hunters among them also agreed. “Without fruit or places to nest, there are no birds to kill.” They were all unanimous: the tree was worthless. And so it went, for days upon years, hundreds of hunters and farmers and loggers, bitching about this lifeless, barren tree.

It never dawned on them that without this great tree they would have had no place to rest their feet or shade their heads. And without this great tree they would never have formed a community, and been able to share their experience, strength and hope…or find out where the fruits were…and the firewood for winter…to learn the tricks of their various trades…

And so here we are, art directors, writers, planners and suits. Working more and more together, more and more everyday. Sharing our experience, strength and hope. And while I’m sure we’re too busy to sit around and complain, do any of us realize how rare community like this is? And how blessed we all are to have it? I know I’m blessed.

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Chicago from my hotel, a visitor now.

How are you with personal nostalgia? I’m definitely Love/Hate. For reasons I can’t quite articulate, I’m not always a fan of tripping down memory lane. Some people dig visiting their old haunts, getting misty eyed at the sight of myriad firsts (kiss, drink, apartment, job, etc) but I’m not one of them. I usually experience the passage of time as melancholy. The good parts are gone forever and the bad parts linger like ghosts. Either way, it’s kind of funky.

As many of you know, I left Chicago last year to be ECD of gyro, San Francisco. Save for one hotel-bound visit last summer, I have not been back to Chicago at all: not for business and certainly not for pleasure.

Until now…

A global meeting and the Business Marketing Association (for which gyro is a huge supporter) delivered me back to my Sweet Home Chicago. As a matter of fact, I’m writing this post from the fabulous 14th floor of gyro’s Chicago office.

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“Selfie” at gyro, Chicago. All smiles.

From my perch before its many windows I can see both my former companies, Leo Burnett and Euro RSCG (now Havas). I also see parts of Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where I was born as well as my daughters. Ah, and there’s the ugly, iconic Marina City Towers. I recall a blowout party…

Shit. I’m waxing nostalgia.

Or it’s waxing me? That’s the thing about returning to one’s hometown. Everywhere I’m bombarded by memories. Yet, maybe they aren’t all misty and sad. Maybe I do enjoy the echoes. It’s kind of like a time machine. My brain processes familiar images as icons. Those “firsts” I made fun of in the first paragraph are unavoidable and indelible.

I’m reminded of Don Draper’s now famous “carousel speech” from an early episode of Mad Men. In it, he exploits the profound human desire to recreate the past based on romantic memories. If you’ve not seen this bit, watch it. The writing and execution are flawless.

Don tells his clients nostalgia literally means “the pain from an old wound.” I won’t deny seeing my last former workplace didn’t dredge up some crap. That of a mission not wholly accomplished. The guilt. My anger. A person or two I did not punch in the mouth (but maybe should have). On the other hand no one punched me…

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Euro RSCG… Havas… fading fast

But then I see Michigan Avenue, what tourists call the Magnificent Mile! I’m instantly transported back 25 years heading south from Oak Street to my first big day of job interviews. There’s J. Walter Thompson in the John Hancock building no less! Then Foote, Cone and Belding. Followed at last by the most famous Chicago agency of all, Leo Burnett…where I would ultimately work for the next 18 years!

Clearly, I chose wisely. The other two firms aren’t even here anymore. Not really. And let me tell you back then NOTHING compared to having an LBCO business card in your wallet. It made my brother envious. My mother proud. And the chicks dug it.

Today, I’m a proud and happy card-carrying member of gyro –an agency built for the 21st century. All told, I’ve been and continue to be a very fortunate man. Gratitude. That’s a good lens for viewing the past as well as the present.

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Or as my kids call it, a “flat bowling ball.”