Last week the acclaimed actress, Emma Stone made headlines with her revelation that certain male co-stars had taken significant pay cuts in order to achieve parity with her own salary. It’s a nice story. And one that readily feeds into the red-hot narrative regarding “fearless” women “leaning in” and breaking barriers into male-dominated fields. While the feminist aspect is important, the idea of taking a pay cut for the greater good is also a trending topic. Witness what NBA Finals MVP, Kevin Durant did in order for his championship Warriors to stay intact.


Specifically, a thread on Linkedin caught my eye. Above a link to the Emma Stone story a female advertising executive commented, “I wonder how many of my male peers would do the same?” The implication was not many. My guess is few women would either.

But guess what? I did, willingly and without hesitation. hell, it was my idea! And that’s what I thought about when I’d first read the Stone story. Without getting into names and places, a few years back I took approximately 25% off my compensation in order to significantly bump the salaries of two of my top lieutenants. I had reason to believe one was being courted by another agency. Moreover, I also felt strongly that both individuals deserved bigger raises than the company was budgeted to give. For me, reducing my bottom line to increase theirs felt like a no-brainer. In a weird way I was almost happy to do it. It felt like right sizing. Though he later came around, I recall the CEO first balking at my suggestion. “Nice gesture, Steffan but business just doesn’t work that way.”

Why is that, I wonder? Seems to me such redistribution and/or diminution would help remedy the need for layoffs during hard times as well as mitigate the blade being used on older more expensive workers. My guess is that self-induced pay cuts somehow feel communistic and is antithetical to capitalism. This is bullshit of course. But then why is retrenchment so rare?

I’ll work for numbers that work for you:

Been there, done that…

My entire career, I’ve been a full time employee of three agencies. Before now, my only work stoppage (six months) was on account of a separation agreement.

This time I have no such covenants. Therefore, in addition to copious amounts of personal writing, I’ve also taken my first foray into freelance copywriting. To my pleasant surprise, I enjoyed it. A lot. Not only did I not miss being the boss I actually relished being inconspicuous. Why? Well, that’s the subject of this post. I think I have a fairly unique perspective. Hopefully, most of you will find it interesting and maybe even enlightening, especially if you’ve got designs on creative leadership.

Freelancing put me back in the creative trenches: conceptualizing and writing. Two things I deeply missed. Fact is, unless a Chief Creative Officer actively fights against it most of us end up being curators and choreographers. Those are important tasks but it’s just not the same as coming up with ideas and writing. Whether my peers admit it or not, the longer they stay out of the trenches the more likely their creative muscles atrophy. It’s the same as anything else: use it or lose it. Remaining a player/coach isn’t easy, especially if various members of the agency are driving you in different directions. In addition, you have to want to do the work. Think about it. If no one at the agency expects you to write copy or compose layouts then would you? Lots of ECD’s and CCO’s (the most famous ones included) don’t create anything anymore. Regarding global creative directors, a colleague once told me the only “books” those guys care about are their passports.

Freelancing, I no longer have to suffer fools the way most creative directors must. A CCO is expected to work with senior people across his or her network as well as for clients. While many in the C-suite are brilliant and pleasant plenty are also tools. Paid only to write they are no longer my concern. A blessing.

Finally, I don’t miss power. As a matter of fact, I’m here to tell you power is overrated. For one thing, it separates you from the people and places and things that make advertising so damn fun. While separation from the troops is endemic to any leadership position I missed the camaraderie. You know who scares me? The ECD or CCO who doesn’t. Those guys are trouble.

As a freelancer, I get to create work with the other people who create work. That “flow” trumps pomp and circumstance. Plus, whether or not I become a CCO again, it’s nice to know I’m comfortable working the skill sets that got me there in the first place.

Full disclosure: As a CCO, I was never a big fan of hiring freelancers. I thought perhaps they wouldn’t try as hard as FTE’s. Or be as vested in outcomes as FTE’s. I was dead wrong on the first point. (Freelancers won’t get hired back if they don’t go full out.) And while the second point is usually true it’s also a moot point. If a company demands loyalty from a freelancer offer him or her a damn job!

“Look mom, they gave me money for drawing!”

Like pro athletes, advertising creatives are notoriously bad when it comes to figuring out money, especially when it comes to their employment contracts. Unlike pro athletes, however, we don’t have agents and managers to help us along. Honestly, most creative people never even took a math course in college -if they went to college. Or, like me, they took “dummy math” with the athletes!

In addition, I doubt any so-called ad schools cover the nuts and bolts of employment agreements in their curriculum. Maybe they should. With most ad jobs existing in holding companies these things can get pretty complicated. (They have to in order to be lucrative.) Unfortunately, the typical ad practice isn’t going to provide enlightenment. Why should they? It might cost them money. Frankly, nothing pleases agency bean counters more than an incoming creative who states: “I just want to do good work.”

Given the economy and tough times in Adland, I’m assuming the average creative hire is, indeed, just happy to be there. Don’t get me wrong. Gratitude is a desirable virtue but not when it impedes your ability to garner the best contract possible. With that in mind here are a few tips.

The first thing one needs to be aware of is that salary is just one aspect of your potential contract. Granted, it’s an important aspect but it ain’t what made the fat cats fat. True wealth comes from equity. And while most companies aren’t offering stock or options (particularly to newbies) that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Ask. Then ask again. If you’re a hot commodity or have other offers you just might score. If you’ve been at a firm some time and are successful then continue to pursue equity. Ask what will it take for you to get equity? Fact: Stock beats a raise in almost every equation. It’s amazing how many creative people (even the great ones) never think about this stuff until late in their careers, if ever. Equally amazing is the star creative who only focuses on salary. It’s a ghetto move. There’s a reason companies are reluctant to give out stock. Cash is far cheaper.

Somewhat easier to negotiate are incentives. Or bonus agreements. Here you’re asking the company to pay only if you achieve certain targets. Said another way, you’re betting on yourself. For example, you could base incentives on awards won or new business. Frame it as a win/win, which it is.

Easiest of all to procure are various perks, like parking, transportation allowances, education stipends, extra vacation days, etc… If you phrase your interrogative properly a prospective employer shouldn’t blanch. Things like Second City (presentation skills) and Hyper Island (digital training) are invaluable and worth every penny. Ask your company to pay those pennies.

Yet, most kids starting out (especially now) are, indeed, just happy to be there. But if you’ve been “there” several years, and are successful, maybe it’s time to ask what’s behind door number two.

Part of the dilemma is deep down we creatives consider contracts and money a “hassle.” Worrying about that stuff gets in the way of “doing good work.” We think, “just pay me a good wage and get out of my way.” With this attitude we are screwing ourselves. And what’s more most of us don’t even know what we’re missing!

Pranking in Adland nothing new

Yesterday, I overheard a copywriter of a certain age kvetching about some of the younger staff working beside her in the creative department. It wasn’t my place but I suppose it could have been. The lady was upset, so much so, she’d taken the matter up with HR. Apparently, the young hooligans in the creative department loved to punk one-another and regularly launched objects and f-bombs over the cubicle walls. The distraught copywriter told how, for fun, the rascals threw salt at her, yelling: “You’ve been assaulted! You’ve been assaulted!” For what it’s worth I give the gag a “C-” but I don’t find it very offensive either unless, of course, you’re allergic to salt.

Be that as it may, the person complaining about it was genuinely upset. The matter got me thinking… While I am closer in age to the upset copywriter, I also remember, back in the day, being a total jackass in the creative trenches at Leo Burnett. And I wasn’t the only one. Not by a long shot. I don’t know how much creative energy we expended coming up with pranks and smartass crap but if we billed hours against it, it probably would have been our biggest client.

Of all the stupid shit I did, one thing stands out…

Get in the hot tub time machine! For it happened pre-Internet, in the days of memos, dictionaries and copier machines. One day, I happened upon an innocuous memo written by an account person, whom I sort of knew. Didn’t matter the person. But the memo she’d written was an absolute gem of bad writing and crappy ideas. Words were misspelled. Sentences made no sense. It was as if this MBA hadn’t taken a single English class.

Anyway, delightful child that I was, I decided to edit her memo and post the marked-up copy on the bulletin board by the coffee and vending machines. Soon, other creatives began adding their own edits and comments. Within a week the memo had become a shrine to bad writing and a cause celebre’ in the agency.

You know where this is going: me in HR’s office apologizing to one distraught AE, as well as to both our superiors. We moved on. Nobody got fired. But to this day I still think the writer of that god-awful memo had no business working at Leo Burnett. Yet, I also think I was total asshole for humiliating her, especially so publicly.

Hearing a women complain about similar antics had me on two sides of the issue as well. Buck up I wanted to tell her. As well as “I’m sorry.”

In a past column, I likened most creative departments to Romper Room, full up with youngsters coming up with stuff productive and otherwise. Others have called it a frat house. Either way, what is it about creatives that make us –at times- so juvenile? Even with all manner of corporate rules and protocol we sometimes can’t help ourselves. We are silly. Obviously there is a line not to be crossed, racial and sexual insults are unacceptable. Putting a rubber cockroach in the candy dish at reception? I say go for it.

“I want more crumbs. Here’s my notice.”

Not long ago an interviewee had the stones to ask me about some recent “defections” from the agency. He wanted to know if “rats were jumping ship.” I told him the truth: that some people had quit but, to a man, they’d cited personal reasons for leaving, most involving geography.

With all due respect son give me a break. According to your resume you’ve worked at four shops in as many years. Were you jumping ships every time you left one of them? Were you the rat? Seems inappropriate, if not hypocritical, for you to be worrying about attrition given you’re already an expert at it. I did not say these things to the man but part of me wishes I had. For the record, he’d only occupied his present job a matter of months. But here he was, looking for a new one.

Another thing I could have told him was the only reason he was in my office at all was because those other folks had quit. If they were still here he would not be. When one door closes another opens. Surely, the man knew as much. After all, he’d already opened and closed his share.

Back in the day, I could understand an interviewee worrying about ‘sinking ships.’ Once upon a time folks got in a company and stayed there, presumably moving up the ladder. A raft of voluntary departures might indeed be indicative of a sinking ship.

Not anymore. On the contrary, we constantly are told that these days, in this business, the old rules just don’t apply. Catch as catch can. What have you done for me lately? We’re operating in Internet time! Okay. Fine. But shouldn’t that apply to old ideas about job security as well? If you’re only in a job until something else comes along, then maybe you’re not allowed to ask those questions. Your actions belie the very concern you are fronting.

Whether I like it or not, commitment to an employer is old-fashioned. Especially in this business. I can live with that reality. But I won’t abide questions about attrition from a serial quitter.

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