Me, feeling it. (photo by Daniel Postaer)

I’m delighted to receive word this morning that we prevailed in our first new business pitch since I joined gyro, San Francisco.  I cannot name the client but like most of our partners they are a technology concern. Or as I like to say, they make cool shit that changes the world.

A win is always good news for everyone involved but for me this is especially satisfying. It validates what I have known from the moment I stepped foot in gyro: that this place is special and that I made a wise and wonderful decision by joining it.

Visiting with my father and brothers in Los Angeles, I tried to explain how blessed and happy I am with my new job. They know what a major deal it was –is– for me to move my entire family across the country, on just possibilities.

But here is validation.

It being Friday let’s savor the aroma for a few 24 hours. Thank you and congratulations, work family. I am so proud. And to my real family I say go ahead and exhale. This is all going to work out fine!


The adoration of art history!

Something wonderful happened to me the other day while I was working on a freelance project: I was able to use my modest knowledge of art history in the formation of a creative idea! Yes sir, those classes I took long ago at the University of Wisconsin actually came in handy for work. As a matter of fact, we’ll be using examples from the Renaissance and other important periods in art history not only to inform the execution of our idea but also to help sell it. It isn’t everyday you see Raphael or Tintoretto in a PowerPoint presentation. But you will in ours. We even use the word chiaroscuro…correctly!

Why does that make me giddy? Because for the entire new century we’ve all obsessed about new media ad nausea, especially those of us in advertising, or whatever the hell we’re calling it. And I’m as guilty as anyone. Maybe more so.

My point is we’re so amped on whatever the new, new thing is we often forget how brilliant certain old things are and how vital. For centuries, paintings and illustrations were the primary visual media available to Man. Instead of clicking through myriad links and cable channels, man sought inspiration or entertainment from still images, the best of which were generally paintings. Earlier generations gazed upon frescoes in their church and if they were lucky got to see masterworks at a salon or museum. Granted, lewd and crude drawing pervaded popular culture but the high road was pretty damn high for those who elected to take it.

Pause here for a second…what we make is so ephemeral, isn’t it? The best marketing campaigns in the world quickly fade into trivia. Whatever wins at Cannes this year will be entirely forgotten in 3 to 5 years. Probably sooner. Our masterpieces might be game changers for our industry and even popular culture but they have no value or meaning beyond a few ad classes and even those are fleeting. Few things are more irrelevant than the 2003 Gunn Report.

Yet, I don’t want to lecture about art versus commerce or the dumbing down of society or anything like that. For one thing I’d be a hypocrite. I haven’t been to the Art Institute of Chicago in several years, and it’s 5 miles from my house. I stay up late to watch horror movies from Europe. I blog about advertising! For all my alleged culture you’ll find me on the low road often enough. I guess all I’m saying is that it felt pretty good knowing the old masters were still relevant to the creative process, mine anyway.

The “comfortable” agency? More like comfortably ahead.

You’ve got to hand it to agency McGarry Bowen. They just keep winning business. After reeling in a big piece of the Sears account a couple weeks ago they followed it up this week by catching all of Burger King.

Not to kill the fishing metaphor but this monstrous haul is no fluke. McGarry Bowen has been on a winning streak for years. Maybe even since their inception in 2002. According to Wikipedia, in 2008 MB was the largest independent advertising agency in New York. Clearly, those numbers will have to be revised.

The paint was hardly dry in its Chicago office (2007), when they began pulling in account after account, namely from Kraft Foods and often at the expense neighboring agencies, including mine. It seemed they were winning new business every week, and this during the height of the recession.

What gives? Was this seemingly innocuous babe born of the devil? Not likely. Lord knows there’s nothing naughty about their work. Even their relatively edgy “Don’t be Mayo” campaign for Miracle Whip was pretty straightforward when you got right down to it: vignettes, music, supers. Old school.

And indeed principals, John McGarry (Chief Executive Officer), Gordon Bowen, (Chief Creative Officer) and Stewart Owen (Chief Strategic Officer) are as old school as they come: Y & R guys from New York. In addition, many on the management team in Chicago grew up where I did, at Leo Burnett. All these guys are old enough to remember The Brady Bunch and the ads than ran on it. Who said advertising is a young man’s game?

John McGarry: “Dag Nabbit, I’m good!”

So, what’s their secret? I know CEO’s from every agency in America are dying to find out. I’ve heard some theories, one being that the founders are totally committed to relationship and brand building, notions that most every other firm considers antiquated and even trite. Are they? Here’s what the inimitable George Parker had to say about it on his controversial and popular blog, Adscam/The Horror:

“Perhaps all the fucktards out there (aka Big Dumb Agencies) pontificating about how they are social douchnozzeling and friending, tweeting, liking, whatever, should wake up and realize that having gone around the track a few times on all this communicator – conversationnozzle – shit… What they (clients) really need is a fucking ADVERTISING AGENCY!”

For the entire new century the hippest agency on earth has been Crispin, Porter & Bogusky. And rightly so. Their winning streak of both business and creative awards was unsurpassed. (I even called them the Doyle Dane Bernbach of our time.) Until now. Whether I was right or wrong, CP&B lost the Burger King account to McGarry Bowen.

Does this signify a changing of the guard? If ever two agencies were polar opposites it’s these two. Avi Dan, in a piece for Forbes, stated,

“maybe post-recession clients are not in a gambling mood. McGarryBowen is the ultimate safe choice. Sort of the advertising version of “Nobody ever got fired for hiring IBM.”

I’m not going to editorialize; I admire both agencies. But I’m pretty sure only one of them is hiring right now. My take: MB and CP&B balance each other out. Like yin and yang. Maybe shops versed in both schools are where it’s at, places like Goodby and Wieden.

What’s it gonna be?

I’m working with an art director/partner on some pretty terrific projects. It’s good to be thinking and writing about clients again. More on that later…

Meantime, my partner suggested our goal be building relationships with clients, not just doing “projects” for them. Relationships, he reminded me, are longer term, healthier and just plain better.

That’s the theory anyway. And it used to be the practice. But not anymore. Not for a long time. When clients hire and fire agencies willy-nilly; those aren’t relationships they’re hook-ups or, worse, prostitution.

Which begs the question: Are we agencies “johns,” and dumb johns at that? We eagerly get into bed with each new client thinking this is “the one.” We will grow old and happy together. In order to insure that we staff up, open a regional office, promote the members of the pitch team. Ha. Within seven months the client is indifferent to us or even mad. Maybe we’ve done a campaign they don’t like. Maybe they’ve been hit on by another agency. Probably both. After nine months they put us on notice. The next quarter we’re fired. Few agencies and clients are exempt from this contempt. It’s more than merely a trend. It’s the way it is.

On the other hand, maybe we agencies are more like reluctant prostitutes; after all we are getting paid…sort of. But even then we want to be loved for our personality and willingness to commit. But the client wants it fast, cheap and AWESOME! Against our instincts, we try to accommodate. We are good girls. We don’t want to be dumped. If we fail the client will find another eager beaver willing to turn a trick.

And so the idea of projects becomes evermore desirable. Projects have a beginning, middle and end. They can be accounted. Unfortunately, it begs the question of why agencies need half their staff. Planners? What pray tell, are we planning for –to get fired? Grooming an account executive to hold a brand manager’s hand seems silly given they don’t want to fall in love. As for the rest of us, it seems the wisest course –better said, the only course- is to put as small a team as possible on the business and swing for the fences. Hit a homerun and maybe we’ll keep the account. If we’re let go we’ve got minimal overhead to “reorganize.”

As someone who grew up at a long-term idea factory, I bristle at the ‘wham, bam, thank you Ma’am’ approach but what’s a girl to do? Oh, I know: show your cleavage in social media and whip out the digital.

Even the stars are dim.

In the absence of new briefs most ad agencies flounder. Having not planned for drought (we never do), the lack of organic growth or new business is almost always painful. Unfortunately, we are seemingly incapable of healing our own wounds. And bullish to a fault, we never see them coming. It’s not a good formula. But we’re smart, right? We can sell sand in the desert. So why is it we only know what we’re doing when we have something to do?

I’ll start by looking in the mirror.

For all our advertising awards, and the big salaries that go with them, most hotshot creatives have no clue how to help the agency out. Suddenly, the idea people are bereft of ideas. We bitch and point fingers. Our humor grows dark. Instead of working (on what?) we surf the net forwarding racy videos to one another. When that grows old, we update our portfolios.

And account people sans accounts are just as clueless. Fred has been milking the same cow so long he doesn’t know how to do anything else. He’s frustrated at Betsey when her milk runs dry. Dumb fucking animal! But just below the surface he blames his agency. They didn’t give him what he needed to take care of the cow. And it’s not like he didn’t ask them and warn them. Deeper down Fred blames himself. It’s his account for Christ’s sake. He could have done more or done differently. And now it’s too late. Instead of thinking what he might do for the agency to make up for the shortfall, Fred runs to his office and updates his Linkedin account. After all, he thinks, “they don’t pay me to make rain.” Wonder why?

Who’s “they” and “them” anyway? It’s your agency. Here’s an idea: Why not get together and try to figure out ways to help out the firm? In over 20 years working in numerous creative departments, I’ve never seen that happen. Not once. Which makes me just as culpable. What excuses did I make? That they didn’t pay me enough? That they wouldn’t listen to me anyway?

And so it goes during dry spells. From top to bottom, agencies fall apart. There are many reasons for this. One big one might be that ad agencies are not built for anything but growth. Holding companies demand profits that might otherwise be allocated to prudent reserves. Somewhat irresponsible for agencies during good times, it can be downright fatal during bad. When the hallway chatter turns to ‘cuts’ everyone becomes a headless chicken, both in courage and intelligence. Yet, even if privately owned companies endure hard times longer and/or plan for them better, I can’t help feeling there’s more we all could do to mitigate the problem.

I’m in my own little dry spell right now, but if/when I get my next job I’m vowing to initiate planning for tough times. Maybe it’s a think tank wherein the agency’s best and brightest brainstorm ideas. Maybe it’s a redo on the website. Unfortunately, fear cripples planning right when one needs it the most. Management tends to hunker down, invariably settling on cuts. And why weren’t contingency plans created during flush periods anyway? It’s a cyclical industry; tough times befall all agencies. There has to be a better way for us to handle them.