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“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.

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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.

Sigh.

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?

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“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.

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I like to think I’m a good writer. I like to think I’m a good presenter. Alas, I still haven’t figured out how to sell a client a piece of work they do not want to do. Has anyone… really? Precious few clients are predisposed to do breakthrough work. For most, advertising (regardless of platform) is just a line item. An ever-smaller box to be checked. That these clients don’t behave more bullishly or even see the virtue of truly creative marketing is their part of the problem.

But what is my part? I believe in options. I like to show clients several campaigns for any given assignment. Of these we of course make a recommendation. Sometimes they go with it. Many times they don’t. We still consider it a victory (for both sides) if a client gloms on to one of the other campaigns. If none of them are runts then we have nothing to worry about. Right? Wrong?

Either way, that’s been my policy. But I do wonder. Should we/I have pressed harder for our recommendation? Certainly my creative team would want as much. Yet, if a client desires a hamburger you can sell the steak all you want the client will only get frustrated and maybe even to the point where they balk at the goddamn hamburger. Then what have we got? That’s right: a pissed off client and no sale.

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So, we ask: What do you want on your burger?

Yet, when I look back at some of these outcomes I second-guess what might have been had we gotten our way. In order for an agency –any agency- to get to the next level it has to demonstrate extraordinary creative and have at least one iconic campaign to its name. Iconic work rarely comes from compromise or committee. So, I wrestle with the vogue notion of collaboration. Tissue sessions are practical as they vest client participants in the eventual outcome but they also corrupt the outcome, playing to a common denominator.

We all know this but what’s a girl to do? If we force a piece of work down a client’s throat they will most likely spit it back out and usually in our face. Produced ideas –bad, good or great- often don’t reveal themselves in the first weeks of communications, let alone a creative presentation. If a CEO questions the CMO about newly approved work it rarely ends well for all parties, including the agency. Therefore, the CMO is risk averse. Questions turn to concerns, which quickly become issues and then the kill switch is pulled. Second chances are rare. Therefore, doing work that instantly appeals to the many tends to be the safest bet. Rare is the CMO who stays fast with a seemingly risky bet, or makes one in the first place.

Do not assume strategy plays a decisive role in choosing creative. Filet and hamburger are on strategy for meat dishes. Alas, hamburger is a crowd pleaser. Adding to that, it is faster and cheaper.

I’ve worked at enough places to know there are plenty of creative chefs in the kitchen. Dissing agencies for dishing out burgers is easy but perhaps unfair. Not when precious few customers appreciate the cuisine.

It’s maddening. What I can control is putting out a good menu and pitching the top items to the best of my ability. After that I can use all the help I can get. And divine intervention from the Gods of Advertising.

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“Now that we’re alone together…”

One thing that seldom gets talked about in a good way when we talk about business trips is the bonding that takes place among our traveling companions. We piss and moan about all the hassle but upon doing it often we are quite jovial. At least I am.

I like the personal time spent with my professional cohorts. It’s kind of like a fishing trip. A group of peers going out into the world, usually with one goal in mind- be it winning new business, presenting new campaigns or meeting a new client. The key word is “new.” New makes things special. It breathes new life into old colleagues.

Bullshitting in the taxi. Commiserating in the security line. Going over the presentation in the hotel bar. We don’t give these moments their full credit. This stuff matters.

Perhaps we’ve wanted a quiet word with our partner about something vexing us back at the office. Maybe we just want to find out a thing or two about the other’s personal life. These kinds of things don’t come up in the same way at work. The lights are brighter there. Myriad matters distract us. We don’t have time for it.

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“20 minutes until boarding. Let’s bond!”

But on the road we let our guard down. We open up. Part of this is because we are anxious about the big meeting or some such. Part of it is human nature. Either way, I’ve always appreciated it even if subconsciously.

Even a long drive with some of your teammates can be rejuvenating to all involved. It says we are all in this together. Whatever happens, I’ve got your back. I won’t let you down. We are in a boat. By necessity we rely on trusting one another. Ask Dr. Phil. Building trust is key to building any relationship. Think about that next time your number gets called. And have a nice trip.


Don could sell venereal disease to a third world country.

Next to gazing at Joan the thing I like most about Mad Men are the speeches, especially those given by Don Draper, and in particular when he’s in pitch mode. Observing Don orate in front of an expectant, hushed crowd, whether it’s Jaguar or some Podunk regional airline, is for me the zenith of this acclaimed show.

There, I wistfully think to myself, but for the Gods of Advertising go I. As a copywriter and creative director, I’ve long cherished the presentation spotlight and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Having a great idea and being its primary advocate is nothing short of a blessing. The trust. The power. The stakes. The so-damn-possible you-can-almost-taste-it glory. How can anyone resist? (Well, as it turns out many of you can. Public speaking ranks among the most feared of all human activities. Good. More opportunities for guys like me!)


We can be heroes!

Arguing for my agency and ideas is the closest I’ll ever come to a Braveheart moment. Think about it, for all the bloody mayhem in that awesome film, the only thing we really remember is Mel Gibson’s rousing speech to his troops. The same can be said for George C Scott as Patton. Or Jack: “You can’t handle the truth!” Well, hell, I want to stand for something. And I want to stand and deliver it. And so it is -kind of sort of- when I make a creative presentation. Emphasis on kind of sort of…

But still!

The adrenalin pumps. Time stops. Everything else fades from importance. In that moment, I am Atticus Finch, General Patton, Braveheart; or more likely, a poor man’s Don Draper, which, by the way, I will take any day of the week. Freedom!

Writer’s note: It is ironic AMC’s other advertising show (about this very topic: The Pitch!) has not shown us a single magnificent presentation. Frankly, far from it.