“Employing Steff’s system improved my presentations…and my life!”

I learned how to present creative ideas (mine and those belonging to others) by watching the best of the best and modeling my game accordingly. At Leo Burnett, we typically competed (if that’s the right word) with other teams within our creative group, during internal meetings and even in front of clients. As for agency recommendations, if a client preferred another idea or disliked the hero, the tables would turn. This happened all the time. Still does. I learned that sometimes, as in a horse race, it’s almost better not to be the frontrunner. In any event, every presentation was a golden opportunity. They still are.

Every presentation is also a trial by fire but some fires burn hotter than others. Therefore, when you have an internal meeting, this is when you audition your presentation. This is when you consider your narrative. Am I aligning my pitch with the strategy deck? Are my pieces in the right order? You can get away with mistakes, especially if you acknowledge them. Own your presentation and learn how to course correct.

Don’t ramrod through your blunders. Tell your work family that you value their criticism and are hell bent on being solid for the client. Easier said than done. But it’s good advice.

In either case, observe other presenters as much as their work. Consider their performances with the eyes of a client. Take notes. The night before a presentation I often wrote down what I thought I should say. I obsessed over it. Being prepared, my confidence grew rapidly.

When my turn came to face a client, I held up my notes and told them this meeting was too important for me to wing it, that the creative was too good for risking an adlibbed, tangential preamble. By making fun of myself I could brag about the work. I owned my nerves instead of trying to hide them. There are few bigger fails than when the nervous feign otherwise. It is like trying not to look stoned when you so unquestionably are. You fool nobody and project discomfort to your audience. Tell folks you are nervous because you care. It’s the truth. And it’s a gateway to excellent technique.

You have visual aids that have been slaved over. Make them the hero. Not you. Show and tell the work. This is your priority. Over time you can begin to incorporate your personality. Chances are, this will happen organically. But never go about it the other way around. Eventually, when you’re a creative director, certain new demands will be put upon you. Until then, bide your time, aiming for sincerity and competence. Confidence will follow. It almost always does.

Practice humility like this until you become comfortable on your feet, enough to show some swagger. Even now, I am perfectly fine working from notes. Eye contact is overrated. Chemistry in a meeting is different than on a date. Your sex appeal is secondary. You can be a nerd here and win. How the hell do you think I succeeded?


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.


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.

“I will protect the creative with my life!”

We’ve been very busy at the agency, developing campaigns for a diverse and interesting array of fabulous clients. (Dear clients, note I said “fabulous” and that I lead with it.) That said, our ideas are now being “socialized,” a lengthy and treacherous path in which all work must pass. Few make it. We will do everything in our power to see that ours do…

In Adland, guiding a truly great idea through to completion is not unlike facing the many hardships Sinbad endured during his seventh treachery-laden voyage in 1958. (Not really, but humor me.) In that quintessential B-movie, the legendary special effects genius, Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013) pitted the seafaring swashbuckler against an armada of spectacular pre-CGI creatures that not only took Sinbad to the brink but also changed Hollywood forever.

But I digress.

My point is that it’s soooo difficult producing excellent work in a business built by process and mired in fear. Whether it’s a quick and certain death by the brutish Cyclops or killing by a thousand cuts from the many-armed Serpent Queen, getting our best work in market (unmolested) is, alas, damn near impossible. It can be done, obviously. But you can only lead the horse to water.

“I will defeat your idea!”

Notice I wrote “produce” and not “create.” Contrary to popular hater belief, I don’t think most agencies are shit when it comes to creating excellent work. I’ve been doing this a long time and worked in just enough places to know that the ‘most agencies suck’ criticism just isn’t true. Most of us know what we are doing and generally get it up creatively for every brief.

I see spectacular work all the time. Hell, sometimes I even create it myself. But hard as that is, that is the easy part. Because for every hundred truly special campaigns generated inside a given agency perhaps five make it into the culture; and of those five only one gets out with all its feathers intact.

Experience the journey in terrifying Dynarama! See…

The vulnerable idea face its first hurdle of potential despair: The slew of the Internal. Hopefully, the idea’s champion (it’s Sinbad!) can protect it. For while the internal meeting starts with best intentions it may quickly devolve into chaos. (Fortunately, that never happens at your agency.)

And then, if we are lucky, the idea sails on to the client. Sinbad or not, these rocky shores have claimed many an agency’s idea. For it is here the Beasts of Doubt are unleashed. Up the organization it goes, suffering withering scrutiny. The Medusa of Research can and does turn our ideas into stone. That or something unrecognizable: a creature that is neither fish nor fowl. Pig Man!

The many daggers of research!

During the lengthy ordeal a new King or Queen of Marketing may take the throne. Happens all the time. This ruler often has other ideas. Back you go! If an idea moves forward slashed budgets may take their toll, rendering your concept ill equipped to take on its daunting task of myth making and persuading certain masses.

In the end it is usually time that defeats an idea. Even Sinbad cannot battle time. A few months into the process of creating/selling/producing an idea and folks begin to second-guess it. If it was so good, comes the question, then why is it taking so goddam long to make?

“By the Gods, will this ever end?”

So, here’s to the one in a hundred. The great idea that somehow grows stronger as it moves through its voyage. The concept that won’t die no matter what anyone throws at it. The great irony is these precious ideas are so rare they don’t even need a Sinbad to protect them. For they are legendary.

The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad