I’ve worked in creative departments across the country as a freelance writer and creative director. Along the way, I made a list of survival tips. Here you go.
I’ve worked in creative departments across the country as a freelance writer and creative director. Along the way, I made a list of survival tips. Here you go.
Think of yourself as an app. An app must furnish information, create entertainment, or have utility. If you do all (most) of that then you have created value. Creating value is what you’re paid to do. OpenTable is a perfect example. It’s an app furnishing information (reservation times) that lets you reserve a table (utility) that provides entertainment (dinner.)
Check to see if you’re doing two out of three, at least. If not, you’re either in trouble and don’t know it, or in the wrong spot and need to move on.
There’s one thing you must always have on hand: a decent suit or a nice dress. You’ll get a call to meet with a client. You’ll need to go to a funeral. Your company will host a table at a formal event and you’ll be invited. Even if you can’t imagine why you’d need it, keep an outfit hanging in the closet waiting for the moment when you will put it on and your life will change. Here’s my story: Four Seasons Dessert With Barry Diller
One of my favorite writers, George Tannenbaum, advises a colleague who dreams of the perfect job:
Note to a disconsolate friend.
Getting the ideal job.
The perfect job.
The job you’ve always wanted.
Very few people get that.
Almost no one gets it on their timetable.
I am not playing centerfield for the Yankees.
I never will.
I am not the CEO or even the CCO of my company.
Also, I do not have the nicest apartment.
The shiniest car.
Or the best abs.
Does this mean I am a failure?
That I am a loser?
That all my work doesn’t make it to Cannes?
And some of it, occasionally, sucks.
That I don’t hit the highest notes in every aria I sing.
The trick I think is not always getting what you want.
But in always doing your best, making the most of the opportunities you do get.
You have a long life and career ahead of you.
And you have already achieved so much.
That’s what put you in position to be turned down in the first place.
Samuel Becket wrote that the secret of success is to:
“Fail. Fail. And fail again better.”
As long as you are ambitious and shooting for the stars
there will always be things you come up short in.
And that’s how things are accomplished.
If you start at the top of the mountain,
there’s only one direction you can go.
I have harrowing memories of my first years as a copywriter, filled with ambition and energy but with no framework for efficiently having ideas. Over time, I compiled a little manual you can haul out in a desperate moment and find tips to help ideas happen. The Creative Companion has since been translated into French, Spanish, Mandarin and Turkish (that I know of) and has accompanied thousands of creative people as far away as Malta, Mozambique, Peru. Bahrain and Bangalore. As different as those places are, the creative people in each are all searching for the same thing. An idea. Now.
Making advertising is about having ideas on behalf of others for money on deadline. But it’s the deadline where most of us go blank in the eyes. The deadline implies that there’s not enough time, and that idea scares the hell out of creative people. Moving yourself, and others, past the paralyzing fear of not getting it done takes confidence, courage, and maybe a couple of mental tricks.
Research into procrastination has noted that people have much less concern about their future selves than their present selves — and are willing to sell their future selves down the river for the sake of present ease. But when the present marches into the future, and we are confronted with the work that our past selves refused to do, we pay the price in unmet deadlines, all-nighters and general torment.
One way to avoid all-nighters and lost weekends is to move your sense of the future into the present. Here’s the story, in The New York Times.
A brand is the way a person feels about a product or service. It’s created not by advertising, but by a set of experiences. Think of a brand like an art museum. How you feel about the pictures is what makes them matter. Otherwise, it’s just a room of sailcloth stretched on frames.
When you get lost in all the noise around you, stop and see the brand like a customer. What do you feel? There might be an idea in there.
One of the great commencement speeches of 2014 begins with simple advice. And sure, the bed is really your bed. But it’s also a metaphor for how you show up at work and how you go home. Forever.
Click on the link to see the whole, inspiring speech.
Naval Admiral William H. McRaven, ninth commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, at the University of Texas-Austin on May 17:
“If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. … And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made—that you made—and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.”
When you’re facing a client, your body language says a lot. The same applies when you’re in a job interview. I’m not an expert but here’s what I look for, and avoid. Crossed arms mean you’re shut down. Leaning back means you’re not interested. Hands clasped behind your head says you’re arrogant, and already have all the answers. Looking at your phone while we’re talking, well, you’re just toast. Lean forward. Smile. Have a pen ready in case something important is mentioned. Get your elbows on the table and make eye contact. Speak up.
It’s so easy. But, incredibly, so few people realize what they’re saying without saying a word.
There’s only one thing more cliched than creative people wailing about the account team. And that’s the creative people wailing about the clients. But the smart, longterm thinkers amongst the creative intelligentsia play it another way. They recognize that clients don’t exist to buy what you want to sell. They’re there because they need to buy what they need. The decisions clients are making, or trying to make, are difficult and uncertain. Your clients can succeed or fail on the strength of your ideas. They’re looking for great ideas that work for them, and they’re looking for trusted creative advisors who can lead them through the dark forest. Be that person.
In the end, a longterm client relationship might be the thing that sustains you for many years. Are you treating every relationship and interaction on those terms? Or are you being a cliche of a creative person?
If story is what you’re trying to do, Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling is a brilliant road map.
There’s a classic New Yorker cartoon (Marisa Acocella) showing two singles standing at a bar and the guy saying: “Copywriting is too ‘writing.'” That’s the classic dilemma of advertising writers who want to be taken seriously. The truth is, writing of any sort is a noble craft…but advertising writing is not literature. Deal with it. On the other hand, you’ll get paid regularly. if you take real pride in the craft, you’ll be rigorous about good narrative structure, clarity, grammar and punctuation. Good writing is good writing, no matter what, where, or by who. I mean, whom.
Storytelling. This is not a new idea. Completely inauthentic, manufactured, magical fictions concocted to sell things have long been potent weapons of commerce. Take a look at this ancient classic from advertising guru Hal Riney. It’s a story (winter preparations) within a story (two fictional inventors) selling a completely inauthentic (made up) product. It isn’t true, but has an element of truth to it.
All ads do not have to be stories. That’s the trouble with defining what we do so narrowly. We sell (or else, as David Ogilvy famously put it.) You might do that as a story, as part of a billowing content feed about lyrical aspects of your brand. Or you might do it by offering 50% off for a limited time only. That’s not a story. It’s called a sale. You say it loud and make the logo big. End of story.
You’ve heard it before. This meeting is going to be the end of all meetings. The one where the veil will be lifted, the balance swung to either great victory or the abyss of failure. Right. This may indeed be the meeting that will break the camel’s back, but more than likely it will be another stop along the way, a step forward or backwards. Ours is an iterative business. That means you figure it out as you go. Be careful about amping up everyone over one moment in time. Better to have constant, focused vigilance than one wild-eyed moment where you think you must pull it all together lest the sky fall.
Too many meetings to end all meetings will eventually mean none of the meetings matter to anyone any longer. Sure as hell, you’ll have the real end-all meeting when nobody cares to care anymore.
In the rush to create, the pressure often mounts to meet a deadline (right) and follow all the rules and guidelines (right.) That is not the same thing as creating something wonderful or effective (good.) Don’t lose the path toward something wonderful in the rush and pressure to be right and on time. Don’t let all the voices around you convince or coerce you into work that meets all the criteria for rightness but fails to be something good, something you and your clients are all proud of.
In the end, you can beg forgiveness for being late or over budget or off the rules a bit. But you’ll have no good response for work that’s not good, no matter how right you were, how on budget you were, or on time it was.
Eventually, you and your clients will release the project to a director, photographer, editor, illustrator, etc. At that point, you must say to that person: “Go make your art.” That’s what you’ve hired the person to do. He’s an expert at the craft. You’ve selected him from thousands of other people. Now, let him make something wonderful.
If you have the right person, let him go. If you don’t have the right person, stop right now and find someone else. The risk now isn’t that something will screw up. It’s that you’ll fail to get what might have been magic from the person you thought could give it to you.
Get this straight. You are no longer a lone creative genius charged with having a great idea then powering it forward. You are part of a group of people with different skills around the table, each offering perspective and ideas. You’ve got PR people, talent agents, designers, social people, technologists, media people, and probably a few vendors from the media world as well. Yeah, it’s lonely in there. Watch the game and see where the opportunity presents to influence or inject the big idea. In the end, that’s what everyone around the table needs, whether they know it or not. The trick isn’t just to have the idea. It’s to have it and figure out how to help everyone else recognize it and adopt it. And the idea might not come from you.
It might be that pesky person across the table from you. Pay attention.
You’re waiting on a brief. Everything is in flux. Nobody knows nothing and panic runs in the streets. You know what you do? Start. Do not, I repeat, do not, get caught up in the swell of anguish and moaning. The reason that sort of thing gets so much momentum is because it’s easier than shutting the door and starting. Look, you know enough about the client or the brand. You have a basic sense of the need. Dig around on your own, write your own mental brief, and start solving in parallel to the official brief.
The chances are pretty good you’ll be in the ballpark in the end. You see, the problem everyone really has is time. Moving ahead now buys you more of that when the real brief finally shows up. You’re not wasting time starting early. You’re gaining it.
Or sit around and bitch with the others. Your call.
You have to check in on this letter every year or two, just to remind yourself that it only takes a couple of paragraphs to make a great brief.
Mick Jagger understand how to direct Andy Warhol for the cover of “Sticky Fingers,” perhaps the greatest rock album ever. He tells him what he needs. What he thinks works. What the next steps are. Warhol doesn’t fail to create something famous. He also doesn’t fail to ignore the simplicity part, embedding an actual zipper in the cover, creating a nightmare for printers and retailers.
That’s what made it creative.
Sometimes you just need to wait. To watch. To do nothing. The art of managing your career sometimes comes down to what you don’t do. Give the game a little time to come to you.
“We are not gallery painters who paint when the feeling moves us.”
That’s from the Inc. Magazine interview with Stan Richards, who runs the tightest independent agency in the U.S. Here’s the whole story:
Ours is an advertising era determined to rename simple ideas with mystical names. Most of this is horseshit intended to intimidate the competition and make clients think you’re smarter than they are. Nobody buys it. You just look silly and pretentious. First, nobody lies awake wishing for a ‘relationship’ with a ‘brand.’ Nobody needs brands to tell them what matters, ala ‘curation.’ Nobody thinks of himself as a brand journalist by virtue of tweeting ‘This Peet’s coffee is really hot.’ And having an idea is just as effective as ‘ideating.’
The digital age lets everybody in the tent, not just a special few. Don’t sound like a clown.
Your team arrives at the pitch location, and is ushered into the room. Now what? First, how is the room arranged? Where’s the best position to speak from? If the pitch is on your home turf, use place cards so everyone sits where you want them…not wherever they want. Two: check the shades. Is the room too bright? Three: the temperature. Too hot or cold? Sleepy or shivering clients not good. Four: when you leave, put it all back like you found it. Don’t leave your advantages on the table for the next guy. And be sure you don’t throw any of your work in the trash.
That’s the first place the next agency will look when they enter the room.
A pitch may seem like an exercise to see who can best solve a client’s advertising problem. It’s not. It’s about proving that you’re the right partner. Don’t sell advertising. Sell your agency.
Even if you don’t crack the perfect campaign, the client may still choose you because he likes your people, your ideas, your methods, or your style. Buying an ad is a rational decision. Buying an agency, and its people, is emotional.
It’s easy to reject ads. Harder to reject people you really like.
Emotions within the agency will run high in new business pitches and before key presentations. The hours are long, uncertainty reigns, mind reading and second guessing drive the machine. You also find new people around the table, ones who have never worked together before. So the familiar social order is upside down, replaced by turf grabbing, politickin’ and grandstanding. Resolve to keep your head, to stay cool, to be happy and in a good humor. A lot of people who might influence your world will be watching you now.
Big presentations are hard enough already. Everyone will be struggling. Show how a pro stays cool to the finish line.
Decide how much you’re willing to spend before you ever commit to being in a pitch. It’s amazing how many agencies blindly jump into reviews with no clue about how much they’re willing to spend to compete. Can you afford to lose? Can you track your costs in the heat of the pitch? How far over your budget are you willing to go? You will, I repeat, you will go over budget. Forget what it will cost to win. How much can you spend to lose?
The pre-pro meeting before shooting a commercial is sometimes considered a mundane rite. Time to flip through the book and pray the client doesn’t ask any pesky questions. Actually, it’s the most crucial moment of the shoot, your last ditch to head off trouble. The truth is, your plan should already be in hand, long before the client is present. But the pre-pro is the last chance to argue and air out all potential disagreements or misunderstandings about locations, wardrobe, casting and so forth. Focus and let it fly right now if you must.
On shoot day, you should be shooting, not standing around arguing over which pair of shoes look best. Do it in the pre-pro. Argue at the pre-pro. Demand more and different and better at the pre-pro, if you must. Shoot at the shoot, until the camera breaks or the sun goes down.
There’s a lot at stake in a pitch. Not only the upside for the agency, but also the collective efforts that everyone has poured into it. So if you have a war room, lock it. Consider a code name for the project. It keeps people from overhearing your conversations in bars and airplanes. Seriously.
Be vigilant when working outside the agency. Close the door to the edit suite. Be careful what you write down. Never e-mail hot information. It’s too easy for someone to pass it along, if only by accident. There are a million careless ways to betray the trust of a prospective client, and lose the pitch before you ever make it.
It’s not just smart. It’s respect, for the time and talent that everyone has invested.
Once more I hasten to add that the work before you is not a personal art project which will live on its creative brilliance. You have to be able to show the value to the client. It’s just not apparent to anyone but you. You have to sell it. Noodle out why you believe this idea is powerful, from the client’s perspective. If you’re not at the table and your work is lost in a pile of fodder, be sure somebody knows why yours is more than just filler. Sell it to the creative director, at least, so he knows you’re not just a disposable punk. Then work like hell for the day when you get to make the decision about what work will be presented.
In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative, original thinker unless you can also sell what you create. David Ogilvy
Do not ever, ever dress up in a costume or act out a role in a presentation. Putting on costumes will make you look ridiculous. Acting out a commercial will make you look like a band of idiots. I know of a pitch for a razor brand where the creative team made their presentation in bath robes, as if they were fresh from their morning shave. It went over like the Hindenburg on wheels. For another pitch, a writer brandished a .38 revolver and acted out a kidnapping scene that was supposed to be wildly hilarious. It scared the hell out of the clients and everyone else. Do not do this. Ever.
Shooting a commercial for a pitch is not just costly in terms of money, it costs you in terms of people. You will throw a couple of creative people and several producers against an effort that will ultimately prove futile. The rest of the creative department will click into half-speed, since it appears their efforts will be overshadowed by a full-blown television advertisment shot and finished. They’ll stop trying.
Shooting a commercial means you’ve missed the point: the point is to sell your advertising agency, not a single television commercial. A little film or an idea video or something, fine. But a TV commercial that you presume the client will fall down and die for. You’re crazy.
All pitches are hard. But some pitches are nightmares because of bad planning by agency management. If you run the place, do your people a favor: jump into the pitch quickly and bang it out. Focus on it and be efficient. If you’re too damn busy or important to devote realistic business hours to a pitch, then you either need to delegate it to somebody else or decline. You’ll make everyone suffer, and that’s no fun or fair.
Remember, someday you’ll need your people to rise to a crisis for an existing client. Don’t wear them out by wasting their time on a flyer you’re too busy to focus on.
Nothing bums people out worse than working on Thanksgiving. Or July Fourth. Or, heaven forbid, a religious holiday. If you must enlist people on such an occasion, make it pleasant, cheerful and quick. Make it up to them, sometime, somehow, and include spouses and family. You will win their hearts forever, especially if the situation was not of your making.
If your own inefficiency is to blame for pulling people in, you should be given switches and ashes and sent to bed. And if you were off celebrating while they worked, your own just desserts will come in time.
An important pitch or presentation is no place to wing it. Write down your remarks beforehand and insist that everyone else do the same. Gather to review your spiels, and offer criticism to one another.
One wrong answer, one contradictory viewpoint, one stupid instance of blathering can cost you the whole thing. One person out of step can send everyone else on your team careening off to correct the mistake.
Don’t be phony or stiff. Have three points, memorize them, then just play that back in your own words. Be sure everyone knows your points, and you know theirs. It’s simple not to be stupid.
If you’re the incumbent on a pitch and you’re getting signals that you can’t win, then there’s a good chance that you’re a dead duck. Resign with dignity. Then you’ll be free to put your efforts toward another client in the same category. Perhaps one who doesn’t hate your guts.
Resigning will rob your existing client of the delight of firing you. It will save thousands of dollars that would be wasted by participating in a review. It will make everyone at the agency feel like they work at a stand-up joint.
Sure. It’s a lemon. You know what to do.
Remember this old salesman’s adage: “If you’re talking, you’re selling. If they’re talking, they’re buying.” Lay back and let clients verbalize their thoughts after you’ve shown your work. Let them talk, especially if what they’re saying is positive. Don’t keep selling what’s already been sold. Be quiet and let them take it away. They’re trying to talk themselves into liking your idea. Shut up and let them.
Don’t get mad. Get what you want. This is what you call “living in the solution.”
Wailing and crying about problems and injustices only makes you look childish. Don’t go off in a snit. Go off and figure out what you want and how to get it. Therein may be the rub: you may not really know what you want. The shocker is that if you did, you could probably also figure out a way to get it. It might be crazy easy. Or, you might just be the kind of person who likes to stay pissed off.
Figure it out. Then figure out a way to get it. You’re making the rest of us nuts.
Remember, it’s a business. The creative people who win in the business are ones capable of getting in front of a client, presenting their ideas, then getting permission to move forward based on trust. Show your craziness in your work, not in your persona.
Are you acting like somebody a client would trust? Or are you acting like you’re in a movie about an advertising creative person?
For all your desire to “just do the work,” realize that you’re actually managing your career, too. Advertising is a temporal business. It relentlessly looks to new people and ideas to feed it. And you, whether you realize it or not, are moving forward in that stream. You will not be that new person one day.
It’s pretty common knowledge that most people, in life as well as advertising, have a horizon of about 18 months. Defy the norm. Look out further. Set your sights on eventually moving into the ranks of people who can manage other creative people. At least give yourself the benefit of the doubt that you might be able to do that. A lot of people can make great ads. A few can manage other people making great ads.
There’s a lot to be said for finding a stable job at a good place and building a career. On the other hand, moving around can be a really good strategy. You will build a network of friends and colleagues. You will gain a sense of how things are done at other places, for better and for worse. You will come to know new cities, and the reality of the people who live there.
Moving about will also make you a bit uncomfortable. It will rock your world on occasion, and ask that you measure yourself and your talents against others.
If you’re still growing where you are, stay put. If you’re dying a slow death every day, drop that job like a bad transmission. Hit the road, jack.
Jeff Goodby once told me that “new campaigns get famous in their second year.” He’s right. The first year takes fine tuning. By the second year, you’ve got it and everyone notices including awards show judges.
If you’ve got a good campaign going, don’t bail out for another job too soon. If you do, the team that picks the campaign up after you will do the second evolution, and they’ll get all the credit for your brilliant idea. Meanwhile, you’re trapped in a hack job getting a higher salary whining that you were ripped off. Well done!
To outsiders, the notion of advertising integrity is an oxymoron. But creative people know there’s a code of honesty and originality that good creative people honor. But what qualifies as stealing? Sometimes it’s hard to know.
Hearing a good voiceover and hiring him for your spot is not stealing. Hiring a director whose work you saw in another spot is not stealing. Putting work you didn’t do into your portfolio is stealing. Entering shows with bogus work is dishonest. In the short run, you can get famous by ripping off other people. In the long run, that fame will haunt you. It will propel you into a role you can’t do, and you’ll fail. Better to have humble talents and use them honestly, and be respected by your peers. It’s a long march. You stay in it by staying true to what you can honestly do. Here’s a little treatise I wrote once for CA:
Take calls from recruiters, and always call them back. Build a rapport with some, and maintain it over the years. You never know when one of them will have the job of your dreams. Even more, you never know when you’ll need a job, and need somebody to quickly help you land it. Even though you’ll probably never meet them face to face, become the best of pals via phone with a few headhunters.
It’s probably a good idea to be visible on LinkedIn, if you believe the Forbes story here:
If a reporter calls you, remember never to say anything you don’t want to see in print or writ large online. You can look like a fool and ruin your career with just a handful of words, spoken in a moment of hubris. Ask the reporter if you’re speaking on the record, or off. If you have advance warning of the subject of the story, write down a few notes about what you’re going to say. You’ll be more quotable, and you’ll have a record of your exact words. If the subject of the story involves a client’s advertising, always refer the reporter back to the client before you say a word.
Remember, nobody ever got ever got fired for declining to comment.
As a freelancer, you’re not entitled to enjoy the normal grousing and complaining that goes on in the creative department of an advertising agency. You’re free, so people on staff can’t imagine what you have to complain about.
Go about your business with a happy heart. You’ll get a lot of additional assignments by being nice and fun and willing to work without complaining.
You’ll stand out from many of the people on staff, who somehow aren’t happy about having real, stable, full-time jobs. Go figure.
Freelancers get called when there’s a problem; a pitch, or an assignment that can’t be cracked. Realize that some people on staff at the advertising agency may think you’re there to swipe opportunities that otherwise might go to them. Tread gently.
Try to be sure your success doesn’t come at the expense of someone else. At least be aware that that’s the way some people might view your efforts. Make it clear that you have no ambitions except the success of the thing you were hired to work on. You’re not angling for glory or a full-time job.
Fix it, then vanish like the wind.
When you’re interviewing for a job, never find common ground by carping about difficult clients. It’s an easy place to go for creative people, a universal subject that seems like it will unite you in a common struggle with the person interviewing you. It won’t. Unwittingly, you will make yourself look like a whiner. If the interviewer is whining about his tough clients, then let him. But don’t get on the bandwagon. Nod and admit that they’re all tough, and that that’s just part of the game. Remind him of your persistence in the face of adversity, how thick your skin is, and how often you’re willing to bash your head against the wall. You’ll look like a god, not a wimp.
The most important attribute you can exhibit during a job interview is “heart.” It sounds corny, but the emotional vibe you throw off, the look in your eyes, the depth of your care and interest are palpable to an interviewer. You radiate your interior. Look in the mirror and take a deep breath before you walk in. The attitude you project during the first thirty seconds will help the interviewer believe you’re like that every day. Don’t be a nut, but be up and interested, not skeptical and distant.
If you think you really want the job, say so at the end of the interview. “I want this job more than anything.” People rarely go for it like that. But that’s the kind of passion that will probably get it for you.
The single most important person on any film or commercial shoot isn’t even at the shoot. He’s your editor. (Or she.) Don’t go spend hours looking at dailies and all the selects. Let the editor do his job. You hired him to leave things out, to edit. He hasn’t fallen in love with scenes the way you have, so he sees the thing more objectively. When he has the cut he likes, take a look.
Think about editing like this: you only have one chance to see the cut fresh. One chance to see it like a viewer. After that first look, you grow accustomed to it. You start to make assumptions. That’s why at least one member of the creative team (the writer, I suggest) should not look at the cut until the editor is done. I know. You won’t get as many free lunches, but you’ll get an objective look that can inform the whole effort.
When you’re facing a pitch or big presentation, designate a conference room or empty office as your war room. That way you’ll have a central, familiar place to gather. You can leave research materials out, and leave work up on the walls. As your deadline gets closer, meet every day in this room at the same time. It’s one less hassle for someone. Nobody has to book a room and a time every day or find a time that’s convenient. The meeting goes on, in the war room, come what may. Every day.
A war room not only makes gathering convenient for your group, it helps focus their efforts. It gets your group in sync. Every team needs a club house.
Remember that a pitch can take months. Remember that there will be torturous twists and turns. Resolve to roll with it for the duration. Rarely does a single day, a single action, or a single mistake define the outcome.
Much of what seems important will fall away as your presentation takes shape. The ideas you hold so dear will seem lame in a week or a month, as the agency’s strategy unfolds. Don’t fall on your sword too soon.
Engage in the battle but be be wise and patient. And try to be nice.
When a new business pitch is announced most creative people run like rats from a burning ship. Pitches burn weekends and a lot of midnight oil.
What most creative people forget is that they will be drafted to work on the pitch anyway. So, you’d be smart to be first in line to volunteer. It will make you look like a trooper, a team player. And the agency might just win the business, and then you’ll be front and center for the good stuff.
Hey, the bullet is headed for you anyway. Step up and catch it.
Everybody knows the magic word in advertising is “free.” But the magic phrase is “what if?” Use it to start your thinking, to set up your work when presenting, and to challenge others who need inspiration. As an idea nucleus, “what if?” demands to be followed by a high concept. “What if adults spoke in children’s voices?” “What if the cars on the lot turned into Transformers?” Filling in the blank after this phrase demands a real idea. It makes you look for a real idea. And, if you ask others to fill it in, this phrase defines what’s expected without you ever having to say more.
The trick to successful film and television production (and pretty much everything in life) is planning, then step by step execution. Production, at its best, should be art by the numbers, not a freeform experiment in hoping something good happens in front of the camera. You make the spot long before you make the spot. Production comes loaded with variables: talent, weather, overages. A tight plan is how you reduce your variables, you lock down what’s lockable, you know what’s knowable. A shoot day can easily cost $250,000. That is not the time to plan. It’s time to execute the plan. Along the way, you’ll be faced with new variables. (Hailstorm. The talent shows up drunk. The monkey bites the handler.) Get the predictable stuff nailed down ahead of time and you’ll be in better shape to handle what happens next. Because it will happen.
There is a decent chance that the people you start out with in the advertising business are ones you’ll know all along the way. For decades, perhaps. It’s hard to imagine when you’re young, but it’s true. The way you perform and behave now, and along the way, will come to define you for years to come, and they’ll affect your success…and earnings. The good part is that advertising is a small town, and you’ll develop friendships and working relationships that will make it the ride of your life. Pay attention. Work harder. Be a little nicer. Create a bond. The ad business isn’t just a day at a time. Eventually you’ll see that it’s all those moments added together. And any one moment can affect the whole…forever.
Your TV spot or online film will exist in a finite length. It’s not an experimental art project that will just stop when it’s done. It’s advertising. So come to grips with that fact upfront. Take a sheet of paper and divide it into thirty frames (or whatever the length). Noodle a picture, and a description, of each second of the spot. Write in the dialogue and time it. Don’t cheat. Make it fit now, make it clear now, make it great now, and your chances are much better that it will be great at the shoot and on the screen. Don’t leave it to the director. Don’t presume it will fit as a linear story, in real time. Plot it out then feel confident because you’re certain.
Don’t just pick a director. Pick a production company. Proven, solid commercial production companies offer advantages. They have an ongoing relationship with your advertising agency, which they want to protect. So it’s not just your film or spot on the line, it’s their reputation. They have the resources to bail you out of a jam (a deep Rolodex of people to call.) They have the financial ability to keep the numbers on track. And sometimes, they’ll offer creative ways to take your spot further than the budget allows, because they’re developing a new director and want the spot to shine on the reel. Shooting commercials and films is already full of unexpected things. Make sure, damn sure, the production company isn’t another one.
You look at casting tapes or photos until your eyes bleed. The duds are easy to spot because they look wrong or can’t act. But how do you choose between the real contenders? The eyes. Cover the bottom of the screen (or photo) while you watch the casting tape. Just listen and look at the eyes. The eyes really are the windows of the soul. Focus on them. That’s what viewers of your advertising will do, eventually.
Don’t think about making an ad. Think about the people who might be in it. How would you use people in your ad? What would they be doing? What effect would the product have on them? What’s on their faces? What do their eyes reveal? Who are their friends or family? What do they say? Thinking this way is like coming in the side door of creativity. Don’t ask yourself what the ad should be. Ask what the people are doing who’re in it. Sure, in the end you may not even use people in the advertisement. But I promise, this method will inform the solution on the right terms: human ones.
The ‘draft’ feature is the most important email feature you have. Harry Truman left 140 letters in his desk on his death. “The best letters I ever wrote were the ones I never sent.” He’d dash off an angry, profane diatribe (referred to Nixon as “Squirrel Head”) then put the letter in the drawer to send the next day. Which he never did. Never, ever send an email in anger, when it’s late, you’re jet-lagged, or had too much to drink. Write it, save it as a draft, then look at it the next day and realize how smart you were to wait, and what a fool you’d have been to send it.
You think advertising focus groups are a necessary evil, which you either attend at gunpoint or watch online in a comatose state. No and no. The truth is that those people sitting across the glass are writing ads for you and all you have to do is type them. Just hear what they’re saying and go into trance mode and barf down whatever headlines or key words come to you based on what you hear. It’s weird, but it works. You’ll finish the night with a half dozen sentences and thoughts you didn’t have before, sort of like crowd sourcing. Don’t waste time with snide remarks about the cargo shorts the fat guy is wearing. He’s not there just to trash your ads. He’s there to help you write the next one.
Are you waiting on the game to come to you? Sitting frozen presuming an expert from the “Dept. of Clarity” is heading your way? You might, in fact, be that expert. Sure, you don’t want to go off half-cocked and get in the way of true North. But I promise you nine times out of ten nobody has a clue about what to do. So maybe you should be that person. Maybe you should organize the team. Set a meeting. Show up with an ad, a plan, a set of possibilities. You know, some of that “thinking ahead and leading the way” sort of stuff.
What we don’t need is more officials from the “Dept. of Bitching and Moaning.” Got plenty.
Start reading. No, not blogs and magazines. Books. Real books. See how the greats used words and told stories. Where to start? The New York Times Book Review gives you about the best list in the world. Just go to the tables in the back and download a few samples from Amazon. Free. Or just start with these: George Saunders’ Persuasion Nation. You’ve never read anything like this nut. Ernest Hemingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. Okay, it’s not a book. It’s just one story. One story. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. A mystery wrapped in pure evil in a town where nothing ever happens. Juno Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The land of the free and home of the trapped.
For most writers, investing in reading goes without saying. If that’s not where you are, the writing could be so much easier for you if you just stopped. And read.
There are pieces of bread. Pieces of eight. Pieces of meat. But there are never “pieces of business.” If you refer to them that way in the halls, you’re sure to repeat it in the presence of a client. It stings the ears of a client to refer to his mainstay, his livelihood, and his reason to exist the same way you’d refer to slice of pizza. Pretty soon, you’ll start to make ads for pieces of business. They won’t be good ads.
The most experienced and costly creative people simply cannot do the T-shirt. That’s like killing a fly with a sledgehammer. You may eventually kill the fly, but not without putting a lot of costly holes everywhere in the process. Look around. Are there young strivers in your midst? They would kill to do the T-shirt. Be generous and ply your experienced, expensive brain on high-value assignments. Let somebody else have the idea for you.
Your boss will recognize that you’ve graduated. The young kid will love you forever.
Don’t think about ideas your client might be willing to buy. Think about what your client is afraid of (their boss, a board meeting, budget pressure). If you can figure out the fear, and creatively solve for that ahead of time, then you’ll solve for the real issue. The most mind-bending idea on earth will fall like a tree on Mars if you don’t take into account why your client might be afraid to buy something so brave.
New business pitches are momentary aberrations that can have long term effects. You can win a new client and transform the entire advertising agency. Or, in the emotional rollercoaster of pitch mode, you can wreck your relationships within the agency for nothing. Win in a way that results in a loyal team to carry the new client forward. Lose in a way that lets you carry a loyal team back to what you were doing before the pitch.
Overcommunicate. The most dangerous five words in the business vocabulary are “Did you get my email?” It presumes that the other person is fully responsible for receiving the information that you’re trying to impart, and that by sending an email you’re absolved from any further responsibility.
Walk down the hall. Pick up the phone. Book time on the other person’s calendar. Be utterly paranoid that someone might not have heard what you’re trying to tell them, and absolutely sure that they did. That’s your job. Not theirs.
In truth, you’re not just in charge of having ideas. You’re in charge of selling them, too. Sometimes that means you have to be the one to say “No, let’s don’t just email it.” You might need to get on a plane or a train or in the car and place yourself right in front of the client. Maybe it’s not exactly in the budget, or maybe time is short, but the impression you’ll make by showing up with the idea in hand and giving it the weight of your presence is irreplaceable and invaluable. It’s a good way to say, without saying it, that “this matters.”
Email gives your idea speed. But looking them in the eye gives them something more valuable: you.
Every Monday (or Tuesday) first thing, insist that everyone get around the table. It’s called a status meeting. I know, you think this is something the account team should do. You think this is so basic it goes without saying. You think it’s a waste of time. Actually, it’s the one place you’ll learn what level of hell things are really sitting on, and have a chance to ask for help or beg forgiveness. A lot can change in a week, for better or worse. Do you want to be the last to know?
The same time, every week. Every week, without fail. No matter what. Do this meeting.
One day you will get fired. A round of layoffs. A client who didn’t fully appreciate you or your staggering genius. A brawl between you and your boss. There are a million possibilities and most of them come as no surprise. So what, in other words. By getting canned, you’re now part of an elite cadre, you’ve earned your wings, and you’ll have a good story to compare with others who’ve been in your shoes. Suck it up, move along, and recognize that you’ve been granted the chance to change, to do something different. Half the people I know and half the ones I’ve hired have been canned somewhere along the way. Welcome to the club, pro.