Monday, September 18, 2006

Unlevel Playing Field

I was going to approach this blog in chronological order from entry-level job to “escape-level” job.

But I read this article on, and figured I would skip ahead:

You don’t need to read the article, just this excerpt:

"I hate pitching and I don't think we should do it," said Neil Powell, chief creative officer of Margeotes Fertitta Powell. "I wish we had an industry where everyone felt a solidarity that enabled us to not pitch creative ideas (for free) because rarely are pitches even playing fields, regardless of what the client says. There's always something going on. Somebody's got a favor. Somebody's got a friend. There's always something."

"We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars every year on pitches where we would be better served if we took that money as agencies and went out and proactively pursued clients that we really want to work with," he told the audience of marketers and potential clients.

"It's remarkable how client's can't believe it if you don't want to pitch -- 'what! You don't want to pitch; you don't want to spend three months of your life coming up with ideas for free?!'"

I am not (at least for now) going to reveal my name, my agency name, or the clients I had. But I will say that I’ve gone up against the above-named person’s agency in pitches. Not to mention against Mullen, WestWayne, Ad Store, Crispin, Mad Dogs, Anomaly, Amalgamated, Mother, and countless other absurdly-named hot creative shops. Even bigger shops like Grey, Chiat, Fallon and BBDO played in my waters.

Anyway, like Mr. Powell muses, I occasionally told potential clients my agency does not pitch for business. I felt playing hard to get would make them want me more. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. If I did accept a pitch, I was able to get clients to pay a minimal pitch fee of $5,000.

Do agencies really need to spend “hundreds of thousands of dollars a year” on pitches? Just look on youtube at the genius videos some 14 year olds do. IDEAS are extremely valuable. But they don’t cost money to come up with. Also “three months of your life coming up with ideas?” Boy, that’s slow. If you can’t come up with three great pitch-able ideas in one day (and I know Powell can) you are in the wrong fucking business. I don’t know about you, but I am okay with the idea of making $5,000 for one day of work. And that’s if you lose!

So how do you win?

Mr. Powell is right. Rarely is the playing field level. Maybe the whole point of a pitch is to tilt the playing field in your favor.

On many occasions, the first thing I would do when getting an RFP or pitch brief is talk to the potential client about how ill-formulated their pitch assignment was. Surprisingly, many marketing execs want a smart outsider to talk strategy with. If they don’t, withdraw from the pitch!

I have rarely found a client, from President/CEO down to CMO, EVP, SVP, VP, or Director, that didn’t welcome a constructive devil’s advocate dialog. Even if I were WRONG. They were happy to show me why I was wrong. And I was happy to be shown. Being wrong in a conversation doesn’t mean you lose the pitch.

The problem, however, occurs when you have to interface with the client-layer that is too nervous to think independently (call them Fearacrats.) They don’t actually know why the RFP says what it says, and if you challenge them on it, they will be defensive and condescending.

At some clients this Fearacrat layer goes almost to the top. The president makes all the decisions. The marketing people are flailing at the end of a whip. Unless you are best friends with the president, drop out of the pitch! At other clients, even the marketing managers low on the totem pole are NOT Fearacrats and can throw millions in business your way. This is ideal.

On the other hand, when I would ask similar devil’s advocate questions while slaving away at J. Walter Johnson (agency name changed to protect the innocent), my Group Creative Director (call him Adolph, in honor of his passion for WWII German U-boat paraphernalia, seriously) would get very mad at the threat to his intelligence. “You don’t question the strategy. You do the ads.”

Talk to the client? Forget it. You can’t even talk to the head account guy at the agency.

Fuck that.

One time I rewrote the strategy. I talked to the head account guy. I got fired. But they used my strategy!

The feeling of being fired was more than offset imagining how my arrogant boss Adolph must have felt when he gave my old group the new creative brief they all knew I wrote.

Ironic that many ad agencies encourage their employees NOT to think in ways that would actually help their clients. And not surprising that J. Walter Johnson was not the last place to fire me. (More on the benefits of being fired in later posts.)

Here is a specific example of how this devil’s advocate strategy worked.

I had this client. A big national client. I worked with them for a year. They had a great year. Their business better than ever. So was mine!

They loved my ads. Print, TV, Radio, Outdoor, Guerilla. My ads worked for them. My ads won awards. I was very proud of the work. And it was a lot of fun.

I dealt directly with the SVP of Marketing, and her boss the General Manager. In Year Two the SVP brought on a VP of Marketing. But I knew her, too. It’s a small world and our paths had crossed before. She liked me. But she still wanted to do an “Agency Review.”

“Time to re-examine the brand direction.”

“Need an infusion of new thinking.”

Blah bla bla.

She hired a pitch consultant (call her Hot Married Pitch Consultant) who brought them a shortlist of agencies. I wasn’t on it. She had never heard of me. GM and SVP asked HMPC to add me to the list.

I had to meet with HMPC. She was very skeptical of me and my “agency.”

I felt rejected. I busted my ass for a year doing great work that got results. Now they hire a consultant who recommends they go with a “name” shop?! (Not that abused, however, because they had thrown a good chunk of change – justifiably earned – my way.)

Somehow, I won over HMPC. (More on that in later posts.) So much so that she not only added my Agency of One to the shortlist in this pitch, but to the shortlist of agencies in future pitches she handled for other clients.

Important point…never let ANYONE know your agency is an Agency of One. This is not a client benefit. First, it will make them nervous that you won’t have capacity. (BULLSHIT!) Second, they will not want to pay you as much as they pay Multinational Agency Conglomerate for the same quantity of ideas (MORE BULLSHIT!) Do not lie to your client. But make sure the impression of range, depth and overhead is there. (More on this in later posts.)

Anyway, back to this particular pitch.

The client wanted a “branding campaign” instead of putting future money behind the successful “product campaign” I had been doing. It’s hard to find a good analogy in a different category so as not to violate professional trust. But here is one we all might be able to relate to: if you are a TV Network, say, ESPN, you might think the ESPN brand is what brings viewers in. Or you might think Monday Night Football, SportsCenter, MLB, etc. will bring viewers in, and therefore bolster the ESPN brand. For the sake of this analogy, I believed with all my mind, heart and soul, that the path to “ratings success” was to let the “network brand” be defined by the “programming.” In a world of limited ad budgets, you can’t successfully do both. And in my client’s category, I strongly felt product trumps brand.

With only the best intentions, I argued my point with the VP and HMPC. (Access to SVP and GM had been cut off for political reasons.) I told them I didn’t mind pitching for their business, and I would accept the $5,000 pitch fee. (As if I were doing THEM a favor.) I urged them again to abandon the brand strategy and to re-direct the other agencies to a product strategy. They didn’t.

I told them they were wrong! They didn’t care.

(The HMPC agreed with me, by the way, but said her job was to help the client find a branding agency. And that was what she was going to do.)

A day before the pitch. Client Assistant calls.

ASSISTANT: Just calling to confirm your pitch time of 3pm. How many people will be attending…names and titles please?

ME: Just me. President. 3pm is good.

ASSISTANT: Just you?

(The other agencies were flying in with name principals, top creatives, AE’s, etc. What should I say???)

ME: Yes, just me. Our agency philosophy is about the work. I rather have my people working then pitching.

(I have no people!)

Day of the pitch. Me at head of table. Big stack of black boards face down. Story boards, print ads, guerilla ideas, etc. All labeled and beautifully printed, trimmed and mounted.

Around the table: GM, SVP, HMPC, VP, Director, Manager, Supervisor, Assistant One, Assistant Two.

Wow am I outnumbered. Who cares! This is all extremely serious AND a huge joke to me at the same time.

“We are very excited to see your ideas,” says VP.

She makes some introductory remarks. I love her. I really, sincerely do. (I still do, by the way, even though I am out of the game.) But I totally disagree with her.

Before the meeting I asked HMPC how the other agencies’ work had gone over. She said, “Let’s put it this way. They are counting on you to save them.” (FYI, in this pitch, Mr. Powell was not one of the competitors.) I loved hearing that. But I wasn’t surprised. The assignment made no sense from the beginning. “Even (agency name changed) Nullem?” I asked. “Disaster,” she said.

So now VP turns it over to me.

“I am going to present to you several storyboards and a range of print ads that are the best possible solution to your brand assignment. We, at the agency, feel very strongly about these ideas. We’ve worked long and hard on them. You might find them a little shocking…(laughter from client)…but we wouldn’t present these ideas if we didn’t believe they were right for you.”

Then with great dramatic fanfare I turn over the first storyboard…a black board with six, blank, white storyboard frames.

“This is your TV campaign. I think the work speaks for itself.”

Then I turned over three more boards. Each with a big, blank, white glossy 11 x 17 page.

“Here are your print executions.”

And so on. Guerilla, outdoor, etc. All blank pages. I kept playing it straight. Spreading all the blank, labeled boards across the room.

No one said anything. I wish I could remember the expression on everyone’s face. But the adrenaline rush of what I did clouded the visual detail.

Finally, the GM said, “Okay, so you are recommending that we don’t do a branding campaign. What do you think we should do instead?”

ME: “We think you should keep doing what you’re doing. Support the [individual products] with great ads, and let them build your brand image.”

GM: “In other words, keep working with you like we are.”

ME: “No. Even if you hire another agency, which I think you might need to do, you should support the [products]. In this category the brand image is meaningless unless you have strong [product.]”

MANAGER: “We just paid you $5,000 to present us nothing!”

ME: “I know. We agreed to a much lower fee than we normally charge.”

MANAGER: “That’s not what I meant.”

I knew VP and SVP disliked Manager, so it was okay to play with him a bit.

The rest of the meeting was a very intense and informed intellectual debate about the client’s business, how to grow it, how competitors in the same category have done it, or failed to do it, etc. Pretty much just me and the GM talking back and forth. Sink or swim. Then the VP and SVP got into it with the GM, and I shut my mouth.

The whole time I kept thinking, “Holy shit! I didn’t do the assignment. They paid me for NOTHING. Manager was right!”

But, whatever. They already knew the kind of creative my agency did. And that “we” were very easy to work with.

So I am sitting there now, saying nothing, while the three top execs have this debate. They are saying shit they shouldn’t be saying in front of any agency.

I feel good they trust me that much. Or wait, I think they might just be ignoring me.

Okay, great. I fucked up. The meeting is over. I just blew hundreds of thousands of dollars potential net to me. Manager helps me pack up the presentation and ushers me out. Not even giving me the respect to say “thanks for your presentation, we’ll let you know.” VP, SVP and GM stay in the room. Still talking.

I am not sure what really happened. Or what they said. But I am pretty sure the top three client execs were NOT impressed with the other agencies’ creative, nor with the substance of what the other agency principals had to say during the post-pitch “Q&A.”

Why am I sure? By presenting nothing, my agency WON the pitch. And the client stuck with the product strategy. Their business continued to grow. So did mine.

Ironic twist: unrelated to their advertising, a year later the GM, SVP, and so on were all gone and replaced by a new regime. There was no new agency pitch. I was out. New SVP brought her agency with her.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Just The Fax Ma'am

After a dozen years jumping from one big agency to the next, rising from copywriter to exec creative director, basking in the 70s after-glow of the 60s “creative revolution,” my dad started his own ad agency.

Unlike me, he actually got an office. Hired people. Put the company name on the door. The agency grew from two, to four, to eight to ten people. More than two dozen years later, the agency is still thriving (though still only eight to ten people big).

In the beginning, he worked long hours. Then he discovered the idea of working “smart hours.”

He told me he started his agency because he couldn’t “physically handle it” if he had to sit through another big meeting, or have a boss tell him what to do. He was driven to make his agency a success, not necessarily for money, but because the alternative of going back to “that world” was too intolerable of an idea. And the idea of his agency becoming like the ones he left behind, equally intolerable.

Dad would say things like “ties are the working man’s noose” and “there’s nothing ethical about the work ethic.” I didn’t really know what he meant. I kinda liked ties.

There are many things I learned from watching my dad start, grow and run his business. But THIS post is about what may be the most powerful idea I took from him. And took to an extreme even he hasn’t.

Technology plus willing helpers equals freedom.

For my dad, this meant the fax machine.

When the fax machine came out, I watched him scribble layouts on paper and fax them to his office. (More on this creative process in later posts.) Some days he didn’t “go to work” at all. He would wake up late. Ride his “exercycle,” do pushups, sit-ups and take a sauna. Then call his office to get messages and give direction. Call clients. Etc. Then go for a forest-preserve hike with binoculars, trying to spot new birds to add to his “life list.” Eat a big lunch. Read a book. Write some fiction. Then review all the comped up print ads faxed back to him.

Two weeks work simplified to twenty minutes work for him.

Pretty good life. The fax machine being the killer app that freed him from having to communicate in person with his staff. He said his people were actually more productive when he wasn’t in the office.

Keep in mind that this condensed “two weeks in twenty minutes” did not mean the work was uninspired or hack-like. It was client-satisfying, business-winning and award-winning work.

(One year at a local award show they won so many awards the presenter joked that the agency rep should just stay by the podium instead of having to sit down and get up over and over again as the agency won gold in every category. My dad, true to his personality, was probably eating popcorn and watching a movie, not caring enough about award shows to miss a Friday night new release, and definitely not into attending any “events.”)

And keep in mind that this condensed “two weeks into twenty minutes” also meant he condensed three or four salaries into one.

I remember laughing when I read about Chiat’s experiment with the “virtual office.” They got it all wrong. A traditional agency structure can’t mesh well with the virtual world.

The collaborative process and meaningful back and forth discourse doesn’t really work without keeping “the group” together in person.

My dad could do it because in his own way he was “an agency of one.” Fuck the group.

He would talk to clients himself. Not through the filter of an account exec. Why? It would take more time talking to the AE trying to interpret what clients wanted than it would to talk to the clients themselves. AND, the AE probably didn’t ask a few key questions that could shape the work and grow the business. Which is not to say his AE’s have not been absolutely crucial to the long-term success of his agency. They have, and still are.

He would come up with the ad creative himself. Not with a partner. And not supervising a team of creatives. Why? Again, for him it would take more time to explain the “brief” (he has never done briefs) to the team than it would to just come up with a range of great ideas himself, rough them out, and fax them in. And “concepting” with an art director? No way. It is an extreme fallacy that one cannot be an art director and a copywriter. There USED to be a difference (before my time) because art directors could DRAW, if not spell (definitely during my time.) My dad could draw. And today you don’t need to draw. You just need to be good on the mac. For him, having to “sell” your nascent idea to a partner or try to make a partner’s shit idea better, would take too much time. This is not to say his Art Director’s have not been crucial to the long-term success of his agency. They have, and still are. (Oh, and this is not to say that the brilliant Bill Bernbach idea of teaming visual and verbal thinkers together did not forever change advertising for the better. It did. I am only saying that this “teaming” should, and often does, take place within one person’s brain.)

My dad’s Art Directors and his Account Executives/Media Buyers LOVE working with him. His agency has unheard of low turn-over. They appreciate the freedom from bullshit-meetings, his clear direction, and his fast decision-making. They are paid well, and get to leave work at 5p. There are no copywriters.

All thanks to the fax machine.

Twenty or so years later, with email, internet, cell phone, pdf’s, etc, this concept of “technology plus willing helpers equals freedom” is even more applicable.

For me, it meant the ability to do the work of 27 people and two months time by myself with a few off-site freelancers and very willing printers and production companies in about two weeks. Sometimes in my “home office” in the meatpacking district. Sometimes on the beach. Sometimes in the middle of a power bike ride up the Hudson bike path to the GW bridge.

Over and over again.

Those numbers are not being pulled out of thin air. For a brief period of time I actually went to “the client side” where I was responsible for building an inhouse group to replace the shockingly un-award-winning work of Fallon and Mullen, the agencies responsible for the client’s two big brands. And it literally took my department of 27 people two months to handle a campaign from start to finish. I thought about saving my employer a couple million dollars by doing things the “agency of one” way. But I don’t think they would have given me that saved money as a bonus. In fact, I did save them at least a million a year in production costs. Which meant the following year my budget was a million less. Big companies do not reward efficiency!

But back to my dad.

One night his agency was broken into. Alarms sounded. Police responded. Dad was called in to file a report. What was stolen, what was damaged. And so on. Fortunately there was only one thing stolen. And no damage.

My dad, who is not afraid of puns, smiled to the female police officer who asked him what was missing, and said, “Just the fax ma’am.”

So Shines A Good Deed In A Weary World

What the hell? Someone has actually found, read AND commented on this blog?! I've only told two people about it. One, my younger brother, who just started his own ad agency. Two, a slightly obsessive, self-denying, trustfund-manchild, eternally-aspiring screenwriter friend. I am pretty sure the "blog announcement" went in one ear and out the other of brother. And perhaps the dramatic, and possibly negative characterization of my friend Two, who is a good enough writer to pull off an anonymous comment as a "fifth year copywriter," will draw him out to admit he is playing with me.

Or perhaps there really is someone out there who found, read and was inspired by the premise of this fledgling blog. The truth is, it doesn't matter. Whoever did make this comment -- family, friend or stranger -- can now take the credit for motivating/inspiring ME to actually continue to post and see where this thing goes.

To the reader(s) then, I ask this: if there are any topics you would ever like me to address, please let me know and I will try. Otherwise I will just continue writing this for my own amusement.

Please note: I am not the kind of person who quotes Shakespeare. I wish I had liked or paid any attention to Shakespeare in high school. And I wish I had given him a second chance when I developed more of a "passion for words." In my world, the title of this blog entry comes from the mouth of Willy Wonka. I was deeply disappointed to discover this was not a "Wonka-ism." But then re-inspired to discover the original Merchant of Venice line is "so shines a good deed in a naughty world." I like Wonka's better.

Okay, next post shall be back on topic.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The End

The purpose of this blog is to share my experience going from a $23,000/yr copywriter at a drab midsize Chicago ad agency to owning my own agency in Manhattan with glamorous national clients, making millions, then becoming a "retired investor living on a pension."

Don't worry, I will not be quoting Hyman Roth from Godfather II very often.

I don't know if this blog will inspire anyone slaving away at an agency they don't own, or help anyone slaving away at an agency they DO own. Nor do I know if it will be interesting or entertaining, or even well-written!

I call this blog "Agency of One" because the entire time I ran my multimillion dollar shop I never hired anybody full time, never got an office and never made business cards. This is not to say I didn't have huge expenses. I did. But they were never part of ongoing overhead. And this is not to say I didn't promote the hell out of my agency. I did. And this is not to say I wasn't in new business pitches against big name agencies from across the country. I was. And most of the time I won. More on these notions in future posts.

I titled this first post "The End" because I am essentially out of the ad business. I spent 14 yrs in it. I started with many goals. The first of which was to get an actual job. Then produce more spots. Then win awards. Then make more money. Then become my own art director. Then make more money. Then get more client access. Then make more money. Then learn how to run an agency. Then to get big national accounts. Then to have my work seen by the masses. Then to win more awards. Then to make more money. In "the end" I was lucky enough to achieve all those goals.

You may say my focus was too much on money. But the unspoken goal was always to have fun. Struggling to achieve those goals, failing many times but not giving up, and eventually achieving them was fun. When I stopped having goals, even financial ones, it stopped becoming fun.

And when it stopped becoming fun, it was time to move on. For advertising, for now, it is "The End."

In the beginning I went into advertising because I thought it would be the perfect blend of my creative side and my business side. In the end I realized that to achieve the perfect blend, one has to sacrifice a bit too much artistic integrity and sacrifice the kind of ongoing income streams and leveraging found in other areas of business.

Now I spend my time pursuing pure artistic and creative goals, without the need for commerial compromise. And pure financial/business goals, without the subjectivity and unquantifiable aspects of the ad biz. (Though as little time as possible is spent on the latter. No more than an hour or 2 a day.)

I don't want to sound boastful or arrogant. I feel very lucky to have gotten where I am. I think I am writing this to allow anyone interested "behind the curtain" of advertising and show them one possible path to both loving it and escaping it.