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.”

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