What I Learned From Madison Ave and Who Taught It To Me

Photo by Aiony Haust

Sometimes it’s ok not to collaborate.

It takes a village to make an ad.  Sure, it might be ‘your idea’, but during the process, many people come on board and each one has an opportunity to make it better. You’d be a moron not to let your director bring his vision to the set. Or the wardrobe stylist. Or the client. However, there are exceptions to this. Once on a shoot, I was working with a pretty talented and well known director and his enthusiasm was infectious. After a couple of hours of talking through the project, the guy had convinced me to change our sold concept and move it into a completely different territory.  

A radical reinterpretation. I liked the new direction but I was still a fledgling creative and I didn’t have anything close to the authority needed for such a last minute left hand turn before shooting. Then, I got on the phone to talk to my boss and talked him through the change. I was convinced that this big time directors vision was the way to go. As I was talking to my boss on the phone trying to get permission, laying out the director’s new vision, my boss finally interrupted me. “Rob. Your original idea is way better than this one. Stick to your guns. “

 It had never even occurred to me that any idea I (me? A nobody from nowhere, Connecticut) could ‘out-creative’ a famous director. I was gobsmacked that my boss thought so. So, I mustered up the courage to go back to the director and say, thank you for your enthusiasm, but no, we’ll be shooting the original idea. To his credit, the director was really cool about the whole thing and the shoot went swimmingly. All thanks to the encouragement and support of my boss Brent Bouchez.

Never give printouts of what you are presenting to the people you are presenting to.

Right out of college, I worked at SPY MAGAZINE in its sales & marketing department.  I had a well-below-the-poverty-line salary and it was time to ask for a raise. I was told by an immediate supervisor that, in order to get a raise I would have to give a presentation to the Publisher, Jerry Taylor,  as to why I deserved one. A proper presentation, mind you, complete with charts and graphs. I prepared my presentation and as I was about to go into his office, one of the salesmen, a friend of mine named Jeff Wellington,  called me over and said to me, “Hey, about five minutes into your presentation, Jerry is going to ask you to hand him your presentation so he can look at it.  

Whatever you do, DON’T give it to him. Jerry is a big believer in ‘controlling the presentation’ and he thinks that when you give printouts to people you lose their attention.”  Sure enough, it went down exactly as my friend predicted and when Jerry asked for them, I politely declined and said that I would give him a leave-behind to go over when I was finished.  A sly grin broke out over his face and he nodded and let me continue.

I’m always shocked about how many people don’t know this one.  Never give handouts! There is nothing worse than presenting to people whose noses are buried in the printouts you just handed them, or GOD FORBID, they are skipping ahead.  

And while I have your attention:  NEVER EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER EMAIL THE PRESENTATION THE NIGHT BEFORE OR EVEN AN HOUR BEFORE.  No sneak peeks. It’s the same thing as getting an email from the producers of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS that reads:  “They all did it” and then having to sit through the movie. It ruins it. (Oh, and for all of you who are thinking “Why did you ruin that movie for me?”  I would say, THAT BOOK WAS WRITTEN IN 1933.

Oh, regarding my ‘why-I-deserve-a-raise’ presentation?  I got the raise. Thanks, Jeff Wellington and Jerry Taylor!

When they say yes, leave.

When presenting creative, you are essentially making a sales pitch.  Buy this piece of work. When it all goes swimmingly and everyone in the room is aligned to move forward, get the hell out of there and end the meeting.   The longer you stay and hang around and chit chat and answer questions, the greater the risk of you UNDOING your own salesmanship. I’ve seen it happen. You present the work, everyone is happy and in the afterglow, someone says something or asks a question that undoes it.  

I had once pitched a client a TV spot that, while funny, was kind of dark. Everyone loved the idea and while we were standing around chit-chatting one of the clients said to me “Wait, does that imply that the guy dies at the end?” Well, it did and that was why it was funny.  But I had to spend a couple or more tense meetings convincing them it was ok. I should’ve left when they said yes. Thanks, MILK PROCESSING BOARD!

It’s important to praise people.

Why?  Well, for starters:  it’s just plain nice.  And also, this is a business built on criticism–mostly constructive criticism, but criticism nonetheless.  Every idea gets its share, from your partner, your boss, their boss, the junior client, the mid-level client, the main client, the legal department, your peers, the industry, the public at large, etc.  Criticism, wanted, unwanted, warranted, unwarranted, fair and unfair is depressingly common.

Praise is not. Secondly, praise lifts people up, costs nothing and does not diminish you one iota. Praise inspires loyalty.  The bosses I’ve had over the years, the ones I still keep in contact with, the ones I love to work with and for –were never shy about doling out praise. The foremost practitioners of this are my former bosses Sandy Greenberg and Terri Meyer.  Both of whom are fond of screaming their praise at the top of their lungs. I can say from first hand experience that it is wonderful to be on the receiving end of such praise.  Thanks, ladies.

Regarding the “perks” of shooting.

 A friend of mine used to wear this T-shirt to client meetings that said, I’M ROCKING ON YOUR DIME.  I thought it was hysterical. The clients? Not so much. There are not so many perks as there used to be in the ad business, the days of multi-week, exotic locale boondoggles are at an end.  And rightfully so. And while the clients still think they pay too much for agency services and are convinced they are being cheated, here’s a bit of advice: If you happen to be lucky enough to go on a shoot, and fly somewhere and stay in cool city and maybe eat a nice dinner in a restaurant you could never afford to eat in, keep your mouth shut about it.

Just enjoy it. And stay within your per diem if you can. Where did I learn this one? When I saw Brent Bouchez’s face at Nobu in London after he got the bill for a 6 hour sushi smorgasbord that got way out of hand. He looked legitimately terrified at the prospect of turning it in for reimbursement and he was the CCO of the NY office.   Also, shout out to Tim Roan and his T-shirt.