Holding hands with the agency president

Biggest fuck up

There I was, in an oversized conference room in Plano, Texas, presenting TV scripts to Roger Enrico, the CEO of Frito–Lay. That’s the Roger Enrico who would go on to become the next Pepsi CEO…the same guy who had literally written the book on the Cola Wars, The Other Guy Blinked. 

Roger wasn’t the only muckily muck in the room. Seated next to Roger was Keith Reinhard, CEO of DDB Worldwide, the agency where I worked. To my left was Susan Gillette, president of DDB Chicago. To my right was DDB group creative director Joe Sciarrotta, now deputy chief creative officer of Ogilvy Worldwide.

I had been a copywriter in advertising for about three years by then, which was just long enough to know I didn’t belong in that room. 

But I had to be there because I had written the scripts, and everyone liked how I performed them. Which would’ve been fine except for one thing: 

I hated the scripts. 

Maybe hated was too strong of a word… I didn’t think they were that funny. What was worse, the commercials starred Martin Short, a comedian I found even less funny than the scripts. So I had to try to imitate an unhumorous actor delivering dialogue that was not particularly amusing to begin with. 

It went as well as you’d expect. My voice quivered, sweat poured down my forehead, and my hands were shaking so badly, Susan reached over mid–script to hold my hand in an attempt to calm my nerves. 

I’ve seen a list of bad things, and “agency president needs to hold your hand during a presentation” is definitely on it.

So what was my fuck up? The fuck up was that I didn’t say no. 

It would’ve been really easy for me to say that I don’t believe in the scripts or to just not write them at all. But instead of standing up for myself and trusting my instincts, I got swept up in others’ reactions and expectations, and it resulted in a presentation that haunts me to this day. 

The learning I took was that saying no is one of the most powerful tools a creative professional has. And that understanding when – and how – to say no is a great way to keep your integrity intact.

Rant

I find our obsession with awards to be puzzling and ultimately harmful and distracting. 

Puzzling because considering there are 900 award shows each year (true fact, according to Forbes), and that Cannes Lions alone has 628 categories and needs five nights to hand out all the prizes, it’s safe to say that being “award–winning” is neither distinctive nor an accurate measure of quality. 

Harmful because being desperate for third-party validation sends the message that we marketing people lack confidence in our abilities. No other sector of business is in such constant need to be patted on the head for doing a good job. And by relying on judges to tell us what’s good, we’re essentially outsourcing our opinions. 

And distracting because the inconvenient truth is that what wins at award shows isn’t necessarily what’s growing business. So the more time we spend on trying to win awards, the less we spend on what we’re getting paid to do. 

Other than that, I think awards are great.

Useful Advice

The best advice I was given was from a CD when I was trying to break into the business. It was the third time in six months I’d shown her my portfolio; the previous two versions had been entirely discarded based on the poor reaction they received. On viewing my latest effort, she said, “Often in this business, it’s persistence above brilliance.” Which was her nice way of saying, “Your work still sucks, but it sucks less than it did last time, and good for you for not giving up.” I believe she was dead–on and that persistence is an ingredient found in every successful marketing career.

The advice I like to give is, “Act like no one is above you, and remember, no one is beneath you.” Which is to say, don’t let company hierarchy dictate how you behave. Following this advice gives you permission to think beyond your job description and frees you up to try and solve bigger problems than people expect from you. It also reminds you to be nice on your way up the ladder, though hopefully that’s not necessary.

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