Thursday, November 14, 2019

Advertising and the Napoleonic Code.

I’ve been making a living as a writer since I left graduate school in May, 1980. I had no job when I graduated and knew I never wanted to live with my parents again. So I knew I had to get work.

In those cooler days (our existential threat back then were the 10,000 Soviet missiles aimed at us, not something scary like climate change) there were these things printed on paper that you could buy at almost any corner or any subway stop. On Sunday they had a whole section dedicated to listing jobs in eight-point type.

I answered one of those ads, went to a dull, beige office and took a copywriting test.

I passed and was offered a job at $225/week, can I show up next Monday?

Since that time, I’ve had dozens of jobs and even more bosses. Here’s the sum total of all I’ve learned from all those people and places over the last four decades. I’ve gotten it down to just a few dozen words.

There are two types of places.

Most of them limit who you are. They constrain you by the types of assignments you get. And then they watch over you like you’re a felon on parole.

Every once in a while, you’ll find a place that allows you to be good. That doesn’t micromanage you. That allows you to try things. That allows you to do that rarest thing in advertising today: fail.

Another way of looking at this dualism is to think about legal systems.

 Under the Napoleonic Code, there is a de facto presumption of guilt. Simply, you’re guilty until proven innocent. Most ad agencies seem to run this way. 

In the course of your day, you’ll hear things like, “did you time this?” “Did you incorporate client comments?” “Have you shown this to Jill?” “Did you look at the mustard commercial from 1996?” And so on.

The implicit assumption is clear. You don’t know how to do your job.

These places also make another assumption—equally denigrating and dispiriting. The tasks you’re most often given to do are the only tasks you know how to do.

Putting those two assumptions together you get something really vicious. “You don’t know how to do your job and that’s the only job you know how to do.”

The other type of place assumes you are good until you prove yourself bad. That kind of place is very unusual. It’s not that bosses don’t question you there, it’s just that they’re better at being bosses. They trust themselves. So they trust the decision they made when they hired you.

If you’re lucky enough to land at one of these places with one of those bosses, a lot of things will disappear. “Did you try it ____ way?” “Did you think about ______?” “It’s close. Could you take another look?” 

Without those questions dogging you, you’ll be challenged not by the doubt of a boss. Instead you’ll be challenged to be the best you can be.

About two decades ago I was in a van with my boss and his long-time partner, driving out to a shoot. My boss, the writer on the most famous commercial ever, got a phone call. It was the client. He had just killed the spot we were two hours away from shooting.

My boss turned around and handed me his computer.

“Write a spot,” he said to me.

I was an unknown at the agency at that point, having been hired just about ten weeks earlier.

I wrote a spot. I read it. I fiddled. I read it. I fiddled. And fiddled.

By the time we hit the Lincoln Tunnel, I handed my boss back his computer.

“That’s good,” he said.

I waited for the ifs ands and buts.

But they never came.

About 60 years ago, Robert Townsend, then the CEO of Avis Rental Cars asked Bill Bernbach how he could get the best advertising in the world.

Bernbach thought. And then said, “When you get an ad, approve or disapprove it. Don’t try to improve it. If you follow these rules, everyone in the agency will want to work nights and weekends on your business. And you will get great work.

That doesn’t sound like hard advice to follow.

But I suppose it is.

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