Friday, June 26, 2020

62 years old. And learning every day.

Some years ago—I really don’t remember when—I was flying to somewhere or from somewhere and the agency I was working for had the kindness and consideration to stuff one of their most-senior and most-sizable employees in a middle-seat.

Most often, when you’re flying somewhere you’re dealing with no small degree of inconvenience. Especially if you’re like me and don’t particularly like traveling. You’re usually sleeping in a strange bed. You’re usually up at a stupid hour. You’re usually stuck in a stale linoleum airport and subject to more indignities than a prisoner of the former Soviet state.

Despite all that, your agency—you know, the one who tells you you’re part of the so-and-so-family and that you’re a colleague and that you matter—does everything they can to make this woeful experience even more woeful. You're family, all right. Kind of like the House of Atreus is family.

Which brings me back to that middle-seat. With a reclining seat right in front of me. A fat arm-rest hog to my left and a frequent-pee-er to my right. Not far from a colicky infant. There was little anyone could do to make me more uncomfortable than events had conspired to make me.

About 32 million years ago, my wife had a cousin, Philip, who was a big wig at a fast food company. He was president of a Denny’s-like chain that operated about 60 restaurants in 60 strip malls in California.

Philip’s dad, Manny moved out to California to be with his kids and grand-kids and he was bored. So Philip put him to work as a “secret shopper.” Manny would drop by a couple restaurants every week—unannounced and unidentified—to see how customers were really being treated. Philip wanted information straight from his father. He didn’t want anything sugar-coated by a research company, a public opinion company, or something like a ‘survey monkey.’ He wasn’t monkeying around.

Learning this and sitting in this middle seat—er, that’s your elbow in my mouth—helped me develop a theory. Company leaders should always see how they’re treated by the company—when nobody knows who they are.

As I venture out into the world without the appurtenances (and encumbrances) of a giant agency or agency network behind me, I am learning a lot.

Maybe this is my not-inconsiderable ego speaking, but mostly I think creative people have been almost completely shunted aside in what's become the ad industry. In fact, it seldom happens at all that we get to hear a client’s problem, or a customer’s needs from clients or customers themselves.

Creatives seem to get their information filtered, secondhand, in a badly-designed powerpoint or from a crappy video of a focus group. I liken it to a doctor reading a patient’s chart, but never meeting the patient.

The other morning, Thursday, I had my regular Thursday morning therapy session with Dr. Lewis. I’ve been fortunate through the eons to be able to surround myself with people I consider smart and wise. High in that Pantheon sits Dr. Lewis. It’s no wonder I’ve been seeing him virtually every Thursday morning at 8 for the last thirty years.

I was talking to Dr. Lewis about the ups-and-downs I’m having as I’m building my own business. And mostly how I disliked talking to prospective clients on the phone and talking about my company, GeorgeCo, a Delaware Company.

He said as a therapist, he does the same. He could hire a receptionist to “intake” new patients. But hearing directly from clients gives him an edge, an insight, a head-start. He knows something he wouldn’t know if there was an in-between.

I think big stay-the-course agencies don’t understand this. And don’t know what it’s like to actually work with them—how much distance they create between the clients and the creators. They don’t understand that clients—at least, good clients—want to deal with creatives, even though good creatives are usually pains in the ass.

Good clients want to be heard, not filtered.
Good clients want to be challenged, not obeyed.
Good clients want a point of view, not ‘we like them all.’
Good clients want fast, but they’d rather have good.
Good clients prefer stubborn and principled to tractable and malleable.

I’m new to all this. I’ve never worked for myself before. For 25 weeks it’s been going extraordinarily well. I’m getting more calls and more work than I ever imagined—and for that, I am thankful.

But that could all change tomorrow, and I know that.

I also know what I’ve seen and what I learned. Beyond the money I’m making, I’m learning things I think the rest of the industry may have forgotten. 

I am thankful for that, too. And I think my clients are as well.

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