Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Finding your briefs.

In advertising we get briefs.

That's obvious.

What's not so apparent to a lot of people is that life hands you briefs as well.

They aren't delivered at a meeting in an airless conference room and they're not accompanied by 131-pages of powerpoint complete with complicated page loads and jocular stock photos
--all ostensible reasons for the common practice today wherein agencies spend more time preparing a brief than they do working on the actual work.

Many times our real-life briefs (because I'm an asshole I'll acronymize them as RLBs) just show up. There is no fanfare, no protocol, no nothing. And they come in mysterious ways at mysterious times, with very little warning.

You have to keep your eyes open. Because if you're watching, RLBs are important signposts of your life.

I had the shit kicked out of me when I was a kid by an abusive borderline mother whom, though I lived in her house for 17 years, I never saw smile. Hers was an iron fist in an iron hand.

I got a brief when I found out my wife was pregnant. It was a good brief. Short and "fortune cookie-able." 

"It stops with me."

I wasn't perfect as a father--who is? But I did what fathers are supposed to do: I gave my children roots and wings. One has a PhD and a Clinical Psychologist. The other has a Master's degree in Marine Science and has already sailed across the Pacific on a small boat. They both know who they are. And they have a plan.

That ain't bad when you consider where I come from. A tilted little house in a tilted little neighborhood in a tilted little city called Yonkers, NY.

About 19 years ago in advertising I got a brief that changed my career and my life.

Steve Hayden ran the IBM account in those cooler-climed days, and for whatever reason, he chose me as his protege. Once we were in a van going out to a shoot in New Jersey. I was new in the agency and had no partner. On the way to the shoot the spot we were about to shoot got killed.

Steve took the phone call and turned around in his seat and handed me his ThinkPad. 

"Our spot got killed," he said. "Write a new one."

He trusted me enough to hand me that kind of pressure.

About two years later, I was in my office early, as usual. I had the paper edition of "The Wall Street Journal," spread across my desk. I read this story in the Journal's Marketing column.


I read it more than once. And I didn't tell anyone about it. If you look at successful people throughout history you'll discover a lot of their success comes from knowing things first--things other people haven't discovered, or even discovered how to discover.

I read the article again and I underlined the sentence below, a quotation from Ogilvy CEO, Shelly Lazarus. Another person who has always been kind to me--and who was never timid about throwing hot steaming messes my way because she knew I could deal.


"[Steve] takes complex ideas and reduces them to simple thoughts. He never writes in jargon."

OK, I said, "that's my brief."

When I returned to Ogilvy in 2014 having left a decade earlier, I returned as the Copy Chief on IBM.

Because I knew my brief, as stated above. 

And I worked on my brief, every day.

I still do. This blog—and its nearly 6000 posts are evidence of that. I work to become a better writer every day. Simple. Jargon-free.

When I returned to Ogilvy having been fired from a vaunted digital shop, I was already 56 and I was afraid I’d never work again.

Who gets a senior job at the age of 56?

And when I got kicked to the curb by Ogilvy at the age of 62, I feared the same. It’s been almost eight months now. And I’m doing just fine, running my own business—the world’s most independent independent ad agency™: GeorgeCo.

It’s not because of my connections, or family money, or my devilish good-looks.

It’s because I know my brief.

And I work on it every day.



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