Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Norman Is an Island.


Pulitzer-Prize-winning op-ed columnist, Maureen Dowd had an opinion piece in The New York Times on Saturday that made me think about advertising. Advertising and leadership and how higher-ups talk to the people who work for them.

The piece was titled "Requiem for the Newsroom," and if you can get through the Times' flimsy paywall, you can read it here. 

Dowd begins with how a lot of writing on advertising should begin. I'm not going try to improve it, I'm going to do what ad people do; I'm going to steal it. My only emendation is a simple one. Where Dowd says "newsrooms," substitute "ad agencies."

"I don’t want this to be one of those pieces that bangs on about how things used to be better, and they’ll never be as good again. But, when it comes to newsrooms, it happens to be true."

Here are the two quotations from Dowd that got me thinking. I am a solo-practitioner now and I've always been something of a solo-act at work. But just because I tend to work alone doesn't mean I didn't like the clamor of people around me, and that I didn't check-in with people to weigh-in on my work and/or to encourage me. 

GeorgeCo., LLC, a Delaware Company employs someone today because I've known her for a quarter-of-a-century and she is unfailingly straight with me. ie. She tells me when something sucks and suggests how I can make it better.

Onto the two quotations:

Mike Isikoff, an investigative reporter at Yahoo who worked with Dowd at The Washington Star back in the ’70s, said this: “Newsrooms were a crackling gaggle of gossip, jokes, anxiety and oddball hilarious characters. Now we sit at home alone staring at our computers. What a drag.”

 Mark Leibovich, a writer at The Atlantic, added: “I can’t think of a profession that relies more on osmosis, and just being around other people, than journalism....There’s a reason people get tours of newsrooms. You don’t want a tour of your local H&R Block office.”

Dowd continues, "Now, 
Leibovich said, he does most meetings from home. 'At the end of a Zoom call, nobody says, ‘Hey, do you want to get a drink?’ There’s just a click at the end of the meetings. Nothing dribbles out afterward, and you can really learn things from the little meetings after the meetings.'"

Since the Covid pandemic when agencies fired or furloughed half their staff (no wonder that last week two of the big holding companies have press-released their positive financials) we normalized 'working from home.' As much as management orders people to return to the office, as far as I can gather from people who are still paid by agencies, they've done little to encourage or remind people of the electricity that used to spark when people worked with others.

In short, there's much to be said for Kibbitz Kulture. 

In fact, on Friday afternoon, I fielded a phone-call from a friend, who happens to be at the tippy-top of a highly-regarded holding company agency. He was working on a global pitch and he needed a question answered and a sounding board.

We didn't have an hour-long meeting accompanied by a 77-page PowerPoint presentation. It was, instead, ping-pong match with machetes.

Re-framing question.

Stab at a response.

Response to that response.
Building on response.

Countering response.

Consensus and more building on response.

Glimmer of epiphany.

All that happened in less time than it takes to watch a :30-second spot. And in less than thirty-seconds, we got somewhere--somewhere good.

In the McKinsey-spurred, MBA-motivated mania for productivity, we have, it seems to me, forgotten what makes work work in service of improving the quality of the work. 

There's a lot we do to drive efficiency. But very little we do to drive enjoyment, passion and pride in what we do.

I've been in a few agencies since I left the agency business. When they're well-designed and well-peopled--they are spaces I envy. Where there's an encouraging buzz and an energy. As an industry, we can't let that go. We can't forget about that.

On Saturday, despite a chilly and steady rain, my wife and I headed to Joe's Shanghai, the great restaurant at 46 Bowery in New York's Chinatown. When we left with our leftovers, the rain had abated and we could finally take a walk without getting drenched. 

The rain was keeping the usual throngs of people down and we were able to walk up the Bowery without too much jostling. Before long, we headed over to one of the world's great bookstores, The Strand ("18 miles of books") on 12th and Broadway.

The floor of the place was as crowded as Grand Central or Penn Station during rush hour. Literally hundreds of people shopping for and, yes, talking about books. I, myself, gave about 3,200 recommendations in a little over five-minutes. 

As a society, as a culture, we've forgotten the glue that kept life cohesive. We've forgotten the warmth and the glow that used to come from the flicker of the communal fire. We've isolated ourselves and squeezed the soul from our souls. When you see evidence of the world as it was, as I saw on Saturday night in the Strand, you remember how good it was. Yes, as Dowd said above, things used to be better.

That world is gone now.

It's been optimized out of existence. 

Smiles are not cost-effective and kindness never gets a billable job number.

So we grind through bland work and blander days, leading, as Thoreau wrote, lives of quiet desperation. Dying with the song still unsung inside us.

Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.

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