Friday, September 20, 2019

In trust we trust.

Twenty-nine years ago, when I was still a very young copywriter (I had just six years’ experience) I got the best compliment a boss can give to a subordinate. I’ve gotten similar compliments since, but as a wise man once said, “there’s no time like the first time.” And I’ll always remember the first time.

I had joined maybe two months earlier a prestigious but rapidly-dying agency called Ally & Gargano. This was early 1990, and though Ally had been named “Agency of the Decade” by Harvard Business Review for the 1980s, its glory days were long gone.

Ars longa, vita brevis and all that chazerai.

Still, I was honored that I was hired. The place was helmed by two Advertising Hall-of-Famers, Amil Gargano and Mike Tesch and about 20 of the 30 or so offices creatives sat in were occupied by bona-fide luminaries in our business—people’s whose names I knew from dozens of awards books, and whose work and body of work I admired.

One of the most luminous of those creative denizens was the guy who hired me, Ed Butler. Ed was one of the finest writers ever to turn out ad copy, having hit high-notes at every agency he graced, from Doyle Dane, where he did great stuff of Volkswagen, to wherever he was when he came up with this line for Dannon Yogurt, “The Unforbidden Fruit.”

At Ally he had produced—partnering with Tesch—some brilliant work for Traveler’s Insurance. Smart ads that addressed issues.

Now in 1990, Ed and his partner, Mike Withers, were running a large New York financial services account—aka a bank. They hired me to give them a hand.

These were the halcyon days of print, and the Bank literally had two different ads in the paper every week. That meant Ed and Mike, and me and my partner, Lisa, would have to conceive, sell, write, shoot and produce about 100 ads a year. And they had to be good. Because Tesch and Gargano lumbered through the halls. And they read the Times. If they saw something they didn’t like they would kick you in your not-inconsiderable.

After having written and sold about half-a-dozen ads, I timidly knocked on Ed’s door and asked if I could show him the body copy for my next ad.

I was young. He was old. This wasn’t easy for me. I probably took a walk around the block before working up the courage.

I handed Ed my typewritten copy (Ed worked on a portable Royal typewriter long after the rest of the industry had switched to pre-historic Macs. He liked things as they were.)

Ed read my copy, underlined a word or two in pencil, then handed my copy back to me.

“It’s good,” he said. “I might change ‘quick’ (one of the words he underlined) to ‘fast.’ And ‘what’s more’ to ‘further,’ but that’s a style thing. You have your style. You don’t have to write in my style.”

I muttered something. Probably something stupid.

Then Ed said, “And you don’t have to show me copy anymore. You’re good. I trust you.”

In the intervening 29 years, I’ve thought about this conversation with Ed about two-million times. I thought about it a lot when I was raising my daughters and they were working to leave childhood and become young adults.

When Sarah, my oldest kid was about 15, she had a nose for mischief. Maybe trouble. And she constantly violated the curfew we gave her. That’s about as natural as it was when Wally and the Beaver missed their curfew in black and white TV-land.

The natural parental response is to come down on your kid. I thought about what Ed had said to me maybe 12 years earlier. “You’re good. I trust you.”

“Sarah,” I said. “You don’t have a curfew anymore. You’re good. I trust you.”

What most non-trusters and control freaks don’t have is the capacity to understand basic human nature.

If you hire good, driven people, people with integrity who care about the work and their work—if you trust your very ability to hire those people, then when you actually hire them and show trust, they’ll be so grateful for your trust that they’ll do better work, faster than if you had been riding their ass.

That’s certainly the way things worked with me and Ed. He showed trust in me and I wasn’t about to let him down. It also worked that way with me and Sarah.

Pretty simple, really.

Trust begets trust begets commitment begets performance begets better work.

By the way, when Ed died, Tom Messner wrote this memory of him for Adweek. No one smart fucks with Tom Messner’s copy. So even I didn't.

Ed Butler
May 31, 1993

Ed Butler went to Bishop Loughlin High School, St. John’s University, and St. John’s School of Business, where he got a masters in industrial psychology and began a career in the Personnel Department of Doyle Dane Bernbach, proselytizing on that institution’s behalf and recruiting Ivy Leaguers for its Account Management Training Program. At the age of 35, he ‘put a book together,’ took a $7,000 cut in salary, and was born again as a copywriter on the 25th floor of 20 W. 43rd Street, then the location of the hottest creative department in the world and a place whose admission requirements reflected a ratio of 200 portfolios for every person hired.

Like all who come to a vocation late, Ed was a true believer. He told you his headlines; he told you his last lines; he told you his opening lines; he told you his middle lines; each of which would have been insufferably obnoxious except that he also told you your headlines, opening lines, last lines and middle lines.

He did, he told me, the 21st best Volkswagen commercial in history for DDB; sold some fried chicken for Marschalk; peddled a line of dog food for Young & Rubicam; did some of the funniest Miller Lite spots; and taught aspiring writers and art directors at the School of Visual Arts and then later through his own course, often consciously forgetting to cash the tuition checks. He also worked three times for Ally (once for Carl Ally, once for Ally & Gargano, once for Ally & Gargano MCA) and was content there since in its last permutation, the agency was only a block from the building above the supermarket where he lived since first moving into the city from Queens. He summered at Fire Island and wintered at Club Med. He played a weak, but affable 7-card high low poker (verbal declare) and used two hands to take a set shot.
He fought cancer for more than a year and died a very young man last week at 59.
As I said above,
Ars longa, vita brevis.

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