Thursday, June 9, 2022

F**K conference rooms.

Since my first agency job back in 1984 to my last agency job in 2020, I'd guess that the number of creatives as a percentage of agency staffing has been quartered. 

I'd also guess that the percentage of "footprint" taken up by conference rooms has octupled. You know, gone up by eight-hundred percent or eight times. Where we used to have two per floor, now we have 16.

That phenomenon has led me to rip off something that the great creative Tibor Kalman wrote back in the 1990s. "Fuck Committees." Today I think we should say "Destroy Conference Rooms."

This isn't another one of my anti-meeting screeds. John Kenneth Galbraith in his great "must read" book, "The Great Crash of 1929" screeds better than I ever could (we have to forgive his gendered use of pronouns. He was writing 65 years ago.) But this post is anti-conference room.

In fact, from a semiotic point of view, I think conference rooms have led to the demise of our industry.

Here's what I mean.

The number one criterion for any successful communication, whether it's a $120 million blockbuster film or a 120-pixel mobile ad, is getting attention. If no one notices your message, everything else is academic.

But when work is presented in a conference room, we forget the most important thing about the work we do. We forget that it has to wake people up. We spend countless hours bickering over some small, inconsequential detail--a word, an illustration, a (heaven forfend) typo. And very little time worrying about will anyone even see our ad.

That's because conference rooms, like focus groups, force exposure. And because you've been called to a conference room, you are there to care. 

That's two important ways that the spaces 97-percent of the industry works in aren't remotely like the real world. In a conference room people are paid to pay attention and care. In the real world, no one pays attention and no one cares. That's where the real work of our work comes in: to get people to see. To get them to understand. 

Judging advertising in a conference room, where everyone gets to stab at the creative and often does that more for power than for purpose, reminds me somehow of testing scuba equipment in the Mojave Desert.

Most of the conference rooms I've sat in for parts of five decades were really "over-think rooms," "nit-pick rooms," "my dick is bigger than yours rooms." 

I never sat in one meeting, not one, where anyone from the most senior to the most-nephewed said "let's evaluate this board this way: 1) Will it get attention? 2) Does it say the right things in a way I understand? 3) Is it persuasive?

Many years ago, I had spent weekends and nights preparing a ton of work for a very important client of the agency I was freelancing with. The agency had four campaigns to show, and the ECD that I was working with presented the first two.

When it came my time to present the last two, something horrible happened. The client was a voracious eater and her assistant had brought in a tray of cheese and crackers as big as the Ritz.

As I was trying to present, she was shoveling the Havarti into her gaw. Or reaching across the table for some whole-wheat crackers, or spreading some curdy-goop on a slice of semolina.

She didn't stop.

I wasn't about to present my work and the work of a dozen teams amid her cheesy maelstrom. So, even though I was a freelancer, I stopped. And waited. And waited.

Finally, the client realized the words disturbing her cheese and crackers had ceased and she looked at me. I was standing.

I clicked on the appropriate slide and I said, "You're sure to like this commercial. I call it 'Cheese and the People Who Love It.'"


You could have cut the tension in the room with a cheese knife, if one were available. But I Borscht Belt deadpanned on her, and finally she cracked and laughed.

I got her attention.

I even took her down a peg.

And I went on to present.

All good.

Pass the cheddar.

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