BY BILL PURDIN
It does nothing for me. These five words have destroyed more advertising careers than all the late nights, heart-pounding pressure, and slow payments combined. When, in fact, they should never have been spoken in the first place.
Imagine the creative team working all weekend, intellectually digging for a concept worthy of their client’s assignment which came in late Friday afternoon. They work up 20 concepts and brainstorm them from every angle: humor, serious challenge, poetic inversion, and straight-talking sincerity, among others. They find the right approach in a careful mix of them all. Each word is selected with care. Then artwork is arranged to support the words. The designs are explored from every perspective until one is selected and integrated with the concept and copy. Everyone in the agency has put everything they had into the final presentation. It is Sunday evening 9:00 p.m. when the agency lights go out and the “click” of the lock on the office door was finally heard over excited conversations among the creative team about how great things would go with the client in the morning. It was a long, hard weekend, but it was going to be worth it.
As the client walks into the room he was thinking about the report his wife had received from the home inspector: asbestos lining on all the pipes in the house they had just purchased. “It’s going to cost $28,000 to remove and dispose of it all. Men in white hazmat suits for God’s sake,” she had said to him. When he had arrived at work, three of the company trucks had been vandalized the night before, the new phone system was down, and of course, the computer system had crashed. As he listens to the agency, he knew that his decision-making quotient was down in the dumps, his confidence level is nearing all time lows, and there was this sense of deep annoyance with everything which was mounting an assault on his usual open-mindedness. He realized that he was in a very bad mood. The agency has just made the best presentation he had seen them make in the two years they have been working together. He could see the sincere and talented effort. It IS a good idea, with promise, he thought. He noticed his assistant looking at him. She was always assessing his moods and mental directions like a long-tailed cat gauging a room full of rocking chairs. Today she could see his mood was dark. This agency has been good, even great, but no one is perfect. They have always had good ideas but some have been better than others. The CEO was indicating, “what do you think?” He often does this when he doesn’t want to be the bad cop. Then it happened. Those five words that cause such damage. She looked at the floor, then at the ceiling, then looking into the room’s middle distance where eye contact was impossible, she spoke them: “It does nothing for me.”
The resulting loss of money and enthusiasm in the client-agency relationship in such a situation rivals only the death of the agency president or the client’s place of business burning to the ground.
Creative people have, at best, a tentative connection to reality. The fragile nature of the client-agency relationship is always based on the last thing that happened … both ways. The axe blow of those five words may cleave apart a creative union that was promising and productive, leaving it irreparably damaged. The creative edge that the agency resources bring to a client’s business future is built on trust. They must feel free to be wrong, to make creative mistakes if they are ever to hit it out of the park. Hangdogs learn no new tricks and run when opportunity knocks. Instead of the client-business’s best friend, this agency could now be looking for alternatives to escape their captivity to thoughtlessness and directionless negativity.
But sometimes leadership rears its beautiful head.
In this particular case, the CEO saves the day. The bad beginnings to his day swept aside, he looked at his assistant with a stern gaze and says, “Who cares whether or not it ‘does anything’ for you.” Our customers buy our gaskets by the millions for projects you don’t even come close to understanding. They are all over the world. Our agency has given us a thoughtful and creative campaign idea here, based on hard work and research and probably a hundred years or more of combined experience. Let’s start the discussion on how we move ahead from here.” He smiled at the agency team. Like a breath of fresh air, the atmosphere in the room changed from tense to teamwork. Over the next hour, adjustments were made, give and take generated strong discussions, some laughter, and in the end a program for promotion that was exciting and exhilarating to everyone emerged. Over hand shakes and a few hugs the meeting broke up, assignments made, missions accomplished. The assistant was understandably quiet.
The CEO on leaving the meeting was met by his IT manager. The computers were up again. His production manager was next in line with three new rental agreements and a comment that the company’s insurance agent was already on the site in the garage with the appraiser. It looked like the company was covered, including the deductible. His cellphone vibrated, he looked at its screen, his wife had sent him a happy face, which meant more good news on the home front.
His assistant was trailing along behind him, looking pretty down. He said to her, “I want you to follow up with the agency on the timetables. Spend some time with them. Let them see the reasons I trust you so much. Don’t worry. Our reputations in business are formed over time, no one thing is make-or-break. This campaign is important and you are going to be a big part in its success. Okay?”
What a change in her. She was now walking beside the CEO thinking about what a great opportunity the agency had given her. From a moment of deep embarrassment to a rich opportunity… all in less than an hour. Her boss was speaking again.
“And, always remember,” he said, “the power of a kind word.”