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Art & Commerce: Two Worlds at Work

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Disclaimer: It has been more than a decade since I have felt the pain of writing a disclaimer. I have been out of the advertising business for many years, and it might have changed a lot since my time.

I came to the industry after a Yale classmate set me up with a copywriting job at JWT. I eventually rose to become a creative director and vice president. I was 53 and working in the L.A. office when I lost my job.

Being fired from JWT forced me into a whole new life. My next job, a consulting business, failed, as did two marriages. Then, at 63, I was diagnosed with acoustic neuroma, a brain tumor, and took a job at Starbucks in part for the health insurance. Today I have found a mysterious happiness in serving up lattes.

When I joined Starbucks, I felt I was in a continually expanding universe in which they needed me to succeed. Since Starbucks opens new stores daily all over the world, there is a desire to hire people from every background, race, age and gender and find a way to bring out their best. On every shift, you know you are part of a team.

In advertising, on the other hand, I felt I was in competition with my colleagues for any recognition or rewards. It was as though I had joined a pyramid scheme in which those who held the best jobs were at the top, and to get there you had to climb over your co-workers. That created an atmosphere in which each weakness was exploited.

Advertising is a competitive world in which proximity to clients is nine-tenths of the law and everyone is expected to take ruthless advantage of any opportunity to advance up the slippery slope. My first boss, George, made what was then called a "bad career move" by taking a long vacation during a very busy time. While George was away, I made several important presentations to his clients. By the time he returned, I had his job.

The man who ran JWT at the time told me George's former clients really liked me. At the time, I believed my talent was so great and my ideas so fresh and wonderful—why wouldn't they prefer me to musty old George? (He was in his 40s, and I was in my 20s.) I now realize the enthusiastic praise and quick promotion were probably influenced by the fact that I was earning one-quarter of George's salary. Less overhead plus a happy client is management's ideal formula for bottom-line success in advertising, as I discovered firsthand upon my own dismissal nearly three decades later.

Perhaps I should say that was the formula. Perhaps management today is not always looking to employ the fewest people per $1 million in billings. Perhaps clients aren't always looking for the next hot idea from someone who looks like their ideal demographic of 18 to 35.

At JWT we did some research that surprised even us: Young teens made brand choices they often kept through life. This explained to me the success of the Marlboro Man, a Leo Burnett creation widely admired for being so successful at building brand loyalty in a crowded category. Obviously, a 12-year-old boy could relate to a cowboy. It became obvious to our clients that we must appeal to a very young mindset. Being over 40, or certainly over 50, it was hard to present in a credible fashion the latest fashion in music or movies. When I was in my 20s, I was introduced to the Ford client as a "creative hotshot." That simply wasn't possible as I entered my sixth decade.

But I think the biggest difference in my current work environment—aside from great coffee in place of the insipid stuff we used to imbibe in endless advertising meetings—is the respect shown for every Starbucks employee, or "partner," as we are called. Almost all ad agencies talk about how they love "their people," and inevitably end up saying, "We would love to do that for our people, but it is just too expensive." But Starbucks invests huge sums of money to pay for healthcare for even part-time partners like myself.

At Starbucks, I have found, respect goes beyond the practical benefits to a kind of emotional recognition. When there's a line out the door and my manager needs me to mop up a mess, he still pauses to ask: "Mike, could you do me a favor? Would you mind getting a mop and cleaning up that spill?"

At JWT I had a client who called us "the agency toads." He and his marketing cronies liked to see how fast and far we would jump when they called. Late one Friday afternoon I was asked to shoot three TV commercials over the weekend. We had been going over these spots for months, but now it was an emergency. In advertising, everything seemed to be an emergency.

Advertising is a business with billions spent and no real objective measure of success. No wonder everyone has to procedd with such enormous earnestness. The emperor has no clothes: No one has found a way to accurately gauge what words, pictures and money can really do.

Starbucks is a very different world, with many second-by-second, reality-based measurements of exactly how well you are doing. The register records every sale, and every guest lets you know how he likes his drink.

We might not be creating multi-million-dollar television campaigns, but we are creating many enjoyable experiences for our guests, a few moments of simple pleasure in their busy day.

Helping to create such an atmosphere has become for me a major satisfaction. I am not shooting an expensive TV commercial with "beautiful" people basking in hot lights while the client sweats with anxiety that we will shoot the storyboard…but I am creating a pretty good double-tall non-fat latte for someone who will really appreciate it.