Higher Education

What I haven't learned in 20 years of running an ad agency

Yeah, so Goodby, Silverstein & Partners has been here 20 years, as of two weeks ago. At this point, they ask you to write about what you've learned, in the extremely unlikely event that you might have stumbled across something that might be useful to the three or four readers who will actually open an agency this year.

Headshot of Jeff Goodby

Yeah, so Goodby, Silverstein & Partners has been here 20 years, as of two weeks ago. At this point, they ask you to write about what you've learned, in the extremely unlikely event that you might have stumbled across something that might be useful to the three or four readers who will actually open an agency this year.

To tell you the truth, I think it'd be more interesting to tell you what I haven't learned.

I haven't learned, for instance, that people are stupid. This is one of the first things I noticed people in advertising did seem to learn. In fact, the whole idea of getting somebody to buy something they might not have otherwise kind of carries with it the assumption that you're a little smarter than they are. It would be better to think that your job is to come up with something that's beyond both of you. Something that takes a leap that approaches art.

While we're on that, I haven't learned that advertising isn't art. I've been prevented from learning this by being in the business at the same time as people like Dan Wieden and Lee Clow and Rich Silverstein. Yet the history of advertising is littered with idiots who have made a living reminding us that advertising isn't art. To me, they are the ones hanging on the ropes as the balloon lifts off without them.

I haven't learned that you can't have beer in the vending machines at work.

I haven't learned what I don't know. I used to think that was a fault. Now I've come to see this kind of innocence as a blessing. Being blissfully ignorant is a form of courage.

I haven't learned not to order one of those greasy breakfast burritos as soon as I get to a film shoot.

OK, fine, I haven't learned the names of everyone working here in a really long time. The last time I knew all of them, in fact, Reagan was president. I am not proud of this, but it would help if they had names like Bob and Linda instead of, say, Lionel or Aumarie or Ian.

I haven't learned not to touch the plate when the waiter says the plate is hot.

I haven't learned to be direct enough when people are not pulling their weight. For instance, there'll be someone we haven't given an assignment to in about seven years. They have no chance of getting an assignment. So, when I walk in, they're playing miniature golf online. And I'll have the nerve to say to myself, Dude, this guy's playing miniature golf online!

I haven't learned not to take ideas from clients. This is a trait clients find quite endearing, and many times it's resulted in great things that we get most of the credit for. Yet many of my own people think it's either lazy or an abject admission of final and absolute creative lameness. I think: Are you kidding me? Those people pay you and do the work? Where I grew up, outside Providence, this was what you were shooting for.

I haven't learned to counteract the fact that even when I'm absolutely 100 percent sure that someone's opinion of our work is shortsighted, wrongheaded, self-serving, retrograde and idiotic, I still have a little voice that says, Yeah, but maybe they have a point.

I haven't learned to make everyone happy all the time. This used to drive me nuts. But I've come to accept it. Maybe even think it's kind of good.

I have not learned that certain things about sex, food and death that I think are really funny might not be hilarious to everyone else.

I haven't learned not to hire people who will talk back, foment resistance, invent their own fanciful worlds, attempt to foist them on the rest of us, and think everything we've accomplished in 20 years is just kind of OK. Thank God for that.

Finally, I have not learned to stop doing this work. Jamie Barrett once asked me if I'd ever noticed "that the people we meet at parties and over at friends' houses always seem a lot … older than we are? Even when they're the same age?"

Uh, yeah, I've noticed that. Remembering it is a good way to start the next 20 years.


Jeff Goodby is co-chairman and partner at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners.