Lessons Learned

What have I learned? Not enough. Not nearly enough. But enough to get away with it, so far. Here’s a few …

The best decisions you can make combine your head with your heart. So does the best advertising. In fact, most of life’s choices should combine intellect and emotion. Except love. And music. And sex. And picking stocks.

In advertising, what you say is more important than how you say it. A good execution can camouflage a bad idea for a while, but in the end, it will still fail if the idea’s lousy. Except for the earlier iPod and Target stuff; their advertising is pure feel-good eye candy, strategically smart, executionally driven. And they’re fabulous. So is MasterCard—it’s got both. So does the new American Express campaign.

Democracy is for governments; consensus-building is for peace treaties and high school reunions. There are no such things in advertising. At least, there shouldn’t be. Somebody has to be in charge and make decisions and not compromise the idea or concept. Figure out how to build teamwork around this kind of leadership, and you’ve got yourself the makings of a damn good agency.

All children are wonderful, including your own. And grandchildren are miracles. Children come with parental responsibilities, obligations, concerns, ambitions, hopes and fears. Grandchildren come with pure joy and are meant to be spoiled. And then sent home. I just wish mine would call me “Granddude.”

Second biggest lie in advertising: “We have no problem with the current agency; we just owe it to the brand to check the options that are out there…”

Most good blues songs start with, “I woke up this mawnin’…” and usually include “My baby left me…” by the second verse.

Black is beautiful. But it’s not the only damn color to wear to meetings. I mean, give me a break. We’re supposed to have imaginations. About life. About solutions. About ads. Are we diverse idea people? Or are we cut from the same cloth? If we’re not supposed to think like this, why do we dress like this? We’re not. That’s something else I learned.

If the idea doesn’t scare you even a little bit, it may not be good enough. And if the ads please absolutely everybody, they may not have gone far enough. This is true more often than not.

If you see me with one of those hands-free Bluetooth cell phone headsets stuck on my ear, ever, you have permission to shoot me. Same with a BlackBerry. I absolutely do not want to be that connected, that hip, that tethered to the rest of the world, or my office. I’d rather keep my head free for some thinking once in a while, and my ears clear for an iPod to goose it along on occasion.

The most offensive quality of all is hypocrisy. In people. In ideas. In religion. In government.

Good advertising cannot overcome a lousy product, or a product without a reason for being. In fact, good advertising will insure a bad product’s failure. Quicker.

I’ve learned a lot about life—and advertising—from my 3-year-old granddaughter, Mary Clarie:

“You like it, and you like it. But little kids don’t like it.” People will react to the exact same thing in different ways. (In this case, the barracuda in Finding Nemo.)

“When I get my new room, I don’t want white walls. I want lots of colors.” Life should be full of colors. So should your room. And your ideas.

“Come with me and I will show you what I need from you.” If you need something, you get to ask for it. And you should, and even though you won’t always get what you want, you just might get what you need.

“But I don’t want to look like Ellie (her sister); I want to look different.” We should all be this independent. So should the ads we do.

“Oh, fuck ….” Yup. Sometimes that just says it all. (Bad grandfathering—she said it once; good parenting—she hasn’t said it again.)

Here’s the biggest lie in advertising: You can sell somebody something they don’t want. Impossible. What is possible is to get somebody to want something they don’t need. But if they don’t want it, they ain’t buying it. And besides, how else should it be? Get a grip. Plus, the word “sex” has never been secretly imbedded in ice cubes in liquor ads.

My hero? James Parker, principal, CS 50, Clara Barton School, South Bronx, New York City. Mr. Parker taught me what’s genuinely heroic: a commitment to the greater good, personal sacrifice for others, dedication, integrity, great humor, balance, a genuine love for children and the child in all of us, a sense of self. And being a good enough salesman to convince some 900 underprivileged young students to show up at school every day willing to learn something.

There’s no halfway in advertising. 9 to 5? Forgedaboutit. Fall-back job option? No chance. This ain’t no job, it’s an adventure. Get in. Get all the way in. Or fail. Worse, no fun.

A :330 batting average will get you in the Hall of Fame. It’s pretty damned good in new business, too. Pick your shots. Pitch when you have to. All the other times, go in the back door. You’ll get assignments, you’ll raise your average. You might even get in the Hall of Fame.

Diversify. Not just your portfolio. Your life. Get interested in something beyond your job. Something you love. Something you cannot live without. No, not that. Something cultural, intellectual, emotional, artistic. An “outside interest.” A “hobby.” A source of passion. Opera. Cooking. The blues. The history of CBGB. Better, its future. Writing. Decoupage. Well, not that. Improv. Mayan archeology. Architecture. Whatever. Find something. It will make you happier. It will make you more interesting. And I guarantee you, no matter what it is, sometime, some day, you’ll be able to use it in advertising.

Most clients are left-brained. Most ad people are right-brained. Deal with it, that’s what I learned: we have to deal with it. We have to figure out a way to connect the two parts. It’s called a strategy. An idea. The two of us have to agree on the Big Idea. The good news is it’s both emotional and rational. If it’s any good. The rest is executional, judgmental, subjective. But first, we have to figure out how to connect the two.

There’s a fine line between passion and arrogance. In life, and in advertising. Passion is having strong beliefs, the willingness to fight for them and the ability to articulate them. Arrogance is believing your way is the only way. This is true in advertising, government and life. Something else I learned the hard way.

Titles? We don’t need no stinking titles. Try salesman. Which is what we are. Let’s face it: We’re salesmen.

If you’re in advertising, then you need to understand this: It’s the client’s money, not yours. The client makes the decisions. We sell the ideas. We sell everything. Sometimes it feels like begging—do it with dignity. We’re on this side of the business because we must share some kind of desperation for approval. Make it work. But understand: It’s ultimately their call, not ours. And yeah, sometimes this sucks.

Act as if there’s a camera filming your life. Sometimes we should view our actions as if they’re being judged by some gigantic eye in the sky. Even if it’s only like that wonderful sleeper Albert Brooks/Meryl Streep movie, Defending your Life, maybe some day you’re going to have to justify all this bullshit. Will you be able to? Can you justify it? I mean, what is it you look like pitching that idea anyway? Is it real? Do you believe it? How will it play? Think about it. Not a bad reference point. Plus, you can add a music track to it. You can score your life.

When it hits the fan—and it will—think of it as fresh air. Failure is part of this business. Or should be. If you haven’t failed yet, you’re not taking enough risks. Or you’re not working for the right people. Take a chance. Fail spectacularly. And then learn from it. Getting fired is part of this business, too. Which is different than failure. It’s earning your stripes. Consider it an opportunity. To learn. To take stock. To aim higher. Hell, to reinvent yourself.

Do not uncork that second bottle of wine, if you’re by yourself. Unless you’re chasing that elusive next big idea.

Give something back. Despite everything, because of everything, I am one fortunate dude to be in this business. So are you. We’re in a business that somehow manages tangible rewards way more than teachers, cops, nurses, most doctors, members of the clergy and most of the rest of the human race. I’m entitled to nothing; I’m blessed with a great opportunity. So I figure I’ve got an obligation to give something back—something I learned once I got past my own ego. Time. Resources. Whatever. Pass on your experience, your learning, your largess. Volunteer for something. Teach. Coach. Share. This will make you feel good. And, you will learn from it.

Lighten up. That’s all. Just learn to lighten up. I did, finally. Kind of.

And remember this: No matter what we look like, no matter how we pose ourselves, regardless of titles, history, salary or semi-accomplishments, we all share the same hopes, fears, dreams and shortcomings. Whether we’re half-full or half-empty, we’re all in the same cocktail glass, yearning to have our way and get rewarded. And every last one of us is in a profession that somehow, despite our best intentions, ranks just behind sanitation engineers and ahead of lawyers, and Republicans, for public respect. Which means we’ve all got a lot to learn.

Tim Arnold is an agency veteran and a regular ‘Adweek’ columnist. He can be reached at possible20@aol.com.