Players of Character

Last week was about as bad a week as I can remember at Ground Zero. We lost two employees. The first was art director Noah Clark, who announced he’s leaving to join Crispin, Porter + Bogusky in Boulder, Colo. The second was a woman who made breakfast for the staff and cleaned the office, and who died of lung cancer despite having never smoked a cigarette in her life. (Having worked on the California Department of Public Health account for eight years, I’d be remiss not to mention that her father was a heavy smoker and she believes the second-hand smoke she inhaled as a child ultimately led to her demise.)

Clark interviewed to be my assistant a couple weeks before he was scheduled to graduate from the University of Southern California. Unlike the other finalist for the job, an attractive woman the rest of the creative department was imploring me to hire, Noah was more “boy band”: spiked hair, fresh face, jeans that were more fancy than a guy needs to own. But there was something about him that reminded me of myself. And it wasn’t the hair. He was just so damn eager to be in the business. There was no pretense, no attitude or entitlement. All he wanted to do was work hard, learn and help.
So I hired him, spelling out very clearly that the chances of his growing into an art director position with us were similar to the word at the end of our agency name: “Zero.” He nodded along and said he understood. Then he set about completing every task asked of him to the highest standard possible. Between doing all the so-called “grunt” work, Noah grabbed every creative brief he found lying around the office and looked for ways to help out with layouts, taglines, new business presentations, etcetera. He never asked to be promoted. He never bitched about his day-to-day responsibilities or acted like anything was beneath him. Which is why when a junior art director position opened, I decided it was time to do what a guy named Peter Seronick did for me years before: Give him a chance. So I gave the kid who was Ground Zero the opportunity to join our creative department over all the guys and girls who simply wanted to work for Ground Zero.

In the four years that followed, Noah turned into an award-winning art director who did the kind of work students at VCU and Art Center now point to and say, “Someday.” But that wasn’t what made him special. The longer you do this job, the more you find that doing good work is the price of entry and it’s all the other stuff that separates the folks you really like from the ones you can’t live without.

In 15 years of owning Ground Zero, there haven’t been many folks who regularly beat me to the office in the morning. Noah was one of them. It should also be noted that he was often the last to leave at night, if he left. I don’t say this to glamorize long hours or a sweatshop mentality, but to point out that he typically wasn’t burning the midnight oil or the pre-dawn oil to better his portfolio, but to make a presentation look a little better, work on the agency new business materials or polish an ad that was still a little too rough around the edges for his liking. This kind of dedication earned him the moniker “The Cleaner” from Laura Eastman, our head of account services. Like Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction, Noah was the guy who fixed things, no matter how screwed up they might have been when someone dumped them in his lap. When another art director left on vacation, Noah picked up the slack. When another team dropped the meat in the dirt, he picked up the pieces.

Where Noah figuratively cleaned up after the rest of the office, Ana de Paz physically did. She was the other third of the early morning crew, pushing a shopping cart full of groceries down Maxella toward the agency every morning because she didn’t own a car. Somewhere between the time I’d drop my keys on my desk and the time I’d check my first e-mail, I’d smell quesadillas wafting from the other end of the building.

As people filtered in over the next hour — OK, 90 minutes — they’d almost always visit the kitchen before they went to their desk. And there was Ana, right in the middle of it all — cutting fruit, flipping quesadillas, telling people to stop eating the tops off the muffins. It may have been my agency, but it was her kitchen. A Guatemalan emigrant, Ana spoke from the heart in broken English.

Whether she was telling our head of planning to put his dirty fork in the dishwasher or a female co-worker she was getting fat, you always knew exactly where Ana stood. And usually, you found yourself wanting to stand next to her. Especially when times got tough. I think it was because she represented everything good about our company. Her dedication, loyalty and hard work reminded me why we built the place and why I didn’t jump ship along the way to take one of the high-paying offers at the multinationals. Now, if you had told me when we started that the woman who ran “Taco Tuesday” would become the icon of everything our company stood for, I probably would have laughed. But she did.

Unlike many ad folks who casually throw out the terms “community” and “family,” Ana lived them. She fed us. She cleaned up after us and watched over us. Every day.

Why do I bring all this up? Because it occurs to me that more and more, ours is becoming a business obsessed with skill sets. “Does he know Flash?” “Is she versed in new media?” “Can they build a site map?” No doubt, these are important questions to ask, but so are some others. Like, “Will he treat my agency as if it’s his agency?” “Will she put the client’s best interest above her own?” “Will the rest of us be better for having spent 10 hours a day with them?” What I’m getting at is that in our quest to find the most qualified applicants, I’m worried that all too often we overlook the best person for the job — the people like Noah and Ana.

My football team is the New England Patriots, which is currently regarded as the most successful franchise in the National Football League. But it wasn’t always this way. For the first 37 years of my life, the Patriots appeared in a grand total of one Super Bowl — a game they lost 46-10. During this insufferably long period, the various Patriot coaches always said the same thing each draft day: “We’re looking for the best athlete available.” And so, year after year, the Pats would add more hyper-talented athletes to their roster. And each year, the organization continued to flounder.

Then Bill Belichick came along and changed the philosophy. He said, “We’re looking for players of character.” It defied what everyone else claimed to be after, but I liked the sound of it: Players of character. Suddenly, 40-yard dash times were overlooked and bench press numbers were deemed irrelevant. It was all about heart. It was about whether a player wanted to help the team win more than he wanted to make himself famous and whether they’d give everything they had to give every time they stepped on the field. And so players like Tom Brady, an overlooked backup college quarterback, emerged and went on to set the single-season NFL passing record. Troy Brown, an undersized eighth-round pick at receiver, ended up playing offense, defense and returning punts in the same season and helping the team win three Super Bowls in six years. (Granted, it should have been four.) By changing the criteria they used to build their team to focus more on character and less on skill, the Patriots turned themselves into a much better organization.