My first lesson in understanding agendas was a tough one. I almost lost my first job over it.
I was just two months out of Art Center at advertising behemoth Ogilvy and Mather/NY, right smack dab on Mad Ave. My first account: the door-to-door cosmetics giant Avon. My first assignment: a print ad for a woman’s fragrance named “Fantasque,” created by some big-time perfume guru named Louis Feraud. It was positioned as a “nighttime” fragrance. Seductive. Sexy. Concocted to get your man’s heart racing.
My writer, Mike LaMonica (four months out of school) and I had a flash of inspiration. A double truck spread. All black. With a steady fluorescent green EKG line that spiked right under the product shot of the black bottle. No copy, save the name and tagline: “Fantasque, The Nighttime Fragrance From Avon.”
We were crazy for this concept. We were so excited, all we had to do was figure out where to put our One Show Gold Pencils.
Our ACDs, who were always quite amused at our enthusiasm for winning awards, liked it well enough to approve it. A meeting was scheduled for later in the week where we would present the ad along with our bosses who were presenting storyboards for a national TV spot.
The day came, and I carried the comp like a newborn baby up Fifth Avenue the seven blocks to Avon Headquarters, joining a caravan of account people, producers, our bosses and Mike.
The boardroom was right out of a Hollywood scene — in a skyscraper overlooking Midtown Manhattan, hundreds of lights along the skyline beginning to gleam as dusk set in.
We were all seated at a ridiculously long conference room table. Eight agency people looking right across from eight clients, ranging from most senior to most junior. The CMO of Avon was seated at the head of the table.
My heart, like the depiction in the ad, was racing. I thought to myself, “This is going to be awesome. Mike and I are going to be famous. Our first-ever national ad, sweeping all of the award shows!”
Finally it was our turn to present. Mike and I stood up. I flipped over the foamcore to reveal our super-awesome, shiny, black double-truck ad. I explained the visual treatment and Mike proudly read the tiny seven words of copy set in 10-point Bodoni, reversed out.
There was a long pause. Everyone turned to the CMO. Her face was completely still, save for the sweet-mannered Southern smile that said nothing. She began to speak with a charming Southern twang.
“Well, this is a very interesting ad. A wonderfully striking visual. I believe it would sell a lot of perfume.”
Mike and I were about to explode with excitement. She continued.
“But I can’t approve this. This concept doesn’t align with the creative being done by our promotional department.”
She then pulled a flyer from a folder and showed it to us all. A big huge bottle of “Fantasque”, filling the entire page. Big huge horsey type that read “Fantasque. The Nighttime Fragrance From Avon.” Shot in as boring a manner as possible, with lighting right out of a 50s ad for Kool-Aid.
Our dreams of advertising fame crushed. Dust. Gone forever.
I remember walking the seven blocks back to the office, dead work in hand. “What just happened? She said ‘very interesting, wonderfully striking visual — that would sell a lot of perfume.’ What was I missing here?”
The next day my supervisor called me into his office and told me to shut the door. I thought I was about to be fired. He told me I was to be immediately taken off of the account because I said f***” under my breath. I was totally unaware of it. The client, good Southern woman that she was, would not tolerate such behavior from her agency.
I dodged that bullet. But I got hit with another one inscribed with the word “AGENDA.”
My agenda was clear: super-awesome work to win awards with. The CMO’s agenda: avoid political confrontation and keep all of the departments under her happy.
I had a really, really hard time understanding this. It took me years. Because of immaturity and my ego, I couldn’t see past my own agenda.
Immaturity is easier to solve with time and good mentorship. The ego part is much, much harder. Because creatives have to learn to put their ego away and put themselves in someone else’s shoes – like super-ugly, ill-fitting shoes that belong to the client.
But you have to understand the client’s agenda. They’re the ones paying the agency, which, in turn, hands you a paycheck.
Advertising is a business. Clients care about the bottom line. Sales goals. Profits. Stock prices. They actually have to sell stuff.
And what of awards? Maybe — after your work has satisfied the client’s objectives. (The only other way would be if you could melt enough of them down to create a new revenue stream.)
In the end, what you do is not about art, but about commerce. And with commerce comes compromise, flexibility and understanding.
Your role in this grand charade is to align your agenda with the clients. Your mission is to find out what the client’s agenda is. By talking with them. And by talking to the account people.
“Make the client’s agenda your agenda.”
Knox Duncan, Managing Director for WDCW
I don’t mean to say you can’t do award-winning work, or that you necessarily need to change your personal agenda. But the secret is that you can never, ever let your PERSONAL agenda show in public. Especially to a client.
If you do, you are doomed, doomed, doomed. In their eyes, you become another ego-maniacal creative a**hole who has no idea where his check is coming from.
By understanding this simple truth you can get ahead. Simply because you can incorporate ways to address the client’s agenda into the work.
The agency business is really no different than the rest of life. Knowing what motivates others and using that wisely — real emotional intelligence — can get you much farther.
Good luck out there.