Collaboration isn't just for the French


I am writing this on a flight to Los Angeles where we are going to shoot the first five commercials for the campaign I began last summer. It was July 27th when I stood at a urinal on 22nd street and was suddenly struck with the idea which, through various barrel jumps, backflips and slaloms, has brought me to this seat on American Airlines.
Of course, it’s absurd that it should have taken 200 days for three or four minutes of advertising to go from my urinal to your television. Well, actually the commercials haven’t even been filmed yet. It’ll be closer to 300 days before they actually hit the airwaves. This is certainly a long time for even advertising to be birthed, but not unheard of.
When you sell your creative work, the results are invariably a collaboration between your imagination and the processes of the person or corporation who is funding them. In the case of a new brand advertising campaign, your collaborators include various levels of decision makers in your agency, some ‘creative’, some administrative and some strategic, all of who provide input based on their own experience, ego, time and attention span.
Next, the work runs through the filter of the client company’s marketing executives. Some have long and illustrious careers producing great advertising and can often make your ideas better and sharper. Others have ended up in marketing by virtue of their success or failure in another part of the company. I have worked with clients who were former antifreeze salesman, flight attendants, bank tellers, and tax attorneys. When I created ads for the Postal Service, my client was a former mail carrier. However, their past is not necessarily an indication of their utility as creative collaborators.
As I have done a lot of corporate and brand advertising, I invariably end up presenting to CEOs and CFOs. Most of them have little interest in advertising and consider it a waste of time and money. They tend to be results oriented, I’m from Missouri, kind of left brainers, Some, by virtue of having a lot of money and a lot of power, have odd and interesting ideas about how advertising should work. They often cite their wives’ or children’s opinions. Because they are unused to talking about executional creative matters, their words are often ambiguous and hard to take at face value and much time is spent by others, parsing their phrases and trying to determine the hidden meaning behind all sorts of cabalistic executive signs. I have worked with agencies who note down the colors of executives’ ties and shirts in an effort to come up with logo and advertising palettes that will pass muster.
These creative approvals are funny things. They are so often subjective and frankly irrelevant to the effectiveness of advertising. The best clients are the ones who are extremely clear and smart about what they know best. They tell you what they want to accomplish with their businesses and how advertising can help. They couch their reactions to the work you bring them in terms of their original intent. Often they are surprisingly lucid and insightful, demonstrating in spades how they got to where they are. They respect the people they hire and assume that they will do their work well. They keep their egos in check and use their authority to clear impasses further down the food chain. They can break loggerheads with a phrase or two. As one CEO said to me recently, ‘People assume that because everyone has a voice that this is a democracy. It’s not. I want this done so let’s move on.” Someone who works for someone who works for someone who works for him and who had been our daily contact had said something equally memorable and candid in an earlier meeting:” My boss told me that my job is to tell you what you have done wrong. I can’t see anything wrong in what you’ve done but I still have to figure out how to do my job.”
There’s little question that, unfortunately, much of what we are paid for is to deal with the process. To be able to listen to someone’s incoherent rant and turn it into some thing actionable. To respond to the various thumbs stuck in the wet clay of one’s idea and yet emerge with something that isn’t embarrassing and wasteful.
There are different styles that creative people have to deal with this obstacle course. Some defend their work against every single remark and soon devolve into shrill defensiveness. Others sit quietly, waiting for the moment to insert a devastating retort. Some try to come up with constructive responses as the clients lays out his objections. Some give long rebuttals that communicate little but ego and leave the client wondering if they heard a word she said. Some sit gulping in anxiety, waiting for others to defend their efforts. Some smirk smugly, all but saying ‘ You are such an idiot”.
The most constructive approach is, first, just to listen. Particularly when there are lots of clients of various levels in a room, they tend to circle around each other, ideas canceling each other out, objections overruled, problems solving themselves. Then, if the audience has the patience, summarize what they have said and see if they agree with your summary. Then offer a solution or two for the present and withdraw and try to form a coherent plan of response. When you do respond, show them what they asked for, accompanied with a range of other solutions.
I think most clients like the creative process. They want to be wowed. When they come up with their own ideas and insist upon them, they also have a nagging feeling that they’re doing the wrong thing, buying a dog and barking themselves. In some ways, advertising seems easier than other creative forms. When I do illustration work, no one has ever redrawn my pictures like some clients feel they can rewrite my copy. When I work with composers, I have (almost) never seen a client tell them which specific notes to play. A bad and desperate client will push past agency and director and go up to an actor and tell him specifically how to say his lines but he’ll rarely get in front of the camera himself.
The key again is to listen and observe. That’s the way to get the clearest sense of what’s really going on. Then by re-presenting the client’s POV to him or her, you show that you get it, you want to help, you care. Don’t insist on logic — often the process spits up a lot of nonsensical mandates that come about through intricate games of Telephone that make no real sense. People, intimidated by their inarticulate bosses, can resort to just taking dictation and passing the buck on to you. But try to see through that and get to the truth underneath.
Then, try to take all of the comments as a new creative challenge. Be willing to sacrifice your children in order to end up with an even stronger result. I’ve often had good ideas become great ones as they were annealed on the forge of the approval process. Despairing of being able to fix your crippled creation, you toss it aside and fabricate a far more elegant solution.
Am I making it all sound horrible? Do I seem like an arrogant know-it-all who thinks all clients are boobs? Maybe so, but I don’t really feel that, not most of the time. It’s a thin line to tread between making something that fits the needs of the people who hired you to do it and something that you are proud of, that is fresh and exciting to you. I often write commercials based on events or perceptions that have occurred to me and it is heart breaking to see them mangled beyond recognition. It feels very personal. But in the end, it really isn’t. That’s what Art is for, to express the personal. The creative work we are paid to do, while growing from our integrity and values and personal aesthetic, is always a collaboration and must be respected as such. When created honestly and openly and generously, it is is the best sort of collaboration, Rogers and Hammerstein, Dolce & Gabbana. At other times it’s more Rogers & Frankenstein, Dolce & Gambino. So you pick your fights. You say to you yourself, if they want to drive this Lamborghini over the clff, it’s their dollar. I won’t allow myself to be twisted in the wreckage. Recognizing that jobs and millions of dollars are at stake, that these matters are impacting people’s better judgment, doesn’t make you a hack. Just a professional.
So the simple answer is: throw yourself 90% into what you do for money. Reserve that small part for self-protection. Be willing to stand back, to be objective and dispassionate. And channel the feelings you have, the reaction to disappointment and limitations, and put it into the work that really matters: your Art. Now be uncompromising. Insist on the highest quality from yourself. Be clear, be strong, be energetic and bold. Experiment, reach, push. Stay up later than you would on a client project. See yourself in this work, the real you. Keep working, keep fighting, be heedless of others. And keep telling yourself that you work to earn a living and that you must never forget to to do the living that you have earned.