It’s not every day you get to talk to over a hundred professionals about how ignorant you are and get a hearty round of applause. But last Friday, I spoke to an audience of about 100 executive MBA graduates at the Rochester Institute of Technology’s annual “Sharpen the Saw” event. The annual day-long event is built on one of the foundational principles of Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The overarching title for my one-hour talk: “What’s changed in 40 years of advertising? Everything and nothing.”
Of course, a lot has changed since I started out as a former HS school English teacher and neophyte copywriter in NYC in 1977. Technology, media, social and digital transformation, the list goes on and on. And I included my thoughts and perspective from someone who was in the midst of four tumultuous decades in this business and wonderful serendipitous pattern crisscrossed with some of the famous characters and brands of the business from my first boss, Ben Colarossi who literally give me my first shot to George Lois, who came into Ben’s world and changed my fortunes and career. I worked on scores of brands including Antigua ARCO, Bacardi, Bruno Magli, GE, FX Matts, ITT, Hormel, Ford, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Juicy Juice, Wendy’s, RCA, Texaco, Xerox, Kodak, and more. But more than clients and people—the audience really wanted to hear my story—not a resume or a list of awards, clients and data points, shifts in the media landscape or newest trends. They could find that on Google.
What they wanted to know most was what I had learned. And what they could learn from me. So I focused on the big three things I’ve learned. And they’re pretty simple, and maybe somewhat unexpected: ignorance, persistence and dumb luck.
Ignorance: the power of not knowing.
I didn’t know what I didn’t know when I started out in advertising. Thank God I was ignorant and unaware. Because without it, I never would’ve made it. Without ignorance, I would never have gotten into the business, let alone advanced in it. Wouldn’t have quit my safe and secure job as a humanities English teacher in order to break into advertising. To be frank, at the time, I didn’t even know what a copywriter was or what they did. I knew how to write, think, learn and speak in front of a class. All I wanted to do was make more than the $9300 annual salary I was making as a high school teacher. But naiveté allowed me to quit and to look for a full-time gig in advertising in the depths of a major mid-70’s recession. All the big shops had major cutbacks on staff and budgets. All the legendary intern and training programs I heard about were dormant. Yes, I took the Benton and Bowles copy test. Yes, I met with Maxine Paetro to get my fledgling book intensely scrutinized and critiqued. Chatted with Jim Patterson at JWT. Talked about my book with Ron Rosenfeld and Len Sirowitz. Thanks to ignorance I connected with almost all of the top 100 creative directors and many agency heads I could track down in the Red Book. But if I really knew my odds to land my first advertising job, I never would have hung on long enough, or hid out long enough in St Patrick’s Cathedral in between meetings to finally meet Ben Colarossi, my first boss and legendary mad man era CD.
Persistence: the only way to get ahead in this world.
Before I got hired by Ben, I had to pass a different kind of copy test. He gave me 48 hours to bring back some ideas on a new Caloric Microwave/Electric range, and hand it off to him at Penn Station on his way to the new business pitch. In the balance—maybe a shot at a real job, and at the very least $100 bucks if any of my ideas were sold. I did my homework, interviewed appliance store owners and managers, talked to a bunch of relatives who knew about cooking and kitchen appliances. And handed off my pile of ad ideas to Ben before he jumped onto the early train out of Penn Station. When next we met, he still didn’t have an offer for me so I made him one. My deal: “I’ll work for free for three months. If you don’t think I can do the job, we shake hands and I leave.” He accepted my counter. Only ignorance and persistence would convince me that my new “salary free” job was the best thing that had happened to me over the past year. I went on to work for Ben four times at their different agencies in NYC over the years. Ben didn’t believe in junior copywriters, “who the hell wants a junior copywriter working on their business.” So I learned how to do everything from the get go. Never said “no” to an assignment, regardless of my knowledge, skill or lack of experience. Consequently, I got to do everything and built a book and burnished my talents beyond any junior writer ever could.
Dumb Luck: the serendipity of success.
Show me someone in this business who says that their success all worked out according to a plan and I’ll show you a lying fool.
Serendipity, luck, chance, coincidence….plain dumb luck played a tremendous role in my success. And I think many others. Of course, you’ve got to be prepared to answer the call when it comes, show up with the ideas when you’re given the shot, but the opportunity isn’t always something you make happen, often it just happens to you. Like a bolt out of the blue. I always strove to be ready. Put myself in the right position. But luck always played a major role.
One of my early copy chiefs left for a new CD job and started feeding me a steady stream of freelance “moonlight work,” sometimes it felt like all of his work. Then one day, I called to check on something to find out he’d been fired for, wait for it, giving all of his work out to a freelancer—me. The agency owner asked to meet with me and eventually offered me the CD job and an equity position at the agency. Lucky is being a 29-year-old creative director, with a Mustang company car and owner of a NYC agency. Luck happens all the time. The largest client win we’ve ever had at my current agency, Roberts, didn’t happen without a lot of luck. We went to a trade event ostensibly to sell a dynamic print-on-demand solution for health insurance collateral. Instead we wound up meeting a prospect who was also looking to hire an AOR. We set a follow-up meeting, and her boss entered the room thinking he was meeting another agency with a similar name. Fast forward through six months of meetings and pitches and we’re awarded a $14M national level account.
That’s what I’ve learned so far about this business. I’ll keep you posted on what’s next.