by John Pellegrini

They are the enemy, and they are our partner. They are the people we hate, and the people we're envious of. They are the people who wreck our jobs, and the people we'd love to work with. They are the Big Advertising Agencies, and if you think you've got problems with your job, listen to what they go through!

It all seemed innocent enough, the local advertising league sponsored a lunch with the guest speaker being the Creative Director from Leo Burnet, who is responsible for the famous "Can Your Beer Do This?" TV campaign for Miller Lite. Unfortunately, I've forgotten his name. I thought, "Hey, I like these spots and what the hell, it's a free lunch." So I attended his little seminar.

As it turned out, his speech wasn't about the creative process so much as it was about what it's like to work in a massive advertising agency. I didn't know this before, and I found the whole thing fascinating, if not downright eye-opening! For starters, when we say "massive advertising agency" we are talking about huge employee numbers. Leo Burnett employs 7,500 people worldwide, and the Chicago office (where this guy was from) employs over 3,000. It's the size of a small city, and it's all in one building.

I believe that the figure he mentioned was that there are over 400 Creative Directors in the Chicago office alone. And the process that these guys go through is staggering! He mentioned in his speech that previously he had worked at W. B. Donner in Detroit, a much smaller agency, for about four years. During that time he created and produced ten TV commercials that got on the air. THAT'S RIGHT, TEN!!!! IN FOUR YEARS!!!! I turned to the print exec sitting next to me and said, "My GOD! I do ten commercials in a day!" She looked at me like I was from Bosnia.

Our speaker continued. After leaving W. B. Donner and arriving at Leo Burnett, he remarked that he knew at least one Creative Director at Leo Burnett who had been with the company for over ten years and only had two commercials produced! I wanted to jump up and scream, "How the HELL do you guys make any money at this?!?!?...and who do I send my resume to?"

The reason for these lengthy dry spells of no spots getting done, my dear friends, is that we're talking about "Advertising By Committee." What happens, essentially, is this: A Creative Director or writer comes up with an idea for a client. They work out all the concepts and set up an initial sell. Then, the concept is presented before a committee of over one hundred people from every department at Leo Burnett (including the freaking accountants and bookkeepers for God's sake!) who then offer their opinions on it. From there, it is rewritten, revised, reupholstered and retreaded until everybody is either happy with it or totally hates it.

Of course, that's just getting it approved by the inner sanctum of the Agency. Then, there's getting it approved by the client (and their various committees) which can take weeks itself, followed by the testing. Yes, they take the commercial and put it in front of "test groups" and "focus groups" to see if it's going to "work" for the client. Why? Because the client is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on the commercials the agency produces. For that kind of money, they'll get an endorsement from the Vatican if they have to.

This process can take months, sometimes years. The "Can Your Beer Do This" campaign literally took two years to come together from the initial idea to the finished TV and radio spots! The creative guy said that the average amount of time from when he conceives the original idea until it goes into production is about eight months to a full year!

Can your radio station do this? Would you want it to? I came away from this speech with two observations. First, I have now gained a tremendous amount of respect for Agency Creative Directors. They put up with more stress, political bullcrap and rejection than we could ever imagine. Is it any wonder that so many Creative Directors are bailing out of the big agencies and starting their own specialty shops? The "Hired Gun" approach is becoming far more appealing to ad execs because they can then concentrate primarily on working with the client and not worry about pleasing everyone in research or sales.

The second observation I have is, THANK GOD I'M A LOWLIFE RADIO PRODUCTION DIRECTOR!! Yes, we do a lot of crap, and we have to take a lot of crap, and we're not paid like agency creatives are, but I'll take the immediate frustrations any day over having to wait months to find out if what I've done is any good. I'll take calling a client personally about their commercial over having my work dissected by one hundred antisocial bean counters and brain-dead office managers any day! I also love the fact that over ninety percent of what I create gets on the air in its original form! I love the fact that my work is respected enough that hardly anyone questions my ideas anymore. I love the fact that I can go home at six o'clock every night and that I only work five days a week.

Oh yeah, that's the other part I forgot to mention. Our guest speaker said that he usually goes home around ten p.m. every night (after arriving at nine a.m.) and definitely works on the weekends. Why? To handle all the corporate bullcrap that occurs. Less than twenty percent of his day involves actual work for a given client. Can you believe this? I kept asking myself, "What do these guys do for a living?" What do they do all day long?

He went into the details of getting the art department to cooperate, to hiring the right directors and making sure they cooperate with the concept. Apparently, everyone involved in the production of a commercial always manages to have a "brilliant idea that's better than the one that was approved," and so more meetings, discussions and presentations must be made to decide if this new concept is better than the one the client agreed to. Again, I looked like I had no jawbone at all while listening to this, as my mouth was hanging open. How do these guys make a living? How do they ever get anything done?!?!?

Then, the ultimate Coupe de Gras occurs when the commercial you thought of, struggled with, defended before the nay-sayers, presented by yourself with little support in front of the not too excited client, and finally produced, gets recognized for an award. That's when you come to find out that your boss got all the credit for it because it's his client and his name on the contract. Some day, they tell you in consolation, if you play the politics of the agency management structure correctly, they may make you a vice president too--but no promises. In the meantime, keep turning out ideas that will make your boss look good.

Perhaps not all advertising agencies are like this. In fact, the big ones are where most of this occurs. The smaller agencies still offer chances to get above frays like this, but then again, they don't pay as well, and they don't have anywhere near the budgets to produce commercials that the big ones have. Our speaker concluded that there are pros and cons to every kind of agency out there, and I would agree based on this story and the others that I've heard over the years from colleagues I have in the biz.

The point that I'm trying to make in all this, apart from don't ever work for an ad agency unless they promise you the universe for compensation, is...cut some slack for agencies. Yes, I used to be one who believed in bashing them. I used to be one who thought Ad Agency Creative Directors were morons. But the more I meet them and find out what they have to do and put up with, the more I know that my job ain't so bad. In fact, I know some agency creatives who'd give their right arms to have my job, but they couldn't do turnaround as fast as me. They probably couldn't take the pay cut either. Why do they want our jobs? Because of how fast we can get things done and approved, and how little our stuff gets rejected and the fact that we get credit for everything we do right away. When you think about it, that's not so bad.

Dennis Daniel hit upon some of this in his column last year in the March '96 issue of RAP. You have no idea how much red tape and non-creative garbage these Creative Directors have to deal with every day. Hopefully, what I've presented here will have you feeling better about what you do and what you have to go through in order to get your creative process completed. Yes, there is bigger money to be made, but in all cases, there is a larger price to be paid to make that money.

When you really sit down and look at the whole picture, we don't have it so bad after all! Is it worth it? Is there something better? Is this something better necessarily what you want? All fair questions that you should be asking yourself every time you consider moving on. One thing is certain, you never have it as bad as you think you do, and there's always someone who has it worse. It's a roundabout way of learning job appreciation, but nonetheless, it's something we all need to learn or remember from time to time.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have another meeting to attend.

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  • The R.A.P. Cassette - September 1993

    Commercial/Characters Voiceover demo from interview subject Ty Ford, plus promo and commercial work from WFNX/Boston, WDVE/Pittsburgh, WKLS/Atlanta,...