Published March 30th, 2016
by Steven Clark

If you’ve missed parts one and two, this is the final part in a short series of posts I’m doing in which I steal content from Jerry Della Femina’s memoirs From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor, a book about Madison Avenue advertising agencies of the 60s and 70s, in order to justify my own opinions about modern Scottish digital agencies and pretend I’m clever.

In a chapter on creatives where Femina gets more specific about his experience as a mid to senior copywriter at a prominent and somewhat antiquated ad agency he describes the following scenario:

It really started to go to hell at Bates after my first creative review board meeting. One of the reasons that copywriters and art directors go crazy is creative review boards. … A lot of these guys, they have nothing to do and they sit there. They’re professional second-guessers, and they sit there and they want the chance to-review the creative product.”

The idea of a comprehensive review of a department or individual’s entire creative output over a set period of time by a large group of directors and senior staff is farcical and, luckily, is something that you aren’t likely to see in any Scottish digital agency today. What hasn’t changed though is the disconnect between directors, who schmooze, manage and sell, and those who do the day to day work.

He continues:

“One guy there, the Creative Director of the World – that was his title and it meant Creative Director of the Bates World – was making maybe $120,000. The other guys weighed in at $80,000 and $90,000, and there were a couple of lower-echelon guys able to grab off only $70,000 a year. … As I walked in, one guy had to be a wise guy and throw a line: ‘Well, have you got the crown of thorns ready for him?’ And they all laughed. Then I put the little tape recorder down on the table. They quit laughing and immediately all eyes just went to the thing. I said, ‘I’ve got my ads pinned up and like I said before if you have any questions about the quality or type of advertising I’ll be happy to answer anything you want. But before we do that I would like to turn on the tape recorder and record this session.’”

If I think back to the number of meetings, reviews, “little chats” and appraisals where it would have benefited me, in the long run, to have a recording of the discussion, it’s pretty much all of them. I could have had concrete proof that I protested maligned functional decisions that were forced on me after they inevitably backfired. I could have confronted a director after making unwarranted comments about my performance in front of other staff members instead of in private. Not to mention, these recordings would have provided hours and hours of entertainment.

What Femina did was one step ahead of me and my petty grievances, it wasn’t about accountability or exposing ineptitude, it was about intimidation:

“The Creative Director of the World said, ‘Will you hand it over, please?’ They really were quite disturbed. … Well, what’s the story here? Fear. Basically, these guys have never, never been on record before. The non-creative people who work in the creative department are so used to lying to themselves that they can write – these guys were afraid of the tape recorder.”

Intimidation is a valuable tool. Some directors rely on it to convince you you aren’t worth what the market says you are. Others use it to pressure staff into working to increasingly unrealistic and unfair deadlines. Femina, with nothing more than a tape recorder, was able to completely reverse this dynamic in seconds purely by threatening them with the potential of being held accountable for their own words coming out of their own mouths.

Directors nowadays don’t have such a tenuous grasp on their own jobs and abilities. The huge scale of the agency Femina describes is what caused such a vast gulf between them and their creatives. In my experience, smaller agencies rarely have this problem. Directors who have stood where you are now are more relatable, usually more passionate and forthcoming and the best people to learn from. That’s not to say that, over time, they don’t run the risk of developing this disconnect anyway.

I’m not about to suggest the solution to bridging this gap is to bug every meeting room or start secretly recording your bosses. Similarly, in everyday work, trying to intimidate directors or your colleagues isn’t going to make you any friends or do you any favours.

But there may come occasions where you feel you’re outnumbered or are being treated unfairly. When it comes to days like these, think of Femina and his tape recorder. It may be worth applying some of that creativity you utilise with your everyday work to your situation instead, and find innovative new ways of holding those who try to intimidate you accountable for their words and actions.

Note: This post originally appeared on the Habanero Digital blog meaning certain parts are probably weirdly self referential or talk about ongoing feuds that probably exist almost exclusively in the mind of the author.

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by Steven Clark

Steven is a designer/developer and wannabe intellectual with an obsessive personality and too much spare time. Don’t follow him on Twitter.

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