Neal Howard is not a shark; he’s more of a Killer Whale.
The first day of his class at The Portfolio Center, he moved among the students talking and laughing with us, regaling us with stories of working in advertising, telling us what he thought was great about advertising and what he thought was wrong with advertising. He showed examples of great work and poor work, and explained why he thought it did or didn’t work, but no matter what — he always seem to get a laugh out of us.
That way we never saw what was coming. That’s why he is a Killer Whale and not a shark.
You see, sharks always look dangerous to us. Just one look and you know what they are capable of and that you can be on the menu. When sharks show up, something is going to get eaten. Even if a shark isn’t going to eat something, it may bite it to make sure it isn’t on the menu.
Killer Whales are different.
They look all peaceful and fun with their black and white coloring and that permanent smile. But to everything in the oceans, there is nothing “peaceful” or “fun” about Killer Whales. Not only are they killing machines, they are “smart” killing machines — known for hunting prey even out of the water:
A seal on a huge chunk of ice. No problem. A group of Killer Whales will swim together, creating a massive wave to wash up over the ice and push the seal into the water and the mouth of a waiting Killer Whale.
Seal pups on the beach at the water’s edge. Not safe. A group of Killer Whales have learned to intentionally beach themselves to grab a seal pup and then work their way back into the water.
Heck, off the California coast, several have even learned that by turning Great White Sharks on their backs, the sharks will go into a trance like state, making them easier to eat.
It is a good thing humans aren’t on the Killer Whale’s list of possible prey.
Too bad no one told Neal Howard this. We had no idea how dangerous the waters were that we had just entered, but Neal’s next class session showed us just how in over our heads we were.
The first creative team to present that day stood proudly before us, work plastered on the wall, they had just finished presenting their campaign. Neal walked from the back of the class, weaving his way through the desks, smiling as he walked up to the work on the wall.
“Do you remember in the first class how I told you everything that I thought was wrong with advertising?” he asked.
We all said we did.
Turning to the creative team, the smile faded from his face as he said, “This represents everything I told you was wrong with advertising! Take this ‘human feces’ (not the words he used) off the wall and sit down.”
The team was stunned. The class was stunned. As they sulked back to their seats, he turned with that smile on his face and said, “next.”
The bloodletting continued for three horrible hours.
Oh, the carnage! No one was spared. Each evaluation was worse than the previous. That night concepts died screaming, horrible deaths. Young egos laid bleeding and dying all over that classroom. I don’t even remember our demise; it ended with him saying something about “making him want to puke blood.” I’m not sure; your mind has a way of blocking out extremely painful experiences like this.
The rest of the quarter pretty much went the same way — one big National Geographic show.
We kept presenting and he kept killing. It was amazing how proficient Neal was at this. I mean, he would zero in on a weakness in a concept and unravel the entire campaign with a slight tug. If a copywriter picked an overused word, he saw it. An art director selected a font without considering his/her layout, and he was on it in a flash. Nothing seemed to get by him — he could always spot the weakest execution in a campaign. He would dispatch it with a quick bite, putting it out of its misery.
Pity the poor team that dared to present work not backed by a strong idea or concept or didn’t show a clear insight into the target audience. It was horrible, simply horrible. His killing of our ideas was not indiscriminate or petty. He could see the weakness or flaw in our work, and that is what he was going after.
Near the end of the quarter something happened. Either he got softer in his attacks or we got tougher. There was less complaining and tears after class. One way or another, the work got better, we got better.
We learned to look at our own work with a critical eye. We stopped being in love with our brilliance and started sweating the details of our work. We asked harder questions of our own concepts before we ever got to class. We did more research into the clients, their products or services, and the people buying it.
We all survived Neal’s class. “Survived” is not the right word. We all “grew” in Neal’s class.
Throughout my career, there have been coworkers, supervisors, account service people, clients, and even a few janitors and mailroom folks who have been critical of my work. They haven’t cared about my feelings. They were not interested in leaving my esteem intact or being positive with me. All they cared about was what they liked or didn’t like about the work.
But no matter how harsh the criticism, none of it seems to measure up to what Neal Howard did to us. He made us stronger. He made us better.
It wasn’t until I was standing in front of agency folks presenting concepts did I realize what a benefit Neal was to us. The pettiness that can exist among us agency people is amazing to behold. I mean, it is like some Hollywood movie about high school cliques sometimes.
I wish I could tell those wanting to get into advertising that it is not so, but that would be a lie. The level of pettiness they will encounter can be daunting.
That is not to say that everyone is wrong. Often your work can be better, smarter, and more creative. Learn to listen, take in what they are saying, and see if they are correct. Be honest with yourself. Be honest about your work.
You need to toughen up. You need to get better. You need thicker skin. You need to make sure your work is tight.
Learn that not everyone is going to love you or your work, and that’s okay, ours is a subjective field. Concepts and ideas die every day for the oddest and sometimes the most illogical of reasons.
Criticism and rejection are parts of the job. If you don’t want your work critiqued or criticized, you may want to look for a job in another field.
Learn to differentiate the Killer Whales from the sharks in your career. The sharks are indiscriminate in their killing; the Killer Whales do so with a purpose. There is a method to what they are doing.
Whether or not you are going to be successful is dependent on how you handle criticism and rejection. Even when it is personal, don’t take it personally. Learn from it. Use it to grow. And understand that sometimes, people are pushing you to be better because you are capable of being better.
Derek Walker is the janitor, secretary and mailroom person for his tiny agency, brown and browner advertising, out of the big city of Columbia, S.C. He is on Twitter as @dereklwalker.
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