Or, How I Got Over My Biggism And Learned To Love Challengers.
When I first started in this business, I was a full-on Biggist.
Biggism, like bigamy, is predicated on the absurd but popular notion that more is always better.
This is the story of how I recovered. It’s not about how I’ve come to worship small, but rather how I’ve learned to love and respect the challenger—and learned to enjoy kicking the big guy’s butt even more.
In 1987, when I was looking for my first advertising job, I didn’t know a thing about the business of advertising that any member of a TV audience wouldn’t have known. I’d been a musician, studied political science, psychology, philosophy, economics, and had watched a lot of TV. The one paper I’d written on an ad campaign—Saab’s “The Smartest Car Ever Built”—earned me a B-minus in a subject I’d regularly aced.
So, when Career Development told me I was an ad guy, I wanted to know one thing, “Who’s the biggest?”
I ended up with a list of big, old agencies—BBDO. FCB. Ogilvy. DDB, Y&R, Grey. I sent personalized letters, got back form letters. “We’ll be sure to call you when a job opens up.” Eighteen years later, still no calls!
A friend of mine had gotten a job at Ogilvy through family connections, and he got me an interview. I sat at one end of a long conference table, the interviewer sat at the other end. It was like a scene from Network. I was too disoriented to be intimidated. Perhaps this is why I got the job offer. I accepted, of course. But sadly, I was laid off the Friday before I was to start.
“Hiring freeze,” said Chuck, the guy who’d hired me. He felt bad, he said, so he referred me to a friend at BBDO Direct, an agency that was both big and old, and I was hired for the same position there. Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborn were long dead. All that was left of them was their initials. I had been interviewed by a nervous man, who’d referred me to a desperate-seeming guy, who’d referred me to a loud woman, who’d hired me. But I wanted to work for David Ogilvy, the man, not the company. The guy who had sold Aga Cookers door-to-door in the English countryside and wrote a classic sales guide on the side, the former assistant chef at the Majestic in Paris, the failed Amish Country farmer and successful Gallup pollster, the author of Confessions of an Advertising Man, Ogilvy on Advertising, and Blood Brains & Beer, who had started in the ad business at thirty-eight years old, become a creative hero, then a business hero, had publicly chosen his clients before he had them, then had gone out and gotten hired by every one of them.
Needless to say, I was extremely grateful for the job at BBDO Direct. It was a start.
If you aim to compete with the gods, as Ogilvy would say, you are bound to at least do something interesting. As a BBDO assistant account exec, I challenged everything that is holy in the ad biz by writing and presenting my own ads to the client. Instead of striking for my immediate termination, the creative department offered me a position as Junior Copywriter. “But you won’t be able to tell us what to do anymore.”
I accepted and had the good luck to be adopted by a talented and principled writer who had been at Mullen in Wenham, Mass.
New York biggism at the time made Eileen’s experience outside of The City virtually worthless at “general” agencies. This was good luck for me because Eileen Healy Carlsen was too good for this particularly scrappy division of BBDO.
I loved hearing Eileen talk about Mullen, the challenger, an agency in a house, not an office building, with one bathroom shared by the men and the one or two women who worked there at the time. She had that look in the eye I’ve come to recognize in people who are talking about “the best place I ever worked.”
Still, it didn’t occur to me that I could actually work for a place like that. Not in New York. I kept in touch with my contact at Ogilvy. Three months later, he offered me a job as Account Executive. I turned him down. He said, “You’re making the biggest mistake of your career.” I said, “Maybe so. It’s been a pretty short career so far.”
He was wrong. The biggest mistakes of my career were to come.
For the next five or six years, I worked for and with the big, the bad and the reasonably competent. I could give you the alphabet soup of initials, but let’s just say I got to experience most of the worst end of the alphabet, and one day found myself working in a place where enthusiasm goes to die. I had a great title, I made good money, and my clients’ names were prestigious. Only problem was I hated it to the depths of what was left of my soul. MBA jargon passed as fresh ideas. Caution wore briefs and masqueraded as advertising strategy. No one was ever stabbed in the front. It was just my perception, but to me it looked and felt like a mausoleum were the corpses went home at night.
But there was an agency in town I respected. The founders were young and brash and smart and they shared my sense of humor. I called Richard Kirshenbaum and told him I wanted to work with him. “What’s your goal?” he asked. “I want to learn,” was my reply. I started out freelancing two days a week. A week in, I was summoned to Jon Bond’s office for a conference call with Roger Ailes, currently chairman of Fox News Channel, who was then the Chairman of CNBC.
“We’re launching a new television network (currently MSNBC) and we’ve done some TV commercials for the launch. I’ve FedEx’ed them to you. Did you get the tape?”
“We did,” said Bond, “and we just watched them.”
“What do you think of them?” Ailes asked.
“They suck!” Jon and Richard answered in unison.
Toto, we’re not at JWT anymore!
“That’s what I think too,” Ailes agreed. “Do you think you could come up with something better?”
“Absolutely,” said Bond, and handed me my first account (America’s Talking and CNBC) as creative director at K&B.
Suddenly, I was producing an aggressive, successful, award-winning campaign and directing Ailes, Chris Matthews and others for on-air spots. Every meeting was about one thing—taking on the big guys and winning.
K&B was challenger central back then. Kenneth Cole, Snapple, Ailes, Coach...Bond, Kirshenbaum, Andy Spade, Bill Oberlander, Nigel Carr, Rosemary Ryan, Steve Klein…the larger than life personalities were everywhere, and I learned something from each of them. But the most important thing about being a challenger was contained in that first conference call. “They suck!” Being a challenger starts with the exhilaration of telling the truth.
IN PART 2, I’LL TELL YOU ABOUT STARTING MY OWN AGENCY NINE YEARS AGO, ABOUT OTHER CHALLENGERS I’VE LEARNED FROM, AND THE 15 THINGS THAT MAKE CHALLENGERS DIFFERENT (AND BETTER). YES, THERE WILL BE A LIST OF GUIDELINES. DAVID OGILVY WOULD BE PROUD ;-)