Article: What I Wish Someone Had Told Me

Almost everything I write here fits under "What I wish someone had told me." So I was extra excited to come across this article by my old boss's boss (I mentioned him earlier this week) whom I respect and adore. As usual, I bolded my fav parts.
What I Wish Someone Had Told Me
From The Ad Buzz

Mat Zucker is Chief Creative Officer of OgilvyOne Worldwide, New York and advertising correspondent for The Faster Times. Winner of a clutch of industry awards from Clio and Caples to Effie and One Show, he’s among the earliest ad creatives who started working in digital, creating the earliest brand web experiences, e-commerce plays and podcasting. You can follow him on Twitter: @matzucker.


by Mat Zucker
I might sound like an alta cocker (Yiddish for old man), but since January when I had two interns in to shadow me, I’ve been musing over what I’ve learned since I started 18 years ago as a creative assistant. Of course, I believe you should make your own choices, find your own path and that all experience is cumulative — there are really no mistakes to make and you’re silly if you try to over plan. But here are six things I wish I had known, which would have at least saved me some effort and anguish:


It’s acceptable in your first 2-3 years if your personal portfolio or ‘book’ has mostly spec, or un-produced ideas. In fact, my book the first three years in the business had mostly original spec from my first job search out of college plus radio and coupon ads produced in my first year as a junior copywriter (Today’s equivalent assignments would probably be online ads and email). One coupon ad was for Rayovac Renewable Batteries. The headline in greedy 1990s-speak: “Why pay for new batteries when you can just charge them?” Slowly, I started to replace the fun, fake work with produced good work. A funny campaign for Stella D’oro Baked Goods. A tasty radio/web campaign for Nabisco Cream of Wheat. The rule of thumb I’ve followed since is: Produce at least one solid piece or campaign each year and one standout thing with award-winning potential every other. You need to demonstrate you’re a working creative whose clients will buy his ideas and can get work in market. It’s harder than you think to produce work. Sometimes the best creatives are regularly tapped as the ‘outsider team’ for zany ideas or consistently assigned to new business pitches. The agency benefits in showing off bold, but the creatives have to worry if any of their work sees light of day. I try to keep an eye on our talent and ask what they’ve produced over the last year. The onus, however, is on them to raise a flag with me or their supervisor if they haven’t. We already know what you now do: Your book is your career.

You might think you only want to work on Nike, Doritos, Mercedes and Axe, and that’s a natural instinct since they’re known and lovable. But a lot of seemingly cool brands (I won’t name names) are actually quite painful to work on; the bright attraction of their brand blinds you to the disappointing reality. Many have famously difficult client organizations, and you can go months — or forever —without producing any work (see above: “You Are What You Produce”). Great work has been executed for them and you should wonder if you want to be the one who creates the second or third best work for it? My resume is more of a smart brand vs. cool brand history. In my first job in advertising, I did ads for Nabisco Cream of Wheat and EggBeaters, while my buddies across the hall got Nabisco Oreo and Chips Ahoy!. I worked in New York on AT&T while our San Francisco office got to do Levi’s. What I have learned though is that trying to make “regular” brands more compelling is a respectable creative challenge and one to which I wish more top creatives were attracted. Reality check: It’s tough to win Cannes Lions with serious business-to-business client, but there’s also an inside secret that a lot of heavy-lifting clients pay agencies better for this tougher work and thus, the salaries for folks who work on their brands can be higher. Mix it up between fun and serious brands to show you’re not a light weight. I wish I had.

Sure, it’s an idea business, but it’s also a craft business. If you’re a copywriter, your craft is how you persuade — from headline to punctuation. If you’re art director, it’s both the dramatic style you choose and the seeming minutae of layout. If you’re an account person, it could be endless decks that sell the strategy. I believe every one in every role would benefit from learning about typography. Our choice in and use of type, after all, shapes the first impression on nearly anything — a slide, a site, an ad, an app— we show. Why turn people off in the first few seconds if you can turn them on? I admittedly ignored type for too long. As a copywriter at big agencies, my design sensibility had never been great. I realized I’d never be a great creative director if I didn’t improve my taste and know how to operate beyond perfect and lovely Helvetica. So I quit my job at the big agency for a creative director job at a design-driven web shop. They would learn from me about advertising and ideas, and I would glean from them design and craft. The gamble worked. Instantly, I was surrounded by top designers and an appreciation of things like type, grid, layout — and yes, I got better fast. You should too.

When I started out in 1992 as a creative assistant then junior copywriter, I didn’t understand the value of awards. I certainly didn’t chase them down, or try to do work to win them. I was happy to simply satisfy my creative director and the client and hopefully get my work in market so my mom would see it. I would win a few along the way, but nothing earth shattering. Other creative teams, however, totally believed in them, and they would go on to win many of the big ones and benefit from both the caliber of the work and the rewards. I think back to then, and I’m jealous I didn’t take them more seriously and be a better student of them. Awards such as the One Show and Cannes Lions help the industry benchmark what great looks like and they have become increasingly important in the business. Many respected clients go to the Cannes Festvial and there are studies and proof that creativity and effectiveness are interlinked. So unless you’re a complete idiot or conscious-less douche, you don’t have to worry about compromising the client, and you’ll probably make better work. Plus, be selfish: you’re adding some insurance to your career; as you get older, awards are part of a measure of the quality of your experience, not just the length of tenure.

On some level, I think I always knew this as a copywriter, but it’s true for anyone who wants to succeed: do great work and be respected as an expert. You want to not merely read the brief handed to you, but devour the original source material about your client’s products, attend the focus groups, comb the product background, scour the client’s annual report, find articles in BusinessWeek, and even read analyst reports. Traditional copywriters used to do this; they would walk the factory floor, talk to customers, get involved in everything. Nowadays, I see too many creatives who expect others to pull the material and explain everything to them. I’m not saying don’t tap all the people who can help you. I love good planners, for example, because they help me translate the knowledge at hand into insights I can use. I love great account people because they can help me see the forest for the trees. But don’t be lazy and stay at surface level and rely on everyone else. Clients notice and remember who truly knows their business down to the widgets they produce and the number of factories they have in which countries. Your judgment as a creative and future creative director gets stronger and we trust you more if you do. And when you get in really deep, I’ve found it’s easier to swing very, very big.

I had no idea that some of the first people I would work with I would work again with three jobs from then. One brilliant strategy person became my client ten years later and a very senior account person helped me find work when I was unemployed (she said it was because I always knew my material cold — see #5 above). I’ve worked with many of the same art directors and copywriters and hired several again and again, and of course, several became life-long friends. I’ve also found the schmucks and losers usually remain so. That’s good to know so you can stay away from them.