June 29, 2009

You reap what you sow--the advertising version

A recent post at the brilliantly written Jake's Take raised the question: How do you treat your one-off clients? And, really, this applies to advertising and everything. Just how do you treat people you'll never see again... or think you'll never see again? How do you treat people a few extra steps down the totem pole?

It reminded me of a client I had eons and eons ago.

I was a junior at what George Parker calls a BDA (or Big Dumb Agency, for the uninitiated). One of our biggest, and most profitable, clients hired a consultant to take on a bulk load of work and interact with us peons at the agency.

And what a bulk load of work he was.

He berated the client service group. He asked routinely if the writers were on drugs. He criticized concepts in the most ungraceful terms imaginable. I remember presenting to him once--two juniors with the jitters but 2 days' worth of practice--only to watch him take apart and put together his Bic pen, over and over, lining up the pieces along the desk. He didn't look at us once.

It was infuriating. He was so mean. I don't know if he was trying to prove something or if it was part and parcel of his personality, but the agency put on a big smile and took it. And it hurt.

Fast forward years later, and I'm the only English writer at a teenie, tiny agency with small clients and smaller budgets. And what do I hear in the kitchen but the consultant's name. We were looking for a department head, and he'd come in the evening before for an interview. To be my BOSS.

So I got up from my desk, went into the kitchen, and explained the Bic story.

Last I heard, he was trying to sell chocolates online, writing long, loving emails to everyone he knew in an attempt at sales.

Advertising is like life, and I think a lot of people tend to forget that bold, brash, backstabing, and bullshitting aren't prerequisites for an advertising job. In fact, in advertising as in life, you get out what you put in. Kindness is free, but it reaps rewards that are truly priceless.

To those who bully their way to the top, remember the advertising adage: Be careful who you step on when you climb up that ladder, cause you may be needing them when you climb back down.


  1. Teenie, I'm blushing...thank you. And your riff on the theme is an excellent one. What goes around doesn't always come around, but when it does, it is pure sweetness.

    When I was sophomore editor at my first job, the editor was replaced with a complete micromanaging tool from the New York clique--I survived only another few months before ejecting.

    Nearly a decade later, now on the other side of the country, I got a call from a good friend at a local magazine asking if I'd crossed paths with this guy during my East Coast years. Mr. Micromanager had just applied for a job! As with your Bic story, I didn't even need to be vindictive--a brief truth sufficed.

  2. I guess there is a parallel to this moral. I like hearing stories of people that were nice and good at a small job, then years later you see they worked their way up to a senior position. In sales I have always treated the receptionist like a manager. You never know who is going to earn a shot to step up the corporate ladder. I think good companies foster this idea.

  3. Jake: No need to blush--it's simply the truth! I think the advertising world needs to be reminded that humility (and truth!) go a lot farther, in the end, than bullying and puffed chests. I've chosen the small agency route and don't think I'll ever go back to the BDAs again...

    jeaves: You're absolutely right! I remember reading about one receptionist who would chit-chat with clients in the waiting area, then whisper any of the clients' personal updates to her boss just before letting the client in to see him. It let the boss start off on a nice, personal note with everyone he met. The receptionist literally had her boss' ear--and people would be best to treat her kindly if they wanted to be taken seriously.