The Hack - by Luke Sullivan
Yes, clients can misbehave. Thank God, most of them don't. And to account for all that awful work you see on TV every night, those bad clients must have a few friends in the business. They do. Like everything else in life, America's list of agencies makes up a big bell curve. There are a few truly great agencies, then a whole bunch of agencies that are just okay, and then a few bad ones.
To get off to the right start in this business, you're going to need to know how to spot those bad agencies. And it's not as easy as you think. Just because an agency has a few commercials in the latest awards annual doesn't mean you want to work there. What you've got to do is, during your interviews, look for The Hack. (Let's call him Hallway Beast (There are others in the menagerie.) The first warning sign that you're in the presence of a Hack is that he'll somehow bring up his One Good Ad From Way Back. He won't call it that. In fact, he'll show it to you and say something like, "This is the kind of work we do here." That's when you notice the ad is on brittle, yellowing paper from a magazine like Collier's.
All Hacks have one of these ads. They made their name on it. They've been riding its tired, old back for decades and look about as silly doing it as Adam West now looks in his old Batman suit. It can be a great ad. Doesn't matter. Ask yourself, what else have they done? Talented people with a gift for advertising keep doing great work, time and again, for a variety of clients. Another warning sign that should send your Hack-O-Meter into the red is how they talk. And how they do talk. In fact, talk is all a Hack can do, being incapable as he is of producing an ad that a fly won't lay eggs on. He'll know the buzzwords. And worse, he'll have a few of his own." At this agency, we believe in advertising with Clutter-Busting(r) Power." If you hear something like this, just drop your portfolio and run. You can put together another book. Just run. Don't risk the elevator. Go for the stairs.
Agencies are the way they are for a reason. It's no accident they're doing awful work. They have clients on one side asking for awful work, Hacks on the other side giving it to them, and a guy in the middle counting all the money. Talk is cheap. Especially talk about how "We're going to turn this place around." If you hear this phrase, you should turn around. Again, go for the stairs. The quintessential giveaway, however, is the creative director who denigrates creativity in general and awards shows in particular. This was the kid in the playground who didn't have a big red ball and so he told the other kids, "Big red balls are stupid." He can't do it. So, of course, he's going to denigrate it. Some of these guys kill ideas simply because they're unable to generate ideas of their own. In fact, to kill what you've come up with actually seems like an idea to them. They'll go: "Hey wait! Shhhhh! . . . I have an idea! Let's not do your idea!" Their ideas are like anti-matter. They don't really exist until yours does and when they meet, they're both gone in an instant. In an interview, this guy will look you straight in the eye and say, "Creativity is overrated. Client sales is what we're all about." He'll get out a case history. Show you some commercials he'll call "hard working" and then tap his finger on a number at the bottom of the results page. "This, my little friend, is what we do."
Someday I'd like to try an experiment. It will cost $40 million. I'll give a fifth-grader a brand name and tell him to shoot a commercial. Whatever he comes up with, I'll spend the rest of the $39-some million airing on prime time. In a couple of months, I'll bet Little Jimmy can take off his baseball glove and tap his finger on a similar sales increase. The point is, with a two-ton sledgehammer even a fifth-grader can ring the bell at the top. (I suspect Mr. Whipple's war chest of several trillion had something to do with his high recall scores.) In 1981, Fallon McElligott Rice opened its doors, running a house ad with the headline: "A new advertising agency for companies that would rather outsmart the competition than outspend them."
And that's exactly what they did. They created inexpensive, highly creative commercials that outshone and outperformed many of Madison Avenue's high-dollar clients. My boss, Pat Fallon, said, "Some of us call the right execution 'creative leverage.' It carries the message effectively and is a cost-effective tool when budget does not allow omnipresent 'media leverage.' Disciplined creativity is often, as Ed McCabe said years ago, the last remaining legal means you have to gain an unfair advantage over the competition." Compare that quotation from the chairman of Fallon McElligott with this quotation from Chairman Hack. I can't print this man's name, but to a national trade magazine he said blithely and without shame, "Sheer repetition can build awareness and equity for a client even if an ad is not considered creatively brilliant. A dumb dollar beats a smart dime any day." "Sheer repetition?" If I were this guy's client, I'd take my dumb dollar over to an agency that can give me ten times the wallop with a dime's worth of sheer brilliance.
Hacks get easier to spot as they feed and prosper. In their mature years, they sprout long titles, some growing up to ten inches in length. Recently, I saw a picture of a Hack in Adweek, and below it, this title: "Executive Vice-President/Vice Chairman/Chief Creative Director North America/General Manager/Worldwide Coordinator." I'm not kidding -- word for word. Agencies may keep them on, sort of as expensive hood ornaments. They'll trot them out at big pitches, but during the rest of the year they'll give them what I call a "Nerf account" -- something they can bat around without hurting themselves or anybody else. They are well-known, as one wag put it, chiefly for being well-known.
o o o o o o o o o
"Humorists have always made trouble pay," said E.B.White. The brutal truth is that people don't slow down to look at the highway, they slow down to look at the highway accident. Maybe we're ashamed to admit that, but it is riveting -- trouble and conflict always are. The thing to remember about trouble and conflict in a commercial is this: as long as your client's product is ultimately portrayed in a positive light or is seen to solve a customer problem, the net take-away is positive.
o o o o o o o o o
Clients are about their logos like guys are about their . . . you know. They love talking about them. They love to look at them. They want you to look at them. They think the bigger they are, the more effective they are. And they try to sneak looks at other guy's logos when they can. But as any woman will tell you, nobody cares.
o o o o o o o o o
Where is it written that large logos increase sales? When introducing yourself, do you say your name in a booming voice? "Hi, my name is Bob Johnson!" Do the large bottles of Coke with bigger logos sell faster than the cans? Are your business cards the size of welcome mats? If cattlemen heated immense brands and seared the entire sides of cows, would fewer be rustled?
o o o o o o o o o
Agencies are the way they are for a reason. It's no accident they're doing awful work. They have clients on one side asking for awful work, Hacks on the other side giving it to them, and a guy in the middle counting all the money.
o o o o o o o o o o