I was offered my first job in advertising apparently because of my experience as a senior officer with a large insurance company and a subsequent stint as VP with a national management consulting group. I looked good on paper. The ad agency that hired me assumed that I would be able to relate to their larger clients at a lofty level and have heady discussions about strategy, consumer trends and market dynamics. Worked for me. But instead of writing positioning papers and branding strategies, the demands of the client had me following up endless transactional tasks.
My first client assignment threw me into the deep end of the pool with a large bank. At any given time, the account would have forty-plus open jobs, including radio and TV spots, direct mail, sales meetings, brochures, branch signage, trade shows, etc. Making matters more complicated, I was working with a dozen different client department heads—different levels of experience and responsibility—and different temperaments. It seemed many of these people didn’t know what they wanted or what they were looking for. Others didn’t seem to know how to manage a budget. My days weren’t spent writing strategies for new product launches. They were spent making sure the printers got the quantities right and that production studios got the TV and radio spots to the stations in time. Everything was a last minute rush because the clients seemed so disorganized. Was this going to be my life with all my clients?
Well—over time, somehow my clients got better. Must have been all those books that Trout, Solomon and Wunderman were writing. But it didn’t matter how. Clients were just getting smarter and easier to work with.
Pause—now flash back to 1966. As a young 19-year old, I was fortunate enough to be offered an all-expense paid, outdoor adventure trip—to Viet Nam. Lucky me. My good fortune included paid travel, meals and accommodations. Those were formative years for me and no doubt the experience either aged or matured me. Whatever. Anyway, at the end of my two-year sabbatical, I was looking forward to once again getting together with old friends and good times. Coming home was going to be the best time I ever had. Didn’t work out that way though. Old friends had changed. We didn’t seem to have the same focus, the same interests. We were on different pages now. Then the epiphany! It wasn’t my old friends who had changed—I changed.
Now—fast forward ahead a couple decades or so. I had arrived at my second epiphany. The bad clients didn’t go away. Actually, they were never that bad—I just got better at asking the right questions…and much better at listening. I also learned that I didn’t have to know the solution to every problem. I just needed to know whom to ask or where to look for a solution. I gained some self confidence and learned to calm myself down. And low and behold, the clients got calmer.
By now having worked for several ad agencies, with dozens of clients, in every medium we could think of, I learned a ton from some great bosses and from making a bunch of mistakes. Things started to click for me.
As I have previously written: If I happen to do something particularly well, or even competently, it’s because somewhere along the line, I did it badly and saw the consequences. If I happen to be really good at something, it’s because at some point I really screwed something up and now fully understood how bad things can get.
Point is: If you just give yourself some time and aging, the whole thing doesn’t just get easier—it gets to be more fun. Works for wine!