George Tannenbaum's 60 Thoughts From a Career in Advertising
Just four years ago, when I was 56, I lost my ECD job at a prestigious digital agency. Fifty-six, in advertising and out of work is not a great place to be. I had legitimate fears that I would never work again. Who wouldn’t have fears like that?
A lot of my friends, almost universally wise people, advised me to take ten or 12 or even 15 years off my resume. To pretend, in other words, that I was in my early 40s, not my late 50s.
So, I thought about lopping off Lowe. Ridding myself of Rosenfeld. And axing Ally. Crossing out agencies that were storied in their day, but unknown now. But then I reconsidered.
I learned a lot at those joints. Worked for four Advertising Hall-of-Famers. Gold Lion-winners. And so on. Those places, my collective experiences, made me who I am. Why should I try to pass as someone I’m not?
That might have been arrogant on my part—against logic, embracing my age rather than fleeing from it, when age is a stigma in advertising today.
But f*** it.
As Popeye said, “I yam what I yam.”
Not long ago, I was asked to give a talk about advertising. They gave me no topic. So I did what you do in those situations. You talk about what you know.
So, here are 60 things I’ve learned in my 60 years.
In no particular order, with little elaboration:
1. Rewrite everything you write. Even emails. People are continuously forming impressions of you, and dumb spelling mistakes, or mistakes of anger can cost you.
2. Be nice to everyone. This is one of those kindergarten lessons that people forget along the way. It takes just a little bit of time and it makes everyone feel better, especially yourself.
3. Get in early. I’ve never been a creative who thinks it’s ok to come in at 10:47. Take the job as serious and as regular as the person who carries a lunch box to work.
4. Be a grown up. It’s a young person’s business. But it needs mature people to keep the trains running on time.
5. Learn advertising history. Not just what’s winning awards today. But the foundational work of our industry. An English scholar knows Shakespeare. A film buff knows Citizen Kane. We should know our Ogilvy, Gossage, Bernbach—even Rosser Reeves.
6. Press the send button. Don’t perseverate over work. Get it to where you like it. Don’t overthink it. Send it off. There will be plenty of time to noodle with it.
7. Don’t spend money on foolish things. It’s hard to save enough money for retirement. Buying canvas sneakers for $140 won’t help matters.
8. Thank people. For their time, for their insights, for their opinions, for helping. It costs very little and it’s the right thing to do.
9. Give credit for good work. It takes a village. And even if you’re the senior member of the team, be sure to generously acknowledge all contributors.
10. Stay current on the industry. Know who’s hot, who’s winning accounts, who’s pitching. Follow the industry like sports fans follow sports.
11. Forget about ‘creating a brand for yourself.’ Instead focus on being a good person, doing good work, and showing up on time. Your brand will follow.
12. Also forget about trying to get on one of those 40 under 40 lists, or rising young women in marketing. Stick, instead to your knitting. Accolades will follow.
13. Always be working on your book. Especially if you’re not in the creative department. A book is a presentation of your best work, what you’re proudest of. You should always be working on it, always making it better.
14. Always have your book ready. As in any business, s*** happens. If your book is up-to-date, you’ll be ready when it does.
15. Have heroes. People whose work you admire. Try to emulate them. At least until you have your own style.
16. Always do good work. This needs no explanation, but a lot of struggle.
17. Be stubborn. Don’t be an ass, but stick to your guns. There are a lot of things—compromises that get it the way of good work. Don’t succumb to them.
18. When you have to, compromise on the little things. They’ll give you permission to be stubborn on the big things.
19. Don’t be afraid to be funny. We work hard, we’re always under pressure and everyone likes to laugh, especially when things are stressful. Your sense of humor is a sign of strength and wisdom. You can see a bigger picture.
20. Do things for yourself. When life in advertising is too much with you—this can happen on a weekly basis—it’s nice to have something else that nourishes your soul.
21. To that end, have a soul. That is care about things, about people, about yourself.
22. You will get fired, make sure to thank those who fire you. Be gracious to everyone, even if you’re getting screwed. Getting fired is a great chance to find something better.
23. Remember how small this business is. I read once that the entire population of ad people wouldn’t fill the University of Michigan’s football stadium. Be nice to everyone, send thank you notes, do favors.
24. Write a blog. Make it about something you know, and write regularly. It’s the best way to put yourself in front of people without being a nudge.
25. Be a tough competitor. Do work that sets the standard. Try to win every assignment. It keeps your mind alive and keeps you relevant.
26. But don’t be a bastard about it. Eschew politics, politicking and brown-nosing. Win on quality not on bullshitting.
27. Cultivate your curiosity. Go to museums, read books, be constantly learning about things that move and motivate people. And things that make people laugh.
28. Avoid jargon. Nothing says you’re a bullshitter more than using language that’s designed to obscure, not clarify. Speak in plain-English.
29. Admit when you don’t understand something. Chances are you aren’t alone, and everyone needs further explanation. You just happen to be brave enough to ask.
30. Ask for examples. When someone starts trumpeting a new media, new technique or new breakthrough, ask them to show you an instance in which it worked. It’s an easy way to find out who’s real and who’s bluffing.
31. Avoid the craft table at shoots. If you have a busy year, you’re sure to gain ten pounds.
32. Learn everything you can about your clients’ business. You’d be surprised what’s sometimes hidden in annual reports. Also, read the Wall Street Journal and the Times. They’re the best in the world at what they do.
33. Demand good briefs, but don’t wait for them. That is be thinking all the time about doing great work and what would make a good communication.
34. Raise your hand. Always be up for an assignment. You never know when a small crappy assignment can turn big and important.
35. Take young people to lunch. It will make their day. It’s a small thing that could really help encourage people.
36. Always over-deliver. Treat every assignment like an important assignment.
37. Say hello to people you don’t know and smile. A friendly place is a better place to work. If some is lost show them the way. Hold elevator doors open.
38. Take a 20 minute walk at lunchtime. You’ll feel healthier and your mind will be clearer.
39. Leave your work, then come back to it. It’s the best way to come at something with a clearer set of eyes.
40. Leave your cellphone on your desk when you’re meeting with teams to go over work. Concentrate on the work, not on the next thing you have to do, or some flaming crisis.
41. Wash windows. That is, do the work no one else wants to do. Sometimes they’re the best assignments.
42. Work in every channel. Learn new channels as they come along—don’t just stick with what you know.
43. Hire people who don’t look like you. So we don’t have a business that looks like business looked forty years ago.
44. Sit with young people who ask for help. Doing so not only helps them, it also helps you.
45. Let people present their own work. Make them present to you in preliminary rounds. Their arguments will grow strong this way and their work will improve.
46. Treat your clients’ money as if it’s your own. I have nothing against paying for a great director, or staying at a nice hotel when you’re shooting. But make sure when you do spend money it’s in the interest of doing better work.
47. Apologize. When you make mistakes, which we all do, admit them, correct your behavior and seek forgiveness.
48. Don’t point fingers. Never blame anyone else. It looks petty and it doesn’t help matters.
49. Be durable. Woody Allen said 80% of success is showing up. In an agency, it might be more like 90%.
50. Don’t be afraid of making a move. When it’s time to move on, do it. If you make a mistake, you can always rectify it with another move.
51. See things through. Be the one that makes sure the work is done, that every t is crossed and every i is dotted. Be the one people lean on.
52. Treat customers how you like to be treated. David Ogilvy said it this way, ‘the consumer is not a moron; she is your wife. If you don’t like dumb ads, why would your customers?
53. Remember that tastes change, people really don’t. The fundamentals of a strong communication haven’t really changed since Homer was writing the Iliad and Odyssey.
54. Ask to see the data. Next time you hear an advertising homily like “Something is dead,” or “something is the future,” politely ask for the evidence. A lot of charlatans have made names for themselves with completely unfounded assertions.
55. Understand that the science of advertising is important, but so is your gut. After all, advertising is part science and part art. Too much head is no good without the right amount of heart.
56. Figure out what you’re best at and keep getting better at it. The surest way to keep working is to be better than anyone else at something that needs doing.
57. Make friends with planners. They’re usually the smartest people in the room and can help you do better work.
58. Make friends with account people. They’re good to have on your side and have a knack for selling good work.
59. Work for people you like. And respect. People who are trusting, tasteful and smart. Work is a lot easier this way and a lot more fun.
60. Doubt is better than certainty. In other words, I think most of this makes sense, and is borne out of experience. On the other hand, it might just be crap.