I’m sorry. I wasn’t listening.
Updated: Aug 1, 2021
One time I was working at an agency and as often happens, an emergency came up. In advertising an emergency can be anything from the client is freaking out to the building is currently on fire so as soon as you finish the script you’re working on you should leave immediately.
In this case the emergency was the need for an entirely new campaign within 24 hours. The creative team, which was made up of my CCO and the second highest ranking creative in the department, had been working on the assignment for months. The code had been declared cracked weeks ago. They were in the fine-tuning stages. Getting the campaign ready to be presented to the CEO and given its final green-light to go into production.
Now when you’re going through the exercise of developing a new campaign one of the things that can happen is that an idea can burn out while sitting on the launchpad. In other words, you come up with something everyone likes and totally buys. You spend weeks refining it so that people will buy into it even more. Then you spend a few more weeks refining what you’ve refined. And then, usually the day before the meeting, you get a call from a nervous CMO asking if you can bring in something new. You know, just so we can be sure that we still love what we’ve been saying we loved for the last 60 days.
Here’s what happens next. Someone like me, who works on a completely different piece of business that may or may not be having its own emergency, is called up by someone like the agency’s Managing Director and begged to help out. The begging part is crucial. There’s nothing a creative loves to hear more than being begged to help. “We really need you on this. I know it’s a huge ask. But please, for the good of the agency, we could really use your help. I know you’re slammed and I know I’m asking you to pull off a miracle here, but if you can help us in any way you’d be an absolute hero.”
That kind of groveling is music to a creative’s ears. We think to ourselves: Wow, they really do need me here. I actually have value. I’m vital. I’m gonna stay up all night if that’s what it takes to come through for these folks. I’m gonna be a hero!
And so that’s what you do. You drop everything. You put yourself in lockdown. You order pizza for the kids and tell them their iPads are all you can eat tonight. Daddy’s gotta work.
The emergency call almost always comes towards the end of the day. Which is kind of an oxymoron in advertising because there really is no end of the day. There’re just deadlines. And usually, by about midnight is when things start to open up creatively. A few hours later and it’s 3 a.m. I’ve got my campaign. First drafts are written. Manifestos are created. Extension ideas are sketched out. And exhaustion begins to kick in.
That’s when the second idea starts to become more interesting. And even though you’ve got what you need and you think it’s pretty damn good, you hit the Oreos to get some sugar in your system and plow through the second concept. By about 6 a.m. you’re pretty damn proud of yourself. Wow, this one’s maybe better than the first. I’m gonna not only be a hero, I’m gonna be a hero with multiple heroic options!
At this point, for health reasons, I recommend pencils down. Go to sleep. Even if it’s just for a few hours. All the Oreos in the world aren’t going to sugar you up enough for more work. The organism needs to rest or it will begin to rebel. Which is about the time you remember all the stuff you put on the back burner to go be a hero but promised you’d still have ready anyway. Shit. I think I hear the kids waking up.
The review for the new campaigns is at 5 pm. The body knows your work is killer. It begins to release mass amounts of adrenaline as the presentation time nears. You’re tired but you’re sitting on gold. This stuff is infinitely better than what they have. I can’t wait to show it. The Managing Director is going to be so grateful to me for my dedication. Heck, I could get a raise out of this! I could get promoted! If nothing else I’m gonna make a serious deposit into my internal respect account at the agency. And when lay-offs come, they’ll remember this.
Finally, you’re at the meeting. You’re appropriately bleary eyed and disheveled. Don’t try to clean yourself up. Go into that meeting looking like someone who’s just emerged from solitary confinement. Grateful to be out but not yet recovered from the physical and emotional torment.
When you present your work, the work that’s going to possibly replace what your boss has been working on for the last two months, don’t expect a lot of kudos. It doesn’t matter how good it is. They’re not going to do cartwheels over work that they couldn’t come up with. No creative likes to be the damsel in distress waiting for the cavalry to be called in.
But that’s okay. They’re not your audience. Your only advocate in this situation is going to be that Managing Director who turned on the bat signal. They’re the one who’s going to say, "This is exactly what we need to bring in with us tomorrow. Wow, man. You are amazing. How in the hell did you come up with this in such a short time? I’m so glad we have you. Here's my credit card."
Or this could happen.
You present your work with the last few ounces of strength you have left. The adrenaline drip was turned off hours ago. Now you’re running on sheer will. The CCO makes a few obligatory comments about the work. The second highest ranking creative reveals he’s on the same page as the CCO (naturally) but there’s some nice thinking here. And that’s when you get to watch the last card get turned over. It’s the Managing Director’s turn to chime in. The one who called you in a desperate panic begging for your assistance in this crucial time of need. The person who’s going to declare you a hero for coming through. The person you stayed up all night for and allowed your kids way too much screen time for. This is what makes the whole thing worthwhile. This is why I love advertising.
The entire room goes quiet. The Managing Director is cued by a mid-level AE.
"Michael, what do you think?"
The Managing Director looks up from his laptop and says, “I’m sorry. I wasn’t listening.”