What I Learned in the Ad Biz, Part Three
Here’s a concept from the world of Mad Men that has served me (and saved me) many times over the years:
The idea of “new business.”
When I worked in the ad biz in New York many moons ago, we had to account for our hours every week on a time sheet. The creative department was divided into ten or twelve groups, each with four or five two-man teams—writer and art director—with a creative director as each group’s boss. A creative group might have four or five clients that it was responsible for. On your time sheet you’d see something like
Chase Manhattan Bank
Purina Dog Chow
U.S. Navy Recruitment
At the end of each week, you’d write in how many hours you spent on each client. Then there was a final row at the bottom of the sheet. It said
Almost once a month, the agency pitched some big prospective client. We’d go after Burger King or Seven-Up or Toyota, competing with other agencies who were trying to snag the same account. Somewhere between twenty and twenty-five percent of our time was spent coming up with Big Ideas for clients we were hoping to bring in.
There is great wisdom in this division of one’s working time.
I didn’t appreciate it in the moment, but later, working on my own in Hollywood or writing novels, this 20/80 dynamic became a fundamental component of the way I organized my hours, week to week.
The reason ad agencies put so much time into pitching new business is that they’re always losing old business. Clients get poached by other agencies, or they go out of business or get acquired by some bigger company who then takes them away. One way or another, an ad agency’s roster is always being depleted. If an agency were to rest on its laurels and take no aggressive action, within five years client attrition would kill it dead.
This is true for you and me too as artists and entrepreneurs—not just in the commercial sense of acquiring new sources of income, but in the artistic sense of exploring new ground and pushing ourselves into areas we wouldn’t normally go.
I first tried my hand at a screenplay in 1980—a total flyer that I never dreamed would accomplish anything. By 1985 I was a screenwriter full-time. In 1994 the idea came to me to write the book that would become The Legend of Bagger Vance. Within twelve months I was a full-time novelist.
What seems like the fringe one year can become the core of our creative lives the next.
Of course new business pitches rarely succeed. Ninety percent of the ones I participated in in the ad business failed. In books and movies, the percentage is about the same. But the process is tremendously energizing. It takes you off the defensive and puts you on offense. Offense always produces greater mojo, and it’s always more fun.
The other upside of pitching new business is it often pays off in byproducts. Three years ago I spent a small fortune making a video to promote Killing Rommel. The video didn’t do diddly in terms of selling the book, but out of it (indirectly and totally unexpectedly) came a movie option and a screenplay deal.
To this day, I hold to the 20/80 model that I first learned on Mad Ave. I do it differently though. The “new business” I pitch is new creative stuff—and the primary recipient is myself. I was in New Mexico this week. By chance I met an old friend and we started talking; we wound up making a handshake deal for my friend to write a book that Shawn and I will hopefully publish under Black Irish Books. That’s new business. Who knows where it will lead two years from now? When I get home (I’m writing this in the Albuquerque airport), I’ll be back to the 80% biz of my day job, writing my own books.
A few years ago I was going through a rough patch creatively and financially. I had decided to downsize and it was depressing the hell out of me. I happened to be talking to another old friend who had worked in advertising too. He said, “Steve, forget this ‘scaling back’ crap. Go for new business.”
He was absolutely right. I took a cold shower, slapped myself across the face, and plugged back into aggressive mode. New stuff! Work we never thought of before!
Even back in the caveman days, you and I knew we had to keep scouting out fresh hunting grounds. Old ones get stale, and we get stale too. It’s still a powerful idea to insert a row at the bottom of our weekly time sheets (even if that time sheet is only in our heads) and call it NEW BUSINESS—then make sure we put twenty to twenty-five percent of our hours against it.
Blogging can do some mighty big things for an individual. For more than 6 years I’ve been teaching and telling business owners that they should be writers. It seldom works. They start out blogging with good intention. Resistance, especially to something that is foreign, is powerfully acting against them.
New business idea? Finally, instead of urging them to write, I’ve made a business out of getting them to speak their blogs into existence. Resistance hasn’t figured out where they’ve slipped off to yet.
When I finished my novel last summer, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I started on query letters of course, but that wasn’t enough to occupy my creative time. I decided to start a blog, writing three times a week on whatever I could think of. The blog has been a real godsend for me, giving me a creative pipeline to keep the ideas rolling while I try to sell my book.
Your weekly posts always inspire me and give me something to think about. Thanks for writing them. I’m 27 and I’ve spent a good chunk of my twenties devoted to a single novel, which I’m on the point of finishing. I don’t regret being so single-minded, because I was teaching myself how to write. But now, as my novel comes to completion, I feel like the time has come, to pursue “new business.” I’m not yet sure what that will be: I’m looking into short stories, blogging, screenplay writing, and freelance editing. In starting a new project, I’m full of excitement and anxiety. I have no idea what I’m doing. I have no idea if anything will work. I don’t even trust myself to remain devoted. I’m afraid I’ll run out of steam. But I think that devoting time to “new business” will be a habit to learn, just like setting aside time to write was. Your article is a reminder to cultivate new projects, even while working on the old, and not be afraid of the new projects failing or becoming a waste of time. There’s always something new to learn and something new to try.
For me, the creative act always leaves its own trace of angst behind. So, after I finish an article or a story, I tend to be restive and uptight. Rather than hit the bottle alone, I push this anxiety down by starting on a few new ideas and gabbing with others about them. And if it’s over a beer or two, it all seems to work out as a productive act in a relaxing setting. And then I’m ready to focus on one and crank up again! That’s my take on 20/80 – thanks for the post!
It’s absolutely true! That 20/80 principle is so necessary to understand. As an artist fulltime and a writer/filmmaker the rest of the time, I constantly find that pitching new ideas for short films to collaborate on, new topics or details to expand on while I’m writing my memoir and seeing trends and applying the ‘what if this could happen?…’ approach has kept me fresh, stunted any burnout and opened myself up to being proactive and creative while increasing my social skill set. Thanks for the post and remind us how Pareto’s Principle can create growth when used smartly.
Thanks for this; it was something I needed to hear today.
I have an unrelated question, if you don’t mind answering. I just noticed that your Writing Wednesday posts all seem to have exactly one picture with them. (Not counting the header and sidebar pics.) Is there a reason you chose to aim for exactly one, no more, no less?
Laziness, Anna! No, seriously, I find I’m usually lucky to find even one pic that works. But you bring up a good point. I’ll look for more than one next time. Thanks!
I always learn something from reading your posts. I love that, even though you’re super nice, there’s always a little “kick ass” element to them. FU, Resistance! : )
Well THAT certainly got some rusted gears turning!
Hello from ad world. This series has been especially inspiring. I love how two of the authors/bloggers who have inspired me most (add in Mr. MacLeod for good company) are former ad folks. It’s refreshing to hear that the creative process is beneficial regardless of future plans.
“What seems like the fringe one year can become the core of our creative lives the next.” <— has proven to be true for me so many times as well. Also, given the rate of innovation, pushing ourselves into uncharted waters is beyond essential. Excellent read, Steven.