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.