My husband is a lawyer and hated Law and Order. My mom, a nurse, disliked “ER.” I hated Mad Men, and worked in, you guessed it, advertising.
My mom and my husband dislike dramas depicting their fields for the usual reasons: oversimplified, unduly glamorized, and outright misrepresentations of how things work.
This is not why I hated Mad Men.
I hated how accurately it depicted my life working in an ad agency. The only real differences: no more drinking or smoking in the office. Well, we did have an occasional beer from the office tap at 5PM, but not a gin and tonic for an afternoon client meeting, sadly.
My role at the agency was similar to Pete Campbell, the account guy. Odds are, you didn’t like Pete. Being disliked is part of the job. Pete is the middle man between the clients and creatives, desperately trying to appease one without pissing off the other. It’s a delicate balance, one that I’ve heard described as “soul crushing” by more than a few account friends. Why? It’s because you have to leave who you are at the door and become whoever they need you to be in order to get the contract signed or the creative sold. Even if you know the creative stinks, isn’t what the client asked for, or is way over budget. Bottom line: sell the work.
For the most part, my relationships with my creative partners were marked by mutual respect. But, more often than I’d like to admit, my creative partners were egocentric, complex, and often erratic. Even the slightest hint that you or the client didn’t like their ideas, was met with yelling, door slamming, and an occasional, stapler throwing.
So why does this behavior exist in advertising?
Professor Øyvind L. Martinsen, conducted a study of over 400 people, to determine differences between creative and non-creative thinkers. He organized creative personalities within and beyond the Big 5 and found seven distinctive traits for creative thinkers. Two stood out: emotional volatility and difficulty with interpersonal relationships.
Does that mean being emotional and difficult goes hand-in-hand with creativity? And, the more volatile you are, the more creative you are?
I don’t buy it.
I’ve met too many talented creatives that don’t exhibit these traits. But, working in advertising can be difficult. Creatives are paid to deliver ideas that move people, either to buy or to feel, but preferably both. Since clients often receive raises and bonuses based on advertising results, the pressure they put on the agency can be immense. In turn, agencies pressure creatives to perform, and, so long as they deliver, look the other way from interpersonal breakdowns and questionable behavior.
Historically, account people have acted as a shield from the bad behavior on both sides; hiding tantrums of creative partners from clients and overly demanding client requests from creatives. It’s the ultimate tug-of-war with the account person as the rope.
Fortunately, times have (mostly) changed, and clients want partners who understand their business challenges, and this includes creatives. It’s not always about a big splashy television idea, but also a unique digital campaign that uses data to deliver a higher ROI. And these days, it’s hard for an ego or tantrum to compete with numbers.
As for me? I found a creative partner who should have a big ego, based on the awards on his shelf, but cares more about getting it right than what award he will win. We get to collaborate with like-minded, smart grown-ups who want to solve clients’ problems as efficiently as possible, with none of the b.s. I’d still prefer a gin and tonic in the afternoon, but I’ll have to settle for a 5PM beer out of the tap with a partner that only throws things at me when I am making fun of him. Which is, well, most days.