Eggs in the airing cupboard

In consumer adland we often get the chance to experience the products we peddle.

If we’re lucky enough to work on a car account we get to do a driving day for a new model, if the latest beer is being launched we can down a few pints and really get a feel for the…ahem…taste. The consumer world is full of easily accessible products from Tampons to Tanning products, from condoms to Coca Cola for us to sample and improve our understanding of the ‘user experience’.

But in Pharmaland the very thing we often have to promote is so far removed from our daily lives as to make it almost impossible to truly know the wretchedness of the people whose lives we attempt to affect.

We have to put ourselves in the place of a diabetic, we must project ourselves in the psyche of an Oncologist or Endocrynologist without ever truly experiencing their position or decision making process.

There are no tasting sessions in this game.

On that rare occasion the two streams cross, the career path of a creative and a debilitating disease, it can either be deeply inspiring or like some giant emotional mangle. Sometimes both.

This recently happened to me.

My mother, a sprightly eighty three this year, has for some years now been suffering from Alzheimer’s.

And last month we pitched for an Alzheimer’s drug.

I thought this would be a breeze at the outset, after all we had lived with her forgetfulness, her muddles, her loss of vocabulary and her familiar coping mechanisms for some time now. It had almost become routine, sometimes even funny.

Despite the sad awfulness of this cruel disease, and as in poor taste as it might seem, there can be some humorous moments. The bleakness of the future can be forgotten in the bitter sweet surreality of discovering eggs in the airing cupboard.

Like many families, you watch one of the most important figures in your family go from a sparkling, glamorous, larger than life character to a diminished old lady who sometimes doesn’t make sense any more and sits in tha backseat on car journeys pointing out trees.

However I was unprepared for the impact of that thing we so easily call an ‘insight’.

One of our creative teams hit upon this idea that stopped me in my tracks and appealed to me as a creative for its simplicity and insight but also as a family member of a sufferer. Everyone involved agreed it was a great idea and we duly put it in to the pitch deck.

A couple of other good ideas joined it, tackling other aspects of the disease or carer perspective but we mostly agreed that the winning idea was that first idea.

At this point I was the Creative Director and oddly dispassionate. Get the copy right, get the type looking nice. Select the right shots, create the best images.

And then came the pitch rehearsals.

At our agency we place great value in these, get it well rehearsed and with a simple message and well…… let’s not give too much away.

Anyway, as I started to describe the thinking behind the concept I became rather overwhelmed.

For the first time and in what seemed a ludicrously random moment I began to sob.

Like most adult men, with years of conditioning that big boys don’t cry, it was mostly a case of going silent. Trying to control the wobble in my throat.

(I’d like to be able to say that I am mostly hard as nails, but frankly I cry at quite a lot these days. Mostly happy things, pride in my kids that sort of thing, quite the wimp.)

I wiped my cheek with a forearm and suddenly got a grip.

No need to apologise.

Well, that’s that done with.

Yet at the pitch, my big worry was that I would be overcome with emotion once more.

Cut to the big day.

There were fifteen potential clients looking on, waiting for some pearls of wisdom to sprout from my mouth about the ideas projected on the screen. Then there was this tightening in the throat, a moment slightly longer than a pause, slightly shorter than an intermission.

I could sense Phil ready to jump up and take over, apologising for me as he swept me to my chair like a feeble old fool, a towel over my head as he mouthed a silent apology.

You don’t experience that kind of emotion when pitching for a consumer brand.

You’ll be glad to learn I managed to pull it back and carry on.

The rest of the team exhaled.

The thing about Alzheimer’s is that the slow diminishing of what makes the patient them –  is almost imperceptible.

It starts with an oddly normal remark. “You never told me that” when you know you did.

“You never showed me that” when you just did. Those easily dismissable events, the kind of thing that can be put down to old age or a ‘bad day’ will progress to not being able to put the kettle on or remember grandchildren’s names.

And beyond.

I write this, recognising fully I am not alone in this acute experience. We all have close family and friends who have battled cancer, who have lived with chronic disease, some who have survived, some not so fortunate.

But if you are thinking of making that change from consumer to pharmaland I can say this.

I worked in consumer adland for over twenty five years, I loved every minute. But I have never had an experience like this pitch and it somehow makes me realise, if I hadn’t already, that what we get to do on this side of the advertising channel is about a real life, a rawness, that adland can only dream of.

The ad contrarian himself, the legendary Bob Hoffman, talks about how little people really care about brands. Yes, if Coke went bust tomorrow people would get over it by the next day and start drinking Pepsi. Whatever we like to think of pharma’s marketing and it’s traditionally conservative creative campaigns, what we do has authenticity.

A car can never compete, a supermarket can only dream of the raw impact of a pharma brand on a patient’s quality of life.

We are lucky to be a part of this sector.

And the pitch?

Inspite of, or possibly because of this unique experience, (and of course not forgetting the whole team’s contribution) we did in fact win.

And for my part, I have my Mum to thank for that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The non-creative creative.

My chum and MD Phil Bartlett recently sent an all staffer round that I thought would be great as a guest spot on this humble blog.

Plus, it’s been a busy couple of weeks and this plugs a gap nicely. Enjoy!

As a “non-creative”, how do I approach the gnarly subject of judging someone else’s creative work? My first Creative Director, Mike Walker (a mentor for the first few years of my career in advertising) once described the feeling of a creative showing their work as being as close to doing the Full Monty as he was ever likely to get, and I’m always conscious that in giving a creative brief I’m giving someone a blank sheet of paper (metaphorically and literally) and asking them to come up with stuff I can’t come up with myself.

So I’ve always been extremely respectful of the creative process, and particularly the “creative review” where a load of people who aren’t trained in judging creative work are expected to say something clever about creative work. The two following ideas pretty much sum up how I’ve approached things…

1) What are you looking at?
This is about looking beyond the obvious creative ideas, and the effect that this has, on us and of course on our clients. I came across the idea in a blog by I read recently from Seth Godin, in which he says:
“If no one says, “huh, I don’t get it,” you’ve built the obvious, not the elegant. Elegant takes a moment to get. Obvious is a trap, the last resort of an artist who can’t think clearly about what to do next”
So don’t worry if you don’t “get it” at first, or (shock horror) that your client might not “get it” straight away. Perhaps you’re looking at something elegant, rather than something obvious.

[BTW – if you don’t get Seth Godin’s blog, you should – find it here – it’s always informative and often inspirational.]

2) What to say next
The second point is related to the first, and it’s about looking at creative work, and starting with a positive approach and a desire to love it.
Especially when you’re looking at something which isn’t obvious and takes a moment to get (and, let’s be honest, feel under pressure to say something clever) it’s much easier to be negative – to say “hmm, I don’t like that bit” – than it is to say “huh, I don’t get it”.
In this situation I rely on the Anthony Burrill approach that I had on my wall at Saatchi and McCann and at our old CDM office in Hammersmith and now (because our “enviable views over The Shard, St Pauls and the Thames” mean we’re more glass than wall) is on my wall at home, which simply says:

anthony-burril-i-like-it-what-is-it-800x800

It’s how I’ve always tried to look at creative work, and it allows me to be positive and inquisitive at the same time. Because more often than not the fact that you don’t get it straight away is actually the whole point.

Now, after this sojourn into the world of blogs and creative freedom of thought, please allow me to flip back to my Managing Director persona and simply ask that you stop reading blogs, get back to work and get your bloody timesheets up to date.

 

Thanks Phil, more from me next week Blag fans.

Crash. Burn. Adapt.

When I first started as a Creative Director in Pharmaland I had to present some ideas to one particular client. He was new in the role too, just flown in from America, very senior and everyone was in awe of him.

This meeting was a big deal. So I duly gathered my shiniest and cleverest ideas and set off for their shores.

It was not a great success.

Looking back, my first mistake was to treat it like a presentation in consumer, thinking my background in big consumer brands was enough to impress. Back then I hadn’t really learned the different dialect that people speak in these parts, or indeed the correct amount of humility in what was a new advertising territory for me. At the time I thought he was an idiot, (obviously) but now I have a different perspective.

The next round I thought I was closer.

The look of bewilderment grew ever more fixed the more I spoke.

Another round of creative later and it was made clear through the available channels that I was not to come to any more meetings. I just rubbed him up the wrong way and my ideas were awful.

Upon my exit, I was sure he leaned in to an intercom on his desk, pressed a button and and whispered ‘kill him’ in a sinister Russian accent.

Oh crap.

Now, I am not saying that every meeting I ever have is a bed of roses (I wish), but this level of failure was new territory. This was abject, and what made it even more shameful was that, awful as it is to admit, I thought we were getting along fine.

However I was reassured that account people have this kind of thing all the time. I guess they must, I mean you guys get paid to put up with it, but this was me we were talking about!

Oh I know, get over yourself Olly.

But this boycott presented a problem in a small agency.

It’s not always easy to just take the CD out of the picture and replace him/her with a stand in. At the time, I was the creative department, at least in terms of concepting.

The solution was to draft in a senior creative ‘honcho’ from the US to front the agency in creative terms and soon enough they seemed happier. They could talk about baseball and beefburgers and, oh I dunno, American stuff.

I was still going to be doing the work, the USA CD would just present and show up a couple of times a year. All would be happy.

This was not exactly a satisfactory set of circumstances but we needed to keep the business and we felt we could make it work. I felt ashamed and embarrassed, how could I have been so reviled?

Anyway, with me behind the scenes, suddenly the work started to get better reviews.

Now this was the kind of work we like!

Not like that other guy’s stuff…give us more like this!

Except that, obviously, it was still my work. Adjusted somewhat to their tastes, but my work nevertheless.

After a bit of successful research there was a shoot, where a stooge totally unconnected with the account was sent in as an art director, there were all manner of creative things created, all of which were originated and curated by my department and I, all while the client was thinking I had been banished to the hills.

Now, all this may seem like sour grapes and duplicitous agencies – but there is a point of sorts to be made.

We preach the gospel of ‘it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it’ and I had got it wrong on all sorts of levels.

‘My bad’ as us white middle-class, middle-aged, suburbanites now say.

But an agency’s output is as subject to this principle as much as any other product and consumer conversation.

Clients need to hear the message in a voice they recognise, by someone they like, in a way that illuminates the idea.

And even though Creative Directors are now seen as the best way to present creative, sometimes it’s best left to the right person for the right client.

Yes…even (gulps and winces)…..an account person.

Because it’s the relationship that smooths the way to a creative sale as much as all the other things, if not more.

Not just opinionated creatives trying to prove they are right.

And more importantly everyone got what they wanted, the client was happy and the agency kept the business.

Ah well, you live and learn.