At the end of 2017, I will be leaving Padilla and agency life. As I look back over 30+ years, I wanted to share the five things I know for sure. There are only five because, to be honest, there’s a lot more I am not sure of.
- No one is perfect. You are going to make a mistake. It could be a big one, or a small one. One of my first mistakes happened when I was a young AE. I was promoting a client’s big event. As a newbie, I was convinced I was an incredible writer and did not need anyone to read, proof or edit my press releases. It was already perfect! I had my media list; I had created a compelling description of the event; I was good to go. So, against our company’s standard operating procedures, I just sent out the press release without anyone else looking at it. A few days later when I followed up with journalists, here’s what I heard from the first one: “Gee, this sounds like a delightful event and I really would like to attend. However, you didn’t include the date or the time, which I find sloppy. I don’t like sloppy work. Please take me off your distribution list.” Yeah, that hurt.
Lesson Learned: No one is perfect. Please let someone who is qualified proof your work. Not only do you not have to do it alone, you really shouldn’t. Great marketing communications really does take a village.
- Robert Baden-Powell was right when he coined the phrase “Be Prepared” as the Boy Scouts motto. You can be sure at some point, something unexpected will occur, and it will be your job to handle it. For one client, I was backstage at a major awards dinner that recognized women who had achieved remarkable success despite overwhelming challenges. The ceremony was in full swing with the next honoree ready to accept her trophy. Right before going onstage, the presenter ran backstage in a panic; the top of the award had literally broken off from its base. Her eyes were wide with desperation: “What can we do?” I thought this poor woman was going to have a heart attack. I whipped out my Krazy Glue from my event bag and carefully glued the top of the award back onto its base. Seconds later she was sweating profusely, but able to walk back on stage with trophy intact.
Lesson Learned: This one’s easy. Krazy Glue was the solution, but it’s a metaphor for thinking through all contingencies and “being prepared.” I promise you things will go wrong and it’s our job to be prepared for just about anything.
- Unless it was your very first choice, don’t mix clients in the same promotion. It usually does not end well. One of the two of them is going to feel like they got the short end of the stick. One memorable client was a Hollywood star who was launching a new beverage that gave back proceeds to a great cause. It was the first time I had ever worked with a bona fide celebrity and I was admittedly a little star struck. On the surface, the assignment should have been a piece of cake: we had a celebrity A-lister, the product tasted great, proceeds benefitted a great cause, what could go wrong? The challenges: the star was not going to be at the launch, we had no retail distribution (the publicity from the launch was supposed to help secure distribution) and we actually had limited funds to hold the event. So, I cooked up a great launch concept involving mixologists – a group just emerging at the time – and looked for an event venue that wouldn’t break the bank. Back then, our agency also represented a hotel that was, at best, a B property. Not a horrible hotel, but certainly not a space an A-Lister would choose for the product launch. The AE on that account was desperate for some positive coverage and asked me to hold the launch event at the hotel. My initial instinct was “this is not a good idea,” but my colleague begged and eventually I caved. Against my better judgement, I said yes because the hotel account was in jeopardy of leaving us and they really needed the publicity our event would generate. So, we scheduled it there. Very long story short, the celebrity decided to come at the last minute, we got incredible coverage and, as a result, sold the product into military bases. I was ecstatic. A few days passed and my client contact called to thank me for all my hard work, for a flawlessly run event, for the incredible media coverage and resulting distribution deal. He also called to tell me we were immediately being fired from the business. The celebrity hated the location, he felt it was so below his brand standard that he had lost faith in us. I thought I would also lose my job, but thankfully I didn’t.
Two Lessons Learned: Don’t marry clients in the same promotion because it is likely not to work as well for one of them. If you are a manager of someone like me who seriously messed up, give him or her another chance. Check in with them more often, and don’t be afraid to veto a questionable idea. If you are the person who messed up, just forgive yourself but learn your lesson well and never do it again.
- You will always win clients. You will always lose clients even when you have done an incredible job. Often you may not even know why. I’ve won accounts I never envisioned would select us. I’ve seen a client of 15 years who we delivered huge results for walk out the door because a new brand manager wanted her own people. I’ve seen business leave because of bad chemistry and business stay because a smart manager understood the power of deep relationships. It is a fact of agency life. You’ll win and you’ll lose.
Lesson Learned: You need to have thick skin to thrive in the agency world. Success is the ability to move from one failure to another without the loss of enthusiasm.
- Last thing I know for sure. Marketing communications is an incredible field. Reach for the stars, not only because you can, but because the rewards can be life-changing. It took us a year to create and sell in to Liz Claiborne the first “Women’s Work” program, an initiative designed to raise awareness of and change behaviors around Domestic Violence. Over the 15+ years we ran that program we won more than 50 awards. But more importantly, it raised awareness of this inexcusable behavior among key target audiences: teens, husbands and wives, law enforcement, doctors, educators and the media. The program has since been renamed “Love Is Not Abuse” and continues to thrive today under the leadership of other great communicators. Looking back, I know that Love Is Not Abuse had an enormous role in altering human behavior. Domestic violence has been out of the closet for years now and I don’t think anyone views it as a private family matter.
Lesson Learned: We have a unique opportunity as communicators to take the lead in fostering messages of hope and change. Looking back, I am honored to have been able to work with great companies that were not afraid to buck the system and do what was right.
As I’ve been telling my colleagues here in NYC, I am not viewing my next phase as “retirement.” For me it’s “rewirement,” because whatever your age or stage, you are still a work in progress, and that’s a good thing. A work in progress; yes, I guess it’s the sixth thing I know for sure.