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The law of nice in advertising

36 Comments · advertising laws

Let’s be frank; it’s hard to be genuinely warm in a cold-hearted business. However, advertising is the business of ideas, it’s imagination applied to marketing, it’s an instinctual evolutionary tool developed as a means of ensuring survival in this jungle.

Which means the somewhat rational process of getting to a great ad must be carefully constructed so as to avoid throwing gems onto the slagheap. The idea must be allowed to overcome the procedure.

Or else, the machinations can be tough-minded, steely efficient and produce a campaign that pleases all the brand stakeholders, and will unfortunately still fail miserably in the real world.

Clients who tick boxes will never get out of the square. It is the culture of a creative organization (and brand-holding companies must be just that), which gives its people their strength and enables them to channel and fulfill their talents.

Great, transforming ideas come from confident cultures. As the CEO of Britain’s BBC once explained: “You can’t make great television in an organization that is depressed … the challenge is to make the organization believe in itself.”

Character is destiny in company culture. And confident cultures grow and feed off their own achievements.

It’s said in academic circles that culture is like sex: it is impossible either to over-or under-emphasize it.

Yet a culture of fear, hurry-up-and-wait deadlines and armies of abominable no-men are just the start must overcome, before it even gets the chance to do its work in the marketplace.

While the creative ego may appear strong to the casual observer, the idea itself is very vulnerable at the embryonic stage.

Ideas are fragile things and can be carelessly crushed by a frown on the wrong person’s face in a frown on the wrong person’s face in a meeting.

“Just the way someone puts down his tea cup … can paralyze creativity,” Gladiator film composer, Lisa Gerrard, once explained. Ideas are like tomatoes, it is said, easier to grow than to build.

An agency “CD,” then, should also stand for Culture Director. Jamie Barrett is CD of San Francisco hothouse, Goodby silverstein & partners, and is responsible for growing some wonderful creative solutions from his sensitive plants. Ideas that have grown into nice, plump, juicy profits for his clients.

The list of not-so-nice stuff I’ve done goes on. In fact, one of my most recent un-nice acts was promising to deliver this “Law of Nice” article four months ago, ago, and then not delivering until today. Not particularly nice.

So as you read this, think of me not so much as the preacher who practices all this “nice” stuff, and more as a guy who believes in nice and wants to get better at it.

With that off my chest, I will now presume to be the guy who has the authority to talk about the importance – in advertising- of being nice.

Here’s my idea in a nutshell. When you’re happy, you do your work is important for another reason.

Consider how much time we all spend doing this nuttiness we call advertising. There are 168 hours in a week. Subtract 56 for sleep (eight hours a day). That leaves 112 waking hours.

Now add up the weekends, the shortened vacations, the late nights, the trains, planes, rental-car shuttles and taxis, plus the time we all spend thinking or talking about work when we’re not actually doing it, and I would conservatively guess that between half and two-thirds of your waking adult life will revolve around … advertising.

So I pose this question: why spend two-thirds of your life being a dick? Dicks in advertising are like anthrax.

You don’t want them to touch anyone, influence anyone, or be inhaled by anyone. When you have enough evidence of someone being a dick, clean the offender out of the office. Steritise their chair and desk.

Being nice does not mean being a sugar-coating, feeling-sparing, half truth telling Pollyanna.

But there are ways to deliver bad news or criticize that don’t make people feel as worthless as a dotcom account. Work on your delivery. Find glimmers of positive in the negative.

When you let people go, don’t kick them out the door. Walk them out the door and help them figure out the next door that makes sense for them.

Do dicks ever succeed? Temporarily, yes. I’ve heard ED McCabe was a raging asshole, and he had a nice run.

But I suspect Mr McCabe often looked to his left and right, saw a bunch of burnt bridges, and didn’t feel particularly good about it.

The desire to succeed is one of the most primal urges there is, but I would suggest that the desire to make a positive impact on the people around you is the most primal of all. And left unattended to, the whole success thing falls pretty flat.

In the end, no one will attend your funeral because you wrote a good catchphrase, or because, you cashed in some stock options when your agency went public, or because you played politics better than someone else and got a promotion. Your greater legacy will be how people felt about you, not your work.

Of course, normally success and “niceness” go hand in hand. George Bush allegedly has handwritten tens of thousands of thank-you notes in his time.

You may have your own issues with George, some not so positive. But you have to admit he is nice. And you have to also acknowledge that he “niced” his way all the way to the presidency of the United States.

Another great example of nice as a path to success comes from the world of sports. Did you know that Cal Reipken is a lifetime 277 hitter?

For someone who is arguably the greatest baseball stars of his generation, his numbers kind of suck.

Granted, he is a great player, but I would argue that his fame and popularity are due as much, or more, to the fact that he is very simply a “nice guy.

“Jose Canseco, Roclu Henderson, Barry Bonds – all players with better stats, but all renowned jerks.

Have you ever read an article about Bonds that didn’t reference the fact that no one likes him?

There was a wonderful biography written about Ripken called The power of Nice. And it’s true, nice is a very powerful thing to be.

It’s true in life, it’s baseball and it’s true in advertising. Like any competitive business, advertising has its fair share of not-so-nice people.

But if you think about it, that presents an opportunity for all the people who attempt to treat others well: who attempt to be nice.

It’s the old advertising theory of cutting through the clutter. If there’s a lot of “not-so-niceness” out there, “nice” will stand out that much more.

It will “cut through” – a horribly cynical and manipulative way to look at things, but it’s the hard truth. And hey, if you stand to gain something from being nice to people, what’s the downside?

You may ask yourself why a Law of Nice is particularly relevant to the profession of advertising versus, say, accounting.

Of course, treating people with decency ain’t a bad policy no matter what your line of work. But I would argue that it is of even more critical importance in our line of work than it is in most.

Advertising is one of the most subjective occupations there is. It involves creativity, which is, in effect, personal expression.

It’s an expression of one’s self: Which means that every time a piece of work is evaluated, it is unavoidably personal. Egos are in the room.

Feelings of self-worth. And because an ad’s merits are ultimately hard to quantify, it becomes just one person’s opinion versus another.

It’s easier to tell someone they stocked a shelf wrong than to tell them their ideas are lame.

I don’t think there are more dicks in our profession, I just think the nature of our work brings out the dick in us more often than not. We need to be sensitive to that.

Executive-Global-Creative-Officer-Other-People-Do-The-Work-And-I-Take-Credit-For-It-Worldwide, then, yes, you, probably are a dick.

But 99 time out of 100, the answer is no, you’re not a dick. You may often act like a dick – we all do.

But the key is to recognize the dick-like behaviour when it’s starting to happen and, as quickly as possible, stuff it back in the dark corner of your brain from whence is sprang.

Niceness does have a nemesis, and its name is ego. Wanting to beat the other guy is as much a part of our makeup as wanting to get with the pretty (or handsome) receptionist.

But both are biological urges we have to try and keep in check. I like to try and think of advertising as a little like golf.

Great golfers compete against the course. They don’t stare at the scoreboard the whole round and obsess on their competitors; they stare at the shot in front of them and obsess on the best way to play it.

Apply the same thinking in your ad life. Don’t waste energy comparing your work to the word of the guy down the hall, or the person with 20 page numbers after his name in the index of the one show book. Waste your energy on creating your next great ad.

Chances are, there will be people who make advertising that is as or more celebrated than the work made by you. What’s wrong with that?

I say, prop up other talented people – in your agency and in other agencies. When you feel that heavy, petty jealousy feeling, ask yourself: Would you rather be in an industry that produces a ton of shit?

I got into the creative side of this business because I was lucky enough to work across the hall from writers and art directors whose work inspired me. I tried to use that inspiration to fuel my own work. I still do.

Easier said than done, of course. If any creative person is being honest, they will admit this is incredibly hard. Imagine if all the great novelists worked on the same floor in the same building.

Or all the great playwrights. Or the great screenwriters. The atmosphere would probably get a tad competitive.

But that’s the way it is in a great advertising agency. Many of the best creatives in the world are asked to coexist and root for each other, even though some of them may be catching breaks and others may not.

It’s hard to be “nice” under these conditions. It’s hard to be a team player. But the reality is, people will sense it if you’re not. I Know: I’ve lost friendships based on my inability to feel good about their success. So I keep reminding myself: The goal is to do well, not for others to do badly.

One last thought: No one is nice all the time. Okay, maybe Mr Rogers was. But even Fred, I suspect, had his moments of weakness when he berated King Friday for something, or instead of neatly hanging up his cardigan sweater, angrily threw it in the bottom of the closet.

My suggestion is, when you feel like tossing your cardigan, walk away instead. You probably work incredibly hard, and you deserve a break. Again, this is particularly hard in advertising.

There are times when I would love to be a bank teller, or a tollbooth collector. Any job where I could walk away at the end of the workday and feel like there is nothing more I can do until I go to work again in the morning. This is clearly not the case in the business of creating ads. It’s a 24-hour pursuit if you let it be.


Keywords: ad, advertising, nice.


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