CREATING DURING CORONA. How to find work/life harmony in lockdown.

Person with laptop on roof

I’m not a fan of the term “work-life balance.” You see, when you define balance, there’s an inherent assumption that work and life are two opposing forces. Positive and negative, assets and liabilities, hot and cold, wet and dry. Right and wrong. Love and hate.

In a creative industry like advertising, work and life do not live on opposite ends of a continuum. Even before our world went into lockdown, when our bedrooms became our offices, ideas lived together. Or, in the words of Francois Auguste De Chateaubriand from the 1800’s (and apologies for the gender-specific pronouns of that era):


“A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.”


The truth is this: it’s not about a work-life balance. It’s about work-life harmony. What we see/absorb/express outside of work is important for the campaigns we create. There is an inherent need to find ideas in life for work, and in work for life. And as our work and life have nested in the past few months, it’s important to keep looking outward for inspiration. To find ways to escape the bubble, to free our minds when are bodies feel contained.

In advertising, work and life are congruent. The human experience is the common denominator we use to create ideas that translate universally. Our product is not a commercial, print ad, experiential display, digital ad, social video, etc. Our product is the idea. And ideas are transitive. 

The ultimate accolade for a brand is not a Pencil or a Lion. It’s when people say, “this brand gets me.” For that to happen, the people creating the ads must first get themselves. This is even more of a reason for our industry to nestle work and life together. It’s not without reason that most purpose-driven, passion-filled campaigns come from personal places. 

Life experience can be expressed through a campaign: the love, the loss, the pain, the joy. And we must draw upon the sum of our lives to produce campaigns that convey that sentiment. What we create is hollow without our experiences guiding us. Same goes for home life. The ideas and takeaways from working relationships should be learning tools for our personal life.

So how do you create a work-life harmony? It’s not as hard as you might think.

1. Be Open to Inspiration


In the traditional sense of work/life balance, work happens during work, and life happens the rest of the time. But when we redefine the relationship by opening the door between work and life, it clears a path for collaboration between our two perceived selves. 

Did you finally break through to a client or co-worker? Use that insight to help in your personal or family relationships. Did a road trip with your best friend open up an understanding of the human experience? Deck it up and see how it applies to your current client. 

As we change our perception, we change our behavior. And when we change our behavior, we can now draw upon all our experiences for a better life, and for better work. 

2. Be a Student

Woman writing in a journal
Photo by Eye for Ebony


I used to manage about 25 social creatives. The skills I seek  from others are multidimensional and cross platform. It’s important to find and nurture those skill sets that bleed from vocation to avocation. 

For instance, I once sent an art director to a street photo class. That same week, a writer wanted to take a VO class, so I sent her there. It helps their side projects, but also their work on the brand. A VO class allows a better sense of writing dialogue when it is properly spoken. A photography class allows an understanding of composition and lighting, allowing for a more informed review of selects. In these instances, work and life are in agreement, and learnings can be applied to both.

As you cultivate your own interests, find skills and passions that overlap, and see how to bring them from work to life and vice versa. 


3. Be Observant

A crowded outside market in Asia
Photo by Xavier Teo


In the checkout line, on the subway, at a birthday party. It’s important to do your research. The best marketers are anthropologists who informally study the human condition. If you are creating an ad for mobile, sneak a peek at how people use their device. If you want to break through to a younger demo, break through with your kids at the dinner table first. 

Once on a plane ride, I watched someone next to me go through his camera roll. I observed what from his own content got his attention. How he quickly thumbed through the multiple landscape shots. Which pictures he zeroed in on. The ones with people were most popular, especially shots with him in it. Yes, it’s creepy to look over at someone’s pictures. But, seeing how someone goes through their own valuable content is a perspective that many advertisers, despite the expensive suites of tools and analytics, don’t often get. 

Some of my most successful moments of insight have come through patterns I’ve observed, actions I have seen, conversations I have heard or overheard. Throwaway words or everyday moments can become profound in a new context.


4. Set Limits

A chain link fence
Photo by Markus Spiske

There is writing, deck jockeying, etc. that needs to be done. So it’s important to set the limits on work, emails, devices, etc. and be present during important moments in life. Define and stick to a timeline so the active work can have a place in your life, while the passive work around inspiration can continue. Work and life are at their best when they live in congruence. 

If we think of work and life as two different forces, we limit our ability to learn from each. If we look at both as opposites, we will never feel the need for one to inspire the other. If we silo work and life, we can never fully understand that balance should not be the goal, rather harmony should. 

So expand your frame, create a flow, and put these thoughts into practice. Stop shutting the door between work and life and see what good can come of it. And if people “get you” and your work, you know you’re onto something. 

Creative Directors. It’s time to create.

This is the sign you've been looking for sign

Times like these are meant for reflection. Not for holding on to the past, but to figure out how to embrace the future. To ask yourself, Do I really like what I am doing? Am I happy, or just comfortable? I had to ask myself those same questions last year.

These days, at my new agency, Cast Iron LA, I intentionally do not call myself a creative director. And my partner doesn’t either. We are a writer and art director, and they are reflected on our titles. Sure, we can put whatever we want on our raised lettered, pale nimbus business cards, but we learned a lesson in our past lives. And we move forward, our titles remind us what we actually do, not what we are entitled to do.

Ascending to creative director is a reward for good work. And that reward sometimes means you stop doing work. At least the work that got you to that position in the first place.

And that is the beautiful irony of #agencylife.

For us, that was one of the most frustrating parts of that promotion, and didn’t want to repeat it at our own agency. We had seen the CD’s and GCD’s who came before us, and many of them seemed to be enjoying the spoils of their position, but not enjoying the actual work. Emails, meetings on their phones, long lunches, screaming about things outside their wheelhouse. It was sad. And I didn’t want to end up like that. And it was all because they weren’t really doing the work. At least not the work that they loved.

Their reward was also their burden.

Now, not everyone is like this, especially at small agencies, but I’m sure many people immediately come to mind, if you’ve been around the agency block. At smaller and more progressive shops, you are doing the work out of necessity. You can’t afford work to go through INTERN/JR/CW&AD/SR/ACD/CD/GCD/ECD. The work gets lost in committee, and as it begins the ascension, those near the top weigh in more heavily, because, besides writing approval emails with ? that’s pretty much all that’s left to show their top-heavy value.

And it’s not just the creatives. That problem exists at the top of almost every agency discipline. Because the better you are at your job, the less you are being asked to do it. Crazy, right? But now, that org chart may be a victim of thinning the herd on “essential” advertising jobs.

Admittedly, I was on the road to this sad and safe existence. I tried my hardest to be a working CD, but most of the time I was just punching holes as I shepherded other’s ideas. The agency life is complicated, and so much involves moving things along, that there are a limited few that do the actual work. It’s the best kept secret in advertising.

2019 was mY Pandemic

Free me sign

When I lost my job last year, I had essentially been promoted out of strong, marketable skills, and had no one to blame but myself. I had not updated my book in years, and many of the skills required to do that, skills that I used to possess, were now history. So, I had to learn again. Like an athlete with a career-ending industry, I had to start from scratch, re-learn the basics of my craft, and build skills that could add value to the workspace.

So, I reintroduced myself to Photoshop, learned how to build a website, figured out SEO, got my Premiere Pro skills back and basically worked my way through the entire Adobe Suite in search of my next job. After a few interviews of places that gave me more of what I left behind, together with my old partner, Luis, we started our own agency, Cast Iron LA

Do more typed on computer

Now, many CD’s who scoffed at digital and social, are now re-evaluating their skills under the new world of Coronavirus. No longer can they be shielded from not learning, or rewarded for simply being drinking buddies with the ECD. No agency can afford to have that level of overlap that many have enjoyed for years. And many, who are now in isolation should learn to protect themselves, by going back to the days when they did the work, and loved what they did.

So here’s some advice to keep your mind and skills fresh, as they come under newfound, economic scrutiny. If you make it through this (and I hope you do) follow these steps to ensure your skills and growth mindset are aligned, fresh and ready for a post-pandemic world.

Keep creating

It’s easy to get caught up in the world of meetings and emails that you lose track of what you love about this business. Being a working creative director keeps you honest, humble and closer to your team. Even if you are doing spec work, or writing an article like this, don’t turn your back on the skills that brought you here. Keep the creative mind fresh. Rust sets in fast.

Participation Leads to inspiration

Early on, my partner had always pushed me to write a blog when they were coming into fashion. From there, I developed a motto “Participation leads to inspiration.” I learned to roll up my sleeves and experiment. And I did, as much as a siloed office environment would allow.  If you are not on social because you think it’s stupid, reevaluate that objection. It’s hard to lead when you’ve never been down the path. I had an executive-level planner challenge me on a Facebook campaign once. I asked him if he was even on it. He said “no,” and I politely thanked him and walked away.

Lead teams to the well

When I first started reviewing copy as an associate creative director (ACD), it was much easier to make the changes myself. It saved time and energy, especially with lesser creatives. But ultimately it was a shortcut that was bad for the long run. So I corrected and built in time so my writers could arrive at their own pace. If you do the work for them, no one learns. Now, my partner Luis and I mentor people here, and beyond our agency. It’s good practice and you can learn from the inexperience of others if you look hard enough. It’s even more important to be patient, as the workforce continues to operate remotely.

Know the brief

When there are multiple projects going on, it may be hard to keep track of them all. At the minimum, know the brief, and be accountable to the objectives when the team presents to you. Young teams sometimes focus on shine, so it’s your job to solidify the connection from the brief to the work. If you don’t understand a platform, get out of your comfort level to research it. No longer can you simply smirk and glibly say, ” I don’t understand that digital and social shit,” when clients are paying you to do just that.

Don’t solve their problems

If you are a CD, chances are you are a good problem solver. But give your teams a chance to figure things out on their own. Chances are, they will get there and develop a valuable skill along the way. It’s time well spent. Don’t hamstring their development, just so you can get back to playing games on your computer. It’s lazy, and happens far too much.

Teach teamwork

There are so many touchpoints and nuances to an idea, it’s important that your team connects with the specialists around them. You need to reward those who collaborate and encourage those who don’t. The sooner they learn the give-and-take of the business, the sooner they will thrive. And as it has become harder to walk down a hall to talk to a strategist, recognize and reward others who figure it out remotely. Strong leaders will emerge from this, so look out for them.

Show respect

Establish a mutual trust with your team, and always respect their ideas. There are some creative directors who are assholes and have clawed their way to the top. From their perch, they make life difficult for their teams, because that’s how they were treated. That’s not a good way to earn respect, and those who behave like that never earned mine, or my teams. Be vulnerable. Be willing to fail in front of them. Admitting you were wrong about something will earn you more respect than always presuming you are always right.

Help it sell

Teams will work tirelessly on an idea, meticulously crafting it into the wee hours. But when the critical time comes to sell that idea, no time has been put toward it. Presenting an idea should never be downplayed. Have your team present it to you, and give feedback on the presentation. It’s a skill that is often overlooked, and the more it is developed, the better everyone will be. These days, remote selling makes it even more critical to have a good presentation. Help your team with that.

Never stop learning

feet with passion led us here on sidewalk

Technology makes us do things that we may not want to do. But if you don’t play in the digital world, you will never understand it, and your teams won’t take you seriously. Participate in the new or be rendered obsolete. And always, stay curious. No matter how many gray hairs you have.

Now, If you haven’t bothered to do anything different since March, learn a new skill or just assume you can ride this wave out, it may be time to rethink that strategy, as age, compensation make you vulnerable. My partner and I are living proof. Move forward with respect to your own growth, and adapt new ways to mentor and help your team get through this. If you are looking at old ways to solve new problems, that misguided approach needs to be your wake-up call.

But there was reason you got to a coveted level of leadership in advertising, and it’s still inside you. It’s time to go back to the skills that brought you there, learn some new ones, and be ready for whatever the world throws at you. 

Short Selling: 3 Steps To Becoming A 6-Second Storyteller

Close Up of a time piece

Six-second ads are here to stay as short content becomes the new normal for many platforms. To hammer that point home, Snapchat now considers 10-seconds as long-form video. 

Yep. 10.

If you are a creative reading this, I can feel the collective eye roll. Many teams stress about their ability to tell a story in under 10 seconds. And believe me, I feel your pain.

But it’s not impossible. The challenge with video advertising is a lack of narrative structure. We are constrained by time, but not in how that time is allotted. In advertising, the way we fill the space between open and close is a bit of a free for all. 

The Screenplay Effect

black and white photo of old typewriter
Photo by Pereanu Sebastian on Unsplash

It’s even more evident as you look to other, more disciplined storytelling techniques.  A screenplay is structured at 120 pages broken into three acts. Each minute-long page is segmented with mathematical precision;  30 pages for the first act, 60 for the second, and 30 for the last. 

Sitcoms are similarly engineered. They run 22 minutes, with an A story, and B or C one. There are three main acts, separated by commercials. Within each act are 3-5 scenes. Plays, short stories, poems, etc. all follow a pattern as well. 

Blah Blah, numbers, right? I just want to make brilliant work! But that consistent template could help creative teams more easily navigate short-form content. Think about it, in advertising there is no structure beyond beginning, end and where to put the logo. 

So, without a proper narrative composition to scale, how can a creative start to think in micro-moments to tell a story? First, it’s important to develop and embrace a defining structure. This is key to creating complete content that works for any length. 

So, how can a creative start to think in micro moments to tell a story? Start with a narrative structure. The 3-act mechanic we have developed at Cast Iron LA is this:

Setup/Action/Resolve

Each “act” can be 1-3 seconds (based on a 6-second ad), and they all must feather together to tell a complete story. 

1. Setup (1 Second)

man standing in trees looking at something offscreen.
Photo by DANNY G on Unsplash

Because of the nature of the feed, we don’t have an attentive audience, so we need to make them one. Movies or TV allow for a more drawn out story arc, character development, introduction of plot points, etc. But that pacing succeeds only because they are working with a captive audience. For marketers, our pyramid is inverted, so we need to captivate quickly. And the simplest way to do that is through curiosity. The setup needs to be brisk, instantly recognizable and simple. It must establish the scene but also create enough interest to drive people to the next act. 

A basic video example of “Setup” would be a dog in a car anxiously looking at something it finds interesting off screen, yet blind to the viewer. 

2. Action (3 seconds)

An open door in a hallway at night.
Photo by Matthew T Rader on Unsplash

Action is the second act, and at a whopping 3 seconds is the longest part of our narrative structure. On platforms with interactivity, you can make “action” a literal part of the structure as well. This act needs to pique curiosity, and create a bridge to the resolution. 

We cannot be predictable in our second act, otherwise completion rates will suffer. Many times, it’s not because people don’t like our content that makes them stop watching, it’s because they figured out the end to the story, before we were done telling it. If you want to pull out the rug, make sure people are still on it.

The “Action” video example would show the dog leap from the car, and off screen. The viewer is left wondering, where did the dog go? And lucky for us, the threshold for human curiosity is low. Even something as benign as this will move people to completion.

3. Resolution (2 seconds)

two hands, one putting a credit card in a square reader.
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

The resolution is the 6-minute finish line. It needs to quickly and completely resolve the story. It should leave the viewer feeling fulfilled and without question. The content has carried the audience through the first two acts, and the final at needs to pay it off. In our example, the dog now gets into your brand’s vehicle, and a log and super comes up “The Dog Friendlier SUV.”

Rethink The Content Funnel

With proper assembly, short-form storytelling can tell a story. But it will take a fundamental shift in perspective to be successful. Agencies must rethink the content funnel and develop ads that are build-ups, not cut-downs. Short-form content needs to be solved at the root, not the canopy.

So embrace a simple structure and don’t over tell the story. There is no need to solve every objective in short-form video, but the entire marketing plan should work up to that matrix. Yep, it’s complicated. Yep, it’s frenetic. Yep, it’s frustrating. But the upside of a short attention span is that audiences have evolved to figure things out quickly. This focus allows the creative team to cut narrative corners, make assumptions of understanding and tell a story in overdrive. 

Because most storytellers can agree; whether you are dealing in 120 minutes, 22 minutes, or 6 seconds, it will never feel like there is enough time to tell the story you want.

But there is. 

Intellectual Property In The Age Of Social Media

Handcuffs with social media logos on fingerprint sheet

How BRANDS (AND POLITICIANS) are breaking The Law.

These days, the rise of social media has produced a gray area for brands and politicians, as some unknowingly assume high risk in their pursuit to be topical and clever while attaching themselves to celebrities.

Most recently, Mike Bloomberg took to the social world to inundate people with meme-based campaign material. He paid top influencers (some, not properly disclosing), to create memes with no guardrails. Many used photography, name, likeness and music without proper consent. And that’s bad.

For years, a three-tier risk system of low, medium, or high risk was benignly uncomplicated. Copyright, IP and use of likeness had been pretty simple in traditional marketing. You wouldn’t use a Queen song in a spot without the band’s permission. Nor would you use Harrison Ford’s photo in a print ad for a deodorant without his official involvement.

Yet, many brands would use a celebrity (and possibly the movie or show being referenced) in a tweet or instagram post, without batting an eye.

In that same breath, as in Bloomberg’s case, the person creating the meme on your behalf, without proper disclosure, is in violation of both the FTC law for “Material Interest,” as well as the creating a claim for improper use of intellectual property.

hashtag with lights

Being a brand or politician is different from being a person or publisher. People and publishers can use that image, but once a brand takes it, it becomes an ad, like it or not. Even on popular apps like Tik Tok, users can post popular songs and dances, but if brands use the same content, they are at risk. Not much is written on this, so it’s best to approach with caution, and assume if you don’t license a song or dance, it should be avoided.

There are slightly more complicated situations, in which a brand is not directly ripping off a name, likeness or song, but rather attaching themselves to a celebrity in order to use their fanbase to gain attention. We can go back a few years to see when that began.

Twitter Wars

At the 2014 Grammys, the Twitterverse gushed over Arby’s tweet at Pharrell, asking for the brand’s hat back. Pharrell (who has his own “blurred lines” with intellectual property rights) took it in stride, and he could have easily sued. And won. Easily won. Easily, easily won.

But he wouldn’t have gained much by winning; in fact, it would have shown he couldn’t take a joke. So he had no choice other than to ride the wave, and pretend to be cool with it. In the end it worked out. But those in the know had a collective realization that Arby’s had just dodged a legal bullet, both by Pharrell and the Grammys.

A wood gavel on a wood table

Let’s look at it from another perspective. What if you were Pharrell? Would you be happy to have your fashion put on blast during the Grammys by a brand without proper payment? What about other brands that pay to use your name, likeness or music? Would you like your name forever associated with this moment, without compensation, burned into Google search results for “Arby’s Grammy Twitter?” I wouldn’t.

High risk. High reward?

As legal would say, that tweet was high risk for Arby’s. The brand won, but in the same breath exposed itself to litigation that could have been damaging, both to their reputation and bottom line. But what happens in other cases, when the celebrity is less than pleased by the shout-out, and does something about it?

That same year, Katherine Heigl sued pharmacy chain Duane Reade for using her name and likeness in a tweet. Here’s the rub: She was coming out of their store at the time.

It was a $6 million misfire from the drugstore and failed on two levels. It used Katherine Heigl’s photo without permission, and used a paparazzi shot for which they did not have usage rights.

It was not a tweet, but a 2011 press release (yes, you can get sued for a press release), that asked Jersey Shore’s “The Situation” to stop wearing Abercrombie clothing. The failed publicity stunt and borrowed interest on a T-shirt design resulted in a $4 million suit from Sitch. In the end, he lost, but with two years of litigation and legal fees to consider, there were no winners here. But any lawyer worth his or her spray-on-tan should have won this case for the plaintiff.

Brands are not publishers

Social is confusing. Celebrity is confusing. Ownership of IP is confusing. But it’s important for brands to remember that just because they are using the same tools as publishers, that doesn’t make them publishers. And they are not granted the same permissions that publishers receive as journalists. 

Let’s take a step back: How would you feel if a brand used your likeness in an ad, without permission? A picture of you and your kids on holiday, or in the pool, or having dinner? It would suck right? And piss you off. It happened to this family when their Flickr image was used in Prague.

Celebrities deserve that same right to their image as we do, even in social media. And so do the photographers who shoot them. And when inexperienced social media creatives and managers engage, they are putting themselves at risk. Bloomberg’s people should know that. Arby’s should know that. Even Twitter brand darling Wendy’s should know that. Maybe they don’t, or just don’t care.

Think like a publisher, but remember as someone hawking goods, services, or political gain, you are not. Your rights are completely different, especially if you have a material interest to be gained by using that image. Forget the borrowed interest, the memes and create your own, better stories. Because sooner or later, the risk will not be worth the reward.

5 Ways For Agencies To Build Stronger Client Relationships

Outstretched hand

Recently on LinkedIn, someone posted a battle meme with the caption “Waiting for client feedback on banners.” Yes, it was meant as a joke, but it seemed to be grounded in truth. Many people shared their battles in the comments to the amusement of other agency peeps.

Which led me to ponder the following question:

Seriously, PEOPLE?

Maybe I’ve been blessed with great clients. Maybe I have a higher threshold. Maybe I was just raised to respect others. Regardless, never in my history have I said or done anything personally or professionally against a client. Because clients aren’t adversaries, they are partners. Sadly, many people can’t say that. They take their frustration and direct it on a client, rather than taking responsibility for the half-baked concept they threw at them.

So on this day of love, here are a few ways to forge lasting relationships between your ad agency and client.

Understand client incentives

sandaled feet standing on a painted circle next to another painted circle with lines.

Clients and ad agencies share many incentives, but not all. Do clients care that you get on stage and grab some hardware in the spring? Probably not. Does it matter to them how precious your idea is, and how it must be handled by a certain pricy director? Nope. 

What do they want then? They want to do good work and be recognized within their organization. They want to move up the food chain and get more responsibility and a bigger paycheck. They want to contribute to the bottom line of their company and show a correlation between sales and marketing. They want to be respected, feel heard and not simply bankroll a creative’s portfolio.

The problem is, many agencies care less about client incentives and more about their own. They are heavy on art and light on commerce. Sadly, the idea of “awareness” has given ad agency creatives permission to make work that is loosely connected to the brand, and more in service to industry recognition and their own careers. 

Respect the chain of command

Black and white image of a chain

Maybe you’ve done it, had it done to you, or awkwardly became witness to such an act. Clients aren’t your parents. If you don’t get the answer you want from one and try with another, that’s a clear sign of a flawed and immature relationship. It puts the client in an awkward situation, especially when they are leapfrogged and an idea is pitched directly to their boss. Short term, you may get your wish. Long term, you just alienated a client and eroded their trust in you and the agency. It’s poor form, and difficult for you both to recover from. They now must green light an idea that was forced upon them. Optics aside, it is one of the most demeaning acts an agency can inflict upon a client, both professionally and personally. So take it out of your toolbox and toss it in the Schuylkill River next to those guns DeNiro threw out in The Irishman.

Got a problem, talk it through

overhead shot of hands grabbing a piece of pizza with a bottle of coke next to them

Listen, there needs to be a bit of friction for the best work to come out. Client and ad agency relations aren’t all trust falls and pizza parties. There will be disagreements, and that is natural and ok. Work is better when all parties honestly weigh-in and have the trust to not always agree. But what happens when you don’t get your way is a true reflection of the agency/client relationship. Will you whine? Will you question publicly? Will you or your CD put the client on blast and send an email to the team explaining their lack of vision? Hopefully not, but it happens. The best thing to do is simply talk to them, one-on-one. Don’t make them take a defensive position, or have to justify their choice publicly. Get them aside, explain your reason, and hear theirs. And above all, once you come to an agreement, respect their wishes and move forward with grace.

Build trust

overhead shot of people having coffee

Many times at ad agencies, account people act as buffers between the client and the agency. I always hated that wall, and that doesn’t exist at Cast Iron LA. Earlier in my career, I would break protocol and work directly with the client on understanding their goals, needs, and incentives. The account people hated it, but for me, the headache was worth it because we developed a mutual trust that comes from shared respect. In the end, I was better able to understand and execute on their incentives. In 2020, the game of telephone between account and the people doing the work is flawed. Many things get lost in translation or softened in an attempt to not hurt feelings. Honest and direct feedback between creatives and clients is important to continued success and will weed out the misinformation that often results.

Listen, collaborate, be attentive.

woman in black long sleeve shirt holding white disposable cup

We do our best when we are working directly with the client. Often, ad agencies regulate them to the role of rubber stampers, to greenlight their “great” ideas. When that happens, agencies don’t fully utilize the client’s understanding of the product, the industry or the platform. A better approach is to create a more fluid workflow, with check-ins, unofficial brainstorms and a chance to allow the client to be creative. If you subscribe to the idea that only creatives do creative, it may be time to dust off your understanding of how an ad agency should behave in 2020. 

Here’s the reality. Clients aren’t the enemy. They are important members of the extended team. Don’t just have them approve, have them work with you. When you post on LinkedIn and perpetuate a stereotype that the client is the enemy, you are not doing a service to anyone. And when you don’t get your way and call them out to team members behind agency doors, you spread the poison and perpetuate the stigma.

The world of marketing has changed. If you don’t think of a client as a partner, then they probably share that same sentiment. And, quite frankly, that attitude may have already put you on borrowed time.

Time to leave your ad agency? 6 questions to ask yourself.

Person sitting at a desk

In the incestuous world of ad agencies, people rarely settle at just one. Accounts change; needs change; money, titles and opportunity call. So it’s no wonder agency people hop from place to place.

If you are considering a move or even wondering if you should settle in, here are some questions to ask before you jump the fence.

What’s my plan?

Make a plan. Put things on paper, even if they are clear in your brain. It makes it more actionable, and an easier way to be accountable to your career. Do you want automotive or fast food in your book? Are you ready to manage? Create a clear directive that plots out your career. You don’t need to hop around to hit those goals, it can happen in your own agency. All you need to do is ask. And if the answer is not what you want, then it may be time to look around.

feet jumping in the air

Do I like the people here?

Look up from your laptop. Better yet, take a walk. Remove yourself from the sometimes narrow perspective your desk tends to create. As you wind around the cubicles, the action figures, the ironic posters, look into the eyes of the people you see. Are they happy? Stressed? Unfulfilled? Are they making a difference? People are the most important asset an agency has, and if you are not connecting with the people, it’s impossible to connect with the work.  When you get back to your seat, take a second look. Do you respect the people on your left and right ? If not, find a place where you do.

What do I love more, advertising or life?

Ad people are narcissists, plain and simple. We love to see our work celebrated. But, we also love life, and how those experiences can be brought back into the work. It’s important to figure out what matters more to you. Blue-chip work for an incongruent ECD and not having much of a life, or having a life and not producing boatloads of notable work? Yes, these are not mutually exclusive, but there are agencies that don’t offer a real work/life balance. For some people that’s OK , But for others, it’s unsustainable. Plot where you find happiness in this work/life spectrum and see if your agency connects on that same axis.

What stirs my soul?

Oftentimes, we get caught up in the work and don’t take a moment to think about what we need to happily succeed everyday. For me, it’s about feeling creatively challenged. Other people may be motivated by money. Some put life first and work second, so freelance is a great chance to travel and not be bogged down by traditional schedules. Or, you can start your own agency. Whatever makes you happy, make sure you know what it is, and that you are getting it. If not, find a place where you will.

Empty conference room in an office

Am I too content?

Working at an agency is like being in a relationship. And like human relationships, the relationship with your company must be constantly evaluated, and not just by the veneer they show. How do they treat their people? Not with outings and things like that, but how do they really treat their people? Are they paying them enough? Do they give bonuses to all that deserve it? Does your ECD or account lead respect you? Are they diverse? Do they value you and show it? Are they firing the wrong people and keeping the ones who should be fired? Are they open to change? Does everything move too fast or in slow motion? These are questions to write down and ask in your quiet moments, away from the office. It’s easy to grow content with stability and a paycheck, but it could also zap the life out of you.

Black and white image of a high school locker

Am I ready to start over?

Moving to another agency is like moving high schools … in the middle of the year … with a giant zit on your face … wearing Crocs. And we all know how tough it is to be the new kid with or without rubber clogs. If the problem in your current situation is something you can discuss, save yourself the grief and do that first.

Because starting over is literally starting over. All the relationships, equity, overtime, hard work, great ideas, lunches will be behind you. All the times you went on Facebook only to like your boss’s pics will be for naught. All the real or rehearsed selfless acts from your past that won favor on your current job, will be forgotten–tossed out like the errant pushpins you left behind in your cube drawer. Those earned moments are not transitive. You will need to rebuild your relationships in human capital, and prove yourself to a whole new group of people.

Oh, and you are an outsider, so don’t forget about what an outlier always seems to bring: Competition.

woman asleep in a bed

Before you make a move, though, sleep on it. For a few nights. Maybe even at your desk and see if anyone cares. Ask around to people who work there, and do your research. Leaving takes courage and a fresh start somewhere else may be in order, but a wrong decision could send you down an unfulfilled path.

And once you go, never look back.  Life’s too short to put it in reverse.

What I learned from watching the Big Game with non-ad people.

Old TV In a room

My partner Luis and I have worked on at least a dozen Super Bowl spots in some capacity. Throughout our careers, we have spent countless hours strategizing , creating, agonizing, pre-releasing, hashtagging and working long nights in preparation for that big day in February.

Yet, when it come times to watch, we both separate from our isolated ad family, and turn towards our real one. Every year, I gather with right-brained, advanced-degree engineers, math chairs, chemists, and the like. Watching the commercials with a group like this is a true reflection of how commercials hit in a real-world environment.

Nobody cares about your #hashtag

They don’t know why everyone keeps saying ‘”Big Game” and not Super Bowl. They have no idea how brands painfully decide each year when and where to pre-release. They are blissfully unaware of the thought that goes into hashtags, where to drive those eyeballs, and how to chase those real-time responses on Twitter (which are as elusive as spotting a unicorn).

Real people aren’t ad people. And that’s why I like them.

Watching with ad people is a much different story. Everyone quiets down when the commercials come on, some even shush the crowd. Attentiveness is the buy-in for parties like this, and a focus is given to every crunch of a chip, every step of a Clydesdale, every flip of a hair-spray enhanced fast food burger Ad people give themselves completely to those moments, to deconstruct it all through a marketer’s filter.

This is their day. Don’t mess with it.

But the rest of the world doesn’t think or act that way. It’s simply good or bad in their eyes. Most of the year they avoid the product we create, and that pushes us to create bigger, braver, funnier and more breakthrough work for our clients. But on this one day, when the ad world gets its 15 minutes (in reality, it’s more like 40 minutes) of fame, they are still not rarified moments. Even when budgets, star power and craft is at its peak, ads remain the de facto time to hit the bathroom, refill on guac or swipe right.

Guacamole

For ad people, what is the measure of a Super Bowl success? Well, the USA Today Ad Meter is the most democratic, based on votes. But, it also requires people to vote on them all. And that is a bit of an ask for anyone who barely cares about ads. So the Ad Meter is probably more reflective of the marketing community talking to themselves, rather than a true indication of what the rest of the country likes. And lord knows, marketers spend most of their time in a orbit. Watching with non-marketers is a much better meter for what the real world thinks.

Real people don’t think like marketers

As marketers, we tend to look at performance, and try to recreate into best practices. Often, those practices are self-sustaining and are the result of us being the focus group of what works. But real people don’t think like marketers. Our world is foreign. And we need to give them what is right for our brands, but also what they deserve. Low-hanging fruit like puppies and babies work in this setting but we must reach higher. But not so high that we take them out of the celebration, to make them reflect on their life or the lives of others outside this three-hour carbo-loaded escape from reality. We consider our real audience, on the one day of the year they are slightly more captive, so we can nail that deft touch with our work on Super Bowl Sunday and every day of the year.

So next year, skip your ad friend’s party and toss out the confirmation bias like you would with the leftover onion dip (seriously, it can get you sick). You will find a focus group of real people is a much better indicator of success than ad people who will critique every spot while the actual game becomes texture.

Seeing diversity with 2020 Vision

Coffee mugs with different shades of coffee inside

Early in my career, I worked the front desk at a small marketing agency in Los Angeles. One day while I was answering phones and ordering lunch, the creative department was crafting a congratulations ad for a major music publication. The award was for Latin Music Producer of the Year. Instead of making it Del Año (of the year), it was mistakenly written as Del Ano (Of the Ass). 

And yes, it went to press that way. 

And yes, no one on the team was Hispanic. 

Not all decisions made in a cultural vacuum are as tragically Shakespearean as this example. But creating work for a target audience you may not fully understand is something that definitely happens even today. And that really needs to change.

Diversity is Essential

Diversity, across the entire spectrum of our connected world, is important to your organization. Not just because of political correctness, which seems to be a driver for some brands (and if you are doing it just for that, it shows). No, diversity is important because it is essential to the success of the work. If you see diversity as covering a base, you are not doing diversity right. And in 2020, that’s bad. 

Major guffaws aren’t all that common. But they happen. And they are amplified on a global social media stage for all to cringe, defend, laugh, or shake their head. The brand looks tone deaf, compounded by whatever other labels get attached. No one wants that. 

When we unpack the meaning of tone deaf, it is by definition quite passive. It means listening, but not hearing. In cases where brands are being tone deaf, I must assume no one is intentionally trying to offend. Perhaps the people creating and approving may not know or be emotionally intelligent enough to admit that they don’t know. 

Beyond the message

As we move toward highly targeted, hyper-segmented audiences, there is pressure on brands to fully engage with that audience. Yet, it’s not just about how the message is received from your target. It’s how the message will be received globally. And if you miss the mark, it can blow up in your face. 

So how can brands navigate the complex world of inclusive messaging? The answer is quite simple, engage the right people and listen. The complicated part is having those in a position of authority act on that information to avoid possible missives regarding race, misogyny, or simply brand buffoonery. 

For instance, I have to believe the person who put the young African-American child in a “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle,” shirt probably didn’t really think it through. It seemed like an absolute no-brainer for anyone with a pulse, yet somehow this image saw the light of day. Same for the copywriter who wrote  “Spike your best friend’s eggnog,” showing a man and woman in a holiday fashion ad. Examples like this make most rational people wonder, “How did this get approved?”

But could that holiday ad have changed if a woman weighed in? A woman who understands never to accept an open drink from a stranger? Could these other missteps have been prevented if people thought beyond their own worldview, or better yet, consulted someone who represents that worldview? 

Perhaps in all these cases someone did speak up but wasn’t heard because they were being “too sensitive.” And maybe today, that same person is quietly thinking, “I told you so.”

If you don’t have the right people on the team, you’re in danger of producing work that is both ego and ethnocentric. Even more dangerous is having the right people, but not listening to them. The entire group needs to be empowered to weigh in and be taken seriously. If you have a vision, include others. And leave the blinders at home. 

DIversity makes the work better

A diverse workforce isn’t simply around to provide cultural coverage and prevent PR disasters from happening. Saying that undercuts the importance of diversity. A diverse, collaborative team will help focus the work to make it better in general. To examine it from different viewpoints. Diversity allows exposure to an understanding other than your own. By drawing on varied life experiences, cultural references, and approaches, the work becomes more empathetic, sound, and respectful to all people, not just your target audience. 

So how do you make diversity a big part of your organization? First, make sure the people creating work are representative of the diverse world that will see the work. That happens when you hire people who are collaborative and have the ability to consider the message beyond the target audience. And, above all, create an empathetic culture that empowers and respects everyone on the food chain, and their decision to speak up. It is extremely important that people with power lift up others to create a more balanced and representative workplace dynamic. 

It’s 2020, and if you are not doing diversity right, it’s about time you get started. 

The Castoffs That Made Cast Iron LA

Cast Iron LA photoshoot on rooftop

How two 50-year-olds created a visionary digital marketing agency clients love.

The last casting session I did was in March. While there, I got a meeting request that made it clear my job of 23 years would be gone. I planned for the worst, barely slept, and the next day, my fears were affirmed. 

Last month, I was casting again in a downtown LA studio, and the memory of that moment was in the plastic folding chair next to me, staring at the white seamless. It felt as real as the day it happened. 

So I breathed. 

Yet, inside I knew this time was different. Now, I was here with my old partner, Luis Ramirez and our new marketing agency, Cast Iron LA. It was a strangely symbolic and delicate moment for us both. It gave me the chance to trade in the difficult, triggered memory of March, to fight for the light of this new milestone. I sat with my thoughts, rested my feelings and settled into this raw reality, trying to make sense of the new world we had built for us both. My partner knew the strange feelings I was wrestling with, and was there for me. 

Because that’s what partners do.

Staying Afloat

It’s almost dreamlike to think that eight short months ago, I had been cast off, and now was in a tiny craft with my partner. It was considerably smaller, we had to paddle, but ultimately, we were swift and in control. 

The anxiety I had previously felt from losing that big, safe vessel and all the people I cared about who remained on board, was swept away by the need to stay afloat. I was now a free-spirit, a digital vagabond riding the laptop workplace waves on a small vessel. We were wet, dirty and exhausted. And yet, it was beautiful.

Luis and I had been partners on some of my favorite, award-winning campaigns. He taught me so many things about brands and the need to personally participate in the platforms we were recommending for our clients. 

A few years ago, when I took over social and he took over digital, we only partnered on a few projects. Then, he was let go. On his own lifeboat. People come and go all the time in this business, but his exit hit different. Yet, several years later, when I was cast off, he was there to rescue me. The universe put our pieces back together, an old client reached out, and from there, more clients, more work, and our new agency was born.

We struggled with what to call ourselves, as naming a business is harder than naming a child. After many rounds, careful considerations, we ultimately landed on Cast Iron LA. It was the perfect name for a marketing agency started by experienced 50-year-olds. Because like Cast Iron, we get better with age. 

Rebirth

Cast Iron represents the rebirth of old metal that’s been cast away. It was the brake pad that kept your family safe while driving. The metal bridge that provided a way to work. The girder of a demolished apartment building that fell out of architectural favor. All those metal scraps were collected and melted together in a process that made them stronger than before. That’s why Cast Iron is so versatile and will outlive everything else in your pantry. As kitchen fads come and go, this one will remain. It is strong, resilient, easy to work with, and gets consistent results. 

The Cast Iron process is a mineral transformation and ours is a digital one.

And guess what. There are thousands of us out there. The old, discarded brake pads, the bridges, the buildings. We are marketing metallurgy. Big, experienced thinkers on small ships that thrive on the open water. Now, our collective wake is shaking up the agency world. 

Origin Story

There are less mixed-metaphoric parts of our origin story that don’t involve pans or ships. Without seed money, we started an LLC, and looked at everything through an efficiency lens. We needed an address, but didn’t need to work there. We needed staff, but not everyone all the time. We didn’t want to create unnecessary expenses that ultimately got passed on to our client partners, without any benefit to them. Our decisions would be smart, efficient and scalable. In an early meeting, our accountant said, “Start off the way you want to end.” We live by those words.

We also needed an ethos. What was our path and purpose? We want to share our gifts with the community, so we donate to causes we believe in, and volunteer in the area. We both have mixed-race families and care deeply about issues involving diversity, inclusion, mental health, and women’s rights. As we staff, we give opportunity to all underserved people in advertising, including those of a certain age who have been vanquished by an industry that values youth over experience.

More broadly, we want to help and inspire people on a daily basis. One place that happens is our Instagram. Every day we post ideas and perspectives that add optimism to the world. We don’t brag about the veneered world of #agencylife. We simply present a fresh, humble and hope-filled start to everyone’s day. 

Changing the Agency world

There are other big agency barriers we are out to break as well. I shoot every Instagram post, even though I’m a writer. And, at times, Luis, an art director, writes. Even at a small company, we didn’t want to be encumbered by self-righteous titles or dusty silos that slow the big agency ship.

Like many others, we got burned out by meandering processes that relied on the cog of the specialists to move forward, or having 25 people in a room, unable to make a decision or look up from their laptops to do it. Instead, we have chosen to be vocationally fluid, venturing into areas that traditionally seem outside the expertise a title may represent. 

Purpose

Our values are evident in everything we do. We needed a bank, so we chose one that had diversity and inclusivity. We did our homework, and believe it or not, Bank Of America topped that list. We needed to stand by our values, so we decided against entering a big pitch because of a little-known environmental concern we discovered. We go to Coffee Bean, because of how their employees stood up to a racist. We don’t go to Starbucks, for that very public moment of intolerance.

Zooming back into how we actually put food on the table, being multi-dimensional was the business way forward. Most big agencies struggle with scale, legacy leadership with fixed mindsets and processes that were made when people still smoked in their offices. Small agencies are more adaptable to change, but become highly specialized, and therefore rigid. Generally, there are two types of boutique agencies. A sector that specializes in the science, and another that specializes in the art. Our bootstrap background and growth mindset allow us to be both.

We use our experience to simplify the relationship between brands and agencies by offering direct contact between the creatives and the client. Bloat is our enemy, silos are our battles, so we are building creative teams that can create the work, manage the work and pitch it all to the client. That is our distinction. That is our disruption.

The Disrupters

Our renegade past continues to guide our bespoke future. Not so long ago, we were the digital pioneers of the mid-90’s. The disrupters who started when the Internet was born. We were the weird ones, the risk-takers, the misfits. We wore rainbow sandals and sprinted on Razors towards a future most agency leaders didn’t understand. They thought we were a fad. And they made that known. Sometimes expressed, but more often implied. We were never as good as the “traditional” creatives who did tv and print. Digital wasn’t creative. Then, social wasn’t creative. I guess, only a big, immeasurable, expensive TV campaign was creative. Sometimes, we felt like imposters. 

And more often than not, we were quietly treated as such. If you were in digital in the 90’s, you know what we mean.

But the digital misfits of the world are now driving the dynamism of the new agency economy because we know how to adapt. We fit, while others retrofit. The big agency ships are not so sturdy anymore. The water beneath them is churning and their course is obstructed by the collective swell of the small boats around them–nimble crafts that can move about quickly. Together, the misfits are looking for a new way. A better way. A way unburdened by the traditional agency model or the wide berth it requires.

Uncharted

Uncharted waters require a new path forward. A course correction for some, but simply a new heading for those of us beginning the voyage. All around us are the strategists, the photographers, the virtual assistants, all moored together. We saw the horizon, the storms up ahead. We jumped ship or were pushed off because our payload was too expensive to carry. Dropping weight doesn’t change the trajectory of a ship, though. It merely continues its slow progress until the next time it needs to do it.

The new agency world doesn’t look like Newport Harbor, it looks like Spring Break in Havasu. Experienced people hitching their small boats together to offer better services for less money. It is an attractive and efficient way for brands to stay afloat, as budgets get cut, workload increases and their agencies can’t figure a way to adapt. 

Read the trades. Right now, many agencies struggle to find efficiency and rely on historic relationships and bygone models to keep the lights on. Most holding companies are too large or simply don’t know how to adapt to the new changes, so they pad hours, add unnecessary fees, throw the interns on it, or absorb specialty boutiques which become more overhead and more removed from the work. 

Freedom

As we grow, our goal is to find multi-disciplinary creatives who can work beyond their specialty, directly with the client. This helps simplify the relationship between brand managers and agencies by offering direct, efficient connections between experienced, business-minded creatives and in-house marketing departments. The phone game between those doing the work and those pitching the work is inefficient and outdated, so we’d rather not be on that call. 

That happens when you have the right talent and are not bogged down by process, size or ulterior motives. We have no one’s ass to kiss, so we do what’s right for the client, not what’s right for our careers. We are early adopters of the new agency model and are glad to share these waters with so many other castoffs. 

Without them, we would be lost. We would not exist.

Positivity And Purpose

We’ve had our Lions, Clios, Pencils, Shortys, Webbys, etc. They’re distant relics of our past lives. With age, our priorities have changed. At 50, we don’t care about our books, we care about our client’s books. We don’t want to get rich, we want to make our clients rich. We’re less interested in heading to Cannes on the client’s dime, as we are about heading to get our daughters from school. For us, work and life do not live on opposite ends of a continuum. They live together.

As we self-actualize during our midlife, we realize what got us here today is positivity, purpose, listening and a sense of business acumen. That same law of attraction brings us worthy people and outstanding clients. And it will continue to keep us on this rewarding journey. That philosophy has allowed us to catch, rather than pitch.

We are Cast Iron LA, a small digital marketing agency, with clients in small business, medium business and big, international business. We help them efficiently navigate new waters with flexibility and experience at the helm. 2020 is the year brands should hitch their ship to ours, and go with us to the places the big vessels can no longer reach.

If you are still reading, you know we speak the unfettered truth. We invite you to join us on a journey that will feed your spirit, purpose and bottom line. Hit us up.

Breaking Brand

heart that is broken on string

When others control your brand more than you do. 

Remember brand campaigns of the past? They were those splashy reintroductions to the brand, when a new tagline, new logo or new objective would come out. They weren’t selling anything beyond an idea, an ethos, a spirit to drive the brand forward in new and exciting ways.  And hoping current customers (and some new ones) would come along for the ride.

I worked on brand campaigns. The team would sweat every word, every visual, cultivating a pure expression of the brand, synthesized into an epic 60-second spot. And maybe a spread. The platforms were limited and controlled. We were able to speak our strategically remastered piece uninterrupted. 

reputation management

But those were the old days. The life and death of a brand today can live today in a tweet that trends, a news story that goes viral, or an employee that makes an error in judgment. Because of that, many “brand” campaigns have devolved to more of a reactionary, reputation management approach with a conciliatory tone. The face of the brand appears more when something needs to be fixed, rather than something that needs to be celebrated. Think Chipotle after e.coli. Or Wells Fargo after the accounts scandal. 

Social media, cell phones and the unapologetic need to share have resulted in this hard-to-swallow fact for marketers: Your brand is only as strong as the person who represents it at any given moment. Sometimes that person is the face of the company, as in Subway and most recently Papa Johns. And sometimes not. 

Maybe your brand is being framed on a global stage by a barista in a green apron, casting personal prejudice across an entire brand. And all that brand work leading up to that moment goes down the drain as a new focal point emerges.

When your own employees hijack your brand

Look no further than the Starbucks Foundation to prove that point. It gives millions each year to charity, with programs around non-profit grants, community service, clean water and improving the community where their coffee is grown. 

The coffee chain has spent years cultivating a brand that is authentic to their ideals of standing for more than profit. They have reached pay equity across all race and gender in the US. They have moved to underserved communities after complaints that they only set up shop in white communities. 

Yet, that all came crashing down by a single employee who didn’t want two African-Americans to use the bathroom without buying coffee. The cost of $10 for two Latte’s and 10 cents worth of a toilet flush, led to many millions in lost revenue, crisis management, and a stigma that permeated the brand, including #BoycottStarbucks trending on Twitter.  In response, Starbucks closed 18,000 stores for a day to teach 175,000 employees racial bias training. 

Even if those employees were truly were not motivated by racism or unconscious bias, the optics suggest otherwise. And in a world of snap judgments and quick bursts of info, that’s what people will see. 

all employees are brand ambassadors

Like it or not (probably, mostly not) your network of employees are the new brand ambassadors, no matter what their title. The ticket agent that won’t make eye contact, the flight attendant who warmly greets you. The PR person who jumps on a plane after making an errant and tasteless tweet. For that moment, their individual identity is lost and replaced by the way they represent the brand, for good or bad.

But many times, it is hard for workers to understand they are doing more than just making coffee, ushering you to your airline seat or doing IT work. Education should not just be about racial intolerance. That’s pretty basic, and if someone needs training in that area, they probably should not be on your payroll.

Some basics every employee should know

  1. What your brand stands for, and how can they best represent that as they become the face of the brand, while performing duties on the brand’s behalf.
  2. That the values of the brand must come before the values or personal intolerances of the individual.
  3. That they are not being paid merely for their service, but for the ability to represent the brand with respect and dignity.
  4. Optics matters more than intent. Even if they are not targeting a particular group, if it seems like they are, that becomes the story.

For this to be successful, training should not begin after a crisis. It should be instilled from day one.  If you look at a brand like Disney, they have iterative analogies that help their cast members (not employees) figure out situations by following some basic outlines. When they are in public, they are “on stage,” jobs are “performances,” and uniforms are “costumes.” Everyone, no matter the level is trained to understand how to act, from day one.

The Commander’s Intent

It’s nearly impossible to run through every situation for an employee (or cast member), so defining an end strategy allows your team to make dynamic decisions that weren’t planned for. It’s a way to manage uncertainty, in a fluid world, and plan for the end, not for the steps to get there. The Commander’s Intent helps empower mid-term decisions for a pre-determined end game.

But it is also on the brand to keep their employees happy as well as trained. Because brand ambassadors must believe in what they do, or else they will give away a secret recipe, or even worse. So get the right people to happily live your brand every day, so all that good you build upon a corporate level, gets carried through.