Look for Opportunities

I heard this interview on NPR last night about how the City of Omaha is taking advantage of Peyton Manning’s relentless use of their name on the field.

Omaha’s tourism department is busy scheduling media interviews. Omaha bakeries are selling Go Broncos cupcakes. Omaha breweries are crafting and labeling special Manning beers. Even one of the new penguins in the Omaha Zoo was named Peyton.

I love that so many people in Omaha began thinking, “How can we make this work for us?”

How are you taking advantage of popular culture? What are you doing with what’s right in front of your face?


The Lipton Millionaire

Not every project you’re asked to produce will be as sexy as a 60-second spot or an interactive microsite. You’ll work on table tents, tray liners, 40k online banners that can’t handle animation, annual reports and brand standards guidelines. It happens at even the best agencies. In fact, it happens especially at the best agencies. Because clients know they can turn more work over to teams that can turn something mundane into something remarkable.

Most of us couldn’t imagine putting a brand guidelines project in our portfolios. But if I had this idea and this case study, it would be one of the first things I’d show off in my book.

Trouble viewing? Click here for Lipton Millionaire.

Your Career Is a Network Of Random Opportunities

You will be presented with many doors in your career. You don’t always have to walk through them, but I’d advise you to at least consider each one. Maybe poke your head through and see what’s there. If someone from an agency you don’t think you want to work at wants to chat, why not at least chat?

Thinking back over my career, I can think of several opportunities that I completely passed on without a second thought. Some were offers made by people that I didn’t really take seriously. When I think of these passed opportunities, I’d like to go back and kick my younger self.

Here’s an excellent example of how this can work, by Jason Friedman at 37signals. 

Fawlty Reasoning

Recently I was watching an interview with Monty Python’s John Cleese, and he was talking about the success of Fawlty Towers. (If you’re not familiar with the show, you’re missing out.) Even though there were only 12 episodes, Cleese claims that Fawlty Towers has actually become more popular than Monty Python everywhere but the US where It mostly runs on PBS.

He says the one of the reasons Fawlty Towers was so successful was “because we worked so hard on it.”He and his co-writer/then wife, Connie Booth were writing scripts that were 135 pages long. When their producer told them the average 30-minute script was only 60 pages, they continued to write more than double the amount.

If anything needed to be cut, they could leave the best bits in. But it turned out they crammed in everything, giving the show a faster pace, which hadn’t really been seen on BBC comedies before.

Cleese says he and Booth would spend about six weeks on each script. The first three weeks were in developing the plot, and the last three on the dialogue. According to Cleese, writers today spend an average of 10 days on script, and sometimes as little as four, “which is why most of them aren’t very good.”

Cleese wasn’t pulling late nighters to look good, or because he thought his producers expected it. He’d already made a name for himself with Monty Python and could have easily coasted on that. But he was genuinely enjoying what he was doing. The result was not just good work, but fantastic work.

You may not have six weeks to work out a script, come up with an idea or develop a campaign. But you can get passionate about your work. And suddenly, it won’t seem like work any more. When that happens, my guess is you’ll be having a lot more fun, and winning a lot more awards.

Quarter 2

In his book First Things First, Stephen Covey says we can put our “to do” list into one of these four boxes.

Most of us spend our time in either Quarter 1 or Quarter 4. We’re either rushing to meet deadlines, or we’re burnt out and recuperating in front of American Idol.

The trick is to put more focus on Quarter 2 – the things that are important to us, but we don’t get around to them because there are no deadlines attached.

My experience is that Quarter 2 is where you build your book. This is where you start really tweaking and refining the ideas you’ve come up with for your paying clients. It’s also where you seek out pro bono projects that let you stretch creatively. It’s where you figure out a way to bring an amazing piece of digital creative to a willing client when they only asked for a print ad.

Very rarely can you build a strong book waiting for the perfect brief to land on your desk. Or delivering to the client precisely what they asked for. Your book grows or withers based on what you do with Quarter 2.

How to handle quality, innovation and superior customer service

One day you may be faced with a client who wants to run an ad saying something like “We’re committed to service,” or “We have the highest standards of quality.”

Very talented and committed account management may be able to talk the client down off this ledge. If not, do the best you can, make the client happy, and move on to something else as quickly as possible.

In the meantime, here are a couple suggestions for making the most out of such an assignment:

COPYWRITERS: If the mandated message is something like “We have a dedicated and driven sales force.” Write your headlines in the voices of celebrities. How would Robert DeNiro say this? What about Alfred Hitchcock? Or Will Smith? Or Richard Simmons? Some voices will be better than others. But you’ll be able to inject some personality into what would otherwise be a pretty dull headline.

ART DIRECTORS: In my experience, if a client’s set on a message like this, they probably don’t have enough money for a photoshoots either. So you’re stuck with illustration or stock photography. If that’s the case, try laying the ad out as if you were working on a different category. Do the layout as if it were a new cola. Or a snowboard. Or an insurance company. Or an airline.

I’m not guaranteeing these exercises will help you win awards and get a book piece out of the assignment. But they will make it more enjoyable. And you may discover a look or a voice you can use a little later on.

Also, you don’t have to wait for an uninspiring brief to cross you desk to try these. They work perfectly well on fantastic products and fantastic briefs, too.


Today at work, I attended an interesting seminar by Lee Silber and Andrew Chapman on simplifying and prioritizing based on what they call the 90/10 rule. It can be applied to life or work. Basically, it’s a way to focus on the 10% of what you do that you love the most and is most beneficial to you.

As I listened to them, I was reminded of what Mark Tutssell, then ECD at Leo Burnett, once told me. It was maybe the most liberating, stress-reducing thing I’d ever been told by a creative director. He asked what I was working on, and when I told him it was just some crap for one of our crappier clients, he said, “Get it off your desk. It’s not an opportunity. Spend your time on opportunities.”

Real opportunities are about 10% of what we work on in our business (if we’re lucky). The rest is just time-eating stuff. Your goal should be to increase that 10%. This isn’t to contradict what I’ve said before, that you should look at everything as an opportunity when you start concepting. But when it becomes clear that a project isn’t going to end up great and has gone past the point of no return, get it off your desk. Do your best to make it not suck, but don’t get sucked into the trap of spending tons of your time on it. Polishing a turd, some people call it.

Some projects will never be opportunities. Some projects have potential but get so overburdened with junk that they cease being an opportunity. Once you recognize a project has gotten to this point, get it off your desk.

Answers to Questions

A couple posts back, Bukes asked two really good questions.

Q: As a junior, how realistic is it to get to work on anything other than the “bill paying” projects?

Greg says: That depends on the size of the agency. If you’re in a small shop with only a few teams, you’ll work on pretty much everything. If you join a larger shop, the chances diminish. That’s why you’ll hear the mantra, “Take advantage of every opportunity.” You only get to work on tray liners? Make them tray liners worth entering into the One Show. You’ve only got a table tent? Make it more than a table tent.

Jim says: I wholeheartedly agree. Every project counts. And if it’s a tray liner, do the best tray liner anyone has ever seen. Then bring ideas for posters and napkins and in-store posters and anything else you can think of. I was offered my very first job because of an assignment to re-design the McDonald’s employee application during an internship. My partner and I wanted more stuff for our books, so we did in-store posters, drive-thru posters, menu signs and, yes, tray liners. The creative was okay, but the creative directors were just impressed that we took the initiative.

As a junior, you want to prove that you’re a source of great ideas. And nobody’s going to fault you if you say, “I know the assignment didn’t call for stunts, but we had this idea we thought could be really cool.” Just MAKE SURE YOU DO THE ASSIGNMENT first. It’s not “We didn’t want to do tray liners so we did a spot.” It’s “We did these tray liners AND had this other idea.”

Q: How long should you do that before you can expect to start building your professional book?

Greg says: You start building your professional book the day you start earning a paycheck. Not feeling like you’re getting enough great creative? You’ve got two choices: 1) quit and find another job, 2) start doing great creative. Give the clients something more than they asked for. If it’s good enough, most agencies will pay to run and enter it. Or go out and get a pro bono client. I shortlisted at Cannes this year with a client that I went out and found on my own. I had some great creative directors and producers help bring it to life. But if I hadn’t made the cold call, I wouldn’t have it on my reel.

Jim says: Keep in mind, high-profile assignments aren’t always all they’re cracked up to be. There’s a lot to be said about the tiny assignment nobody cares about. As a writer, I LOVE to do radio because (and shhhh, this is a secret), nobody gives a shit about radio. Creative directors nod along and check their blackberries when you present it, then it’s usually a junior client approving it. Compared with political, high-profile projects where you might have 9 creative reviews before the work even leaves the agency, assignments that nobody else cares about can be rewarding in more ways than one.