Stupid Things People Have Said To Me In The Last 30 Days

I talk to a lot of people.

Sometimes it’s in an interview setting. Sometimes on a chairlift (yes, I ski a lot). Sometimes on the subway or train. Sometimes it’s just in the halls of the agency. And I guess, I’m just the type of person that other people feel comfortable saying things they probably shouldn’t. Here’s a sample.

Chairlift conversation
Woman #1: Do you have children?
Me: Yes, three.
Woman #1: How old?
Me: I have twin daughters who are 26 and a son who is 9.
Woman #1: 26 and 9?
Me: Yes.
Woman #2: No way it’s the same wife, no way. Right?
Woman #1: You know, that’s what I was thinking. No way. Can’t be.
(Now notice I haven’t answered yet – but they continued this conversation)
Woman #2: Can you imagine having children 15 years apart?
Woman #1: (To me) What were you thinking?
Me: At the exact moment of conception? I really don’t remember. (That kind of ended the conversation)

In the hallway of the agency
Man: You know, I’ve been meaning to ask you, is that a chicken pox scar on your cheek?
Me: No, it’s a burn I got when I was 2 years old.
Man: Man that must’ve really bummed out your parents.
Me: Actually, according to my family, they didn’t even notice for a few days. My father actually thought my mother accidentally burned me with a cigarette.
Man: Did it hurt?
Me: I was 2. I don’t remember.
Man: How come you never had plastic surgery?
Me: I guess I really don’t notice it. It doesn’t bother me.
Man: Is that why you grew a beard?
Me: No, I grew a beard because I hate shaving.

At an industry event
Woman: Don’t you miss being in consumer advertising?
Me: Not really, I love what I’m doing.
Woman: Come on, you got to miss doing real advertising.
Me: I think I’m doing real advertising. I produce TV, print, digital, you know, real stuff.
Woman: No, I mean real stuff. You know, consumer stuff. Not healthcare stuff.
Me: Come by the agency and I’ll show you the stuff we create.
Woman: Can’t you just send me a PDF?
Me: I can. But I won’t. Have a good night.

There are dozens of other really stupid things people have said to me. But I’ve decided to end with this thought: think first, talk second.

Otherwise, you may see a conversation we’ve had on this site at some point in the near future. And that would be bad.


The Death Of A Great Idea

I work in an industry where great ideas die every day. And it’s a pity because there are so few truly great ideas out there. When I judge award shows, I’m always surprised at how few really revolutionary ideas I see in the market place. And there are plenty of excuses and plenty of reasons and plenty thoughts. But here are the most frequent excuses I hear for why great ideas don’t get produced.

The client won’t buy great ideas
This is the worst excuse of all time. I always tell people, clients can only choose what you show them. If you only show great ideas, they can only choose great ideas. If after multiple meetings, you can’t come to an agreement on an idea, then either you have different measures on what makes a great idea; different agendas or you’re not listening to the real assignment.

Research waters down good ideas
People water down ideas. Not research. Research is a tool. A data point. But only one data point. It shouldn’t be the only data point. How you use the tool is up to you.

The strategy sucked
Bad excuse. If you disagree with the strategy, you shouldn’t start the assignment.

Not enough time
Time does not equal greatness. I’ve come up with ideas in a day, a week – heck – even a few minutes. It has never taken weeks to come up with an idea. Yes, time helps hone ideas. Time helps create multiple ideas. But sometimes the lack of time fuels energy, cuts out the BS, and helps everyone focus on the task. Time should never be an excuse.

Not enough money
I’ve produced terrible million dollar commercials. I’ve also created great one for $40,000. A guy can produce a great idea with a video camera in a dark room late at night. Production value does not equal greatness. How many terrible Super Bowl ads are we about to see? I can guarantee that each one was carefully researched and produced by professionals. Just the ideas are not good enough to be special. That’s why they suck.

Here’s the only real reason for not producing a great idea:

We weren’t good enough to create it, produce it, or work with our clients to help them understand why this idea was special.

It’s our fault. Perhaps we’re not as good as we think. Perhaps we’re not as smart as we think. Perhaps we underestimate our audience. Perhaps we get caught up in our own bullshit. Perhaps we just don’t want to admit that it’s our fault.

So the next time you’re passing out blame for why a big idea died. Begin by looking at yourself.


Morning Conversations With My Son – Part 2

A lot of people have commented how much they enjoyed my post regarding my morning conversations with my 9-year-old. So here are a few more that happened in the last 72 hours.

Spring Break
Son: Dad, can we go to Morocco over Spring break?
Me: Wow, Morocco? You know, your sisters want to come with us; maybe you should ask them what they want to do.
Son: Kristen wants to go somewhere with castles.
Me: You mean like France or Germany?
Son: I have a good idea, Mali. You know, Mali is one of the oldest kingdoms in all of Africa.
Me: I don’t think that what Kristen means.
Son: Maybe Kristen didn’t learn about Mali when she was in school. You know, she was in school a long time ago.
Me: I wouldn’t mention that to her.

Internet Status
Son: Did you know that Gmail now has status like FACEBOOK?
Me: I didn’t know that.
Son: I’m going to write something.
Me: What are you writing?
Son: That Jimmy (name changed) threw up on the bus this morning on the way to school, and had to be taken home.
Me: Maybe that should be his status and not yours.
Son: I had to smell it. I think I should get something out of it.
Me: Good point.

Body Hair
Son: When did you start shaving?
Me: I don’t know, early, around 13 or 14. Why?
Son: I think I have to start shaving soon. I’m getting this mustache and my legs are getting all hairy.
Me: I see.
Son: Also, some of the girls in my class think I should pluck my eyebrows.
Me: Why do they think that?
Son: They’re just looking out for me, so I don’t get a uni-brow.
Me: Did they actually use the word uni-brow?
Son: Yea, but only when they were talking about one of the other girls.

Son: Dad, why are boy underwear called underwear and girl underwear called panties?
Me: You know, that’s a good question. But there are all different names. Boys have boxers and briefs.
Son: And girls have panties and thongs.
Me: Thongs?
Son: Dad, I’ve been to the beach, I know what a thong is.
Me: Really.
Son: They seem really uncomfortable. Like a wedgie all the time.
Me: I wouldn’t know.
Son: How come boys don’t have thongs.
Me: (This is where I messed up) I don’t know, boys don’t have bras either.
Son: You know, Mr. Smith (name changed) should wear a bra. He’s got boobs.

So, in case you wondering what’s on the mind of a 9-year-old. Here it is. Most of the dialogue is as accurate as I can remember. And if you see Mr. Smith, please don’t stare at his man boobs.


Hello, My Name Is Rich Levy and I’m A Guitar Addict

This is all new to me. I’ve only been playing guitar for a little over a year. And yet, I can’t get enough of it. It’s like drugs. I have a little and I want more. I have a Gibson and I want a Martin. I have a Martin and I want a Fender. I have a Fender and I want a vintage Guild.

Of course, I’m in denial that I have a problem.

But the real issue is that like-minded addicts surround me. There are multiple guitar players in the office. I have a teacher who comes to my house once a week. A neighbor (who learns from the same teacher) takes the train with me twice a week. We all talk gear. We talk songs to learn. I’ve been lent a guitar for the weekend to ‘test drive.’ I can’t seem to get away from it. (A co-worker was recently thinking about my guitar ‘collection’ and thought a specific guitar would be good for me. I never thought of my guitars as a collection before.)

But here’s the secret. I don’t want to get away from it because I love it.

I love the tech-geek stuff about all the equipment. I love learning new songs that I’ve never heard. I love downloading the songs and listening to them for the subtle points that no music can provide. I love that my 9-yer-old son can recognize the voice of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, David Bowie and Paul Simon. I love that I’m learning all my favorite songs from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. I love that our living room has been renamed ‘the music room.’

Of course, I have years of material and things to learn. But that’s the beauty of music, you’re never finished learning. There’s always something else to learn. A new song. A new riff. A new spin on an old riff. A chord that seems impossible to play until you master it.

The other thing – you can have secret songs that you never play in public, but privately love. Here are the songs I’ve taught myself and play when I’m a little down in the dumps:

• I’m a Believer – The Monkees. Makes me smile every time.
• Suite Judy Blue Eyes – Crosby, Still, Nash & Young. Strange tuning (EEEEBe) and fun to play.
• Brown Eyed Girl – Van Morrison. Always picks me up.

I’ve also begun taking requests. My daughter asked me to learn ‘If Not For You’ by Bob Dylan (the George Harrison version), and a friend recently asked me to learn ‘Closer to Fine’ by the Indigo Girls. I also had a request for an ABBA tune, which I turned down. Even I have my limit.

So, yes, I’m an addict. And yes, I take requests. And yes, privately I also play ‘Stairway to Heaven.’


Tradigital Creative Positions

I have an eye opening experience last week.

In an e-mail to my students I asked what I thought was a simple question, “do you consider yourself a writer or an art director?” I have an entire department of creative folks, all started as either writers or art directors (with a few stray designers mixed in.

Of my 14 students — 9 consider themselves ‘creatives’ – neither writer or art director. Most say something like ‘hybrid’ creative or ‘digital conceptual thinker.’ Which led me to think are our traditional titles in advertising relevant to today’s industry? As we expect everyone to have traditional print, tv, radio, outdoor knowledge and digital, social, web expertise.

Should be be looking for Tradigital creative thinker?

People who don’t attack problems from the printed page. People who only think multi-channel because they’ve only known multi-channel their entire lives. People who embrace technology not because it’s cool. But because it’s the best medium to reach a specific audience.

This effects everything. How we teach in school. How we recruit as an agency. How we post jobs. How we create out website. How we talk about ourselves. How we think.

I’m intrigued by the possibilities.

In fact, the only reason why people hang on to the old ‘titles’ at agencies – is so people at OTHER agencies know how to recruit them, steal them, pay them. I know what to pay an Associate Creative Director. I have no idea what to pay a tradigital design concept creator.

But perhaps we have to stop thinking in the past. Stop worrying about the old ways. And start worrying about the future.

Because the next generation of students won’t care about the old ways. Just like they don’t care to call themselves a writer or an art director.


How A Client Inspired The Most Famous Campaign I Ever Worked On.

There are creative people – writers and art directors – who dread presenting to the client. They think that no matter what happens at the meeting, the client will make a suggestion that will make the work worse. I disagree. Because the most famous campaign I ever worked on, the Verizon wireless “Can you hear me now?” campaign – wouldn’t even exist if not for a client suggestion.

Her name was Lynne Geoca. She hadn’t worked at Verizon long. And yet she told me one little fact that changed everything. Probably changed my entire career.

I was in a meeting with her and a bunch of Verizon network engineers. I was asking information because I had created a different campaign, and I was looking for information that would help support the campaign. I wanted to know if Verizon could tell me where their network worked and their competition’s didn’t. And that’s when she said the magic words: ‘well, we do have the drive tests.’ ‘The what?’ I asked. ‘The drive tests, we have a bunch of guys who drive around in vans, and every few feet they test our network – and our competition’s network. So I can tell you exactly where we work and they don’t.’ My mind was now racing. People relentlessly testing the network every few feet to ensure your call would go through. Ka-ching!

By the time I got back to the office, I had a team of people working on this idea. A week later, the Verizon test man was born. Six months later it was on TV. Ten years later it went off TV.

And all due to a client meeting. A client comment. And Lynne Geoca. And of course, a team of incredible writer and art directors at the agency.

So don’t dread client meetings. A single comment could change your career.


The Worst Creative Presentation In My Career

Some people think that working in advertising is all great location shoots and award shows. It’s not. It’s hours and hours of work on project after project. Every now and then you get a really fun project that turns out to be crap. And there are times when you get assigned to a bad project that turns into the best project of your career.

And then there are times when you worked on these projects and you have really bad client presentation. And sometimes for really dumb reasons.

Here is one of these meetings. Probably the worst meeting I’ve ever had. Although it makes for a good story, at the time I wanted to quit the business.

Riunite on Ice, that’s nice – 20 years ago, my creative team was charged with coming up with a follow up campaign to this legendary (bad) campaign. There were many mandatories. You had to show 20-something people drinking the wine. You had to use the product “on ice” and the new tagline or campaign line had to use the words Riunite and ice in the line. After weeks of work, we had created a pretty good idea. (Oh, I forgot another mandatory – we had to shoot at the owner of the company’s house on Long Island). I went with the lead Account guy, Jim, to present the campaign. The lead idea centered on a line: “Breaking the ice with Riunite.” The basic premise is that we were making fun of bad pick-up lines. And that Riunite was a statement enough.

I finished presenting the idea. Everyone loves it. Junior Brand Director, Brand Director, Sales guy, Marketing guy, VP and SVP. Except the owner.

Account Guy: What’s wrong, I can tell you’re thinking about this one.
Owner: You know, with the old tagline line ‘Riunite on Ice, that’s nice,” people remembered Riunite, Ice and Nice – or Riunite is nice. But with “Breaking the Ice with Riunite,” people will remember Riunite and Breaking, and breaking is like cracking, and cracking is like crack, and crack is drugs, and drugs are death. So people will remember Riunite death (he repeated it), Riunite death.

Now, I’m not kidding. This is as close to word for word as I can get after 20 years. But my favorite part of the story was the agency response.

Agency: Do you think we may be over thinking this just a little bit?

We actually produced the spot. It sucked.

Yup, we concepted, sold, produced and spent months on a project. And at the end, it sucked. Just goes to show sometimes even a good idea should have died sooner. The end product really did equal Riunite death.


Maybe I’m Crazy – But I Don’t Think So.

Yesterday, I put the finishing touches on the syllabus I’m handing out the first day of class. I’m teaching Senior Portfolio Design. In one part of the document, I had to write down the grading criteria. A student’s total grade will be divided among class projects, final portfolio, presentation style, and class participation. And although other instructors in the past have given a portion of the grade based on attendance, I decided I couldn’t do that. I think that’s crazy.

I don’t think you should be rewarded just for showing up.

If you sign up for this class, I expect you to show up. It’s the only way to participate in class. It’s the only way to do the in-class projects. It’s the only way we can work on your portfolio and make it better. You get credit for all of these points. But not for just showing up.

Imagine this conversation with my boss a year from now “I would like a raise. I know I didn’t make any contributions this year. I didn’t do anything extra. But I did show up every day. I think I should be rewarded.”

She’d kick me out of her office.

What about this conversation “It’s not my fault my project stinks, you never provided any feedback. How was I to know that everything was wrong – you’re the expert not me. And yes, it’s true, by not coming to work, I didn’t give you the opportunity to look at my projects – but nowhere in the job requirements did it list coming to work everyday as a requirement.”


I shouldn’t have to tell you to that coming to work (or class) is important. You can’t succeed if you don’t show up. Showing up is the minimum. But it’s also the foundation of everything.

The last time I checked I couldn’t read minds from great distances. So I have no idea what you’re thinking unless you tell me. Hey, I can’t even read your body language if I can’t see you.

I admit I maybe a little bit crazy about this – but I don’t think so.


5 Things You Should Never Say In An Interview

I interview a lot of people. That’s an understatement. I interview a ton of people. Last year, I met over 100 people. By the time they get to me, most have met multiple people within our organization. I have reviewed their work. I want to make sure these people know what will be expected of them as a part of our organization.

In short, if you get this far, your 95% of the way to getting a job offer.

But I can’t tell you how many people screw up the last 5%. In fact, I’ve noticed a trend. I’ve narrowed it down to these few items you should never say, ask or do in an interview. It’s only 5 – so it should be pretty easy to remember.

• “I know I’m here for the (insert job) position. But what I’m really interested in is the (insert different job) position.” BIG MISTAKE. Once you get the job, we can talk about career path and career advancement – but never say you don’t want the job you’re interviewing to get. I want someone who would walk over hot coals for this position. Who will be relentless until they get it right. Who won’t quit. I don’t want someone who is only taking this as a holding pattern to get to something else. Sorry, you don’t get the job.

• “How much money will I make and when can I expect a review for more money?” This is a bad question because I don’t want to hire people who are only interesting in the position for the paycheck. The reason; there’s someone out there in some company who will always offer more. And you’ll leave. I don’t want to take the time and effort to train you, teach you everything we do to create great award-winning work only to have someone call an offer you $5,000 more – and you leave for the money. Plus – I probably don’t know the answer because I don’t want to negotiate with you. Other people in the organization will talk money. Never the hiring manager. Never bring up money. If someone brings it up to you, that means we’re ready to make an offer. But don’t bring it up first.

• “You know, I’ve spoken to so many people, I really don’t have any questions.” BAD ANSWER. If someone asks you if you have any questions about the organization, ask a question. Even if you’ve already asked it of someone else. Even if you already know the answer. Ask something. The interviewer wants to hear you talk. The interviewer wants to hear what’s on your mind. The question could be lob back at the interviewer “What made you want to join the company?” Anything. Just don’t say “No, nothing…”

• “What are the office hours?”
YES, people actually ask this question. It’s usually a part of the work/life balance question. While I completely support a work/life balance, the official office hours at an advertising agency are this: arrive in the morning – leave when you’re done. An advertising agency is a service company. When we no longer provide the service – they find someone else.

• “How long will I have to do this job, before I can get a promotion?” Hmmm, never. Some people are promoted quickly. Some are not. Talent. Situation. Group. Supervisor. All have something to do with promotions. But mostly talent and attitude. If you’re really good and really willing to do anything for the company, you’ll be rewarded. I don’t want someone who is already looking past the job offered to the next job. Sorry, you don’t get the job either.

There are many things that factor into getting a job in advertising. Talent is one. Attitude is another. How you present yourself in the interview is a third.

But what comes out of your mouth is (by far) the most important. So, if you don’t get the job you were hoping for, think back at something you may have said. And kick yourself in the ass.


The Time Warp

I’m reading a book, about a man who can go back in time. And once there, change the course of the future. I haven’t finished the book, so I don’t know the outcome. Can you can the future? Does he mess up the future? What happens? I don’t know yet.

But it got me thinking:

Looking back on my career, what were the defining moments? What were decisions that, if I made a different choice, would have altered my career?

1) Turning down a job at BBDO. It was the 80’s. BBDO was the hot shot. The Pepsi shop. They were the hardest working agency in NYC at the time. People joked that their initials stood for ‘bring is back and do it over.’ I was working at Saatchi & Saatchi at the time on Nabisco products. BBDO offered me a job working on coffee and soap. It was an Associate Creative Director position. I was already an ACD, and was looking for the next step. I turned it down. Two weeks later we lost all the Nabisco products after the agency ran an anti-smoking TV spot for Northwest Airlines. Ah, Nabisco was own by RJ Reynolds, a tobacco company. My days at Saatchi were numbers. I didn’t know it at the time. But this was the beginning of two years of bad jobs.
2) McCann-Erickson to Ogilvy to Dancer Fitzgerald Sample. I worked at three agencies in three days. I was working at McCann. I had survived through three creative director changes. Didn’t really like CD #3. I was offered a job at Ogilvy to work on TWA. Sounded interesting. I liked Ogilvy. I would work there years later. So I quit my job at McCann on a Friday. Unfortunately, Ogilvy lost the TWA business over the weekend. They called and told me they had no job for me. Opps. Luckily, Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, an agency that I also interviewed, called to offer me a job on the same day. So I resigned a job, lost a job and got a job all within three days. I was lucky. What would have happened if I didn’t get the DFS job?
3) Going Back. I was fired from an agency. Six months later they offered me my job back. I decided not to take it because we could never really come to terms on what were would say, how much I would make, and what the ‘spin’ would be to the press. I wish we could’ve figured that out. I liked that job.
4) Not Standing Up For A Co-Worker. A guy I was working for was going to be let go. The president of the company called me into his office to let me know. I was shocked. If I said ‘you let him go, let me go, too’ probably would have saved his job for a short time. I didn’t. I listened. Was upset. Left the office. When he was fired I felt like I betrayed a friend. I’ve discussed this with him on several occasions when we still get together. He feels nothing would have saved him. I wasn’t my fault. Although I always felt I should have done more.
5) Working in Allentown. Of course, my first work experience was as a newspaper reporter. I did it for only a few weeks. I hated it. But what if I had gotten a job in Philadelphia or New York or Washington, DC? Would I have stayed in the newspaper business longer and not worked in advertising at all? We’ll never know.

There have probably been thousands of decisions that would have changed my career path. Of course, you never know it at the time. Hey, writing this entry could change my career.

But somehow, I doubt it.