Wednesday, 23 March 2011

You can always tell when they've finally had enough and are desperate to get the hell out of the place. They start "putting their book together." As the Creative Director of an ad agency, you learn to spot the signs pretty quickly. Suddenly, the unhappy Art Director – let’s call him, say, Kevin - becomes feverishly active. Uninvited, he starts popping up all over the place. Weekend work? No probs. Late night meetings? Too easy, count me in. Treading on toes and butting in on other people’s business becomes the order of the day. You see, Kevin will do literally anything to get some more ads out. He's desperately putting his book together.

Almost certainly, Kevin has been miserable in his job for over a year. Sure, he gets to travel a lot and go on all the glamorous overseas shoots. The expense account is good, too, with long lunches and fine wines galore. But creatively, well, Kevin feels stifled. And under-appreciated. Nobody asks for his opinions anymore. Ever since he was stabbed in the back by that red-headed bitch. Advertising is such a ruthless game. And despite the faux friendship they both feign, she is definitely getting on his nerves. That voice! Aaarrrrgggh. Worse, she keeps nicking his ideas and claiming them as her own. The chutzpah is unbelievable. So one lunchtime Kevin sneaks out to see a Headhunter. Furtively smuggling his "book" - the shiny black portfolio containing his very best work - out of the office, he hops in a cab for his secret rendez-vous in a cafe on the other side of town. Headhunters don't do a great deal, apart from make tons of money and the odd phone call. But you can rest assured they will immediately tell you one thing; that your book isn't up to scratch. Kevin sits there, stunned. Spread out across the table is his most famous campaign. As everyone knows, it won every top award in town; Best Ad Campaign of the Year, Most Effective Campaign of the Year, Most Memorable Slogan. How much more up-to-scratch can you get, he protests, his voice rising unnaturally. The Headhunter casually lights up another cigarette, flicks the ash over her shoulder, and shrugs dismissively. Yes, but that was way back in 2007, she says. This is 2011. That’s a lifetime ago in today's high-pressured world. What stuff have you done recently? What on earth have you been doing with yourself all this time?

Kevin frowns pensively, clears his throat and pushes his glasses up his nose. Of course, how could he forget? Eagerly, he starts describing the massive Anti-carbon campaign he spent so long conceptualizing. It was brilliant! Ahead of it’s time, unbelievably creative, dynamic… But the Headhunter cuts him off. So what? she says, dismissively - that campaign never ran. Nobody cares how good it could have been, she snarls, cruelly emphasizing the “could”. If it didn’t even get up, it counts for jack-shit. Kevin starts to sweat. It's true, he thinks to himself. Nor did the Mining campaign. Nor the... He stops himself. So many great campaigns he'd had in his head. Yet none of them had actually seen the light of day. Just loose ideas. Doodles and scribbles on the back of his pads.

He starts to stammer. The Grocery thing, that was really interactive, he says, trying to sound enthusiastic. And the, um… the Pink Batts was kind of an interesting approach to…

You cant put that crap in your book, sighs the Headhunter, wearily stubbing out her ciggie. Those ads bombed. Bigtime. They were a disaster. Nobody wants to see ads that failed.

Kevin gulps, lost for words. The reality is, says the Headhunter, ordering dessert, you can't put any of that stuff in your book. You got nothin’. What the top agencies are looking for these days are the big visual campaigns. Lots of dramatic footage. Raw emotion. Passion. That's what turns them on. And forget Australia. The really cool jobs are overseas.

Kevin nods, taking it all in. London, Geneva. Or even the really big one, New York. Forget piddly old Canberra. It’s a crap joint anyway. Way too political, for starters. And they'd never appreciated him here, not really. Let's face it, he tells himself, you're far too good for this lot!  

So what do I have to do, Kevin pleads, as the bill arrives and they agree to split it. The Headhunter looks thoughtful. Get a few new ads out there, she says. Visibility is everything. They've got to be topical, you know, current. Relevant! And noisy. Make people sit up and take notice. Find some controversial campaigns you can get involved in. Natural disasters are good. Floods. Earthquakes. Wars are even better. Guns. Bombs. Nuclear terror is best! Scare the crap out of everyone. Lots of opportunities for really graphic pictures. You're a heavyweight. So throw that weight around. Get them talking about you again. Write a few opinion pieces in the trade rags, too, just for good measure. Can't hurt.  

Kevin hesitates. He’s in a cushy job. What’s the big hurry, after all? Maybe I should just sit tight, he says, and see how things play out? You never know - the bitch might get hit by a bus crossing Northbourne Ave. The Headhunter gives him a withering look. Timing is everything in this game, she snaps. You’re in a great position now, you know, to put yourself out there. Capitalize on it. Who knows how long you’ll be in this job? Aren’t those bastards over at Abbott Robb Bishop sniffing around? Advertising’s a fickle game. If those guys win the next big pitch, then you lot are out on the street. Yesterday’s news.

Kevin nods, taking it all in. As soon as you've got your book together, says the Headhunter, give me a shout. In the meantime, I'll start lining up a few interviews. She smiles. There's a really tasty position coming up in New York pretty soon. Korean bloke. Completely useless. You'd be perfect for it.

Kevin grins, and thanks her profusely. Then he rushes back to the agency as fast as he can. There's not a moment to lose when you're putting your book together.

Copyright Rowan Dean 2011

Rowan Dean is a regular panelist on The Gruen Transfer and media consultant to Sydney Radio 2UE.

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