Story time III: Dead man walking on Madison Avenue


If it’s Friday, it must be story time. That the new policy here at This Blog Sits At. (see the posts for last Friday and the one before). 

A couple of years ago, I was called in to work for an advertising agency. I forget the topic. It was probably something like the future of laundry or the world of beer. 

I was ushered in and introduced to the rest of the team. (I can’t identify them without giving the game away. Let me say there were a couple of foreign nationals among us.) 

The account manager give us our task: to think about the product category in question (laundry or beer), identify its most telling cultural characteristics, imagine the consumer in question, and see what the future might hold. (For those of you who are foreign to the world of marketing, this sort of exercise is sometimes useful for strategic and creative purposes.  It can open up new approaches.)

The account manager was then called out of the room, which left the rest of us to carry on. And carry on we did. After the usual awkwardness and false starts, we hit a gusher. Something about the people in place, something about the topic at hand, something about the feeling that we were, now that the adult had left the room, unsupervised children who could just go nuts. We just went nuts.

It was ideas for nothing, creativity for free. The ideas came pouring out. We were suddenly as gods. We could reinvent anything we chose to think about. For a little while we took up topics at random. Staplers! Coffee cups! Was there anything we could not think about? No! We were circus seals.  Throw anything at us and we could make it spin at the end of the nose.

The academic world trains you to dispute and cavil. It requires you to insist on your difference, your separateness.  In my experience, only the commercial world encourages this “one for all and all for one” approach.  If you are Marshall Sahlins (my advisor at the University of Chicago), you probably don’t care to be joined at the mind with 3 other people.  You’re so darn smart, it doesn’t really add anything. But if you are Grant McCracken, this is a welcome outcome.  You are now multiplicatively smarter. And vastly more creative. I had a new brain, and for those 90 minutes, I could see what it’s like to be Marshall Sahlins.

Ah, but you can never stay in paradise.  No, the account manager came bustling back into the room.  And he sought to bring his children to heal. This is a rule of commercial discourse.  The most powerful person in the room gets to say what you talk about, and how you talk about it.  It’s not a successful outcome unless he or she thinks it is.  

The account manager asked “what we had” for him and we told him.  His brow began to furrow.  His face grew dark. He was not happy.  He began to shake his head.  “No, I think this is crap.  You’ve missed it.”  And here he tried on a facsimile of indignation, as if to say, “I trusted you.  I left you to your own devices. And you disappointed me.”

Now, we were the captives of a contraction. We knew we had delivered the goods.  And we knew that the account manager didn’t think so.    So we did the honorable thing. We nodded gravely. We put on regretful faces.  We used face and body to acknowledge that we had failed him.  

Then everything suddenly changed. Our pantomime stopped. We couldn’t convincingly manufacture a show of apology…because until 5 minutes ago we had been as gods, creating ideas so good, so interesting, so robust, that, under normal circumstances, any agency would sell its CEO into slavery to have at them.  

We wanted to be good subordinates. We wanted to play out the charade.  But we just couldn’t and so we stopped. The account manager was still storming his unhappiness, still treating us as wayward charges.  But we knew better. We were not going to contradict him, but we could not agree.  Our only option was to shut up and stare at him.  Which we did. 

Still he stormed. The indignation towered. The room filled with his disapproval.  We answered with a civil disobedience. We just sat there. 

Then it ended. The account manager’s show of indignation came apart like a cheap suit.  He knew his position was crap and now that we had let him know that we knew it too, he just gave up.  

At the movies, this is the place where everyone throws their hands in the air, and celebrates in victory.  But it was so very sad, we just felt badly for him.  

We were looking at more than a moment of humiliation.  This was, in the agency world, what I have come to think of as a “dead man walking.”  Those who try to control creativity, those who dare to defy creativity, are not long for this world.  They will win some of the battles, but the marketing world is so idea dependent, they must lose all of the wars.  We were looking at a man who had made a terrible career choice.  We were looking at an agency ghost. 

5 thoughts on “Story time III: Dead man walking on Madison Avenue

  1. Steve Portigal

    It’s a bittersweet story, Grant. It reminds me of so many times I’ve been in the “gusher” meeting and have one person just make that little comment, or react in that most unsuitable fashion, and have the flow staunched, for good. The delight and play and forgetting-we’re-adults moment is gone, and it can’t come back.

    In my past life I worked in an agency situation, with others who were “creative” in one sense or another, and we had those sessions far more often than I do now in my small-business-entity. But putting up with the moody, the junior, the officious, the distracted, etc. as part of that culture meant those gushers were precious, increasingly rare, and incredibly vulnerable.

  2. Adriano

    This story also reminds me of when I was working for a company like the tv show “The Munsters” and I felt like Marilyn. They told me my work was bad, my designs weren’t very good, no matter what I produced it wasn’t good enough for The Munsters. In your situation you ended up lucky since the account manager finally realized his position was wrong or finally had seen the light. The Munsters will always seen Marilyn has a horribly disfigured and unattractive blond.

  3. Tom Guarriello

    This was the operative idea for me, Grant: “This is a rule of commercial discourse. The most powerful person in the room gets to say what you talk about, and how you talk about it. It’s not a successful outcome unless he or she thinks it is.”

    There are times, such as in the story you cite, in which this is not the case. This fellow made the “mistake” of allowing real people to speak with one another in that unregulated manner that characterizes creative discourse.

    Inmates. Asylums.

    Fatal error. Reboot. Defrag. Maybe even, reformat.

    Perhaps we are coming into a moment when the open source nature of WebWorld conversations will make the controlled “discourse” of CommerceWorld unsustainable.


  4. steve

    Ye gods, I’d hate to be in an idea meeting with you guys! One bad comment and I turn off the flow? Geez.

    I understand the idea of brainstorming and divergent thinking–never is heard a discouraging word, throw everything against the wall, etc.–but eventually some critical intelligence must be brought to bear. Most off-the-top-of-the-head ideas, even those generated collectively, are fatally flawed.

    Of course, if the critic lacks critical intelligence then you’re completely screwed, and that may have been the case in Grant’s story. But people in love with their idea children may not be the best judges of their deportment.

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