August 20, 2014

Confessions Of A Contrarian

I received an email last week from a reader.

The reader had some kind things to say about the blog, then asked a few questions. I thought the answers might make an interest piece. Here are the questions:
How did you continue to move along in your career while being so contrarian? 
What did you do to mitigate the negativity that a contrarian attitude so often incurs? 
You mean well. How do you get other people to understand that?
First, let's be clear about something. My career and my experience are in no way a model for anyone else. You have to do things your own way. I started as a copywriter and through a series of unfortunate accidents I wound up as ceo of two agencies. I guess that's the price you pay for not being a very good copywriter.

Anyway, here are some answers to the reader's questions.
  • While I have always had a contrarian bent, I didn't flaunt it until my career was well-established. What that means is that when I had to make a living, I mostly kept my mouth shut about the stupidity I saw around me. It is much easier and safer to be a loudmouth when you own the agency than when you're an employee.
  • I always tried to put my clients' interests first. Even though I may have thought what they wanted me to do was stupid, I didn't let my personal ideology get in the way of helping them. For example, if they insisted on spending a lot of money on a social media jack-off, I did the best I could to help them do what they wanted to do. If they asked my opinion, I told them the truth as I saw it. If they didn't, I kept my mouth shut and did the best I could.
  • Third, and this was probably the hardest part, I did not insist that everything done in my agency be done my way. The staff of the agency knew what the principles of the agency were -- we published them -- but they were usually left free to interpret the principles according to the needs of the client. There were times I wanted to explode, but mostly I bit my tongue and let them do it their way.
  • You are right that contrarianism is often misinterpreted as negativism. They are different things. This doesn't mean that I am not negative about certain aspects of our business -- I certainly am -- nonetheless, contrarianism and negativity are not the same thing. There are people who always think that if you disagree with them you are being negative. They are idiots, but you're never going to change that.
  • I am very gratified that you recognize that, despite my immoderate writing, I mean well. Many people do not understand this. Do I want people to like me? Sure, we all do. But when you sign up to be a show-off loudmouth -- which is exactly what bloggers are -- you are going to be criticized, disliked, and misunderstood. It is not something I spend time worrying about. I believe the advertising and marketing industry are drowning in bullshit and I feel a need to express that. I am at a very fortunate point in my life at which I don't really care where the chips fall.
  • The advertising industry is one of the trendiest industries in the world. As soon as an idea, a gimmick, or a fad becomes publicized, it immediately becomes ubiquitous. It was just a few years ago that every campaign had to have a street team, a flash mob, and a podcast attached to it. Now these are seen for the stupid contrivances they were. But at the time, it was heresy to be negative about them. If you questioned their value you "just didn't get it" or you were a "Luddite dinosaur." The pressure in the ad world - the pressure to believe what everyone else believes, to talk like everyone else talks, to do what everyone does - is oppressive and, if this is possible, even worse than high school.
  • Being a contrarian has its dangers. If you are going to swim against the tide, you'd better have damn good reasons and damn solid arguments. Otherwise people will  call you a petulant brat -- and they'll be right.
Having said all that, the most important thing you can learn from me is that the way I succeeded was by helping my clients sell a lot of stuff. All the rest is chit-chat.

For those of you who signed-up for more information about our One-Day Personal Reboot, please be patient. It's been a little busier around here than we expected and we probably won't be launching it until early October. More info will come soon, stay tuned.


Stephen Eichenbaum said...

well written, as always. I learned more than i thought i would from reading this, and will take several of the things you said to heart.

Cecil B. DeMille said...

I'm going to make a Luddite dinosaur bumper sticker and affix it to my old BMW station wagon. It will be nice to explain what "Luddite dinosaur" means, and that it has nothing to do with the old Bavarian sheet metal on which it rides.

timorr said...

A famous Nashville adman always said, if the client wants to do something stupid, "tell them twice, then take their money."

The sad thing is there is no shortage of unscrupulous agents out there who do not put their client's interests first. As a fellow once told me, better a stupid client should work with me than with one of them.

We never said, "The client is always right." We did say, "The client always get to win," because in the end, they can order us to do what they want, whether it's right or not. If we choose to resign the account over it, we are likely driving the client toward someone far less scrupulous.

Your suggestion that advertising is like high school in its pressure for conformity is absolutely brilliant!

Marcelo Peretti Kuhn said...

Great questions from the reader and great answers as well. As a fellow contrarian this gives me some hope. Even if it will probably mean I won't last very long in advertising, as my tongue is too sore and I don't want to keep biting it.