Never tell anyone outside the agency what you’re thinking

eaon pritchard red jelly planner stragetyIt might not be the mafia, but agencies require a cone of silence about their internal workings to the outside world argues Eaon Pritchard.

At the beginning of ‘The Godfather’, Santino ‘Sonny’ Corleone is in a clandestine meeting with Virgil ‘The Turk’ Sollozzo in which they discuss a potential partnership in Sollozzo’s nascent heroin business.

Sollozzo arrives in New York but has already ‘secretly’ allied with the rival Tattaglia family, but still needs the Corleone family for further financial backing and to ensure protection from the police and justice departments in the city, whom the Corleones have in their pocket.

During Vito’s polite refusal of Sollozzo’s offer, Sonny – inscensed by Sollozzo’s suggestion that the Tattaglia’s would guarantee the Corleone’s investment – breaks ranks and interrupts his father with an display of temper.

Vito calmly puts Sonny back in his box, and once their guests have departed expresses his disappointment with Sonny’s indiscretion.

‘Never tell anyone outside the family what you’re thinking again’.

the godfatherBut the damage has been done. Sollozzo, noticing that underboss Sonny is prepared to undermine the Don starts to think that a good strategy would be to take out Vito.

Sonny’s outburst not only undermined the Don but sowed the seeds for and undermining of the credibility of the entire Corleone family/organisation.

Many years ago, before my morphing into planner-ness, I was a designer in a small but emerging agency in London.

One Friday afternoon a not very senior client called up and asked the account person if we could make a small change to some element of an ad at the last minute before the thing was due out of the door.

Both the creative director and the planning director were out so the account person agreed, instructed me to make the change, the ad went off and that was that.

Later that evening I got a message from the planning director indicating we would be having a chat on the Monday morning.

By ‘chat’ it soon became clear that he meant getting the metaphorical shit kicked out of me by him and the CD.

By making a – what seemed to me to be minor – change to the ad on the request of a junior client, without consulting the CD I had undermined the credibility of the entire agency. I had made us look like we didn’t know what we were doing. I learned something that day.

Several years and several agencies later I sat in a presentation to a brand new client at an agency I had just joined. The ECD was presenting a campaign to this new client.

At the end of the show the client started making comments on the work and suggesting small changes to copy, edits and suchlike.

The ECD sat stony faced while receiving the feedback and then removed the work from the table explaining that if the client didn’t like the idea then we would take it away and come back with something else.

The client wouldn’t be put off, insisting that just a few of his changes and the work would be fine.

To which the ECD responded, ‘Thank you Mr [name], but we’ll come back with another idea. I don’t tell you how to make [product X] so please don’t tell me how to make advertising’.

That might look like arrogance to some, to me this was absolutely necessary. The creative credibility of the agency must be preserved, almost at all costs.

This is not about stroking creative egos., I have had many a stand-up fight with CDs over the years. It’s the planner’s job to make sure the advertising is ‘right’. For one’s own credibility that means being prepared to scrap.

However, those things happen behind closed doors.

It doesn’t matter how much I disagree with a creative director I would never voice that in a client situation or any other situation where his or her status could be undermined.

We all know that a huge amount of work goes into making the advertising ‘right’. But for the most part that work is behind the scenes. The focus and spotlight is on the creative output.

So when non-creatives undermine the creative product – by unquestioningly agreeing to client whims or making their own suggestions in the presence of anyone outside of the ‘family’ – it undermines the entire agency.

The popular notion of ‘ideas can come from anywhere’ is in part to blame for these incidents. Of course ideas can come from anywhere, however that does not make them good ideas.

Good commercial creative ideas tend to come from people who’s job it is to have them. When you devalue ideas, you capitulate. When you devalue ideas, you undermine the whole agency.

Before you know it you’ll become a chop shop and it’s a long long way back.

Never tell anyone outside the agency what you’re thinking, again.

Eaon Pritchard is planning director at Red Jelly


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