Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Mad Men: A Tribute To Florence St. George

Many of you don’t know that I am a second generation ad brat.  My dad had a very successful ad agency, Lawrence C. Gumbinner (Lawrence was my uncle, my dad’s older brother).  Subsequently, it merged with the New York office of North Advertising of Chicago to become Gumbinner-North.  Interpublic bought them in the early seventies.  In the late sixties, it was the twentieth largest agency in the world.  It was started in 1927 and over the years there were many stories I heard over the dining room table.

None of those stories were better than those about Florence St. George.  She was hired in the mid-fifties as I recall and was one of the first female account executives at any agency, anywhere..  There were other women who achieved more fame and notoriety, like Franchellie “Frankie” Cadwell, but most of them were writers. Florence preceded Frankie by a bunch of years.  And she was an account person, no easy task in those days.

Florence was smart, a great advertising person and a trail blazer.  She had a tough exterior, but could be very feminine – when it worked for her.  She exuded executive.  Her stories were fascinating. 

I don’t know much about her history, but Florence was the Director of Advertising of Hartz Mountain pet foods.  Somehow, she ended up running that account and others at my dad’s agency.  To my knowledge, she was, as far as I know, the first female account executive.  If you put some of the characters in Mad Men into skirts, they would be Florence.  And while in Mad Men, Peggy the female writer, is often the victim, Florence was never a victim of anything.

One of my favorite stories about Florence St. George was what she had to go through when she had to entertain.  The stories in Mad Men about dining and drinking are not an exaggeration.  But for a woman account person it was different and much tougher.  In those days, women did not take men out, not in business, not their personal lives.  Never.  But, after all, Florence was an account executive and was expected to entertain her clients, all of whom were men.

For those of you who are Mad Men fans, you see them out wining and dining clients.  That was very much the style of those days.  Clients actually wanted to visit their agencies - it got them out of their offices, brought them to New York (or wherever), and they knew that they would be taken out well.  It was, as I said, expected.

In the late fifties and early sixties, credit cards barely existed.  Fine restaurants all had "house" charges for their best customers.  When Florence joined the Gumbinner Agency she visited all the local good restaurants and opened a house charge account.  She instructed the restaurants never to present a bill to her table. Rather, they should add 20% tip and simply bill her company.  At the fine restaurants of those days it was not an issue; all of them did it.  The agency paid her bills to them immediately.  (In that manner, it was a much kinder, gentler time.)

However,  for a woman to take out a man, even a client, wasn’t without its problems.  Clients, obviously all men, were actually embarrassed by having a woman pick up the tab.  Florence told me that some clients initially refused to dine with her (all did, eventually), others actually argued with the maitre d’ about the bill.  If the restaurants demurred, she never went back.   But most restaurants honored her wishes despite the protestations of her male guests.  Florence could drink martini’s with the best of them and she prevailed and earned her client’s respect.

It was that way even when she went out for drinks with the boys from the office after work.  She was never expected to pay, even if the subject was legitimately business.  So anywhere she went she had to have charge privileges.  That was long before it was acceptable for women to go “Dutch” with a man.  I don’t think that started happening until well into the women’s movement of the seventies.

So, here's to Florence.  For her, it was really very much like Mad Women. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Promoting From Within Saves A Company A Lot Of Money

Not to bite the hand that feeds me, but I just came across an article which I’d like to share with my readers.  For years I have advocated on behalf of employees in that too many companies force their own people to look for jobs when all their employees really need is a small raise, a promotion or, perhaps, a simple pat on the head.

While the article is very dry and academic – please check the link – but the bottom line is that, on average, it costs 18% more in salary to hire an employee on the outside.  Of course that does not account for down time, recruiter costs and the severe cost in terms of lower morale when an employee leaves.  

While clients can squeeze their agencies to cut overhead – which is often none of their business – agencies ought to take a good look at their own turnover, which carries an amazingly high cost.  Many of those costs are often hidden and do not show up on a balance sheet. One of the great points made by the study in this article is that it often takes two years for productivity to catch up. That is a long time.  Now we all know that advertising has high turn-over.  Could it be that agencies are so used to the volume of employees leaving that they don’t realize that they could be saving money by actually keeping the people they hire?

I see all too many people who haven’t had a raise in three and four years.  I see people who cannot get rotated on to another business because agencies have forgone their rotation policies.  I see too many people who work fourteen and sixteen hour days.  At every agency where there is a wage freeze, everyone knows that all most employees have to do is to get another job and they will probably get a counter-offer with a raise.  Most of those candidates end up leaving anyway, as they should.

It doesn’t take a lot to reward people for good work and loyalty.  Sometimes, sending an employee and his or her spouse or significant other out for a nice dinner works as well as a bonus. Advertising should inherently be a rewarding and fun business, not drudgery.  

One thing which perplexes me is that in this day and age of wage freezes, when an employee leaves, a new employee can come in at a higher salary than the person who left.  That makes absolutely no sense.  If ad agencies want to make themselves more profitable, one way to do it is to lower turnover.  

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

AMC's "The Pitch" Is A Poor Reflection of Advertising

          WDCW                                          McKinney

On Monday, April 30, AMC network will be airing “The Pitch”.  In case you are unfamiliar with it, each episode will show two agencies doing a real pitch for a real account. This week they have been showing the pilot episode as a preview.  Much has been written about it and much more will be written.  

After seeing it, I understand why many of the major agencies turned the producers down.  In some cases it was because they did not want their proprietary processes to become public, but in most cases the agencies who said no did so because they were not interested in anyone seeing how they work.  Based on what I saw, that was very smart.

Frankly, I can’t imagine that anyone outside our business would be interested in this program.  At least in the pilot, and at least for me, there was no tension, no drama or build up. The truth is that creativity doesn’t lend itself to being shown.  In this program, after minimal discussion, each agency all of a sudden had an idea.  The editing was done in a way that there was very little evolution of the work.  Bing, bang, each agency had a campaign to produce.  The show was, for me, flat all the way.  And the worst part was that it showed the advertising business in a very poor light.

In the pilot, McKinney was pitching against WDCW (formerly Wong Doody, now Wong Doody Crandall Weiner) for the Subway breakfast business.  Both agencies are respected mid-size shops, WDCW in Los Angeles, McKinney in Durham.  In an hour program, the client “briefing” was probably two minutes long. The process of development and production was about 50 minutes and the pitch and awarding the account the balance.  While there was attention paid to the development of the work, there was no sense of strategy or even thinking. As mentioned, there was no sense of real development or evolution. 

While both agencies had creative people attend the briefing, there were no others – no account people, no planners, certainly no media. During development, there was no strategic input – just creative people throwing out ideas.  The program does a pretty good job showing brainstorming and ideation.  But there was absolutely no discussion about the client, the client’s business, the competition, the target audience.  It reminded me of when a bunch of amateurs get together to create advertising – we have seen this often on, say, “The Apprentice”.  It seemed to me to be ideas for the sake of the execution with no sense of any of the other elements which are part of good advertising.  As a result, the creative people came across as undisciplined, almost hucksters. There was no process for the development and approval of the creative.  There was certainly no research or testing.  I know that neither of these good agencies work that way, even with short deadlines (in the program, the timing from the briefing to the pitch was four weeks).

In fairness to both agencies, we have no idea how this segment was edited and what may have been cut out.  But, clearly, the program is in need of an advertising professional to advise them.  

Both McKinney and Wong Doody Crandall Weiner are smart agencies. Unfortunately, they came across poorly.  The format of the program seems designed to do that.  Neither campaign presented was particularly original, memorable or exciting. The winning campaign was nothing new and not particularly memorable. (Interestingly, there was a Subway commercial in one of the breaks and it had nothing to do with what either agency presented.)  

And, on second viewing, the outcome may have been rigged from the beginning.  I had a sense, although not really confirmed by the content, that the producers rigged the whole thing by picking the agencies and picking the client.  Based on the content of the program, they may have also picked the winning agency.
My bottom line is that this was not a particularly positive portrayal of either agency or of Subway, for that matter.  The ad agencies that turned down participation in this series were right to do so.

I would love to hear your opinions before the show starts airing and the real reviews start coming in.
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