Drew Magary worked in advertising for ten years. SAD MEN is a series of stories from his time in the industry.
Virtually every ad you see on television—provided that you don't own a DVR and are still forced to watch TV ads on a daily basis—is the byproduct of an ideological struggle between an agency's creative department and the brand management people on the client side of the business. It won't shock you to learn that creative types at agencies tend to be liberal. Virulently liberal. The kind of liberal that regards someone who attends church as a hilarious anachronism that deserves to be endlessly mocked. And the fun thing about advertising is that it forces these liberal creative types to deal with staid, conservative clients on a regular basis.
Most client offices are located away from the cozy liberal confines of Manhattan, somewhere in a Midwest exurb. They are conservative both in politics and in personal modesty. They go to church. They vote Republican. They have sex in the missionary position. They're different from creatives in virtually every way. In no other circumstance would these two groups of people ever hang out together. And yet, here is an entire American industry that goes out of its way to unite them. Why? I don't know. Seems kind of stupid for a conservative company to pay great sums of money to a liberal agency that it will eventually grow to resent. But no one said this shit had to make any sense.
I worked as an account person for three years before becoming a copywriter, and being an account person is a shit job. At the top levels, I guess it's okay. You get to woo clients and take them out to fancy dinners and act like you're Roger Sterling. But you have to eat a lot of shit just to get to that lofty post. The job of junior account people is basically to get yelled at. Clients yell at them because the work is too edgy. Creatives yell at them because the work isn't edgy enough. Being an account person means essentially being the moderator between Limbaugh and Olbermann, a job only the most hardened masochist could ever want.
I had just handled my first TV shoot on my own. It was for Hershey's Pot of Gold. We shot one ad in Vancouver over Halloween 2001. As the AE, it was my job to manage the client, a very nice lady from Pennsylvania named Jenny (not her real name). And by "manage," I mean "hang out with her all the time." I drove her to Whistler one day because she wanted to see it. Two hours back and forth in the car. No significant dialogue of any kind. Like the Buscemi/Stormare drive in Fargo. We didn't even ski once we got to Whistler. We just looked at shit and then drove back. Later that night, after the client had gone to bed, I went out with the creatives to a nice fish restaurant. We racked up a $1,500 tab and I got stoned off my ass in the bathroom. Hanging out with creatives is way more fun.
Since that shoot was a mild success (i.e., the client didn't complain), I was assigned a much larger shoot the following month: a three-ad shoot for York Peppermint Patty out in Los Angeles. For this shoot, our client was a certified Promise Keeper named Dave (also not his real name). Dave was a very nice fellow who was never shy about expressing his extreme conservative viewpoints. I took him to Universal Studios the day before our shoot and, to his credit, he never mentioned that we looked like two gay guys out on a blind date. At dinner prior to the shoot, he told the art director and I that he was very proud of his five-year-old daughter because she went up to him one day and said, "Daddy, I don't like abortion because abortion kills babies." The art director and I both nodded and politely and said that was very sweet.
Our first day, we had to shoot an ad where a hospital orderly bites into a York Peppermint Patty, and then imagines he's an Olympic bobsledder, running down the hallway with a little girl in a wheelchair who is thrilled by the joyride. The orderly was a very large black man. The girl was a little white girl. And even though the client expressed concerns that a black man aggressively pushing a crippled white girl around would be "too menacing," that day of the shoot went over fairly well.
The next day? Not so much.
The next day we tried to shoot two ads at once. In general, this is a terrible idea because every TV ad shoot runs behind schedule and because you're always pushing budget constraints when you do this (it's amazing how often an agency will tell a client "Oh hey, turns out we can shoot one more ad with that that $300,000 of yours! Isn't that great?"). But agencies happily try to cram in extra spots to shoot because it means more potential award submissions.
The second ad we were shooting involved a young guy biting into a York Peppermint Patty and then driving a snowmobile around a neighborhood in the middle of summer (because he feels so cool!). So I get to the shoot with the client and they're prepping the exterior set, and right away everything goes to shit. The yard we were using had been dressed by a set decorator to look like a white trash neighborhood. There was a Gremlin parked out front. There was another car stripped of its wheels and sitting on cinder blocks in the yard. Cheap plastic flamingoes were scattered all over the place. Normally, the client is warned about this kind of thing in a pre-production meeting. You meet the night before the shoot and you agree on the shots and the sets and the costumes and all that. But in this case, the client either wasn't warned OR the client never bothered to look closely at the set designs in the pre-pro, only to realize they hated them once they saw them for real (which happens a lot). So Dave, the client, started to freak the fuck out.
"What is all this stuff?"
"Oh, this?" I said. "It's for, you know, color."
"It looks like the apocalypse. This doesn't make me wanna eat candy. Eating candy is supposed to be a happy experience."
"Lemme see if I can talk with someone about your concerns."
So I went to the creatives and asked if they could do anything. They said they would talk to the production assistant, who would then relay the client's concerns to the director. This chain of communication is standard on a lot of commercial sets, and it's every bit as inefficient as you think it is. Dave stood there for an hour waiting from someone to take away a flamingo or stick a nicer car in the driveway, but nothing happened. And so because he was unhappy, I was unhappy. I was forced to needle the creatives every seven seconds to do something about the Gremlin. And when a client is unhappy, they find other things around the set to be unhappy about. Our snowmobiler had a mustache. Why did he have a mustache? Kinda creepy, no? It's not unusual for creatives to overload on crazy shit on the set on purpose, just so they'll have shit to take out when the client complains. So I kept asking them to make Dave happy. That was all I wanted. I wanted him happy, so that the shoot would go over well and I could get stoned and drunk with the cool creative kids at the end of the day.
After another hour, nothing had happened. Dave began searching around for the director in an effort to appeal to him directly, but I tried to stymie him because I didn't want to offend the director. That's part of the deal of being an account person. You have to bust your ass to protect the egos of everyone involved. God forbid two assholes have a conversation to actually solve things.
"I'm not happy, Drew," Dave said.
"I'm working on it, Dave. They're just setting up the lighting right now. Once that's done, they'll address the set."
"This doesn't look like America."
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a production assistant walking toward the set with a dog. But 'twas no ordinary dog. The motherfucking dog was missing a front leg, just like on that one Alice in Chains album cover. Not only was the director not taking away controversial items from the set, he was adding to them. I tried to keep Dave from seeing the dog so that he wouldn't lose his shit.
"So Dave, how about that Jurassic Park ride at Universal? We got pretty wet together!"
"What's that dog over there?"
"Oh, that? That's nothing."
"Is that gonna be in the ad?"
"No way. Of course not. I'm sure it's just a seeing eye dog for one of the gaffers."
I flew over to the creatives. The copywriter was passed out in the video village because he was so hungover from the night before (a fact later relayed by the client to my bosses in their list of complaints). I had to talk to the art director.
"You can't put that dog in the spot," I said.
"Of course we can."
"Dave will freak."
"Who gives a shit?"
"I do. Don't bone me like this. Please, I'm begging you."
"I'll talk to the director and see what we can do."
At this point, it was clear that I had NO CONTROL over the situation. And that's a terrible moment in anyone's professional life: when it's clear that no one respects you or gives half a shit what you have to say. I was young and inexperienced enough to be steamrolled by everyone around me. And as a result, the inherent enmity between the client and the creatives was allowed to fully blossom. This wasn't really an argument about three-legged dogs or Gremlins. This was a battle of philosophies. The creatives wanted to challenge boundaries. The client wanted boundaries obeyed. We could have named the dog GAY MARRIAGE and everyone would have found it appropriate.
I told Dave that I was fixing it, but he didn't believe me. At this point, he went up to the director personally and threatened to shut down the entire shoot. Then he and the art director got into it. I tried to get them to stop arguing, but by that point I had had my balls sliced clean off by everyone.
Eventually, they did one shot with the Gremlin and the dog and the car-on-blocks, and then took it away for the rest of the shoot. And even though it was clear the client would never allow that first shot into the finished spot, our art director wasn't all that concerned. Many creatives will have an editor prepare an entirely different version of the TV spot for their reels, and that spot is the only one they really care about. Creative departments then go to great lengths to have that one reel spot air one time at odd hours, just so that they can qualify for award submissions. Such was the case with ol' Stubby the dog. In the end, everyone got what they "wanted." The creatives had bullied their way into a nice reel spot. And the client had a more genteel spot to air to American audiences.
But for the rest of the day, Dave and the art director refused to refused to speak to each other. The relationship had deteriorated completely. And I had to go back and forth between the two camps to listen to one bitch about the other. Dave was just another wingnut asshole client who had horrible taste. The art director was just another bossy liberal who respected no viewpoint other than his own. By the time the second spot was finished shooting, night had fallen and we had to rush through the third spot. When I got back to New York, our art director was taken off the business. The snowmobile spot never ended up airing anywhere because it tested poorly in focus groups. And I was never assigned to another major TV shoot as an account guy again. It was for the best. Trying to bridge the divide between two sides of the culture war is every bit as futile and pointless as you think it is.