Words of Ernie, Part II: Big vs. Small Agencies

Here's another Ernie Schenck e-mail. This one was in response to my question about big vs. small agencies. It's a question I'm sure you'll face sometime. Do you want to go to a small place under the assumption that you'll get more opportunities? Or will a bigger shop let you do national work sooner? There's no right answer. Either way, it all comes down to the work. Here's how Ernie put it:

Here's the thing. Yes, there are some terrific small shops out there obviously. I'm really heartened to hear you mention Vitro/Robertson. I love those guys. I met Vitro in Maui for the One Show and told him so. There are others like them. Now, on the one hand, if you're really good, those little shops might want to grab you. Especially if you're willing to work for next to nothing and put in the time. They don't have much to pay, you see. Or do they? At your stage, just getting a chance to do some great work and win some awards is payment enough. If it were me, I'd be willing to work for nothing if I knew I could build an awesome book with a hot shop. It's kind of the browser model, you know? I mean, you give it away for free knowing the rewards will come later. Ever heard of Dylan Lee? Dylan got his first job with John Doyle. He later went to Pagano Schenck & Kay and later Mullen where he did all that fantastic Swiss Army stuff [see the CA 1999 Ad Annual]. Now he's at Wieden. Just a huge talent. On the other hand, you can go the big agency route. Not such a bad move depending on the agency. You'll make more money. But you will have to accept a lot of shit work for a time. What you'll need to do is be visible and be great. Get in the line of fire of the CD's. I don't mean politics. That'll kill you. I mean keep your head down and focus on the work. You'll get what you want eventually. Don't whine. Don't bitch and moan. Just do whatever's thrown at you. Look at every job as an opportunity. Turn it into something. I'm telling you, there's opportunity in everything. Will you get noticed faster in a small shop? Yes, of course. Look at Kara Goodrich. Kara spent a lot of time at Leonard Monahan. While she was there, she was more productive than any creative I've ever known. Turned out one incredible ad after another. So, again, if you are really good, you can really accomplish a lot in a little place, but the place has to be wonderful, too. Really, if you've got the talent of a Dylan Lee or a Kara Goodrich, you're going to be a star in ANY agency. If you're not quite that good, well then, you need to give it some thought. Of course, in your case, you're in the former group, correct? Anyway, that's my take.

--Ernie Schenck

A Little Practice

Copywriters, here is an excellent way for you to practice writing headlines on a weekly basis.

It won't get you into CMYK or the One Show. But it is a great way to hone your craft.

Things To Look Forward To...

I was cleaning out some old files when I stumbled upon these. A couple years ago, we shot a few commercials for Sears that required some giant props. They were created by the Stan Winston Studios in LA - the same company that created all the creatures for some pretty cool movies. These self-portraits were taken by me in their boardroom.

I thought I'd share them to show you want a fun business this is if you're willing to stick with it. This kind of stuff doesn't happen in banks and law firms.

The work comes first. And second. And third. And fourth...

Don’t be distracted by anything. The work is what counts. There are a lot of things that can get in your way, that take up your time and your emotional and intellectual energy; none of them account for anything. They mean nothing. The only thing, in the final analysis, at this stage of the game, that really counts, is the work. The work is everything. The years that I spent in advertising I saw an awful lot of people who had the potential to be good lose a lot of their ability to distraction. To politics, to fear, and to who has the bigger office. You’ll get the bigger office, you’ll make the money. Anything you want will happen, but sometimes it’s hard for people to see that when they’re in the middle of it. It looks like it’s incredibly complicated. Well, it’s not complicated at all. In fact, it’s so uncomplicated it’s amazing. All it is about is the work. Finally, if you do the work people will notice and you will get what you want. That’s it. It’s as simple as that.

– Tom McElligott

Things Not To Do: A Recap

Common mistakes from last week's assignment:

1. Mistaking a product benefit for a line of copy.
An ad for Metra cannot have "We get you there on time" as a headline with only a picture of a train and a logo to supplement it. It's like an ad for Nike showing a picture of someone jogging with "Very comfortable shoes" as the headline. Do not expect facts to speak for themselves. It's your job to use facts as a tool to evoke an emotion - to persuade.

2. Repetition of headlines.
If you write a headline, please don't submit five other ads with the same headline slightly reworded.

If you're going to reword a headline, don't submit 5 other versions of it.

Submitting 5 other version of a headline won't make me like it better.

Don't reword a headline five times and submit it as five different ads.

Please refrain from rewriting 5 different headlines, only to repeat them multiple times in your ads.

Same goes for layouts.

3. Not recognizing / exploring a fertile area.
Most of you touched on some very interesting ideas. But then you let them die by not exploring other executions. If you think you've found an interesting voice, a unique perspective, or a big, unexpected idea, you have to chase it. That means doing multiple executions. That means doing a lot of work.

4. Not thinking in campaigns.
Seldom will you have an ad that works better as a one-off than as a campaign. You need to start thinking in 3's and 4's and 5's. You should try to group your ads in terms of campaigns. If an ad isn't working as a campaign, chances are it isn't a big idea to begin with.

5. Working as individuals instead of as teams.
If you're going to work in teams (which you are for this week's assignment) you need to make a united effort. Most of what I saw last week looked like two individuals who just happened to clip their work together. Think together. Communicate with each other. Execute together.

Words of Ernie, Part I: There Are No Uninteresting Products?

When I was a student, the school gave us each a mentor. Because I was very good in a previous life, I got Ernie Schenck. If you're not familiar with him, you're not spending enough time with the annuals.

I still have all the e-mails we traded over the course of a few months. I'd like to share one of them with you. It was given in response to my question about how to approach a product that isn't all that interesting. He'd done some incredibly cool ads for a bottled water company called Akva, and I wanted to know how he approached such a seemingly dull assignment. How many of you would be thrilled if I assigned you a bottled water company this week? Not an energy drink. Not bottled water with vitamin supplements. Just bottled water. Pretty dull, right? Here's Ernie's ad (for a better view click, or just go to the 1993 CA Annual):

So how do you do an ad for an uninteresting product? Ernie says:


Actually, there are no uninteresting products. Only uninteresting ways of doings ads for them. I'm serious. When I was at Leonard Monahan, we had an account that made baby nipples. Baby nipples. Talk about boring. But those ads, at the time, with huge winners because the creative team was able to get beyond their blind spot about boring baby nipples and get into the head of young mothers, who as it turned out, had a huge appetite for learning about stuff like this. What's more, these were long copy ads. But they spent a lot of time talking about babies and how soft their mouths are and how important it is that a nipple be designed to accommodate their mouths, etc. Essentially, a lot of that copy was educational about babies and their oral anatomy as much as it was about the product.

As for Akva, yeah, water is water. But that campaign wasn't really about water, was it? It was really about Iceland. And that, I'm telling you, is a very interesting place. I won't get into it if you've seen the ads. But the point is that when you're confronted with what seems like a parity product, you have to come at it from some wholly different angle. It could be a country, Could be a baby's anatomy. I refer you to John Hancock. Wretched product, insurance and mutual funds. Bottom line-- don't take everything at face value. Not every product is a Porsche or a snowboard or ESPN. You've just got to work harder to drill down beneath the obvious dull stuff.

--Ernie Schenck

To Team or Not to Team

In response to an Open Forum question, let me talk about teams in terms of your job search.

Should you try to get a job as a team or an individual? Frankly, there’s no right answer. And you’ll hear a lot of conflicting advice on this because everyone has a different experience.

Y&R hires both individuals and teams, neither with more frequency than the other. I’ve seen people apply as teams only to have the agency extend an offer to one of them.

Every agency I’ve ever worked for hired me as an individual. My first job hired me because they only needed a single copywriter. I followed my old partner to Y&R, and having worked with her before made me an easy candidate. But they could have easily hired someone else.

But I once missed out on a job I really wanted because the agency decided it was safer to hire a team who’d already proven they can work together than gamble on hiring a writer and art director that had never met.

Every team I’ve ever interviewed has made it clear that they are applying as a team, but are okay if their partner gets an offer and they don’t.

So the only team advice I can really give is this: Never apply as a team because you think it makes you more marketable. Apply as a team because you genuinely like your partner and you get your best work done together.

If you have any questions or issues you’d like to see me address, please put them in the comments section of the Open Forums post.

Open Forum

Is there anything specific you'd like me to address on this blog?

Post your questions in the comments section, and we'll get to it.

5 Criteria

What do you want from a job? This may be a little early in the asking, since you're still in your first quarter, and you're just starting to make ads. Then again, it's never too early to start thinking about your future.

Between now and your graduation, I encourage you to come up with 5 criteria for the perfect job. They may change as you get closer to actually shopping your book around. That's fine. As long as you go into the market with your 5 criteria.

Let me give you some examples:
  • I want a job at an agency that has demonstrated a commitment to great creative work.
  • I want a job at an agency where I can work under a great creative director who will mentor me.
  • I want a job where I will have an opportunity to do television.
  • I want a job on the West Coast / on the East coast / in a cool city.
  • I want a job at an agency that has fewer than 100 employees.
  • I want a job that let's me work on national accounts.
I'm not saying these are all good things, or characteristics of "the perfect job." They're just examples of what you might be looking for.

You need to know what you're looking for in a job because 1) it will help you recognize the right job when you see it, and 2) it will help you work toward that job right now.

After I left school, I took the first job that was offered to me. Not because I was desperate. Or because I was nervous. I took it because it fit my 5 criteria. I didn't see the point in waiting around to see if I'd get any other offers once they were met.

Conversely, I've known people who've gone from interview to interview turning down offer after offer because the place just "didn't feel right." I won't diminish the importance of gut feelings. But I also believe these people were turning down jobs because they didn't know what they were looking for in the first place.

You've got time. But start thinking about your 5 criteria.

And let me leave you with these caveats:

  1. If you're serious about getting a great job, you must write your criteria down.

  2. If you're serious about getting a great job, money cannot - repeat, cannot - be one of them.

Ad of da Month

Ad of da Month is a new forum for viewing interesting work.

Pros: It's free, unlike Creativity.com (formerly Adcritic). And it's judged by industry leaders.

Cons: Some of the work that gets posted can be a year or so old. And not everything on there is worth emulation.

Still, it might give you some good inspiration.

Put this on your calendar.

Actually, there's no date yet. But I'd encourage you to all start putting a little money aside so you can attend the 2008 One Club Student Workshop next May.

As part of the One Show festivities, the One Club holds a student exhibition and workshop each year. While it may have changed over the years, here's what I remember about it:

Students from ad schools all over the country meet in the One Club's small lecture hall and are treated to a series of speakers. My first year, we heard from Mike Shine and Jamie Barrett. My second year, we heard from Bob Barrie and Eric Silver. Not bad people to listen to if you're trying to put your book together.

Following the lectures is a portfolio review. And it's with some of the biggest names in advertising (they've all come to town to pick up their pencils at the One Show). The very first person to review my student book was Mike Shine. Kind of intimidating. And a great thrill when he pointed to a couple campaigns he really liked.

The review lasts from the afternoon into the evening. Both years I attended, I probably showed my book to at least 30 different professionals.

Some people walk away from the review with job offers. I think that's pretty rare. But the real reason to attend is to show your work to some of the biggest names in the industry and hear what they have to say.

My first year, I had one campaign that I loved and one that I thought was pretty okay. At the end of the day (sometime around 9 pm), I'd heard over 30 people tell me the campaign I loved really wasn't that good. And the one I thought was pretty okay was very, very good. I believe you should trust your gut. But I also believe that that many top-tier people can't be far wrong.

The event cost me about $100. Maybe the price has gone up. The bus ticket from Richmond to New York was probably another $100. Except for the really big lady who sat next to me on the bus, who smelled like KFC and whose love handles robbed me of my armrest for the entire 7-hour ride, it was absolutely worth it.

Next May, you'll probably have your book together. Now would be a good time to start investing in its debut.


For those of you who'd asked, I'll reiterate my belief that 1999 and 2000 were exceptional years for the CA Advertising Annual. Both are replete with very good headlines and really tasty layouts.

That's not to say focus solely on these two. But in my opinion they were very good years for advertising.

The Mike Hughes Challenge.

This is Mike Hughes. He's president of the Martin Agency. They do some pretty great advertising. You'd do well to get a job there.

Mike Hughes tells the story of his first job in advertising. For his first assignment, he took out his typewriter (yes, a typewriter), and wrote 1000 headlines in one night.


I guess that's just one of the reasons why he's the president of one of the most awarded agencies in the country today. Fast Company did an article on them last month.

Do you think you could do that? Without the typewriter, I mean.

My friend Jim tried to when we were first semester advertising students. He actually numbered them. I'm not sure if he ever made it to 1000. I don't number my headlines. But if I were to take a guess, I'd say I average 500 per assignment. I could do much better. I don't think I've ever broken 1000.

So do you think you could do the Mike Hughes challenge? Art directors, you can play, too. Just do them in layouts.

We won't be checking this in class. But let me know if you ever reach 1000.

Process > End Result

Dear Class,

There seems to be some confusion as to the nature of this week's assignment.

Your grocery store ads were to be done off the concept Jeff highlighted on those write-ups you did. (They're your concepts. Not Jeff's. All he did was locate the concept you already established, and point it out to you.)

If you did your ads on another concept, I suppose that's fine. But it seems like it would have been busy work. You have your direction on your write-up. Coming up with a new area when you could be coming up with ads is risky. Sure, it could pay off. Yeah, you could discover a much more fertile, viable area. But to completely ignore your initial direction in this class or in an actual job would be folly.

Ultimately, I'm interested in your ability to make ads that will go into your book and get you great jobs. But here's a quote from Tim Delany:

“The strategy comes first. I can’t think of anything until I know the area in which I’m writing. The premise has got to be right. If the issue seems muddled or plain wrong, then I can’t start. So the first thing I do is sort out what I’m going to say, and check on it, and believe in it, and make sure that it’s what everybody wants me to say.”

Lastly, a few of you who've brought this to my attention have mentioned that you've already done your ads in a certain area. Already done? What does that mean? Please remember this:

There is no finish line. You will never be done. When you've completed an assignment, there will be revisions. When you've laid out your ads, there will be revisions. When your student book is put together and mailed out to 30 different agencies, you will still need to be coming up with ads (it's much better to send new work to a prospective employer than just calling up and asking if any positions have opened up since you last sent your book). When you have a job, you will need to keep coming up with ads because clients and creative directors will want revisions. The best creatives still want to make revisions to their work when it's appeared in the One Show.

You do, however, have deadlines. Yours is this Thursday at 6:00pm. And I would encourage you to keep coming up with ideas until that point.

I repeat: There is no finish line. Turkeys are done. Pot roasts are done. You are never done. That's what's so great about being a creative person. Learn to love the process more than the end result and you will be a great success.

See you all tomorrow.

“After an assignment is over, stop and think about it. What happened when you did good ads? What did you do differently than the times when you did bad ads? Then think about how you’ve got to do those things more often than not, like an athlete. If great athletes could only perform that way occasionally, it’d be terrible.”

– Gary Goldsmith

Right now, you are either asleep or having fun.

It's 11:22 p.m.

On a Friday night.

We have a big meeting on Monday we're trying to get ready for. It's a pitch. And I want to win the business.

I'm in my office waiting for my partner to finish comping up an idea so we can talk about it.

Every year, Optimus, a local editing house has an awesome block party.

I've had to work during the Optimus block party for the past 4 years.

Today, made it five.

While my partner and I have been working, we've seen other co-workers come back to the office after hanging out at Lollapalooza.

While I get to have breakfast with them in the morning, I haven't been able to put my kids to bed once this week.

It's not like this all the time.

But sometimes it is.

So I have three rhetorical questions for you:

1. Is this really the career you want to have? (I'm not on a downer. I enjoy my job very much. In fact, I enjoy my job a great deal more than most of my friends enjoy theirs. But it is a question you need to ask yourself.)

2. What is it about advertising that will help you get through times like these?

3. If you're not putting in these kinds of hours now, as a student trying to put his or her book together, how can you possibly expect things to be different when you have a job?

Something for the Weekend

It's a few years old, but this article from David Baldwin is worth reading.

How Nice are the CPS Softball Uniforms?

More words of wisdom from Sally Hogshead. She wrote this for one.a magazine a few years ago.

“The agency with the best softball team does the worst creative.”
By Sally Hogshead

I heard this one in the hallway. It was late, around 11 pm. We were in a pitch against an agency with an exceptionally good softball team.

I’ve learned a lot in agency hallways, bits of wisdom mentioned in passing while eating microwave popcorn. (This is especially true when you’re sharing the popcorn with Luke Sullivan or Jean Robaire.) Here are some of the more memorable words of advice I’ve heard, standing in line for the copier.

When pursuing a job, don’t send a fake foot to “get your foot in the door.”

Secretaries know more about what’s going on than we do.

It doesn’t necessarily matter if people say they don’t like an ad you’re working on. But think carefully if they say they don’t get it.

The wacky creative with noserings rarely does the coolest ads.

Brilliant ideas are fragile. They won’t get produced unless everyone in the agency is dedicated to helping them through.

The small space magazine category in the One Show has the least entries.

There are 5 elements to an ad. Headline, visual, body copy, logo, tagline. The more elements you can get rid of, the better the ad will be.

Warning: everyone’s seen too many fake warning labels.

Which agency you work for usually matters less than which accounts and creative director you work for.

It usually takes a hundred headlines to come up with one great one.

When a prospective employer makes all sorts of promises, remember that your salary agreement is the only promise they can’t flake out on.

That being said, don’t go for the money.

Most creatives can come up with a great idea. But the really successful ones keep coming up with them, over and over, as often as the client kills them.

Shock value only works if it’s tied to the product benefit.

In general, layouts look better when designed on paper first.

Don’t take anything into a presentation you wouldn’t want to produce. If we don’t present bad ads, we won’t do bad ads.

Concepts we’ve all used (proof of our collective unconscious?): Fake classifieds and Help Wanted ads... bugs smacking into windshields... Just Do It parodies... far-fetched comparisons to ancient cultures... fingerprints... long lines of people waiting to use a single public phone... anything to do with condoms or S & M.

Advertising people are the last great folk artists. Everything we do is anonymous, disposable, and useful.

Resist the urge to explain ads while someone’s looking at your portfolio.

A rule of thumb: The most interesting part of a headline goes at the end.

There’s an enormous difference between A- and A+.

It’s usually obvious in the first couple of weeks whether a new job is going to work out. Don’t wait around too long, hoping things will get better.

Donate your copy of Ogilvy on Advertising to Goodwill.

It’s almost always less expensive to give a creative more money than to try and replace him.

Don’t work for someone whose taste you don't respect.

Gangbangs ruin morale.

Agencies do not “turn themselves around.” The kind of work an agency does is an integral part of their culture. A freshly painted lobby, a big motivational speech, a new creative director can only do so much.

Scientific research has proven that good visual thinkers are bad spellers.

Repay the favor that someone once did for you. Meet with a junior.

Okay, we’ve all done it. But if you do an ad for a “freebie” client, it’s better to find something that sounds legit, instead of a veterinary acupuncturist.

Bill Westbrook’s concepting timeline: First, creatives come up with every pun and easy joke and really they have nothing. Second, they realize they have nothing and feel like hacks. Third, epiphany, a good idea.

Great radio spots are engaging within the first five seconds.

Politics happen when employees feel like they can’t let their work speak for itself.

Seek out the hidden emotions or insecurities that most people have, and few admit to.

So few people in this business use common courtesy. It’s always appreciated and remembered.

Smart beats clever.

When an agency is not totally committed to doing killer work, even talented and ambitious creatives have a tough time producing killer work.

Trust your gut, it’s smarter than you are.

Creatives usually come up with better work on the second or third rounds. (Don’t tell clients.)

Finally, we’re not all starting headlines with “finally.” Other headline formats to use with caution:
Think of it as a _(clever noun) .
If _(person or thing)_ had a __(noun)_ , this would be it.
It's like a _(noun) for your (noun) .

While we’re on the subject, fonts to consider packing away along with collarless shirts and Adam Ant CDs:
Caslon Openface
And the other trendy grungy fonts. (Yes, I know this one’s difficult, but it’s time. Let it go.)

Being a good partner is half of being a good creative.

It wasn’t any easier in the good ol’ days.

An agency’s quality of life is usually inversely proportional to the quality of work it does. Unfortunately.

The kid who’s book you crap on could be interviewing you one day. Go easy.

Sooner or later, people end up where they belong.

Send more thank-you notes.

Pick out a last name that people can make fun of.


I love these ads. They could have hit me over the head with a blunt message. Instead, they let me connect the dots. It's a platitude, but it's true: What happens in the mind stays in the mind.

“Creative people often don’t work hard enough. They go to lunch, whinge, and go home. They should be more prolific. If people want to write, they have to write and write and write.”

Tim Delaney