Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Pay The Heroes Well

The article that came out last week about the creative exodus in Adland was not surprising. Interestingly enough, it reminded me of something that happened a few years back – a lunch I had with Hal Riney.

Hal was retired by this time and I had asked him to lunch because I was confused. You see, I had just returned from New York. I had gone out there for a handful of meetings with agencies, to try to get them to incorporate a new compensation model where they would be paid based on how good they were, rather than how many people they had working on the account.

The premise of the model was simple. The longer that viewers are engaged in a commercial, the better the commercial works for the advertiser. So, the more the advertiser should be willing to pay the agency.

In other words, advertisers would pay the agency based not on the effort expended, but on the result delivered. The result being, in this case, view duration.

I met with the managing directors at five very large agencies. After hearing what I was suggesting, each managing director looked at me as if I should be committed. “Why would I,” they all said, “want my agency to be paid based on how good it is?” “You do realize don’t you, that we’re now paid whether the advertising is good or not? Why in hell’s name would I ever want to change that?”

The right answer, of course, was because digital data will force you to change, but, as you can probably imagine, they didn’t want to hear that.

So, upon returning to San Francisco, I called up Hal to see if he’d be open to a lunch. His response was, “You buying?” When I said I was, he agreed to meet.

I explained the response I had received in New York and when I had finished, he smiled slightly and asked me this question. “Why are you surprised? “You must understand,” he continued, “that ninety-nine percent of all agencies know their work isn’t any good. There might be five agencies in the country who would agree to work the way you’re suggesting.”

The problem was that I needed to find an agency to work under the exact model that I had just explained to Hal. The reason being that one of the big three car companies wanted to experiment with the model. When I told them, “Great, let’s get your agency involved,” they shook their heads no. “Our agency,” they explained, “can’t involve a viewer for ten seconds, much less thirty or sixty seconds. Are you kidding?”

When I mentioned this to Hal, he said, “Well, I guess I could do it.”

I said, “You could do what?”

“Write the spots.”

I said, “Hal, with this model, you do understand that if nobody watches, or if they watch very little, you might make nothing?”

He looked at me the way that only Riney could look at someone. The type of look that made you feel like you were five years old and standing in dog droppings.

“Oh, I won’t not make money,” he said.

He went on to say that he can’t imagine any good creative person not being inspired by such a model. After all, what it does is allow creative people to be paid based on how talented they are, rather than an hourly fee as part of an agency retainer.

I had to agree.

He called me up halfway through the project. “Wilson,” he said. “This is f...ing hard. I realize that when people stop watching, I stop making money. It’s hard, because it means the work can only be exceptional.”

I saw what he had written a few days later and exceptional it was. Funny, poetic, poignant, six different stories, six different spots. One was six minutes and eighteen seconds long. Another, three minutes and twenty-seconds long. Another, four minutes and twelve seconds. Not one of them was a thirty or a sixty.

I asked him how he knew when to stop each spot when there was no imposed time limit.

“When the story is finished,” he said.

Of course.

What happened at the meeting at the car company when Hal walked into the room is another story for another time.

The reason for telling this one now is to let all those who feel that they are underappreciated and underpaid, know that there is a new model that is now available.

It’s a model that will let you be paid based on how good you are.

You will no longer be just a commodity. Your efforts will determine your lifestyle. The rewards of stardom will be spectacular.

If you are brilliant, it will allow you to be paid like a hero.

After all, for that brand, you will be.

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