The Work World

Watch and Learn from the CEO

#titles — third in a series

Early in my career I worked for an ad agency as a writer. This firm had high expectations from its creative staff because the CEO was a seasoned art director. Mediocre work was not acceptable. My boss would repeatedly hand my copy back to me and tell me, “You can write better than that.” It infuriated me when I had to rewrite the same ad four or five times. But by the fifth time I grudgingly accepted that my boss was right. The rewrites were making me a better writer, but I also learned ads were more than just words.

The process of finalizing an ad — putting words and images together — was equally tough. I worked closely with the art director to craft an ad that would be memorable to whoever saw it. The Creative Director had to give the final stamp of approval before the ad was considered complete. More times than not, we had to go back to the drawing board to improve the ad. It was a brutal process that made us all better at our craft. But there was one final approval that was the toughest of all — the CEO.

In this agency creative was king and the king, the CEO, was a creative at heart. Everything needed his approval before it left the shop to go to the client. He demanded nothing less than our best. You can imagine my fear as I rode the elevator to the top floor with the creative director and art director to review the ad campaign we labored over for days. This was my first CEO review, but not for the other two in the elevator. No one spoke a word on the ride up, which only heightened my fear.

When the elevator doors opened, we were greeted by a receptionist. “He’s waiting for you,” she told us. My heart rate quickened as the three of us walked into the CEO’s office. A sharply dressed man in a deep blue suit with a stylish tie warmly greeted us. He acknowledged my two companions by their first name, then looked at me. “This is our new writer,” my creative director introduced me. I shook his hand. A firm, yet gentle grip that expressed confidence. He had an air of creative style about him, someone who felt details mattered.

“We can spread out the campaign on the table,” the CEO said. My creative director spread out the ad layouts on the table and the CEO instantly began to study each ad. The silence in the room was almost too much for me to handle as I watched him hover over each ad. When he finally spoke, he espoused creative wisdom, showing us ways to enhance each ad.

“The words and picture should work together,” he remarked. “If I put my hand over the picture, the words should become meaningless,” he added as he extended his hand over the photo in one ad layout. The moment he extended his hand, the watch on his wrist emerged from under his suit jacket. I didn’t hear another word he said.

“Oh my,” I said to myself. “That’s a Gucci watch he has on his wrist.” I stared at the watch and marveled at its sleek design — stripes of pearl inlay with small diamonds where the 12, 3, 6 and 9 would be on a watch. I once saw a pictures of this expensive watch and now here was one right in front of me. I became hypnotized as I admired the design of his Gucci watch while he waved his hand back and forth. “That had to cost a small fortune,” I thought as I stared at it, totally distracted.

“Do you see what I’m saying?” The CEO said to me as I watched his Gucci watch disappear under the sleeve of his suit jacket as he stood straight. “Uh, yeah, I do,” I nodded. “The pictures and words must work together,” I repeated the last line I heard. “Exactly,” he said.

A few minutes later we were back in the elevator with our ad layouts. When the doors closed and we started to descend to our floor, I blurted out, “Did you see his Gucci watch?” My creative director looked at me and smiled. “It’s a very stylish watch. It grabs your attention. It’s memorable just like our ads should be.” I smiled and nodded. He had made an excellent point.

To this day I still remember that Gucci watch on his wrist, waving back and forth. The image in my brain is vivid, as if it just happened a minute ago. I can still see the inlaid pearl strips reflecting multiple colors in the light. I wish I could say the same about the ad campaign we presented that day to the CEO. I can’t remember a single thing about those ads.

The Work World

Peeling Back the Veneer of Titles

The titles people carry can be intimidating. In the course of my career, I often had the opportunity to meet the people behind those titles. Because I worked a lot of years in corporate communications, I would often interact with vice presidents or sometimes a CEO. It didn’t seem to matter if it was a large company or small firm, the title always made me nervous when I first met with an executive. But more times than not, I left with an appreciation for the person behind the title.

This week I begin a series of posts I’ll call #titles where I’ll share a few of these encounters:

#titles – First in a Series

A Leak and Past Trauma Revealed

Early in my career I was a lowly writer in the corporate communications department of a large corporation. As part of my job, I frequently wrote articles for the weekly company newspaper distributed to nearly 10,000 employees. One week I was given the task of interviewing a senior executive at the company headquarters for a story on various overseas projects. I remember being very nervous as I entered his plush office on the top floor. He welcomed me with a warm smile and motioned me to sit on the couch in a small meeting area near his desk. As I pulled out my note pad, he sat across from me in a cushy chair and asked what I needed to know.

I promptly explained that we wanted to do a feature story in the company paper on the company’s overseas investments. I started the interview with some general questions about his background — what I thought were easy questions like where he grew up and what college he attended. Even though I tried several different angles, he avoided talking about his childhood or college years. He started to look uncomfortable, so I finally let it go and transitioned to questions about the company’s overseas investments.

We were about 20 minutes into the interview when his desk phone rang. “Excuse me,” he said. “Sure,” I nodded and silently sat as he answered the phone. I couldn’t help but wonder about the nature of the call as I noticed his face grew more serious the more he listened to the person talking on the other end.

“Oh no, that’s not good,” I heard him say as he rubbed his forehead. I wondered if he was being notified about some tragic event at a company facility. “Okay, here’s what you need to do,” he continued. I marveled at his calmness as he spoke into the receiver. I convinced myself that’s why he held the title “Senior Vice President” over a multi-million dollar division and I was just a writer cranking our corporate messages. He was cool as a cucumber as the crisis unfolded.

“Listen closely,” he explained. “Look under the sink and you’ll see two pipes. Turn the knobs to the right at the base of the pipes.” For a second I tried to envision what this emergency entailed. I pictured someone in a big building full of large pipes looking for two knobs as liquid sprayed all over the place. But then I thought to myself, “Wait, under a sink?” I glanced at him and he smiled at me. “Did that work?” He asked the person on the other end of the phone. “Good. Okay, call the plumber. Thanks.”

He hung up the phone and sat back down in the chair across from me. He chuckled and told me, “The bathroom faucet in my house broke and water was leaking all over the floor. My cleaning person was panicked and didn’t know what to do.” I nodded and smiled back. “Okay,” he said. “Where were we?” I suddenly felt more relaxed around him. I reminded him of our conversation before the phone rang and the interview continued. I appreciated that he openly shared his little plumbing problem with me and patiently explained to his cleaning person how to shut off the water. It said a lot about his personality.

Sad History Revealed

After the interview, I returned to my office and started to put the story together for the next issue of the company newspaper. In the course of researching this executive’s background, I found an article from years earlier where he talked about how his father drove a city bus. He revealed that when he was eight years old, his father was shot and killed when someone attempted to steal the fare box on the bus. I gasped when I read that, thinking how awful that must have been for a little boy.

I suddenly knew why he avoided talking about his childhood. His stern face when I persisted with questions must have been the pain he still felt about this tragic event. I now felt bad for pursuing what seemed like easy questions. It taught me that behind an important title, there is still a person — a person who may be dealing with emotions from past trauma; someone who is dealing with everyday issues like plumbing problems.

Next week: Flushing Corporate Rank in the Air