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 Last Half Century · The Work World

How a Stupid Typing Class Changed my Life

In 1975 I was required to take a half-year of typing during my freshman year in high school. “That’s stupid,” I remarked. “I’ll never need to use typing.” I could not see any reason to master a keyboard in a paper and pen world. Despite my grumbling, I endured the class and learned to type 25 words per minute (wpm) on a manual typewriter. At the time, I had no idea how important 25 wpm would be.

Six years later in college, I changed my major to journalism. I soon discovered one of the requirements to get into my first reporting class was to type at least 25 wpm with only five mistakes. Basically I had to pass the typing test or change my major. I knew I could type up to 25 wpm thanks to my high school typing class, but could I do it with five mistakes or less? I still remember the stopwatch ticking as I furiously pounded the keys on the manual typewriter, knowing my future was at stake. One minute later I passed the 25 wpm mark with seven mistakes.

“Do you think you can keep up in the reporting class?” The teaching assistant said as she looked at me after pointing to my seven mistakes. “You have to type stories in class,” she explained. “Sure,” I confidently replied, not really sure if I could or not. All I wanted was to get into that reporting class. She approved me for the class and I soon found out I had a lot to learn.

“I’ve been a reporter for more than 20 years,” my instructor announced the first day of reporting class. “I run the news bureau at the capitol.” I felt intimidated by his experience and immediately feared my mere 25 wpm would not cut it. “First rule of journalism,” he continued as he reached into a large paper bag next to the podium. “The newsroom runs on caffeine.” He proceeded to pull out a drip coffee maker and told us he would provide all the coffee we needed. He made a point not to provide stir sticks to mix in the powder creamer and sugar. “Use your pencil for that,” he explained. “And call me Bill.”

After we all had a cup of coffee next to our manual typewriters, Bill then asked us to type a sentence he had written on the chalkboard. The room instantly came alive with the loud racket of 25 manual typewriters— keys clacking, bells ringing at the end of a margin and the zipping sound of carriages advancing to the next line. The noise made it hard to concentrate.

I was one of the last to finish typing the sentence and when the room was quiet we all stared at Bill. “Did you hear that?” he asked. My fellow students and I looked at each other with blank expressions. “The typewriters?” A classmate finally offered. “Exactly!” Bill smiled. “You need to get used to working in a noisy newsroom full of typewriters, shouting and wire service printers,” he explained.

A few weeks later I entered the classroom before the start of class and everyone was at the windows staring outside. I joined them and immediately spotted the rising column of black smoke from a burning building on campus not far from where we stood. “Well, just don’t stand there,” Bill said when he entered the room. “Go get the story! Be back here in an hour and type up what you find out in an article that will be due at the end of class.” I felt sorry for the fire chief on the scene as 25 inexperienced journalism students descended on him with questions about the fire. We quickly learned how to work under the pressure of deadlines — that breaking news can change your plans in an instant.

The practical things Bill taught in that reporting class served me well throughout my career. He nurtured my writing skills, even though the first few articles I submitted were horrible. He taught me to have a natural curiosity about things, to thoroughly research a story as he challenged me to have more sources in the stories I submitted to him. When I worked in a rambunctious creative department in an ad agency, I thrived on the creative energy displayed in the noisy work environment. Each time I stirred my coffee with a pencil, I recalled Bill’s words from that first day of reporting class. I always appreciated the fact that somehow Bill saw my ability as a writer even when I doubted myself.

If I hadn’t learned typing in high school, I probably would’ve changed my major instead of taking a typing class in college. I would’ve also missed out on Bill’s wisdom and encouragement. Which also means I probably wouldn’t be blogging. Sometimes in life things that seem insignificant — things we are made to do that seem stupid at the time — can prove to be important to our life.

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No More Righters Needed

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