Advertising and football—two topics on which I can wax poetic for days. They have a lot of things in common, including, using The Super Bowl as the stage to showcase premium talent. As a matter of fact, to prep for this highest of holidays, there are burned-out and exhausted agency folks, working on ads 24/7, much like the injured athletes performing every Sunday, Monday and Thursday.
To me, advertising has always been a competitive, combat sport, throwing around ideas instead of a football. And, the structure of an ad agency makes me think of a football team: there's a coach, a strategic analyst, the creative partners (interchangeable QB and receiver) and a strong defensive line (account group). There are also special teams comprised of graphic services, programmers, UX, PMs and editorial, without whom nothing would ever get produced.
The players in the ad game are regularly traded from one franchise to another—there is a diaspora and shifting of the same faces annually with a few new additions to keep things fresh. And, of course there are the free agents—the freelancers whose affiliation is dependent on the strength of the contract.
So, how can football be used to build a fantasy team in advertising? Read below.
(Disclaimer: if I didn’t mention your team or your favorite player, I’m sorry. If you want to your team to be represented by a QB and it isn't I'm sorry. There’s a lot of football fodder out there. If I got a fact wrong, please let me know—stats are not my strong point. If you feel I misrepresented your team, I’m sorry. I know how touchy the game can be… and football too.)
Lombardi. Shula. Madden. Walsh. Noll.
These coaches are legendary. You don’t even need to know football to recognize the name. Each one has a unique style: from the sideline tantrums of The Tuna or Harbaugh to the taciturn blank-face of Belichick (he has a way of raising an eyebrow that scares refs and small children). But, what makes a great coach? What is the secret sauce?
The Tuna was known for his outbursts, but he was more than bark, he had the bite of accomplishment. He was The Patton of football—a general who held the reins of his team, nurtured disciples like Belichick and Coughlin, and commanded strategically.
A coach is someone who recognizes the abilities in his players better than they do in themselves. He gives them room to develop, explore and not only do their job, but push them to excel without breaking.
It’s the successful coaches who understand how to develop talent and build a team that has synergy on and off the field. A coach might not be a “people person” but he understands character—a strategic thinker who is both ruthless, and nurturing. And, most importantly, it’s someone who has the players’ back and respect. The latter is earned. And, that is perhaps the most difficult task of all.
THE DYNAMIC DUO
Peyton + Marvin Harrison: 118 touchdowns
Payton + Wayne: 76 touchdowns
Young + Rice: 92 touchdowns
Marino + Clayton: 82 touchdowns
The QB and receiver is a symbiotic relationship based on synergy, trust and most importantly—strong communication. Ideas are like the ball, passed between them. They are co-dependent on one another. A great idea-pitch is useless if there’s no one to catch it. Take a look at Brady when Edelman and The Gronk were out with injuries. Brady, “threw the ball and caught the ball.” This resulted in the Patriots loosing their winning streak, because there wasn’t a partner to support Brady—to catch his ideas and parley them into a touchdown.
At the last minute, on a new business pitch, your partner will throw a Hail Mary. Aaron Rogers threw one during the Packers/Lions game. Richard Rogers caught the pass, resulting in a win. So, sometimes you have to be open (the key word) to your partner’s wild throws and catch the idea, because “going with it” could result in a win.
However, there are plenty of QB who throw wildly with no aim. And, there are receivers who have Swiss-cheese for hands or are unwilling to make even the slightest effort—they are closed-off to anything that is thrown at them. Those are the teams who look beaten at kickoff.
I think the key to a successful partnership is to be open—don’t poo-poo your partner’s ideas, and most importantly, take a crowbar and open your mind—and yourself—to the experience. Share. There should be NO TMI in a brainstorm session. It should be a safe-place, not a courtroom or inquisition filled with negativity and judgement.
However, be idea-responsible. Inform yourself, do your research, so you’re not throwing arbitrary brain-farts, which no one can catch. Also, remove yourself from your given role. I had copywriters who came up with visuals while I wrote a headline. Those concepts are always richer, because the idea is the focus and not individual bias. It should never be a division of: your job vs my job.
50/50 is a myth. A successful pairing is when you can only give 10% and you know your partner will make up the 90%. He does this because he knows that when he can only give 10%, you will be there to make up the difference. That’s how you score and win. And, even if you fail, who cares. You do so together. And, there’s always a bar across the street from every agency in every town.
ACCOUNT LINE OF DEFENSE
Reggie White. Joe Greene. Deacon Jones.
John Hannah. Gene Upshaw. Jerry Kramer.
It is said that a good defense is a strong offense. However, without a defensive line, the other team has the run of the ball and your offense—no matter how talented, will not get a chance to score. But, perhaps the most under-appreciated heroes are the guards of the offensive line without whom, the QB will get sacked or worse, hurt.
A strong account team is the creatives’ defensive-line against the competition (brands and other agencies). They do double-duty as guards, protecting the fragile talent from the client.
Through the years I had the pleasure of working with extremely gifted and dedicated account people. They kept me away from numbers and Excel spread sheets because, as one of my account counterparts aptly stated, “A creative doing budgets…that always turns out well!”.
Account are the Clay Matthews (the closest thing this planet has to Thor) to my Aaron Rogers. They are Marshal Yanda, protecting me from “silly client comments,” so I don’t get sacked while presenting. When they are not performing to capacity, I get my butt kicked, bruised and taken out of the game on a stretcher.
Account’s one major asset is people management and manipulation. I marvel at their skill dealing with creative curmudgeons and cranky clients while keeping a level head. But, I know that deep down they are shoulder pads and muscle, disguised in pumps and loafers.
STRATEGIC PUPPET MASTERS
Marvin Lewis, Wade Philips, Tony Dungy, Tom Landry, Bill Belichick
Do you notice a pattern? Most strategists eventually become coaches. It’s a bridge between the puppet master of plays to overseeing the full team. The former sits in a high tower, observing the moving pieces like a Dungeons Master. While the latter participates at field level and deals with the human factor as well as the tactical.
The strategist’s focus is on the enemy: a stringent analysis of big goals as well as tactics, strengths and weaknesses and a comparison of how the home-team can outwit, outmuscle, and outplay the competition.
The puppet master’s focus is the marketing landscape, competition, analytics, future and past trends, and an overall knowledge of the product and its genesis. A good planner will not only serve up the strategy, they will also guide the team into solutions.
This job is a strong crossover with account, but more granular and particular. Almost OCD. The workshops run by the strategist result in a blueprint on which a solid foundation of a brand is built and business winning play-books are written. Without them, we’re just running around the field blindly, looking like the Jets under Rex Ryan. (Sorry. No, really, I’m sorry, but you know it’s true.)
I used to think that special teams were nothing special, just some guys on the field who kicked the ball to the other team and then retired to wherever. Then I saw what the Vikings did to the Panthers in 2014. They blocked a kick, stole the ball and scored a touchdown.
This is true of the special teams on the agency side as well. These are the editors, graphic services, retouchers, programmers, UX, and especially the PMs. These are the unsung heroes of everyday agency production.
They are the ones who inherit my layer comps labeled: Layer 143, Layer 543 and (with a well deserved sigh and an eye-roll) still deliver the end product. They are the ones who have to work in two shifts to make up for latenesses in the schedule. They can get crabby. And, rightfully so. But, they always get the job done.
I will give you 2 examples and keep it short and sweet.
While Woody micromanages, and lords over the Jets, Mr. Kraft hires talent and gives them everything they need to succeed while trusting their expertise.
(Again, I’m sorry Jets fans. But, you know it’s true and you deserved better. I think Mr. Bowles might do better.)
Tim Tebow, Geno Smith, Johnny Manzeil, RG III
Ah, yes. The Wunderkinds. The first draft picks. The golden boys.
A lot of these kids are drafted and expected to perform like seasoned pros, yet they don’t have the maturity to hold a team together.
RG III got caught in a nasty battle between coach and management. The career of Tim Tebow faded with Rex Ryan who actually went through 3 inexperienced quarterbacks. They were thrown into a sink-or-swim situation without the proper guidance. The outcome: a waste of talent.
There are a few that were and are good-performers: Stafford and Luck. Both were drafted early, but they are not the norm, they are the anomaly.
Cam has been tamed or he’s grown up. Result: Panthers are 15:1. That’s what happens when someone is nurtured. They mature. They develop. They turn into a pro.
Much as in football, I see ad wunderkinds promoted to high honors too fast. I feel we do them and our industry a disservice. Talent is genetic, but, craft requires mentorship and apprenticeship. Agencies tend to compete for best talent out of school and reward it too quickly, before it reaches full potential. This stunts growth and becomes a race for money and title rather than good work.
So, next time think about not the big shiny stars, but the eager minds who work tirelessly and want to learn. Look at Brock Osweiler, he's been phenomenal as Peyton's relief, yet stepping aside in times of glory as in the January 3rd game. Brady—6th round, 199th pick. Aaron Rogers bench warmed for Bret Favre for years. Now he is and will be one of the greats. Give me a hungry mind and a strong will and I give you the next Super Bowl MVP or Cleo winner.
THE “PLEASE RETIRE”
Then you have those whom you love, respect, but they desperately need a Chapter 2.
Payton, I’m talking to you. Can you please, please, please retire and coach. That’s how you’ll get a SB ring to lord over your little brother. And, please let Brock play. He's good. You didn't need to prove anything more to us on January 3rd. Brock had it.
I think Brett Favre made a career out of not-retiring. I’m sure he will hold a press conference soon letting everyone know he’s coming back.
Steelers: You guys are like old gladiators. Pretty soon Big Ben will walk on the field with a walker. Most likely, Steelers will still beat the other team. Somehow.
As Hitchcock said, “Always leave them wanting more.”
Ray Rice, Ray Reevis, Reggie Wayne, Wes Welker
These are your freelancers. Some speculate that their loyalty is bought and sold with a contract, but make no mistake, when they are playing, they are fully committed to performing—their livelihood and value depends on it. They don't get involved with company politics. They can't. They just want to get the job done and move on.
Yet, there are some who stay with a team for years. Those are the monogamous free-agents. Look at Romo. He's been with the Cowboys for over a decade. Reevis is loyal to the Jets and New York (even if he bailed to get a SB ring with the Pats in 2013).
If you're a smart coach you recognize the wisdom a free-agent brings to the table. They have seen how other teams operate from the inside. And, although, freelancers will not reveal trade secrets, we offer experience and a detachment to politics with a commitment to getting the job done.
I have built a career out of being a free-agent that has spanned decades. The diversity of projects and clients makes me a better creative, because it plays into my wide range of competencies. Moving from one agency to the next enables me to have a unique and objective point of view. My worth is only as good as my project, so I have to perform each and every time. There are a few agencies that hire me on a yearly basis. I love working with them and their teams. It's like visiting friends. And, while I do get nervous with each new client, the thrill of something novel makes my job fresh each and every time.
In conclusion, the one thing that drives great football and great advertising is the love of the game. If you don’t have fun, it shows. It isn’t just a job, it’s a calling and a competitive sport. You gotta’ love the game and you gotta’ love the players. Otherwise, you can’t make it to the Super Bowl in football or in advertising.
Now, I'm off to watch ESPN on the treadmill and play Monday Morning QB.