Going to work

May 19, 2021

Or to borrow a phrase from Heat,

Is the action the juice or is the juice the action?

When watching sports these days, its common to hear a commentator talk about one of the players “doing their work” and it got me thinking. When we see athletes performing at an elite level, this isn’t work in the sense you or I would understand it.

When we see athletes, it’s their job, but it’s not their work. It’s their evaluation. How they’ll be remembered. Stacked up against their peers. Given raises or contracts. Traded or cut.

The work is being done far away from prying eyes. In the gym. In the weights room. In front of their laptop, watching film. Only the athlete knows if they’ve done the work and they’re about to find out if they’ve done the right work.

The same can be said of agencies. Meetings, presentations and pitches are the evaluation. If you’ve put in the work, the right work, there’s nothing to worry about.

The Quarantine Diaries – Calgary Edition

April 2, 2020

Everything is changing, seemingly day to day in the wake of COVID-19 and the advertising business is no different. The Message put out a call for folks to tell them about the new normal they are finding in their lives and I was more than happy to do so. The Message was kind enough to post an abbreviated version of this on the-message.ca and allowed me to post the long version which was incredibly cathartic to write.


We made the choice in early March to make a long planned trip to Calgary and be with family for a little while. We talked long and hard about whether or not to cancel given the quick spread of the virus but ultimately decided that we would rather be with family in a smaller city than in Toronto. The airport experience was tough with a curious and energetic toddler but we made it through pretty well – it was emptier than usual and we were able to maintain a decent amount of distance from everyone else. We did see something pretty interesting though:

When we landed, we got the news that Ontario schools had been shut which made the decision to hunker down in Calgary much easier, even as this city closed ranks around us. The first weekend, when the wind chill got down to -30 something, was pretty tough but as social distancing kicked in the weather has heated up so we’ve been able to enjoy some appropriately spaced-out walks and find ways for the kids to keep active.

I work with a talented group mainly on the west coast so being on Mountain time has actually been a little better for staying connected. From the off, this was a dispersed team and we are lucky to have built a culture in the team that promotes remote working – Slack, Box and Webex have been and continue to be invaluable. 

Have you developed any good habits about working from home?

A makeshift standing desk on top of an old dresser

Any bad habits?

You’ll see why in a few moments but snacking from the city’s best stocked pantry has been a big problem!

Favourite quarantine meal?

My mother-in-law is a fantastic cook so we’ve been spoiled rotten the whole time but there was one amazing prime rib roast…(and the meatballs…and the bbq chicken…and then there were some fire pit s’mores)

Piece of advertising that can always make you laugh…

With no live sports, I’m grateful for Reddit users posting old highlights and ads including this NFL/All Blacks Rugby mashup which I really enjoyed:

Thing you miss most about the office…

The frisson of conversations off the side of your desk and the law of unintended consequence. One of the podcasts I’ve been listening to talked about the importance of ideas needing to “have sex with each other” which I thought was a lovely way to put it. One of the things I’m interested in seeing is how the need for in-person interaction in our, and many other industries, is married with the desire for more flexible working times and locations. Will the idea of The Office become more nebulous – becoming more important yet less populated at the same time?

What books are you reading? Loving it? Hating it?

I’ve gotten up to date on the Gray Man series (classic spy-action-escapism) but there are plenty in the hopper:

Any TV, Netflix or streaming recommendations?

In times like this, I turn to the old classics for some comfort so if you haven’t already seen it, now is the perfect time to be introduced to The Wire. In my mind its the best TV series of the modern era. Not only does it have some inspirational advice about self isolation, but it acts as a powerful commentary on the institutions we think are there to help us but which are manned by people out to help themselves.

What song best represents your current state of mind? Or what is on your quarantine playlist?

The Wheels on the Bus (go round and round and round and round and round) is getting heavy rotation these days – which makes a good podcast on a long walk even more appreciated.

Advice you’d give yourself six months from now…

It’s the same thing I always try to remember in this crazy business: don’t let the highs get you too high or the lows get you too low. Be resilient and strong for yourself and others.

Any technology challenges/triumphs?

Getting Webex to call me rather than dialing in each time made me feel great but FaceBeer/Tea/Rioja with old friends has done the best for my state of mind.

Presentation Tips for Agency Life

June 4, 2018

When I was writing last week’s post on the new business process, I started to conflate the idea of the pitch process with the presentation itself – and as the list was getting a little unwieldy so I broke these out because presenting is one of the most important skills to have in business. Being able to command a room. Communicating an idea – not just the “what” but the “why. Building rapport with folks you’ve never met before.

Careers can be made and broken in presentations and in the exposure to increasingly senior colleagues. I can point to at least five people I’ve worked with who were subsequently (and quite rightly) labelled as up and coming rock stars on the strength of their performance in a presentation. But what is often forgotten is that presenting is a team sport, so these are some tips to building and delivering a great presentation:

  1. Be the best you. A lot of this is just a reminder to do whatever makes you comfortable. From how you like to prepare, to what to wear and how to deliver your story. If something seems interesting and you try it and it works that’s great. If you read something don’t think it will work for you, that’s fine too. Hopefully you can take this and push yourself outside your comfort zone to be a little better at one of the truly important business skills.
  2. What’s your story? When you introduce yourself, either as a team or as an individual, tell a story. For you, personally, don’t let anyone else introduce you because it discounts your own expertise and builds unnecessary cognitive distance between you, your expertise and the story you’re about to tell.
  3. Tell a story with a theme. Its been called a thread of steel for a reason. If you can hang your pitch on one thing, you’ll be a few steps ahead of most of your opposition. Tell a story with an emotional arc and you’ll be miles ahead.
  4. Not having the courage of your convictions. You have a great idea that you love but instead of putting all your faith in that basket, you decide you need a second idea for the client to “kill”. Now you’ve divided your focus, your time and your audience’s attention. A great idea should be able to stand on its own; two ideas shows you’re second guessing yourself
  5. Who said that? I helped a couple of clients with agency selection last year and although we only saw two agencies, I found myself getting lost between who said what. Imagine that multiplied by five or six. One of the keys to pitching is being memorable and being provocative – bring that through into the presentation itself.
  6. Get the timing right. An old colleague would time you down to the second for your piece. Its a great practice, as is enforcing the timing. Nothing worse than someone stealing time in the up front because it puts the back end of the presentation at massive risk. We all have absolute horror stories on this one – the problem is the more senior you are, the more likely you are to steal time up front and the more likely it is that the junior folks have to “pay” for it by cutting their own sections on the fly.
  7. Don’t worry about repeating yourself. The folks you’re pitching to are seeing maybe three, maybe four, maybe eight agencies just like you. Repeating yourself and others can help your ideas be remembered. Hopefully through the quality of your ideas and being as provocative as you can be practical will help as well.
  8. Repeat other people. As well as being a team sport, presenting is another word for persuasion. Strengthen your collective argument by strengthening your collagues’ arguments – I always like to call back to something smart my colleagues have said to cement what they said and to build the argument I’m trying to make as well. You can do this in the q&a section as well
  9. To script or not to script? Whatever makes you the most comfortable. Some people need to be 100% scripted, others 100% off the cuff. Personally, I like to know what I need to say in general but also have specific sayings or turns of phrase that I can sprinkle in throughout. I often over write myself and the sayings can feel a little trite or staged, so I need to practice until they feel natural. Then I like to use visualisation to “see” me saying it in the room.
  10. Reciting vs Presenting. Again, whatever makes you feel comfortable. An old ECD I worked with used to have their notes on index cards which they always held, but never looked at. They were an amazing presenter and I always loved that quirk. I find that if I ever have notes, I get lost on where I’m supposed to be so they don’t work for me.
  11. Piling on. In the q&a section, it can be very hard to be consistent when there are lots of people answering the same question with their particular take on the subject. Because of that, I like the rule of one answer and one follow-on if its in a formal presentation. If its more of an organic conversation, the rules are a little different but for a client. However, I can’t imagine its great for a client to ask a question and hear three or four answers back – or how those answers can all be consistent
  12. Edit, edit edit. Too often we fall in love with certain sections, certain ideas or certain slides. As the presentation evolves, the content has to change too. Be ruthless (ruthless) in your editing. You don’t need all those words on a slide. You don’t need all those pictures or charts or graphs. You need simple, bold imagery which support what you say, not distract from it. Come to think of it, you may not even need a “deck” at all.
  13. What to wear? There are two schools of thought here. One is to dress about 25% more formal than the people you are presenting to. This builds credibility in you before you open your mouth. The second is to wear whatever makes you comfortable and ready to go so you can do the best job you can. Track pants and a hoody are comfortable at home but if I’m in a board room, I usually go for jeans, a crisp shirt and a sharp blazer. YMMV.
  14. Nail the landing. End with a bang, not a whimper.

Like the pitch process post last week, I’ll try to add to this as I see or pick up new tips.

What can go wrong, and right, during a pitch

May 28, 2018

I love a good pitch. The chaos, the creativity brought into sharp sharp focus by the constraints of time, the late nights, the camaraderie and the sheer relief at the end of it.

By no means am I an expert (the Mirren folks, Barry and Peter Coughter are amazing resources for people who need real help on pitches) but I’ve been a part of enough pitches to start this, an occasionally updated list of all the things that can and have go wrong in the beautiful, ugly, fulfilling and frustrating process of pitching new business as an agency. The list started to dovetail into the presentation side of things but that deserves its own post in the next couple of weeks.

  1. Pitching in the first place. My old boss used to say “there are two winners to every pitch. The winners and the folks that drop out first”. I love the qualifying questions Deutsch sends out, and its always great to know if there is a “preferred” agency…
  2. What’s the why? The minute an RFP comes in, there are a tonne of unanswered questions which can help your cause. Why this and why now are two pretty important ones.
  3. All in, early. You can’t run a winning pitch with folks in the wings dropping in and out of the process. If you’re in, you’re all in and you’re all in right from the start.
  4. Who’s in charge? Knowing the decision maker on the client side and what drives them will help you make all the big decisions you’ll need to make. What is their personality type? What will they respond best to? How can we convince them? Can we presell andy of the approach/strategy/ideas? If you’re in the dark, you’re hoping for the best and as a former colleague says, “hope is not a strategy”.
  5. Who’s in charge (pt II)? It sounds so basic, especially when its a bunch of senior folks but having one person who can drive the process within the agency and veto even the most senior person in them is oh so important to your ability to make decisions and move forward, constantly. Having to reverse can be a death knell to a pitch.
  6. Communication. Pitching builds camaraderie because of the massive pressures – and nothing kills that rapport more than someone on the team going rogue. A high functioning team needs to communicate well and often (d’uh) so implementing scrum sessions / group texts / slack channels can keep everyone on the same page.
  7. Getting more time. If you get a week’s extension, or even more, take the time to consider if you want to optimise what you’ve already got or toss it and start again. This is good for your everyday life as well.
  8. What’s in it for them, not me? If you’re on the list, or in the room, the potential client knows why. Don’t talk about yourself unless its in the context of how what you’ve done and achieved in the past can help this particular client This is a key part of how we picked up a tonne of business in the past. Once you’ve done it this way, you’ll never want to pitch the old school style creds deck again.
  9. Are you pitching to win? Or are you pitching the work you want to do? Sometimes there’s a difference and if there is, this is a choice to make right at the start…and follow it through. Losing smarts either way.
  10. Focus, focus, focus. Another decision to make is how far down the line are you going? Are you going to lay out a deep, rich, insightful strategy, buoyed by real consumer research and testing? Are you going to lay it on the line with an awesome, compelling idea? And if so, how will you show the idea? Will you make stuff for it? This comes back to knowing your client and committing to your path forward.
  11. Timing vs Process. Pitches are incredibly compressed and one of the biggest decisions is how you’re going to get everything done. You are rarely in the position to work with the potential clients as if you were actually working with them in the research > strategy > brief > creative > creative reviews > creative tweaks > final creative > experience layers // propagation // etc. So, are you going to waterfall, agile or parallel path everything? There’s value and risk in each approach and as always, you need to make that decision early, rather than have it made for you. One of the biggest wins I was part of was a parallel path job with all the strands being brought back together right at the end…with literally minutes to spare.
    • Truth be told, its much easier to pitch as a (traditional) PR shop, than as a creative shop, in general. Within the PR construct, you have generalists of varying levels of seniority who can strategise and ideate almost simultaneously, vs the creative agency structure of having specialists work in something more like a waterfall process. Personally, I think the creative process gives you higher highs, but similarly lower lows. The PR process is more consistent but rarely hits the same heights.
  12. Be memorable. The folks you’re pitching to are seeing maybe three, maybe four, maybe eight agencies just like you. How will you stand out? Hopefully through the quality of your ideas and being as provocative as you can be practical As an aside, I don’t usually like the over-staging of rooms for the sake of it (there are better things to focus your time and emotion on), but if the theme fits with the theme of your pitch I’m all for it. It’s more interesting to hold important meetings in interesting places which, increasingly, is not in a board room.
    • The story of a big Canadian business proactively asking agencies pitching them to not include any lions in the meeting shows some clients feel the same. (one agency still did)
  13. Celebrate. Once you’ve delivered the pitch, make sure you take the time to take a breath and celebrate the hard work from everyone who touched the pitch. One of the nicest ways to decompress after the chaos is a late lunch on a sunny patio with cold beer and old stories.

That’s what I could think of – what have I missed? What else would you add?

Books I Read – 2013

December 16, 2013

2013 was the year that I rediscovered my joy of reading. A lot of it is due to Apple – first the iPad and now the iPhone encouraged me to to try and buy a tonne of books to read through the iBooks app. Just being able to walk around with 10-20 books in my back pocket or my laptop back has meant I’ve been, relatively speaking, a voracious reader in a way that I just haven’t been able to for a few years.

Here are some of the best books I read this year, and a few thoughts on each:

Wonder – RJ Palacio

As a father, this one had me holding back the tears from the first page. The book focuses on a boy with Treacher-Collins syndrome, a rare craniofacial deformality, and his emotional and educational development – as well as the development of those around him. Well worth reading and learning from.

Eleven Rings – Phil Jackson

I’m a big sports fan but wouldn’t usually have read this if it hadn’t have been in the Tribal library. Besides reading about the pursuit of excellence and domination in any field, I enjoyed learning about the art of zen meditation and the overall zen philosophy: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water”. Don’t let the highs get you too high or the lows too low. Something we can all learn in an industry with so many highs and lows.

How to fail at almost everything and still win big – Scott Adams

The book warns you not to take advice from cartoonists but the sort of stuff that Scott (the creator of Dilbert) recommends is common sense – add as many skills to your repertoire as possible. Focus on your personal energy through diet and physical activity. Keep positive. Hard to not agree with any of that stuff. What I love about this is how simple it is – like Scott’s own thoughts on finance.

The Circle – David Eggers

I crushed this book over a weekend. Originally I had suspected that it would be a dense, heavy read but it was so engrossing and so close to the bone that I literally couldn’t keep it down, stealing a few minutes at a time to get through another couple of pages. Set against a fictional back drop of a young lady starting work at a social network, it looks at the value of information (and privacy), the brain-washing effects of cult-membership and our overwhelming desire to fit in and to aspire to a grander goal.

The Everything Store – Brad Stone | Steve Jobs – Walter Isaacson

Is it unfair to lump these two together? Both were fascinating looks at two companies that are almost impossible to separate from their founders. I probably enjoyed the Amazon/Jeff Bezos book more because it brought to the fore of my mind the inner workings of a company I haven’t really thought too much about.

Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy – Helen Fielding

When I saw that there was a new Bridget Jones book out, I wondered “why”. I remember reading the original book back in my GAP year half a life time ago (1998/9). It was a surprisingly tender read while retaining some of the laugh-out-loud qualities of the first books.

The Wolf of Wall Street and Catching the Wolf of Wall Street – Jordan Belfort

Both hilarious books that reveal the wonderfully destructive hedonism behind the investment firm that has spawned two movies – Boiler Room and the upcoming The Wolf of Wall Street (starring Leonardo Dicaprio).

All in all, a good year of reading and that’s without the Jack Reacher, Dan Brown and Rick Riordan books I devoured. But I’m hungry for more. Let me know your best reads in the comments.

Agency New Business – Thoughts on the RFP process

October 27, 2013

The job of any agency is to bring in more business through the front door than is leaving (either through attrition, resignation or reduced scope) through the back door. At the start of my career I was once told that the annual attrition rate was somewhere around 20% – with the agency business, there are some magic numbers and this one works for a couple of scenarios.

If you’re a small, $3mm agency, 20% is just $600,000. Fairly manageable to bring that in each year. If you’re a $30mm agency, 20% is $6mm. Not many of those accounts come up for review each year.

All this to say that while current clients pay the bills, new business is the life blood of every agency – it determines how fast your agency will grow or contract – so the new business process is crucial. And, for the most part, new business relies on the dreaded RFP process. I would also add that the best way for an agency to bring in new business is to focus on your existing clients. To do great work for them that earns you more of their trust and that can attract other clients looking for great work.

On AdAge, there are some interesting articles about RFPs – how agencies are declining more and more RFPs from clients, how to fix the RFP process, and how agencies put out such poor RFPs themselves.

One small fix for the RFP process

All I’m asking is this: If an agency doesn’t win, tell them why. If the other agency killed it, great. It’s not easy to hear, but that’s OK. To the victor go the spoils. But generally it’s not that clear cut. And while I know it might be difficult to articulate, you owe it to them to try. An agency puts its heart and soul into a pitch. The least you can do is give something in return.

quite a few years ago, I responded to an RFP for the type of project I was personally interested in and that I had quite a bit of experience in. It was a gruelling process, just to complete the forms and provide the cases, and thinking, that the client required. I had to have certain papers notorised, and pull in the partners who we would use to develop the technology component of the solution. The team and I spent many hours making sure this was the best proposal we could make it because we wanted to do the work. We never heard back. Quite by chance, I met the client who had managed the process at a social event and asked them about it. They were apologetic and told me how many other proposals they had received and who they had ended up choosing. But they could have said that with an email, thanking everyone for the time and effort – even if there wasn’t any feedback per se.

Agencies shun low-margin, high-headache biz

“If we’re going to put a tremendous amount of energy into a pitch, we can’t be in the dark. We have to know the fee potential. Some clients and consultants forget that we’re a business, too.”


…one of the biggest problems is wasted energy and resources as a result of poor pitch processes. “What a lot of marketers don’t realize is that bad search processes can cost them, and what many clients don’t consider is that bad searches cost the industry overall.” For example, a pitch that doesn’t follow best practices might mean a marketer has to review the business again a year or two later — or that top agencies choose not to respond in the first place. “If you’re not running a review that feels transparent, that there’s an opportunity to do good work for a fair fee, a client could lose good potential partners. It’s not a nice-to-have to run a pitch well, it’s an outcome that’s beneficial for everyone.”

Agencies’ requests on media companies are out of control too

In many cases the media RFP is essentially outsourced innovation. It is the equivalent of saying, “Our idea is to use this platform, but we have no idea what to do with it.” In fairness, matching creativity with wide-scale reach for a major brand is a true challenge. But there is a better way.

Seth said it best when he said that “the good stuff is more likely to be sold to people who care“.

So, what to do? How to show that you care about the product an agency could produce for you? Well, this is a good start.

how to conduct a review



How to get me to accept a meeting request

September 12, 2013

Those who know me, know that this is true.

Meeting meme

I won’t get into the details of why I have this picture or how James got a hold of it. Or why he’s no longer with the company.

Some more in the series:



deck review


How I achieved Inbox 36953

August 19, 2013

Before I had a BlackBerry, I had a client in Mississauga who I had to visit a couple of times a month. I would spend the hour or so in a cab (both ways) either preparing for my meeting or filing my inbox. When I worked at com.motion, I got into the habit of using my Friday nights to file my email. Looking back on both exercises, they were a huge waste of time.

I used to have folders and subfolders for everything and as a result everything devolved into a rather arbitrary mess. When I was looking for old emails, I would have to try and decode myself – what was I thinking on that day, that moment when I decided to file the email? What was my raison d’être for that short, fleeting moment that was so clouded to me weeks, months or even days later?

We’ve been through two email systems in my time at Tribal. Lotus Notes was…not my favourite experience and now Outlook. It was sometime before the planned migration that I decided to stop filing everything just in case I lost all my folders and sometime after the migration to Outlook that I decided to stop filing anything again. The truth is, the outlook search function works better than my filing system. I can search by sender, by subject and by keyword. It takes a bit of time to figure out what someone else was thinking when they sent me the email but less time than stalking through my unorganised filing system.

As a result of my non-filing approach and my general suspicion of man’s inhumanity to man that prevents me from deleting emails (although I do slip from time to time and when attachments are more than 5mb, but that’s a different story), three years later, I’ve now achieved what I’m calling “Inbox 36,953”. And climbing.

I do have many emails about how to increase your productivity through Inbox Zero…they’re in my inbox…somewhere.

Ad Land Cartoons

July 24, 2013

I’m not sure how I found these cartoons, by David T Jones on the Yahoo! advertising blog but I’m glad I did. Some of my favourites are below.

How to understand creatives:

The six kinds of advertising:

Presentation tips for everyone:

Follow David on Twitter.

Why are you still here?

May 29, 2013

I’m reading the Steve Jobs biography and one of the stories that really struck me was from Tim Cook.

“[Cook] convened a meeting with his team, and the discussion turned to a particular problem in Asia. ‘This is really bad,’ Cook told the group. ‘Someone should be in China driving this.’ Thirty minutes into that meeting Cook looked at Sabih Khan, a key operations executive, and abruptly asked, with a trace of emotion, ‘Why are you still here?'”

[Fortune Magazine, November, 2008 Via Business Insider]


According to the book, Sabih Khan got into his car, drove to the airport (presumably via home to get luggage and a passport) and got on the next plane for China where he was based for the next little while and was promoted to one of Tim Cook’s most senior deputies. The idea of dropping everything and relocating internationally (did Khan have a family?) based on less than 15 words was so powerful, yet unorthodox, that I had to make a quick graphic.

tim cook.001

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