As conspiracy theories go, it was right up my street. Having spent an entire career juggling pencils in all colours, shapes and sizes, and scribbling for a living (‘scribbling’ as a descriptor, in the world of TV storyboards, being the exact opposite of the studied accuracy of every mark I ever made, professionally), I know from experience that where there is a pencil, there is also a pencil rubber. Or three.
So it didn’t surprise me at all to hear that M15 agents would be helpfully standing by in polling stations, ready to oblige, should anyone go over the lines with their colouring in.
Those were the days, my friend…
Speaking of the old job, it’s been a good ten years, I reckon, since I last truly flexed my storyboarding skills. So, when I got the call from a long-time friend and colleague, to collaborate in a pitch for new business, it was with some trepidation that I agreed. I’ve been so long away from the get-your-hands-dirty way of working, so long shackled to the keyboard and mouse, and the ever-evolving eccentricities of whichever creative program I happen to be working in, I wasn’t even sure I could draw any more.
(In fact, speaking of conspiracy theories, I have never doubted for one second that there is an army of miniature M15 agents stationed inside the Mac, whose sole purpose in life is to frustrate me at every turn. Not unlike the Numskulls.)
Anyway, my old pal had a good deal more confidence in my dormant drawing skills than I did. And, as it turned out, he was right. Two or three days of hands and wrists grubby with lead, a carpet deep with scrumpled paper and pencil sharpenings, and a desktop scattered with pencil rubbings and I was back in the zone. Bliss.
But here it takes a frustrating turn. Because it turns out that while that old creative buzz hasn’t changed, neither have the potential clients. We didn’t win it. Fair enough. But, at the risk of sounding sour grape-ish, it was disappointing. And I’ll tell you why.
When ‘Mad Men’ premiered in 2007, it seemed so familiar. The 1970s advertising world I entered as a quivering junior visualiser, fresh from art college, hadn’t changed much from the 1960s Madison Avenue version on my TV screen. It wasn’t so much the boozy lunches, the constant pall of cigarette smoke or the predominant male vibe in the creative department that hit the spot, more the way the creative department actually worked. I cut my teeth learning to draw ‘people’, practising my lettering, and testing friendships and disbelieving suitors. (Yes I really do have to work all weekend. Yes, I know it’s a Saturday evening. No, it’s not an excuse.)
Those all-night marathons, fuelled by coffee and donner kebabs (if you were lucky), were the killers. Hour upon hour, hand-drawing visuals (images plucked not from a stock library, but straight from imagination), meticulously lettering headlines (no back space delete here), until your wrist ached and your eyes blurred. Only to have the MD roll up in his Jag at 2.00am, chummy with wine and cigars, to rubbish the lot. Literally back to the drawing board.
And all of it, on the part of the agency, speculative. Very, very rarely were agencies paid for this speculative work. Often five or six agencies would pitch for the same piece of business. Thousands of pounds worth of creativity, on spec. But agencies were hungry, often competing with their mates down the road at rival agencies. And the suits – oh the suits – riding that essence of creative people everywhere to always be creating something stunning, something beautiful. Even if, in the scheme of things, it’s just tomorrow’s chip paper.
That was the culture and potential clients were free to milk this pool of creativity without shame. On more than one occasion, you got the impression – when you eventually got the ‘It’s not you it’s us’ call – that the conclusion had been foregone. An elaborate dance, on the part of the potential clients, designed to harvest as many ideas as possible without having to shell out a single penny. And sure enough, weeks, months later, that ‘big idea’ of yours would pop up anyway, carved by another hand.
Ten years away from directly working with agencies and they are still, it seems, expected to pitch for nothing, mustering every ounce of creativity they can, in the hope of catching hold of that carrot. And ten years on, the online blogs are full of younger guns, still arguing against this culture of ‘spec work’. Some dig their heels in and claim success, others just complain whilst not daring to challenge the status quo, else they lose out on a juicy piece of business. It’s a rock and a hard place.
It was hard, last week, for we advertising fogies not to be cynical when we heard we’d failed. The ideas were so bloody good. And all the way along, the potential client made all the right noises. All the signs were there. This was the big one. But no. They went with someone else. All we can now hope is that those big ideas don’t pop up somewhere else. If they do, you’ll be the first to know.
As for me, for now, the layout pad, pencils, scalpel and rubber are back in the drawer. Till the next time. When I’ll be only too happy to join my friends in the ritual dance, probably on spec, because sometimes – more than sometimes – we win.
On a different topic entirely, and returning briefly to our favourite nemesis, I have no idea what the relevant planning condition states, regarding the frequency of contractors’ wagons through the tortuous one-way system of Cockermouth and past our front garden. But I can confirm that yesterday and the day before, they rattled past here every four to six minutes. Three or four minutes later they rattled back the other way, having emptied their load. Sometimes, they even had to queue. I know this because every time I thought to do it, I noted down the times. (Well, hard not to be distracted with each rumble past the window).
But on the upside, I reckon Strawberry How Road is now the cleanest road in Cockermouth. Thanks to Mr John Elliot and his road sweeper, who must be positively dizzy, he goes round so many times. For this, Mr Elliot, we thank you.