You Can Learn a Lot From Your Friends

By John Pellegrini

I have a friend who is not in advertising. He’s not in radio. He is in Public Relations. He lives in Los Angeles year round, but he came to Chicago a year ago for some meetings with the Midwest branch of his company. And he stopped by to visit us while he was here.

The P.R. firm that he works for is one of the biggest names in the business, which is why I’m leaving it out of this article, along with my friend’s name. He handles some of the biggest clients in the firm; names that you’d instantly know. For example, one of the clients he handles is a car manufacturer, not the groups of dealerships, not the distributors or even just certain territories, but the entire manufacturer, worldwide. And I mean, worldwide! If the statistics are correct, one out of every ten RAP subscribers owns one of these cars, or would like to own one. That’s just one of his clients; he does all their public relations.

He was telling me some of the situations he’s had to face over the previous year with clients. You think you have problem clients? How about this: He had a client recently call him to tell him that “they absolutely had to cut 2.5 million dollars from their budget” with my friend’s company this year. My friend was taken aback, because this particular client was only budgeted to spend a total of 1.2 million dollars! “How do you expect us to accomplish this?” he asked them. “Do you want us to pay you for doing business with us?”

Another client called him out of the blue and told him that they were cutting 4 million dollars out of their budget with his company. Four million dollars gone, just like that. That was a major chunk of my friend’s salary that year. Now it’s gone. Nothing could be done about it, the client told him. They didn’t have the sales they had expected last year, so they had to cut back. No complaints about my friend’s services; they loved the job he was doing for them. They just couldn’t afford to do as much this year. Fine, except that my friend’s boss is insisting that my friend “must have done something wrong to lose that much money from the budget” and wants him to “figure out what went wrong and get that money back from the client!” Does this sound like pressure?

Or the case of another client who wanted a website and told my friend to have it designed with the most up-to-date technology and the hottest stuff they could put into it with the words, “unlimited budget.” My friend went and hired the best people available, wound up spending over 2 million dollars on this website and created something that was guaranteed to be an award winner. Except that, when the client saw it, they decided it was too elaborate, and they wanted something considerably less sophisticated. Guess what? The website cost more than 2 million after the scale back, but the client only paid for the scale back, and, as with all spec work, my friend’s company had to absorb the original 2 million dollar charge.

Or, consider the case of the new launch of products that another one of my friend’s major clients unveiled. This is a huge client whose products are famous worldwide. There was an international press conference, which my friend set up to announce the product launch. A video was made by a famous Academy Award Winning Hollywood Director. A big name celebrity was hired to appear live at the press conference to narrate the video. My friend booked everything and handled all the logistics. There was lots of excitement at the event, and huge numbers from the worldwide press showed up to cover the launch. Unfortunately, though, the famous Hollywood Director didn’t bother to check with the people writing the narration to see which order the products should appear in the video. And the people writing the narration script never looked at the video when it was done before the event to make sure it was okay. So, when the big name celebrity read off the product names, the wrong products appeared on the screen.

Then, there was the public service campaign that featured a Governor of a State, and another famous big-time celebrity who was supposed to kick off a major State-funded project. But, ten minutes before the big press conference with over thirteen television crews on hand to broadcast the conference live, the big-name celebrity’s publicist called to say he couldn’t be there due to illness.

All of these situations occurred within fiscal year 1997. As my friend related these stories to me, I couldn’t believe all the colossal amounts of money that were spent and lost in these projects. He simply shrugged and said, “Over all, we’re still ahead of the game. These goofs and losses weren’t as bad as some years.” He said something else that also amazed me. “Comparatively speaking, this is still a good year for me. I’m still ahead of my goals, and everything is relatively smooth sailing.” Smooth Sailing??? My friend handles multi-million dollar budgets, multi-media events, world-wide promotional projects, and clients who make mistakes that cost more than some third world countries’ annual GNP! SMOOTH SAILING?!?!?!

How would you handle pressure like that?

My reasons for relating these stories to you are thus: First off, never ever assume that just because a client spends more money than you’ve ever seen before, it means that they have more knowledge of what they’re doing. In other words, even the multi-million dollar accounts screw up. But when they screw up, it costs millions of dollars. A classic example is what happened to Leo Burnett in 1996-1997.

You’ve all no doubt heard that Leo Burnett, the advertising agency, lost a major portion of the McDonalds account because of lackluster sales. Leo Burnett had been handling McDonalds for over a decade. But their last campaign for McDonalds, the “My McDonalds” campaign, caused McDonalds to lose sales, a lot of sales, as in millions of dollars. At least, that’s what McDonalds claims. So they took away two-thirds to three-quarters of the total budget they used to spend at Leo Burnett and are now spending it somewhere else. And the media has had a field day with harping on all the mistakes made by Leo Burnett.

Yet you and I both know that there’s no way Leo Burnett could have produced the “My McDonalds” campaign without Mickey D’s full cooperation and endorsement. The fact of the matter is, McDonalds, not Leo Burnett, is responsible for the poor showing. But, in the classic example of a corporation not willing to admit its own screw-ups, they blamed the advertising agency. The local papers in Chicago (world headquarters for McDonalds) have been full of stories about nasty corporate meetings with shareholders and investors and McDonalds franchise owners who claim its the corporation’s fault, and not Leo Burnett. By the way, no, my friend does not work for Leo Burnett. Leo Burnett is an advertising agency. My friend works at a public relations firm (and his company doesn’t handle McDonalds).

The fact is, the more money that’s spent on advertising and publicity, the more chances for colossal mistakes. And the losses from those mistakes always reflect the budget being spent. So the next time you hear whining at your station about losing an account that spent ten or twenty thousand a year, you at least know that it gets worse in the big leagues. And while that may not help your station, you have the comfort of knowing that you’re not alone.

The other reason why I relate these stories is more personal. As I related previously, my friend lives in Los Angeles. Specifically, in the Hollywood Hills near the Griffith Park Observatory. He has a beautiful home overlooking downtown Los Angeles, and you can also see downtown Hollywood from his back deck. Some of his neighbors include Forest Whitikker, David Hyde Pierce, and Madonna (who secretly moved out of that eyesore mansion she had near the Hollywood sign last year). Some of the Disney family grandchildren live up his street.

His home is a five-bedroom Spanish style ranch house that was built back in the 1920s. He’s done a lot of remodeling to the house, and if you ever went there, you’d instantly fall in love with it, no matter what your taste in housing may be. My friend also has the luck of being a couple of years younger than me and obviously makes a huge salary to be able to afford all this.

I’ll admit I used to be a little jealous of his situation; well, who wouldn’t be? But, the more I find out about what he has to do to earn that huge salary, to be able to afford all that he has, I think I’ll stick with what I have. While he was here in Chicago, he attended meetings every day that went from eight a.m. to ten p.m., with only two meal breaks. He was only able to see us on Sunday. His significant other came along for the trip and was not able to see him during those hours, either. Fun, huh? When we call him on weekends just to say hello, we usually wind up missing him, even on Sundays. Why? He’s at work. We’ve visited him, as I said earlier, on vacation several times now. Once, when we arrived, he wasn’t there. His significant other explained that he found out the day before we were to arrive that he was supposed to go to Memphis for the entire time we were going to be staying with him to handle a “problem client.”

Yes, I’d love to have the home and life he has out there in Southern California, but not at that price. Not at the price of putting in the hours he does and putting up with the frustrations and pressures that he has. Sure, I may not get rich at this Production Director’s job that I have, but on most days, I’m still home in time for supper. I can get 98 percent of my work done on time and in a reasonable schedule. I still have time for a social life with my wife. I still have weekends off and can leave town on those weekends whenever I wish. I even have time to crank out one or two of these articles on a fairly regular basis. Plus, I can take vacations pretty much whenever I wish.

That’s another problem for my friend. He hasn’t been able to schedule a vacation for himself in four years. He finally took one this past spring, but it was dicey as to whether something would come up before he got to go that would have canceled the trip (what kind of odds do you think Vegas would have given him on that chance?).

In this world of headaches and frustrations, trust me when I tell you that as bad as your problems can get sometimes, there’s always something worse. There’s a lot to be said for stress you can handle, as opposed to stress that is un-Godly! Yes, I still believe that we, as a whole, are way underpaid for what we do as production and creative types. But, in comparison to other careers that perhaps pay better, we ain’t got it so bad.

How does my friend handle his stress? Beautifully. Let’s face it, if you’re going to put up with the kind of doody that he has to put up with every day, you’d better have a beautiful way of dealing with it. His method is to simply convince himself that there is no stress. There are problems, there are challenges, and there are solutions. Even if the solution is to lose the account, it is the solution that must be met. In all the years he’s been doing this, I’ve never seen him become temperamental or whine about his situation. When he was telling me about the situations that I’ve related here, he was laughing and joking about them. He honestly loves his job and couldn’t think of wanting to do anything else. This is his philosophy, and it’s perhaps the simplest way of dealing with stress: Just let the problems die on their own. Fix it or forget it. Get a solution, no matter what it is, and live with it. And do it quickly. The longer you agonize, the worse it gets.

For many years, my biggest source of stress was financial. I never thought I was making enough money. Now, however, I’ve sort of changed my outlook on the money situation. I still don’t think I make enough, but it’s become a source of humor for me. It had to. Otherwise, it would probably kill me.

However, by changing my outlook on my financial situation, I’ve finally got my greatest financial goal figured out, and it’s one that I think could be achievable in my life time. It is also a simple goal, and as we all know, simple goals are the best. See if it works for you: I want to have, at least once in my lifetime, a balance of over one thousand dollars in my checking account, and all my bills for that month are paid off already. One thousand dollars in the checking account, and I don’t owe it to anyone. One thousand dollars that I don’t have to spend, and I’m not required to pay it to anyone. One thousand dollars that I can decide what to do with whenever I wish to do so. Wouldn’t that be swell? By the way, that one thousand dollars is to be from my salary, not from an outside source. One thousand dollars that didn’t have to be earned by extra effort.

That’s a goal worth shooting for. That is my dream. Anything after that is pure fantasy. The funny part is, my friend with the big salary thinks that this is a great goal too, and it’s something he’d like to achieve as well. See, bigger salaries simply mean bigger monthly bills!

In closing, I guess the best way to look at your job, your life and your stress level is to simply say you have everything you want right now. Your life right now is exactly the way you want it to be, because, if it wasn’t, you’d be doing something about it, right? And I don’t mean you’d be complaining. I mean something that will actually change your life. That’s the only way to get what you want. Kill the problem (figuratively) before it kills you.

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