How My Previous Life Led to a Creative Breakthrough With Clients

No Technology Needed: It All Comes Down to Being Able to Talk to People, Clients and Employees

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Derek Walker
Derek Walker
For years, I was ashamed of my past. Embarrassed by what I had to do, who I had become. I was angry with me for where I had taken me. When I first got into advertising I would barely talk about it with my coworkers, I was so ashamed of the things I used to do.

It is hard living with a secret.

You try hard to hide it, pretending things didn't happen, choices weren't made, but some how the truth always seems to find the light of day. And you find yourself staring your secret squarely in the face in full view of everyone.

"I'm so sick and tired of you advertising folks that don't understand our business! You don't get what we are dealing with everyday, day in and day out!" the member of a franchise group hurled at us before we began our presentation to a group of franchisers.

This was my day to face my past.

Before my CD could respond, I stood up and looked the franchiser straight in the face and said, "My name is Derek Walker, I'm the writer on this team, and I know exactly what you're talking about."

He smirked and the other franchisers in the room chuckled.

I continued, "I worked for almost 9 years, for company XYZ (not the real name) opening and closing units, building management teams and training employees. Six of those years, I saw a profit of million dollars each year, my turnover was below 10% and my average guest checks were around $13."

He stopped smirking and the rest stopped chuckling.

I won't bore you with the details of my response but I told them what I saw in their units when our team had gone out and visited their restaurants. I was specific and honest. I was channeling my inner manager now, and there was no turning back. I told them what I thought as a manager. To advertising folks, I sounded brutal, but to these people who managed for a living, I was speaking their language.

My secret was out: I worked in fast food and retail for 10 years before getting into advertising.

My road into advertising has been long and hard. You have no idea the toll this journey has taken on me. Family, friends and teachers had great expectations for me, I could have been anything I wanted and I chose advertising. (I know, what was I thinking?) I finished the four-year journalism program at the University of South Carolina (the real USC) in three years in the top 10% of my class, only one semester short of also having my degree in marketing. I was president of the ad club, president of the marketing society, member of the AAF student competition team, member of the honor society and I worked a part time job selling gelato.

I turned down several marketing jobs with nice companies before graduation because I knew I was going to be in advertising. I had trained and studied for this with a single-minded focus. I was ready for advertising. But advertising wasn't ready for me. I couldn't buy a job with my education and skills. (That's all I will say about that.)

So, as a stopgap, I took a job with a large retailer to hold me over until advertising called. Those two years flew by in a flash. Then a friend called me and asked for my help to turn this restaurant around he was managing. I said, "Sure but I'll only be there a little while." It was eight years before I got out of there.

But the damage was done. I hated everything about what I had been. Managing was my prison, and I refused to ever go back to it. Ten years of my life I had lost to it, and I would never forgive me until that day in front of this group of franchisers.

Both of the companies I worked for were famous for great management-training programs, and until just then I had never realized how well they had trained me. Standing there I understood how well equipped I was, and how much a manager of a fast-food restaurant knows. Managing is not easy or something to be ashamed of, but it wasn't my first love.

To this day, it was one of the best presentations of my career, ever. Everything I had learned managing married with all the creativity and passion our team had poured into the campaign, and it was beautiful.

The client approved the campaign, and it helped to improve their business. Their numbers went up, complaints went down, store morale was better and customers were happier.

I can blog about metrics and measurements or staffing or P&L with the best of them. I can go on and on about what I think crowdsourcing or procurement means to the industry. I could talk all day about prospecting for clients. Don't get me started on the notion of "having skin in the game." Heck, one day I might even tell you how I really feel about profit. But trust me, these are not the reasons we are where we are as an industry.

I have always felt like my 10 years away from advertising was a punishment. It wasn't. It was preparation, seasoning if you will.

My dream has always been to have my own shop. I needed to learn how to manage a business, but I wouldn't have learned to manage if I had jumped straight into advertising. I see that now. I needed that time away from advertising to better understand the business of advertising.

The success or failure of advertising comes down to our ability to understand and be creative in how we talk to people. That's it. No secret ingredient. No secret handshake. No magic technology. It is all about talking with people, clients and employees included.

As a manager, I find that people often focus on the things we think are easiest to fix first, believing that once we have that done we'll get to the really tough things. We are fooling ourselves. There's a reason we've been slow to address creativity and employee relationships - they require plenty of time and energy. But until we do, we are going to continue to struggle as an industry.

I'll move my blogging beyond creativity and people when we finally get how important they are to the health and success of advertising. Until then, I'll continue to beat this drum.

Derek Walker is the janitor, secretary and mailroom person for his tiny agency, brown and browner advertising based in Columbia, S.C.
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