What a Master Painter Taught Me About Running an Agency

Get Your Staffers Out of Their Comfort Zones

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Would you let Ryan Howard watch you swing at some pitches if you'd never held a bat before? Let Bebel Gilberto hear you sing? Strum some chords for Prince? Maybe try some halfpipe action for Shaun White?

I did just that the other day, except in the medium in which all our agencies exist -- the creative.

I took a painting lesson from Nelson Shanks at his incredible "teaching studio," Studio Incamminati. If you don't know Nelson, he is a world-renowned painter. He's been the chosen artist to capture the likenesses of people you may have heard of : President Bill Clinton, Lady Diana, Pope John Paul II. He is revered for his ability to capture the most subtle complexities of his subjects.

And here was Nelson standing beside me as I made the most pitiful of attempts to capture my subject -- the human form. I dabbed my brush into the paint and onto the canvas with all the grace of a llama on ice skates. I thought I knew tension. Not even close.

I always have had a deep appreciation for artists and art, and within our agency, have always marveled at our designers. I still look at what they do as a form of otherworldly black magic. That being said, I've never had such a spotlight shone on just how hard it is to "really see everything" as Nelson puts it. The more I looked at my subject, the more I started to capture -- at least in my mind. It reminded me of the first time I discovered I really needed glasses. One moment you're sitting in an optometrist's office -- the next, they throw wire frames on your head and boom! You see there are actually patterns on the wallpaper.

Having such a humbling experience in front of someone so revered in the art world was inspiring, though. Who hasn't had times in their agencies where design and copy aren't exactly in agreement? Still, it's in saying "no" to someone's idea that we both create and overcome our biggest challenges in advertising. So where does that take us? Ultimately, I think that all of our agencies would benefit from putting someone else's shoes on for even an hour. What's it like for a CFO to take a crack at some taglines? How about have the junior art director run the next meeting? Maybe have your copywriter do some illustrations to express what she's trying to get across. Has your designer ever called someone in the media? Yikes -- it's the toughest form of sales.

You might be surprised by the results. Nothing builds respect and a real team better than empathy. Lately, during any kind of creative meeting, I'll take out a pen and draw the most ridiculous things to try to describe an idea that popped in my head. There's a ton of laughter but, incredibly enough, the team actually tries to see what I'm trying to express.

Sure, the disagreements and debates will and should continue, but to learn what someone's world is like from the inside out will take you places you've never been, literally and figuratively.

This month, we're taking the Cats to the art studio. And it will be more about learning from each other than learning from the master. Naturally, it will also be about letting the designers show off a little bit.

Thanks for the lesson, Nelson.

Peter Madden is founder-president of AgileCat, Philadelphia.
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