Play your best game

By Published on .

A few years ago I coached a fifth-grade basketball team. One Saturday as I was getting ready for our 10 a.m. game, the calls started.

"Hi, coach. It's Mrs. Candella. Joe can't play; he's sick."

"Hi, Mr. Russo. It's Mrs. Martinez. Chris can't play; we're going to the Poconos."

"Hi, Mr. Russo. It's Pat Lynch. John can't. ..." And so on.

Cut to 10 a.m.

My five survivors and I are huddling before tip-off. Their eyes are doing the dance of hopelessness-from me to their 13 opponents, to me, to them, to me. Then the symphony of doom started.

"We have no subs. What if one of us fouls out? We don't have a center. Who's going to play point guard? We're going to get tired!"

Frankly, I was asking myself the same questions but I couldn't admit that. Instead, I gave them this advice.

Be smart and efficient. Take only high-percentage shots and conserve energy. Stay in a position to win.

No turnovers! Don't make the hill any higher than it is.

And, oh yeah: We have to play our best game ever.

OK. Not exactly Knute Rockne.

But a few hours later I was sitting with my exhausted yet excited young heroes in Burger King celebrating a victory they will always remember as a life lesson-perhaps one day drawing from it, as I am now, in these trying times.


Our industry has suddenly lost possibly a quarter of its players and is in a against a formidable opponent: a heartless, eroding economy that is beating up brands and has many good people out of work.

And then, just when we thought it was exhausted, our opponent picked up a new teammate-a devastating attack that quickly evolved into a war and immediately changed our personal comfort level and already shaky business behavior.

Now-after a month that is traditionally a golden time for our industry, a time of commerce and commercials, a time that used to bring joy to brand managers and ad executives alike-the question is: How much worse will it get?

How are we going to beat this fierce opponent with fewer people and smaller budgets?

I'm going back to the advice I gave my fifth-graders.

* Be smart and efficient. Take only high-percentage shots and conserve energy. Stay in a position to win.

Advertising translation: Now more than ever, we need smart, focused and for godsakes relevant insights.

We need ideas big enough to overcome the overall anxiety and budgetary concerns of a very timid marketplace.

It's our job to make sure every nickel of our client's money is spent on brilliant ideas designed to build a bond between the consumer's heart and the brand, while at the same time creating a need in their brain for the product.

The truly great creatives can thread this needle while wrapping every ad with the ribbons of creativity-though it's easier said than done.

So sell your clients' stuff today while remembering to keep them in a position to win long term through the strength and virtues of their brand.

* No turnovers! Don't make the hill any higher than it is.

Advertising translation: No irrelevant, self-indulgent crap. Our clients don't have the time or money to waste on ill-conceived false starts. Hundreds of dot-coms learned this one the hard way.

Let's not create advertising that ignores the insights from planning, consumer feedback or a sound, focused strategy. Doing ads with the sole purpose of getting huge laughs is easy. Getting huge laughs that are grounded in a big insightful, relevant idea is called great advertising. And great advertising is hard to do.

The best creative people can do work that is hysterical while also being deceptively insightful. It can be done; it's just harder.

* And, oh yeah. We have to play our best game ever.

Advertising translation: Too many of our good friends from every agency large and small are out of work today. We owe them the effort of a lifetime.


The unforgiving harshness our opponent has inflicted on the business world will force our industry to adjust, reorganize and emerge smarter, focused and prosperous again. We are no longer lulled by the trappings of an overstuffed economy but sharpened by the reality of a lean one.

The "greatest generation" was great because they couldn't afford not to be. And neither can we.

We will refocus and successfully take on our collective responsibility to help move the economy upward. We have the people, the tools, the technology, passion, motivation and most importantly, the creativity to be great again.

My hope is we get strong enough to get our friends back in the game they love. Then we can all go to Burger King (or in my case, Taco Bell-another bit of advice, always support your clients) and celebrate our great victory.

Good luck to all of us.

Mr. Russo is exec VP-chief creative officer, Foote, Cone & Belding, New York.

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