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Scott McKay is a Toronto strategist, writer, creative director, patient manager, half-baked photographer and forcibly retired playwright.

This little site is designed to introduce him and his thoughts to the world. (Whether the world appreciates the intro is another matter.) If you'd like to chat, then you can guess what the boxes below are for.



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    "They had their cynical code worked out. The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket."

          – George Orwell






    "Advertising – a judicious mix of flattery and threats."

          – Northrop Frye






    "Chess is as an elaborate a waste of time as has ever been devised outside an advertising agency."

          – Raymond Chandler


    Entries in work styles (10)


    a habit I have not been able to kick

    When I was a lad of a junior copywriter, I found myself chained to a cubicle in an open concept office with my back to an intersection of two aisles, and over the wall in front of me, a table at which every buyer in the company would approve or, more vocally, disapprove of the work we were doing.

    Now, this situation occured before the Internet (as if such a thing is possible) so I didn't have to worry about my boss seeing my Facebook page or anything. But it drove me nuts to attempt any work in that position. For some reason, I can't stand people seeing my work before I'm ready for them to see it. I don't want to share the process of how I get to wherever I'm going. Okay, honestly, I don't want to jinx the thing.

    (It was actually easier to write on a bench in the middle of the Eaton Centre. Which I did occasionally.)

    On top of that, all the sound that comes from sitting in the middle of a floor of a hundred people simply didn't help me get consistently in the creative groove.

    Thus I turned to headphones and a Walkman.

    With CFNY (or 102.1, or The Edge, or whatever they're called) blaring the alternative hits of the early and mid '90s, I was able to create a space in which I could focus. I could hear the music without actually listening to it; it provided welcome drive and energy, and handily blocked out external distractions.

    This weird totally illusory space in my head turned out to be the perfect place in which to get things done.

    And if I got startled by people standing behind me, amusing themselves for minutes on end, or tapping me on the shoulder and watching me jump, so be it. It was the price that had to be paid.

    Later, when I got an office at Wunderman, I thought I could at least unplug, close the door and crank the tunes a bit. But after a few hours of being unable to get down to work, I realized that I physically needed the headphones in order to get the necessary focus. (Which might be why the headphone-free writing portion of this video is so bad.) I had trained my brain to need the enclosure. I was hooked.

    Still am. No matter where I am, no matter how much privacy I have, I still need to be wearing headphones and be listening to poppy nonsense music – ideally that of the '80s and '90s – in order to get anything done.


    great examples of bad management

    Managing people is hard.

    Hands-off management doesn't work. Neither does hands-on management. So what the hell do you do with your hands?

    Somehow you have to find a balance between letting people on your team do what they want to do, and you telling them what to do. And that balance must be difficult to find, because a lot of managers suck at finding it.

    I know you've worked for bad managers; we all have. When I was a junior I had one manager who may as well have had his office on the far side of Pluto, he was so remote. Except for a few long-time cronies, he had no relationships with anyone, and little communication. A few brusque words were all anyone got before he scurried off for a smoke break. He seemed to be nothing more than the façade of a manager. (Hmm, remind you of any recent presidents?)

    But he was in many ways better than another boss (not my direct report) who made his art directors redo layouts mercilessly, changing his mind on whims, and plenty free with his sarcasm. Now, you could *almost* justify his cruelty if he'd been creating fantastic work, but let's just say his preferred style was pretty, um, traditional.

    So, when I came to manage people, I at least knew what I didn't want to do.

    You have to find a combination of their freedom and your involvement. But even that can be tricky. I know of one agency leader who would let her people "run" with projects, only to "take a peek" hours before going to client (or even, sometimes after) and get very critical of the work, and the brief, and the process, and the people. A more punishing "freedom" I can't imagine.

    My preference is to be involved in the beginning. Instead of imposing my own ideas, I try to make sure the team's ideas are as good as they can be; that they play out to their own internal logic, and explore as much territory as possible. (Would you trust a creative director who had to have all the ideas? Um, no.) Then back off, and let them fight their own battles; if they need help, they'll ask for it. That's how trust is built across the entire team; that's how you get to the point where maybe you as a manager don't have to be so involved any more. Because you've demonstrated to your team that you're comfortable with them making decisions, and them having real responsibility. And you've seen how your team thinks, and are confident about their process. That doesn't mean they won't fail. But more often than not, they'll succeed.

    Now, I'm definitely not as consistent about this as I might make it sound. I'm sorry that sometimes my inner control freak emerges. But it's the way I want to work, the way we all should.


    when putting tape where your walls *would* be just isn't enough

    I really like the 37 signals folks. They're smart, practical and entrepreneurial, and they passionately believe in both utility and good design.

    But as much as I want to climb on board with this interview with co-founder Jason Fried, and as much as the situation he describes is recognizable, I can't help but think that his solution doesn't apply quite as broadly as he seems to think:

    What happens is, is that you show up at work and you sit down and you don’t just immediately begin working, like you have to roll into work. You have to sort of get into a zone, just like you don’t just go to sleep, like you lay down and you go to sleep. You go to work too. But then you know, 45 minutes in, there’s a meeting. And so, now you don’t have a work day anymore, you have like this work moment that was only 45 minutes. And it’s not really 45 minutes, it’s more like 20 minutes, because it takes some time to get into it and then you’ve got to get out of it and you’ve got to go to a meeting.

    Then when the meeting’s over, you’re probably pissed off anyway because it was a waste of time and then the meeting’s over and you don’t just go right back to work again, you got to kind of slowly get back into work. And then there’s a conference call, and then someone calls your name, “Hey, come a check this out. Come over here.” And like before you know it, it’s 4:00 and you’ve got nothing done today. And this is what’s happening all over corporate America right now.

    They believe that passive communciation (via for example Campfire) allows users to opt in to interruption when they're ready to be interrupted. And since their philosophy is that there are no real emergencies in business, waiting a couple of hours for an answer is okay. And I can buy that...

    Except at an ad agency.

    Because deadlines are tight and the brief (which in itself never gets as much attention as it deserves) is late and client meetings come way too fast and if you have to wait all afternoon for that brief or image or whatever to come in you're going to be pulling an all-nighter to get the job done for tomorrow morning and there's never enough time to really polish what you're doing anyway.

    That's an average day.

    If you wait respectfully to get what you need it's not going to get done, meaning a pissed-off client, meaning you're out of a job. You have to speak up, remind, be noisy – in other words, interrupt. There isn't a creative I know who's any good who doesn't think that the work they're doing at this moment is more important than everyone else's work. Even in a very collaborative shop like ours, you've got to take ownership of your work like this, and push for the resources and timing you want.

    I just can't see his vision working at an agency, or in any industry where people don't work relatively independently most of their days. (37 signals also has many employees that work remotely full time.)

    Look, I end up doing a lot of my work after five, either in the office or at home, and I'm well aware that I'm not the only one; I also have an anarchist streak that likes their "don't manage me" attitude. I wish Fried's philosophy would work across the board. But as many of the commenters on the video say, like it or not there are just some real essentials that come out of human contact. (Scroll down to John Nolt's comment about a third the way down the page for a good perspective.)

    Besides, my reluctance to look or act like Les Nessman outweighs any danger of improving my efficiency.


    would it be better to call it the "work-life tightrope"?

    The concept of work-life balance has become such a cliché in our culture that a reaction against the whole idea has started. The idea that it's a phase of life, partially driven by the fact that so many people are having children later in life, is an appealing one. And I suppose it's true that our addiction to technology fuels a lot of the imbalance.

    But that's still a few long years to wait out until things get "better" again. So I understand why some people try to establish boundaries with their employers.

    However, in practise in most organizations, the people who stake out work-life balance as a necessity have essentially said to the organization that they will go this far and no farther. And in most organizations, a senior manager's first choice is not going to be to give vital/important/urgent work to someone who has said that work is not their first priority. You become a solid but not outstanding contributor, and run the risk of marginalizing yourself from promotions and so on.

    I don't know about the value of being so cut and dried, but then I also can't imagine being brave enough to do it. I've worked at agencies that have been pretty good at giving me time whenever I needed it; the trade-off was that I've generally gotten the job done whatever it took. I've shown commitment, and gotten it back.

    It's important for companies and managers to cut people slack when it comes to personal stuff. Kids get sick at the drop of a hat, and no meeting is more important than that. Family emergencies, school concerts, funerals; things that you would regret not attending should be attended without guilt.

    Maybe the stress of work-life imbalance is one of those contemporary afflictions that comes with life in the twenty-first century. On the other hand, giving someone flexibility, and the ability to call on that flexibility without worry for their jobs or professional status, seems to me to be a key way to alleviate some of that stress. I suppose you'd call it treating people like grown-ups.


    a short note about the firing of an account person

    A long time ago in a galaxy that I happened to be working in...

    The account supervisor on a major retailer's loyalty account was new to the suit business. She'd been a strategist or data analyst or something at another agency – some sort of clever job that didn't actually involve client interaction. But she had a good résumé and references, I guess, because there she was, heading up day to day business with the client.

    It was a busy account, pumping out lots of card-related DM, a monthly newsletter and a pantload more. Somewhat logically, this mean lots of client interaction every day, both face to face and, because the client was a long drive out of town, more usually by phone.

    On the creative side we didn't realize that anything was wrong; this new suit had some good moments, some bad ones, but in her first couple of months this was expected. There was also a strong account exec working with her, a woman who was junior but smart and learned quickly, so things seemed normal.

    One week, we started sensing some tension from this junior account exec; she wasn't getting answers from the new supervisor, and the clients were acting weird, she said. A couple of our ongoing projects stalled, pending feedback or approvals that weren't coming. She hinted at other weirdness, odd moments with her new boss that did not bode well.

    The next week, the word went out in hushed, furtive doorway conversations – the new supervisor was gone. (Along with her boss, sadly.)

    We found out why a few hours later. She had simply stopped returning client phone calls, stopped having any interaction at all with the people paying the bills, and her salary. With no explanations pending, and no informaton, the clients had quickly gone from concern, to irritation, to truculence, and had called the powers-that-be to demand their kilo of flesh.

    Never found out why she did what she did, and I've never seen her since; speculation naturally ran to her cracking under pressure, which is of course only a euphemism for anxiety or depression or something else that was the real problem, and which her high-pressure job only exacerbated.

    Advertising is not a career that grants you space or time to get over things, or allows you to hide from yourself.


    "I'll join you two ladies later... into one big lady."

    Back when radio actually mattered to pretty much everyone, and you could at least pretend that deejays were allowed to not mindlessly play the same corporate-generated list of 45s hour after hour, there was a show on CBS called WKRP in Cincinnati. And I think it ruined me for any work other than advertising.

    The show was about a bottom feeder AM station in a no-longer large market. New program director Andy Travis is hired to "turn things around." What he finds are a breathtakingly incompetent general manager whose mother owns the station, a sales manager who's a used car salesman's worst nightmare, a news director whose version of Eyewitness Weather is to look out the window and witness the weather, a shell of a morning man fired from L.A.'s hottest morning show a decade before for saying "booger" on air, and a receptionist who is the station's highest paid employee.

    Travis' first act is to change the format. In a moment, washed-up Johnny Caravella transforms himself into Dr. Johnny Fever as he grabs the mike and, feeling blood pumping through his heart for the first time in ages, plays honest to god rock and roll music over the airwaves.

    Hilarity ensues. Or rather, ensued. For four amazing years, until CBS cancelled it after playing shuffleboard with its schedule and being amazed that viewers could no longer find it. Witness these lines, signifiers of gold:

    As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly. We're the scum of the earth. This tape is where my walls would be. Ch-eye ch-eye rodrigweez. Speed kills, Del. I don't think God likes trailer parks. In the spirit of Christmas, we went out and killed a tree for you. Red wigglers, the Cadillac of worms – we're hooked! I love you and I want you to be a golf pro. Look what I'm doing with teenage boys! Herb, I was once a man. Mrs. Carlson, I think you're full of crud.

    And the title of this post, which has to be as old as vaudeville (or, I'm sure in some sort of Latin equivalent, Plautus) but still.

    Anyway, WKRP portrayed a wonderfully chaotic but subtly ordered workplace. Huge leeway was granted to the deejays, and they took it all and way, way more. Huge leeway was granted to station management, and they muddled through things in ways far worse than anyone could possibly foresee. Somehow Andy, Jennifer the receptionist (who evolved into the very opposite of a dumb blonde) and Bailey the producer kept things from falling apart, while being human and understanding. Outward forms of obedience and compliance were barely paid lipservice, and were usually viciously mocked – as was anything that impaired the deejays' or station's ability to make a unique connection with the audience. The point of everything was to communicate. Um, is my reason for this post showing?

    I loved WKRP.

    Problem was, as I discovered over the next several years, was that most workplaces don't operate on anything like those principles. Unhappy employment experiences ensue.

    So once I finally fell into an agency, you can imagine my slowly dissolving disbelief at finding a place that, although imperfect, actually shared at least some of those anarchic values. A place that understood that everyone on its payroll will not be the same. A place where making a unique connection with the audience is what really matters.


    I think we've all met one

    I really like signals vs noise, the design blog run by the folks at 37 Signals. Not because I like reading their insights about creating software, but because their insights into creating software regularly have validity for a wide range of creative and business activity.

    For instance, earlier this week the guys posted about the danger of "the idea guy" – the guy who's full of great concepts...

    You know the type. It’s the “this thing is going to be Facebook meets Flickr, but for dogs! If we can just get 1% of the online dog market, we’ll be rich!” spiel.

    ...but who can't actually contribute to creation of said great idea. This reminded me of the old writing joke about the writer who's dentist has a great idea for a screenplay. The dentist has it all worked out – he just needs someone to write it for him.

    Anything that doesn't involve getting your hands dirty, or some long hours, or the odd sleepless night, probably isn't a great idea. Their point in the post, and mine elsewhere, is that you actually have to some skills that contribute to the execution of said great idea. Otherwise, like the dentist, you're not just devaluing the contribution of a large group of people, you're telling them you don't actually know what you're talking about.

    For art directors, the comparable situation would be the client who tells you to "just photoshop" that 10K image so they can use it as the feature on their home page.

    And as a CD/manager, even though I know that some distance from the day to day is essential for sanity and strategy, I find that I can't get too distanced from real jobs and real skills. Otherwise I become the quote unquote idea guy – the guy who lets other people worry about details like writing, design, production, site design... all the stuff the actually consumer sees.


    do android consultants dream of electric savings?

    Efficiency. I'm all for it.

    Except I'm not.

    We've been talking about printing a couple of jobs together, projects that are dropping simultaneously and have about the same volume of information. It just makes sense, right? Who doesn't want to do better for their client and help their bottom line?

    And then the reality set in. Different consumer expectations. Different impacts required. Different budgets. As you discover each hurdle you jump it, but then there's another, and another, and suddenly efficiency is simply an impediment, a word that gets surrounded by air quotes.

    Twice at past agencies, the efficiency bug struck. I tried to cover my mouth and wash my hands a lot in order to give both outbreaks a miss. Not because I'm not open to new ideas, but because inevitably these kinds of efforts at ad agencies lead to wild generalizations that have very little bearing on the reality of the people actually doing the work. I've watched very intelligent and well dressed management consultants who were no older than me recommend actions that could have been gleaned by reading a couple of ROB magazines – or by talking to an art director or production person.

    You can't change the basic dynamics of how creatives come up with work, or how account managers need to deal with clients. You can change the tools that these people use for their jobs – this MacBook is way more efficient than an IBM Selectric typewriter, for instance – but not their basic needs, or their need for each other. That's reality.

    Efficiency – the idea of changing reality – looks good in meetings. Reality itself? Not so much.

    But as that noted management guru Philip K. Dick once wrote, "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."


    um, which way is the HR department?

    One of the reasons that a lot of the people I work with (including me) are in advertising is that we're unemployable in any other line of work. Not because of our vast creativity or anything, but because we swear. We're messy. Some of us have been known to vent frustration by, on rare occasions, throwing objects.

    In most workplaces, in most businesses, that's not acceptable. (Except here.)

    The office of every client I've ever had has been a civil, dignified and tidy place. Inappropriate things are not loudly said or loudly enjoyed by large groups. There aren't outbursts of passionate venting. Foot-high piles of paper are not tolerated as a form of filing. Discourse or actions that are disrespectful are frowned on or actively punished. And that kind of civil, ordered and respectful place is just not an environment in which I can work.

    And I'm not alone. I once worked with a really strong account person who got hired by the marketing department of a large finanical institution. When I talked to her a couple of months into the job, she was bordering on despair. "I can't swear. I have to watch what I say. It's torture."

    She'd taken the job I think pretty much because the company would top up her salary during mat leave, something she'd obviously been planning and was now several months hence. At the same time she'd get exposure to things from the inside, something that could only help her understanding of and relationships with her clients. It had looked like a win-win. But she was having serious doubts.

    "I don't know if I can make it. No one jokes. No one has an opinion. I just want to scream at them. Even the meetings are dull. They're so serious. For every meeting they make agendas and stick to them. Can you imagine?"

    No, I couldn't. And neither could this organized, serious, smart marketer who thrived on the chaos, untidiness and passion of agency life. After she came back from mat leave she jumped back into an agency as soon as she could, for not quite as much money, for not quite as good benefits. But the work, and the way of working, was not negotiable for her.


    "let's just have some fun"

    I never watched Conan, at 12:30 or 11:30, until the last show. And I have to say that I was impressed with the energy and the feeling of it; it reminded me of Letterman in the old days. Obviously this loose, fun tone was driven by the situation, and the fact that he had nothing to lose.

    Having that responsibility lifted from your shoulders can be an amazing creative enabler. I once got into theatre school at York after doing a kickass audition piece as Lenny from Pinter's Homecoming. The problem was, it was only kickass because about five minutes before going before the judges, I had decided that I didn't want to spend the next four years with a bunch of hams-in-training. I literally had to be sitting outside that room to figure out that in my heart I knew I wasn't an actor. That freedom was only one reason that I was decent enough (that one and only time) to get accepted, and it was absolutely impossible to replicate that.

    I guess the question for us regular employment-type agency folk is, how do you keep that lightness, that fun, in your work over the long term? There are a whole bunch of MBA-ese qualities that help set that stage, like respect, good communication, and other noble corporate virtues.

    More than anything, I think it's about tone. Of course you take the job and the client's business seriously, but you don't take yourself or The Advertising Business too seriously. I'm not standing around pontificating or pushing marketing ideology, and neither is anyone else here. Being part of the reality-based community means that you value the time and experience of the people around you. In other words, you listen. And our team is loose enough that when someone (for example, me) fucks up, no one is afraid to say so.

    Having a tendency to self-deprecation is also a real plus, in my eyes. Most of the best people I've ever worked with tend to play down their abilities on a day-to-day basis. They love their work and their craft, but they don't boast about their skills or victories.

    Because you probably don't want to spend your days at work with someone who's looking to, as another Conan said, "crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women."

    Slightly unthematic but related follow-up: In baseball, apparently, other players will say of a really good player, "He can play a little." That feels right.