Make Your Passion Your Life’s Mission

business lunchRon Elgin’s 2nd Commandment—passed down at Seattle’s Capital Grille

Frankly, during our meeting it was a challenge to pay attention to anything beyond the reach of my plate—Capital Grille’s signature lobster and crab stuffed shrimp. But midway through lunch, reaching for an unusually large prawn, my mother’s wise voice sounded in my head. “Don’t pay attention to the food you eat when you’re with important people. Pay attention to them.”

Pushing my plate of prawns aside, I resumed the task of mining for gold with Mr. Elgin.

(Me) What do you like best about this business?

(Ron) I got into this business initially because I found out I could make decent money doing something I thought might be fun. I thought I’d play around in the ad industry until something better came along. Now, 45 years later, I think I’m ready to admit there isn’t anything better. For me, at least.

I’ve loved the challenge, the opportunity and variety of sitting at a breakfast meeting with the CEO of one of the world’s largest cruise ship companies devising strategies to sell more world cruise cabins at $64,000 a pop. Then an afternoon meeting with a one-store McDonald’s owner helping with his local store marketing plan pushing dollar coffee. Then spending the evening hours with a charitable group developing a pro bono campaign to help the impoverished in Africa. In this fast paced, ever-changing business if you find yourself doing something the same way as before, you can be pretty sure it’s yesterday’s news.

It’s been said that advertising is a young person’s game. In a sense, that’s true. But I think when a person is constantly in search of the next fresh idea or new trend, the very act has a way of keeping a person young irrespective of their age. To be successful in this industry you must always be one step ahead of the present. I don’t think the readers of your blog have time to read the thousands of little things I like best about this business but if anyone ever wants to hear more I’m always happy to share.

(Me) I get the notion of being as ‘young as you feel.’ But tell that to a 40 or 50 something Account Executive in a tech start-up, where most of their co-workers are in their mid-20s riding skateboards to work with boa constrictors in their messenger bags. Then add to the quirky culture the cold reality that many of these younger people have cut their marketing teeth on social media and ROI-driven analytics, where breakthrough creative may be treated as an afterthought. How do you stay passionate in that scenario?

(Ron) It’s been a while since I was on a skateboard and I’ve never liked snakes, but I think you’re missing the point. Understanding why people in their mid-20s are riding skateboards with boa constrictors in their messenger bags is crucial to those of us who may need to deliver a relevant message to that audience.

As to your cold reality comment, when I first got in the business TV was still considered so new and different that creative had to be done by specialists. A few years ago, creatives working in the ‘new media’ space tried to shut out their traditional counterparts with the same ‘they just don’t get it’ attitude. Today’s most successful agencies have once again overcome that provincial thinking and you know how, Phil? With the Big Idea. It always has been and always will be about breakthrough creative—not about the tools used to implement the idea.

(Me) From a financial standpoint how does an agency executive thrive in the current environment?

(Ron) Today’s agency executive must keep in mind the words of the World’s Most Interesting Man. “Stay thirsty, my friend.” A former boss used to say that in this business if you’re not growing you’re dying. However, the growth must be appropriate to the vision and mission of your company. If you stray from that, surely you will become lost. Of course the growth must either be profitable or provide a clear path to profitability.

I realize in the current environment it can be difficult if not impossible to grow the business under any circumstance. When that’s the case, the alternative becomes mandatory. Yes, I’m talking about layoffs. They are the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in business. But the fact is no one can stay in business very long when they’re bleeding. I’ve seen too many agencies go down the tube because the executive in charge was either too optimistic, too good-hearted or too timid to take appropriate action in a timely manner. In those cases, everyone was a loser.

(Me) Tell me about the dark side of this business. And please don’t say there isn’t one because I don’t know of a single agency person who isn’t sporting at least a few bruises, some with permanent disabilities.

(Ron) To me, nothing was ever darker than having to tell one of my employees, one of our family members, that I could no longer afford to help them feed their family, keep a roof over their heads, provide the many necessities of life. I always took that very personal. After all, if I hadn’t failed at growing the company fast enough or wasn’t smart enough to make a better profit I wouldn’t have had to say “I’m sorry…”

Next week, Commandment #3—Be kind To Thine Advertising Brethren, featuring Ron’s biggest career mistake, close encounters with VIPs, the mark of true character and more.

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