Charlie Brown would never grow up to be an ad man. He just didn't have conviction – probably the most important asset for anybody who wants to sell something to somebody else.
The reason I mention Charles Schulz's most famous creation, and probably alter ego, is one particular “Peanuts” strip that came to mind today.
In it, Charlie Brown is complaining that no one ever believes him, no matter what he says. Lucy, in her best “trust me I won't pull the football away at the last minute” mode, swears to him that he can say anything and she will believe him. “Anything?”, he asks doubtfully. She says she will believe the most unbelievable, fanciful and ridiculous thing he can say. He thinks. He bites.
“The world is made of snow.”
Lucy screams at the top of her lungs, “You're out of your mind, Charlie Brown!” (It's the title of an old book of Peanuts strips, and you can still buy it online.)
I have conviction. Maybe not enough to convince Lucy of the fanciful composition of the world, but so much that I get excited about whatever product or service I'm hired to advertise. Where does the word “advertise” come from, anyway? Latin: advertere "turn toward," from ad- "toward" and vertere "to turn."
That's what I do – turn toward the subject, wholeheartedly, and try to get you to turn your attention and your inclination toward it.
And I get to know what I'm selling. If it's a restaurant, I work there. A wine, I drink it. An airline, I fly it. And, I get excited about it. And convinced that it's the best thing since the last thing I worked on.
My dear, departed wife, Eileen, who worked in retail, had that kind of attitude. In her case, she was so convinced of the merits of whatever she was selling, that customers always assumed she was the owner of the store.
Conviction is the secret of successful selling.
When I finally got to Madison Avenue, after 20 years of experience one hundred and fifty miles north of it, I was invited to share what I'd learned. First to invite me was Deborah, a beautiful woman (of course) who taught business and communication at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York.
She asked me to travel back upstate from Manhattan to the tony school of mostly upper class young women for one lecture per semester. The school would pay my transportation, put me up in their guest house and she would take me out to dinner at one of Saratoga's fine restaurants.
I said yes, of course, mostly to have the chance to sit and look at her over dinner for an hour or two, and immediately got very nervous about what I would present to her class. I actually scripted what I would say, rehearsed it, and thought that would be that. It wasn't.
I stumbled through the dry and lifeless prepared text in about 20 minutes, flop sweat running so freely that the front row should have had the same warning as Seaworld's splash zone.
Deborah saved me, by asking questions about things I could answer with conviction, and I came through it well enough that I was asked back the following semester.
From then on, I just brought my portfolio of work with me, wherever I went – The Center for Media Arts, State University of New York and St. Rose College in Albany – and just talked about how each ad or campaign came about, the thinking behind it and the processes involved it bringing it all to life. It was fun for me, and it gave the students an insight into the real world of a real Mad Man.
That worked for me until I had to actually teach an entire course on advertising together with an Account Executive at St. Francis College. For that, we needed a plan.
Next time: Hitting the heights in Brooklyn.