Business & Economics

Bronze Seeks Silver: Lessons from a Creative Career in Marketing

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Synopsis

Marketing was destiny for Mat Zucker — the perfect cocktail of creativity, art and salesmanship. But before becoming chief creative officer of the world’s largest direct marketing agency and now partner at a global management consultancy, he had to pay his dues. First as a secretary at a big ad agency, mastering a West Virginian accent, and then, as a writer, researching the phenomenon of spanking parties, he’s picked up both hard lessons about selling brands and managing careers, with many laughs along the way. With this candid memoir, Mat gives aspiring marketers the gift of what he's seen and learned.

You Only Have To Walk This Pet Once

I tried to remain still as Tricia digested my ads in silence.

At a job interview the previous week, I kept talking as pages were turned, and the recruiter complained that he couldn’t focus.

Today I was at Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising in New York, and Tricia the recruiter was reviewing my portfolio—unzipped and presented on the glass table.

Since I was young and new to the business, the ads inside could be “spec” or hypothetical, but how they came across was important. My portfolio, or “book” as they called it, was one’s audition for the job. The ad campaigns painstakingly put together on a Macintosh with images swiped from magazines were my voice and view of the world, proving I could think originally and write persuasively. My Ivy League degree didn’t matter. My published school newspaper clips didn’t matter. My 3.89 grade point average didn’t matter. Only what was in the book mattered.

Tricia was staring at my tourism campaign for the tiny country of Bhutan, nestled in the Himalayas between India and China.

My idea celebrated how Bhutan was far, far off the beaten path. Each magazine ad highlighted a local distinction, such as the myth of the Abominable Snowman. The first was a blurred picture of a large animal with the headline: “Americans Revere Their Legends. We Run From Ours.” The body copy proudly claimed the story of the Abominable Snowman and invited you to pull out your backpack and call your travel agent to visit Bhutan.

To close out the ad, a tagline summed up the spirit that this eclectic place wasn’t for everyone: “Bhutan. For travelers, not tourists.”

I watched Tricia’s eyes for a reaction. If she didn’t like the ad, or “get it” like the idiot last week, I was screwed. Recruiters were the gatekeepers to meeting creative directors for the job I wanted as a junior copywriter. I had been on 10 first interviews in three months, and I simply wanted to get invited back somewhere. It was like waiting to get chosen for the kickball team back in grammar school. Always the shortest, I’d be picked second to last—just before the awkward kid.

Tricia wore a business suit like my older sister Liz, who worked at a technology consulting firm. Liz and her husband Adam were my career gurus, and since I had just graduated from college and was living at home with my parents in New Jersey, they let me sleep on their navy pull-out couch in Greenwich Village before big interviews like this one. Liz had suggested I wear my grandfather’s handsome Hamilton watch. “You’ll seem more mature.” She also told me to tuck my dress shirt into my underwear and to sit forward whenever I could—to appear taller.

Tricia smiled and muttered about the ad: “I like how you used American history to contrast with theirs.”

She flipped to the second ad. Every country brags about its unique cuisine, so I wanted to focus on the culture’s century- old eating habits that I’d read about in National Geographic. The photo was a campfire in the mountains at night, paired with the headline: “The Lighter has Brought Bhutan Out of the Middle Ages. Now it’s Easier to Boil the Yak.”

This got a giggle. “Funny one,” Tricia said, observing, “Also, you keep using contrasts, which is a good technique to tell the story in a consistent way. I like it.”

Afterwards, there was a campaign for American Airlines, one for Cadillac, and I felt on a roll until we got to Dial soap, which was supposed to nail it.

An image of a bar of soap with the Dial logo dripped in the corner of the page, and in 24-point Franklin Gothic (then my favorite font) was the boldfaced headline: “To the Blind, Feeling Clean is Looking Good.”

Tricia stared at the page, reading it at least two times, with no reaction. “On the one hand it’s a clever metaphor,” she said finally, unsmiling. “But it also is polarizing. It’s kind of, well, don’t you think, insensitive?” She looked at me for a reaction. Was this a test?

“Well, I don’t want to offend anyone. I’m very pro-blind.” “Pro-blind?” It sounded terrible when she echoed it.

“My mother’s family has a history of cataracts,” I told her, thinking on my feet. “My Aunt Lill has had two surgeries, and Aunt Lois has had four. I fully expect to lose partial sight at some point in my life.” I was empathizing. I knew the blind. I’m not a jerk.

“Oh,” Tricia said and just tapped her fingers on the table. Why did I bring up Aunt Lois? Aunt Lill would have been enough.

I wanted to seem flexible. “Maybe Dial could give a portion of profits to a guide dog school?”

“Mmm... maybe,” Tricia said, but she didn’t mean it. Minutes earlier I was in a great place, but I could tell today wouldn’t go further. She flipped through to the end of my book, but the tone was so soured, she didn’t even laugh at my campaign for Manhattan Pet Shop. I had positioned aquarium fish as the perfect pet for busy, city dwellers like her. A picture of an open toilet bowl was captioned: “You Only Have To Walk This Pet Once.”

Tricia escorted me to the lobby, making small talk about the view of the Hudson River. At the elevator, she shook my hand.

“We’ll be in touch.”

On the bus back to New Jersey I tortured myself, wondering

if I had made a mistake with that soap ad. The metaphor of clean as beautiful was to illustrate original thinking, but it had snuffed any chance I had of working at famous Saatchi & Saatchi, any agency of which even my cynical, skeptical grandfather had heard.

In college marketing classes, I had learned that a hallmark of advertising is risk-taking. But I also knew that the first im- pression is what matters on interviews—kind of like headlines in real ads. If you turn off or puzzle someone, you’ve blown it. Worse, I was tone deaf. Cleverness backfired. At least Bhutan went over well.

Raised in a conventional suburb, I always had been attracted to exotic places. I’d beg my parents to move us somewhere interesting so I’d have a better college application essay or to at least send me abroad for a semester, the way my high school friend Lauren went to Israel and came back speaking Hebrew and with a smoking-hot boyfriend named Eitan.

“You have money, you’re educated,” I’d complain to my parents, hoping for France, England, China, or even a non-Nazi village in Germany. “Why are you holding me back by living here in New Jersey?”

I finally did a summer session in Paris during college, taking

courses on the American expats and learning how to survive in a tiny maid’s room in a fifth-floor walkup, with a squat toilet down the hall. It was quirky and charming until I got a stomach virus.

I hoped the Bhutan campaign might help me seem international. New Yorkers liked that.

As the Manhattan skyline receded out the bus window—and the experience at Saatchi sunk in —I felt like I was literally getting further from my goal. By now, I’d had nearly a dozen interviews and had nothing to show for it.

I couldn’t, however, give up. I’d known marketing was my destiny ever since we watched the Clio Awards for advertising in English class. I don’t know what possessed the teacher to screen them as a counterpart to books like A Separate Peace and Great Expectations, but I was glued to the music and storytelling of the ads—a kind of commercial literature. I loved art, business, and most of all, drama. Every Wednesday night I spent with the Carringtons and Colbys on TV’s Dynasty, admiring the risky business deals, office romances, creative scheming, and Joan Collins’ outfit changes for every scene which made the show the most expensive to produce on television.

The lesson always seemed to be: Go for it.

When the French Club needed a fundraiser, instead of selling candy bars like the marching band and every mundane club in America, I ran a croissant and orange juice stand just before classes. It was unusual and pretentious for high school in the 1980s, but it made people feel glamorous, and high school was a time when how we felt and looked was nearly everything. We raised enough money to fund a trip to Lady Liberty and for the club to see Les Misérables

on Broadway. Early on, long before I knew anything about David Ogilvy, much less worked at his agency as a creative leader, I had already picked up the rewards of salesmanship.

Advertising also seemed a faster route to success than the icons of professionalism—law and medicine. Unless you’re going to operate on somebody’s spleen or defend them for murder, I couldn’t see the point of another three or four years of college past undergrad.

I figured anything worth learning could be picked up on the job, same as how I learned to drive stick shift. Aunt Marcia took me out in my brother’s car, and after a few hours, I got the feel for the gears. I was also willing to start in the mailroom, or have an affair with an executive, as fellow short hero Michael J. Fox did in the movie The Secret of My Success.

My family of risk-averse lawyers, however, was suspicious of jobs in advertising—especially my grandfather, Sam Zucker. Papa Sam endlessly retold the story of his childhood friend Shorty Krantz, who had started an ad agency in Newark in the 1930s, lost his biggest client, went belly up, and was stuck selling watches from a pushcart.

“Shorty was clever, but not clever enough,” Papa warned me as we sat down to watch Jeopardy!— his nightly addiction. Once the familiar theme music started, any conversations with him were best held in quick bursts during program breaks, which was difficult since it was the commercials that I liked. During one for a bladder control drug, I slyly observed that the ads paid for the entire show. “Papa, if there weren’t commercials, you’d have to pay with your own money to watch Jeopardy!

Papa wouldn’t have it, shaking his head as his idol Alex Trebek came back on screen. “That’s ridiculous. Alex Trebek is a wealthy man. Try accounting, Mat. There are many good firms. You’ll learn to love it.”

Accounting? How boring! And unlike my sister, I was terrible at math. But it was being told what I should do for a living that bugged me the most. I wanted to write famous jingles people knew, shoot commercials in Los Angeles with directors, smoke cigarettes in my own apartment, and wear chic outfits by Charivari and jeans by Jordache.

My desperation was also making me indiscriminate. I applied to big agencies with famous names, smaller shops where I could get more experience, and every genre of magazine from Details to Good Housekeeping (the cover letter was about my love for its Seal of Approval). While my targeting wasn’t great, I was precious about my message. I tortured myself over decisions like which font to use on the resumé—artsy Futura or writerly Times New Roman.

“I don’t see the difference,” Mom said, looking at the versions side-by-side. “One has little curly-feet. Maybe that’s easier to read?”

“That’s serif, Mom!”

To break the logjam, I did half the batch with Futura and half with Times New Roman. Unknowingly, this was probably my first direct marketing A/B test.

The résumé and cover letter was accompanied by photocopied samples from my portfolio and a personal ad about myself. With a photo of me holding a pencil, it elaborated on how hard I would work and how much I wanted to be a copywriter. The headline was clear: “I want to write for you.”

I tracked every mailing, and 90 percent of the replies were pleasant rejections (apparently, font choices didn’t matter; I was rejected equally in both test cells).

One response, however, stopped me in my tracks. From a big, award-winning creative agency in Boston, my personal ad was returned anonymously, with a red pen circling every instance of the word “I.” Not only had I overused it, I was by implication, an egomaniac. The feeling after the Saatchi interview returned; I had screwed up again.

My mother tried to comfort me. “Who doesn’t sign their name?”

Clearly, the person was a schmuck. It was a mean thing to do to someone new to the industry like I was. But the red circle experience stayed with me for years, especially as I met real egomaniacs in my first job. For now, though, there was nothing I could do but cross another agency off my list, revise the cover piece reducing the number of uses of “I”—and send out more packets.

Unfortunately, even the 10 percent positive responses didn’t mean an immediate job. None of the interviews I managed to schedule started on time. For example, I had one appointment cancelled right while I was sitting in the waiting room because something came up (“Mr. AdGod is so sorry. He has to go to Atlanta on a client emergency”).

Weeks after the Saatchi debacle, my heart leapt at a voicemail from Linda at Brandt Publications, a company that owned several magazines, including Interview—founded by Andy Warhol.

As with Details, I had subscribed since high school, although admittedly, I didn’t understand half the content and the photography was weird. Was that a guy or girl? But for a kid whose unhip choices dated back to taking French over Spanish and reviewing soap operas in the school paper, working at Interview would be a crash course in cool. I would party at events in TriBeCa (wherever that was) with Madonna, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Matt Dillon. My head was spinning. Would I have to do drugs? What would I wear? Should I invent a nickname?

I arrived early at Brandt Publications’ SoHo office in my only designer suit—a forest green Andrew Fezza. Waiting at reception, I admired the wall displaying each magazine cover, especially Interview’s issue featuring bad-boy Marky Mark, shirtless with a nipple ring. Having recently come out as gay in college, I was thrilled by the prospect of this as a workplace.

Linda greeted me warmly and we walked to her office. She told me that they were a family-owned business of several “titles” including Interview, founded by legendary artist Warhol. I smiled at how lucky I was and wondered if I should ask her opinion on living in the East or West Village. About fifteen minutes in, I started to notice most of the conversation wasn’t about Interview, but about another magazine—Antiques.

“What’s so exciting for our salespeople are the events,” she went on, eyes brightening. “Hundreds of elegant people with a shared passion for fine furniture. Not just in New York, but in Pennsylvania, Virginia...” and with an incredulity she wanted me to share: “—and Ohio!”

I didn’t need a college degree to know this conversation was not headed towards me being fabulous. Linda’s hands were now folded on the desk. “Mat, the position we’d like to talk to you about is in sales for Antiques.”

“I thought it was for Interview.” I tried not to whine.

She feigned confusion. “Really?” Then she quickly added, “If that’s something you’re interested in, you might be able to switch after you prove yourself.”

I hadn’t thought of that. Linda gave me a tour, pointing out people in their cubes, what they did all day, and where the free gourmet coffee was dispensed. We passed a portrait of Andy Warhol, and I respectfully paused. I spotted an expensive- looking wood table and willed myself to think of antiques as more than well-preserved used furniture. “Is that a Baker?” I asked, trying to please.

Linda looked at it. “No, it’s a Biedermeier, but I can see why you thought that.”

I spent another two hours with people at Antiques, including an older guy who had gone to Cornell in the sixties and a younger woman who had gotten her fine arts degree at Bard. She said they were trying to sell a big feature on restoring libraries. “It’s breakthrough,” she promised.

Two days later, I got my very first job offer in the mail. There was a flattering note from Linda offering me the title of Adver- tising Sales Associate for The Magazine Antiques, a description of the role, and an $18,000 salary with full benefits—almost enough to live on in New York in 1992.

I should have been excited, but I was disappointed. It was advertising, sure, but it was sales. And it wasn’t cool. Perhaps I could tell friends, “It’s the same company as Interview” or adopt Linda’s belief that I could eventually switch from one magazine to the other. The problem was that I truly didn’t care about old furniture, old tapestries, old people—or old anything.

I called Linda to thank her, and said I regretfully couldn’t accept the generous offer, but to please, please contact me if a spot at Interview ever arose.

Friends had warned me about being picky in a recession. I would have to live at home in New Jersey longer, in the attic bedroom, decorated with posters of Billy Joel, The Police and my campaign signs for student council president.

I pulled it all down and replaced them with magazine spreads of what my Greenwich Village studio apartment in Manhattan would look like when I had it. I didn’t buy the furniture yet, but I catalogued prices, model numbers and store locations. I focused on success—what it would look like and what it would take. I would think up new ways to sell myself even in a recession. Which might be a good skill to learn anyway. 

About the author

Mat Zucker is a writer and strategic marketing consultant. He has held leadership jobs at top agencies and in management consulting, hosts two podcasts, Cidiot and Rising, and is a contributor to Forbes.com. A graduate of Cornell, he and his husband Brian live in New York’s Hudson Valley. view profile

Published on October 06, 2020

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Genre: Business & Economics

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