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Looking back at 20 years of Tailfin

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So, this is 20. Twenty years in business is a moment and a milestone, which means it’s probably a good time to do a quick pat on the back but also to take a look in the rearview to see what exactly I’ve learned eating up all those miles over the years. And while I’m not sure these are Successories-worthy lessons, I have picked up a few simple truths about this business I think are worth sharing.

#1 This gig definitely beats wearing a tie.
When I stepped out of college and into the Ad world (in the same 3-day span), I went to work in a white starched shirt and one of my three thank-god-they-were-on-sale business suits. Since then, a lot has changed in this business in both dress and demeanor. Call it the “start-up hoodie effect”, but our business has relaxed, in ways that go far beyond wardrobe. For me, less formality has meant less artifice and more honesty – and that’s a recipe for better communication and better work. As for you unlucky stiffs still suiting up every day for your jobs at the bank or whatever, you have my sympathies.

#2 The deadlines struggle is real (annoying).
I get it. Technology has made almost everything in the branding business go faster, faster, faster – and there’s no end in sight. But at some point, we need to at least tap the breaks to protect the incubation period that really good creativity desperately needs (my Tailfin family will snicker at that one since I’m usually pushing for more “hustle”). Yes, you can occasionally pull a rabbit out of a hat at a moment’s notice but lovingly nurturing a good idea can turn it into a great idea. Leverage technology to cut timelines elsewhere and make time for the magic to emerge.

#3 Hustle Counts for Something.
Dangers of shortening deadlines aside, I do know showing some hustle – and making it known – counts for a lot. I once had a client say, “I’ll take 80% right, fast, over 100% right, slow.” Not exactly a rule to live by, but the sentiment is simple: agility can be valuable. Hustle is also a way of showing empathy; the time and pressure stresses that clients deal with trickles downhill, so when you show a little extra pep and nimbleness (without sacrificing the end product or going nuts), by all means, do it. They’ll appreciate it.

#4 No One Really Cares About Awards.
We have walls full awards. No one has ever asked about a single one. They’re fun to win, but a pain in the ass to prepare and submit, so, you know, consider your priorities.

#5 No, Not Everything is “Going Digital”.
Years ago, I had a young interviewee tell me “well, everything is going digital these days.” Two decades later and I still drive by honest-to-goodness printed billboards and I get my fingers covered in newsprint on Sundays. Yes, I’m old, but I’m not 100% wrong here either – lots of stuff has “gone somewhat digital” or at least has been bent and reshaped by the freedom technology brings. But it’s important to never get too enamored with the tech in and of itself – there’s always something new around the corner. Embrace technology, don’t worship it.

#6 Everyone Says They Want “Something Daring.” They (Mostly) Don’t.
In the “what an ideal agency partner looks like” section of pretty much every RFP there’s some version of the following: “A forward thinking partner that can develop breakthrough creative that will challenge our brand team and transform our messaging.” The word “daring” is a big theme, but few clients actually have the stomach for “daring” when it’s on the table in front of them. The rare clients that actually do push like hell and stick out their necks to try something new are something special. They’re built with confidence and insight and are usually tinged with a bit of crazy. When you one of these unicorns for a client, hold on to them with all you’ve got.

#7 Alliteration Works.
I have no idea why. But it does.

#8 We’re Really in it for The Stories.
When people find out what I do for a living, they inevitably ask if this job is anything like Mad Men. The answer is, it was, and yes, it sometimes still is. It was in the sense that ad agencies in the 90’s were still pretty hedonistic places (see exhibit 1: any McCann Erickson Atlanta Christmas party). Not so much anymore – we go bowling for the Holidays. But it is like Mad Men in that once you get past all the drama, we’re all in it for the awesome power of storytelling. There is no better feeling than taking a brand truth (or even a half-truth) and turning it into a story – a tease, a tale, a tagline – that connects with people at their core. Think about it; a 30-second ad that can make someone get off the couch and go do something. Buy a pair of shoes. Get a check-up. Go buy a Coke. Go vote. Whatever. It’s intoxicating. You step back and say, “hey, we did that.” Then you go do it again. And again.

#9 Last but not least: People Matter Most. Period.
For years, we’ve had a saying around here –we’re “99.9% Jerk Free.” It sounds a little silly, and that’s mostly on purpose, but it’s also 100% true. Prior to my current career incarnation, I worked for years as a kid/teen at just about every job imaginable; flipping burgers, laying down rock and tar roofing, hawking the local newspaper door to door. In those other gigs, the job was the job, and the people that came along with it – good, bad or asshole – were just part of the deal. Not so in this game. Here, people are the job. They’re our stock and trade, our “secret sauce”, our one and only product. We don’t sell branding. We sell quirkiness, creativity, ingenuity, empathy, smarts, and humanity- all the raw materials that come from our people. We sell confidence and trust. We sell passion and connection. We sell it to clients, and we sell it to each other. And you know what doesn’t sell? Assholes. Avoid them all costs – that goes double for asshole clients.

In the end, I’m not sure the almost-28-year-old me who started this endeavor would fully recognize everything about the almost-48-year-old version of me, but some of the core characteristics are still there. I still love doing what I do. I still love that this is a business built on the shoulders of people who tell stories. I’m lucky and I’m thankful I’ve been able to do it this long and can’t wait to see what’s next.

Plus, it still beats wearing a tie.


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