Monday, June 13, 2011

Time Flies

At the risk of sounding overly nostalgic and perhaps Andy Rooneyish (can his name be used as an adjective?), today's post is about a stopwatch.

But not just any stopwatch. It's a replica of a Swiss-made, hand-wound Minerva. The fact that it cost less than $15 is of no import to me. How I got the watch is a different story.

Let's go back to August 15, 1990. It was my first day at Chiat/Day advertising. I'm not sure of the date. Or even the month. I'm only assuming it was in the dead of summer because I do remember I was sweating bullets. I'm pretty sure I drove home at lunchtime to change into a different, drier shirt.

I had every right to be intimidated.

Chiat/Day was not only the premier ad agency on the West Coast, they were the most creative agency on the planet. Doing brave, ballsy work that could not be ignored. Every writer and art director there had a shelf full of awards. And a matching well-earned cocky attitude to boot. I was so far out of my league I didn't even know it.

Before my day officially began I met Jay Chiat, in the men's room of all places. We exchanged pleasantries and shook hands (after we had concluded our business). I  never did get to tell him that we were both from the Bronx, both sons of Russian immigrants and that we both worked in recruitment advertising.

Afterwards, I was ushered to the back of the warehouse (now the headquarters for Digital Domain) and shown my desk. And there right next to my new employee handbook was the stopwatch you see pictured above. You probably can't see it because of my photographic skills, but the back of the watch is engraved: CHIAT/DAY.

The stopwatch was a not-so-subtle way of reminding me that 30 second TV commercials better be 30 seconds and not a hair longer. And that 60 second radio spots better be 60 seconds, no more, no less.

There was a premium placed on precision. It was Chiat's way of saying that words and images were to be chosen carefully. And used efficiently. That precision is often the difference between a good ad and a great one.

The stopwatch also served as a tangible reminder that I had been welcomed into an elite club and that in order to succeed I had better manage my time well. They never cared if I took two hour lunches or worked out next door at Gold's Gym or even rented a bike and took a stroll down the Venice bike path. They didn't care if I came in at 11. Or napped under my desk. The only thing that mattered was
The Work.

Of course, I, nor anybody else, took advantage of those liberties. We were too scared. Particularly when we had to show the work to Lee Clow. And later, Lee as well as Bob Kuperman.

Fear, it turns out, is an excellent motivator. We were afraid our next assignment would be our last. We were afraid that what we were presenting would be laughed at. Not because it was funny, but for every other reason. We were afraid that given one more week, one more day or one more hour, we could have made the work better.

I carry this stopwatch wherever I go. Have been doing so for the past 21 years.
With apologies to Chiat and their client Visa, and in the vernacular of Mastercard...

Cheap knock-off stopwatch : $13.99.
Career lessons learned: Priceless.


george tannenbaum said...

In digital agencies, they have no stopwatches. Work doesn't have to be a proscribed length. It doesn't matter.

So copy is rambling and unfocused.

There is no discipline like old discipline.

David Butler said...

In those early days, Rich would occasionally show me an idea to see what I thought of it before he took it forward. I kinda wondered why at the time, because the idea/copy/etc. was usually really good. I figured he thought there was always room for improvement and wanted to get my take. I had no idea he was scared shitless.

Of course, I should have known. Every creative person feels that way at some point. I know I did. Still do. Not so much the scared shitless part, but just that insistent little voice that whispers, "I wonder if this is any good?"

I wouldn't be surprised if we all some day find ourselves on our deathbeds, repeating over and over to ourselves, "Geez, I hope I don't fuck this up."