“What I learned this year” by Will Elliott, Creative Director, Goodby Silverstein & Partners

By thesanfranciscoegotist / /

We’re wrapping up the 2019 edition of “What I learned this year.” Hope you’ve enjoyed them all. Our last, but definitely not least, comes from Will Elliott, Creative Director, Goodby Silverstein & Partners. It’s a great one to read and head into 2020 with. Enjoy!

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I rode a motorcycle across Africa this year, and let me tell you, I learned a lot. But this is an ad blog, so I’m not going to write about dirt roads in Namibia. Instead I’m going to write about something else I learned about in 2019: meetings. 

After 20 years in advertising, you’d think I’d have meetings all figured out. I’ve been to so many that I’ve got Keynote slides burned into the back of my skull. But when a particularly important presentation of mine went south this year, it was clear I had some learning left to do. Maybe more than I’d like to admit. 

I prepared for this ill-fated meeting the way every creative I know does: by putting every goddamned thing I had in it: my hopes, my dreams, my craft, my fear of getting fired—you get the picture. 

And it wasn’t just everything I had. It was everything a lot of people had. Planners strategized; creative teams created; and account people got positively Machiavellian on the deck. Even my august bosses weighed in, along with the very smart company president. At times there were up to 20 brains in the room nodding, editing, writing and rewriting. We worked right up until the moment we walked into the room, and then … 

What just happened? 

I asked an expert on meetings. And this is what she said. 

“Intuitive” vs. “sensing” people. Buckle up. I’m gonna get Myers-Briggs on you. Advertising people are intuitive. Which means we find truth in ideas. Clients (and, in fact, most people) are more likely to be “sensing.” Their truths come from facts. What does that mean? Creatives are looking to present how their ideas feel. Clients are more likely to be concerned with how this idea fits. “Did you write that presentation for your client or for yourself?” the meeting expert asked. That sentence is now posted on a sheet of paper on my wall. 

Was it you vs. them? This one hurts. I pride myself on being one of the best script presenters I know. But enthusiasm can sometimes push you and your client apart. Dial your presentation up to 11, and clients will likely give comments back at 11. “You don’t come off as someone trying to develop a creative partnership,” the meeting expert explained. “You come off like a boxer walking into a ring.” That was revealing. 

Are you dehumanizing people? Face it: in every meeting there’s that one mousy, khaki-pants- wearing, timid little box checker, and—do you see what I just did there? It’s easy to turn people into cartoon characters, even if it’s just in our heads. This is more than just inaccurate; it’s dangerous. Because when someone senses that they’re being treated as less than the intelligent, hardworking person they are, they’re going to do exactly what you would do: cross their arms and shut down. And this can screw you in ways you never see coming. Joseph Stalin was once a lowly, box-checking secretary for the Soviet Communist Party, and I bet a lot of people wished they hadn’t looked past him. 

Which brain were you using? Our brains weren’t designed for boardrooms; they were designed to protect us from lions. So when we get nervous, which is easy to do when jobs and promotions are on the line, we get a shot of adrenaline, and our amygdala fires. This, the meeting expert told me, is the very real, physical reaction called “lizard brain.” And it’s when your decision-making spectrum narrows to “fight” or “flight,” and your body is literally itching to move. And guess what. It’s contagious. That moment when everyone is interrupting each other trying to get their comments in? The lizards have taken over. 

So after 20 years of hit-and-miss with meetings, what’s a creative director to do? After talking with the expert for a while, here’s my best guess. 

Getting some humility is a good start, and in fact that might be everything. There’s a lot of meeting tips out there, and I’m sure a lot of them are helpful, but I can’t help but wonder if it doesn’t all boil down to double-checking my attitude before I walk into the room. My idea is probably going to get taken apart and rearranged a little in my next meeting, and I’m going to stay a little calmer while this happens. And if a client has a comment, maybe this time I won’t try to out-argue them. Instead I’ll let them see me genuinely considering the things they have to say. 

I’ve had some bad meetings, but it’s helpful to remember that I’ve had some really great ones too. I’ve been in meetings that started out like the D-Day scene in Saving Private Ryan. But then we found common ground and ended up laughing together. I’ve also had a great meeting just 24 hours after I’ve had a really bad one (this happens a lot). Meetings are successful when both sides work together and remain open to each other’s input. Isn’t it weird that we forget that? 

I bet, as cheesy as this sounds, that inside every bad meeting, there’s a good meeting waiting to come out. You just have to look for it. And in 2020 that’s what I’m going to do. 

Oh, and the lizard brain? There’s a nerve in your stomach that can pull you out of it. Here’s how.

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