Mad Men gives the world a glimpse of 'Creative Russian Roulette'

Creative Russian Roulette

Season 4 of Mad Men wrapped up last night, and while the episode wasn't the most exciting, it did give us a glimpse of a phenomenon many outside the ad world might not know about. I'll call it Creative Russian Roulette.

Peggy Olson and Ken Cosgrove get a tip about a brand that fired its creative agency mere days before a campaign launch (with pre-purchased media, of course), so they make a run at getting the business. They get a meeting with the client and go in to try to break the agency's losing streak. They start out by doing the most sensible thing, asking the client why they ditched the other guys and what they feel their needs are.

Before they get any kind of real answer, Peggy and Ken stumble into a half-baked attempt at a tagline (and you can see them share a look that says they know they've just stepped in something). The client responds negatively, and Peggy is forced to make a quick adjustment to keep things from going downhill. Her new angle comes across much better, and then we hear the client utter those words… "What else ya got?"

This is Creative Russian Roulette, the dangerous, high-stakes game of being creative, in real-time, in front of an unsold client. Anyone who's sold creative services has found themselves in this situation at least once. We're being asked to demonstrate our art without the luxury of the proper time, resources, or any guarantee of reward if we succeed. It's insane, ridiculous, ludicrous and very, very common.

Peggy and Ken walked right into it and left themselves with no choice, but the rest of us find ourselves having to decide whether to play or not. It seems like it would be an easy decision, right? "Hell yeah, there's a bullet in that thing… its dangerous!" Well, it's not quite that easy to avoid picking up the loaded gun the client has put in front of you.

  • There's the temptation that the right spark of inspiration could win the account right on the spot.
  • There's the fear that the client might not give you the chance to ideate later.
  • There's the possibility that your competitors may have already delivered ideas of their own.
  • There's the (very valid) concern that if you DO come up with a spectacular idea in a few minutes, they will expect that from you every time.
  • There's the excitement and thrill of the challenge itself… the chance for glory.

So the client throws down this gauntlet, and we each make our decision about whether to pick it up or not. Some folks stand on principle ("That's not the way we work, and here's why…"), while others just go for it ("Carpe diem, baby!"). Either way, hearing those words from the client is a sure way to double your heart rate and make you wonder whether you're feeling lucky.

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