Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Remembering Ralph McGill: Lessons Learned From an Advertising Legend

Ralph Emerson  McGill Jr. didn’t pen the famous Blackgama campaign at left, but it’s the kind of smart word play he loved. He could write a line like that in about five seconds, although he wouldn’t get around to doing it until several hours or days past his deadline and only after continued hounding by account executives and traffic people. When Ralph died on June 1, he left the Atlanta advertising community bereft of one of its most legendary figures.

Ralph was a legend for many reasons, but what I admired most was his ability to thrive professionally without working very hard. His old friend Dianna Edwards was quoted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution saying, “There are people who work hard at their talent and there are people who are born gifted. Ralph was one of (the latter).”

Ralph was a fantastic role model for not making things more difficult than they needed to be. When I worked for him back in the early ’90s, his office would usually be filled with a handful of people sprawled on the couch and armchairs while he held court from his round table. There would be a lot of laughing and telling of stories. By the end of the day, the concepts would be ready, the headlines good to go, the copy complete. But it never seemed much of a struggle.

If you wanted someone to sweat over his work, it wasn’t Ralph. I remember  him telling me once about a hotel client who wanted the agency to consider alternative copy for their paper toilet strip that ordinarily read “Sanitized for your protection.” The AE came to brief Ralph on the job and asked, “Can you come up with something better?” Ralph thought about it for a couple of minutes, said, “Nope,” and crossed that job off his list.

Ralph was famous for his habit of disappearing. If he said, “I’m gonna go get a Coke,” you could assume he wouldn’t be back for hours. Years ago, the story goes, he actually worked full-time for two agencies at once. He was offered a job at McDonald & Little and started work there before he got around to quitting his job at Burton-Campbell. (Some versions of the story have him employed at Cole Henderson Drake and accepting a job at Burton-Campbell.) Either way, both agencies were conveniently located in the same building, so he’d go into one agency in the morning, hang his jacket on the back of his chair, and then run for the elevator to make an appearance at the other agency. He’d do a little work, leave a half-empty coffee cup on his desk and head back up to the first agency to take care of business there. Knowing Ralph’s ability to whip out a headline at a moment’s notice, it’s not hard to believe that this ruse succeeded for several weeks.

When I worked for him, he’d sneak home for naps. He’d return a few hours later, rested and refreshed, while the rest of  us were still toiling away through the afternoon slump. He’d stroll down the hallway of the creative department, hollering about how it was so quiet, it was “about as much fun as a Christian Science Reading Room in here.” One afternoon I noticed that he came back to work wearing a loafer on one foot and a Bass Weejun on the other. Apparently he’d just stepped out of bed into the first two shoes available and hadn’t realized they were from different pairs.

In the beginning, I had Ralph confused with his Pulitzer-Prize-winning father. I tiptoed into his office my first or second day working at Austin Kelley to ask his opinion on some finer point of grammar or phrasing. He looked up from his Playboy, scratched his head and said, “Elizabeth, it don’t matter none.” When people used to ask him if Atlanta’s Ralph McGill Boulevard was named for him, he’d say, “Nope, my father is the boulevard. I’m the alley out back.”

When you brush up against a legend, you can’t help but take away a few lessons. This is what I learned from Ralph:

• A good idea comes in a nanosecond

• Getting it done is sometimes more important than getting it perfect

• Sometimes it doesn’t need doing at all

• Working can look a lot like sitting around talking

• Being good at what you do doesn’t have to be hard

Finding Fulfillment in Small Victories (aka The Stanley Cup is awesome)

Last week one of my all time favorite things happened. The Stanley Cup was lifted and skated around the Wachovia Center by the Chicago Blackhawks. I can’t even describe the feeling I get watching each player take their turn hoisting and skating the cup, before passing it on to the next teammate, who has been patiently waiting his entire life for this moment. I get a little teary eyed watching it because I’m overcome with happiness. This is the culmination of everything I find great about the sport and you’re watching dreams come true. I also find it bittersweet because it means I have to go roughly 115 days without hockey.

As Jonathan Toews lifted the 34.5 lb trophy overhead I couldn’t help but ask myself what the equivalent victory would be for me. There is no large shiny object that I get to hoist overhead after I design a bitching logo or mind-numbing tri-fold brochure. It’s just business as usual, but I don’t necessarily think that makes what I do less fulfilling. I just have to find much smaller victories in my day-to-day job. Things like flawless press checks, only one round of client revisions, and coming up with taglines that the copywriter didn’t think of are my Stanley Cup.

Most careers just don’t have life-changing moments like they do in professional sports. I think for young people this is hard. We live in a can-do age but the reality is some people can’t do some things.

When I graduated five years ago, I thought I was going to change the world with design. But for the time being I’m okay with making just one poster, logo, website or brochure better. Hopefully it can have a trickle up effect.

Would lifting the cup be more exciting? Of course it would. But unless I can put on 125 pounds and really improve my wrist shot, I’ll find fulfillment in my small victories. I can’t wait for the players to skate on to the ice come October. I’ll be there ready to watch a new season unfold, as players’ dreams become realities.

Wanted: Kind Leaders

People talk a lot about leaders who are decisive or clear or brilliant, but kindness is rarely extolled as the virtue of a true leader. I think that’s for a few reasons. One is that management can still be very male in many cultures, and talking about kindness can seem odd, especially for a male leader. I am not saying men don’t display kindness as readily, just that they might not talk about it as easily. I also think that the higher up you rise in a company, the more efficient you have to be with your time, and that can result in abrupt and rushed conversations. Some of us are just not blessed with people skills, and when forced into engaging, well, it can be plain weird.

Here are some tips on kindness that anyone can follow and employees will appreciate:
• Be on time for and pay attention in meetings.
• Look people in the eye when they are talking to you.
• Give recognition freely. It lets people know you care.
• Lead by example, and those who you have regular interactions with you will take your cue on how to treat others.
• Ask genuine questions.
• Being frank and honest is always the best way.

A little positive energy can go a long way towards inspiring those around you to be onboard with your goals and vision.

Look at Recruiting As a Sign of Engagement

You might want to check out your brand’s recruiting program to help you judge the engagement level at your office. I’ve had a number of brands talk with me in the last few months about how they’re either losing good people or not attracting the same caliber of person that they’re used to having apply for jobs.

We’ve been talking with leadership and employees at brands that are having people who they kept on through the recession leave for other opportunities. “This is something I’ve always wanted to do,” employees are telling leadership. “I’ve worked really hard for you for a long time, and now I want to explore my options.” Leadership is telling us that they expected people to leave, but not these people. “We need to keep the people we have right now,” said one manager. “We’ve got to start engaging them.”

This dynamic is part of the legacy of a recession. Leadership has been focused on the numbers for the last couple of years. Employees have had their noses to the grindstone to execute work handed to them.

In both cases, people are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and making changes accordingly. This means that leadership is turning up the focus on engagement and employees are becoming more discerning about their current work situations. If you’re seeing a trickle in qualified applicants, or people aren’t banging on your door anymore to see if there are jobs, then you might want to explore the issue further to make sure you’re competitively set for the future.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Gen Z vs Boomers on Saving the World

When us Boomers were growing up, technology was the enemy of the environment. All that progress is exactly what we saw as the cause of pollution and other issues that threatened the planet’s health. As Joni Mitchell sang (on that old-timey thing called a record), “They’ve paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

Generation Z kids, on the other hand, seem to view technology as the solution to world issues. At Tribe, we’ve been interviewing this generation (kids from 8 to 15) to learn more about how they’ll impact the future workplace. Gen Z expects technology to endlessly advance, and to be key in solving issues from the environment to world hunger to international relations.

One 14-year-old respondent told us,“Technology will make it much easier. I think technology will advance enough that (environmental issues) will be something that can be solved. Like energy needs can be solved. (We’ll have) easy ways to make energy. Then we can move on to things like world hunger.”

A 10-year-old who is currently designing hovercrafts and other alternative-fuel vehicles on his iPad said, “If we just keep going on this path for another 50 or 100 years, it could be really bad.I think we can help the environment by making designs of things that can help it. When I grow up, there’ll be even more technology than we have now, so it will be easier.”

This generation also may approach international issues differently from their parents’ generation. A 14-year-old girl who maintains email relationships with friends in London and China explained, “I think we’ve learned from our parents, so we won’t make the same mistakes. Like in the Middle East or in Korea. I think we’ll approach the issue differently. Probably less aggressive, not as demanding. I think we’ll make more alliances with other countries and not like over power them.”

When these kids hit the workforce, they’ll bring that same belief in the power of technology to solve difficult problems. As opposed to Boomers, who sometimes view technology as cold and inhuman, Gen Z feels it enables them to:

• Bring creative ideas to life
• Gather knowledge on any topic
• Build and maintain human relationships
• Solve problems

In other words, they believe technology allows them to be more human, and to maximize their potential as human beings. Knowing the problems they’re likely to be up against when they’re the grownups in charge, I think they’ll need all the technology they can get.

That being said, it’s encouraging to see how Gen Z kids view the future. They seem to expect technology to continue advancing, major problems to be solvable and the world to be a better place than it is now.

Is Engagement Good, or Is That an Echo?

It’s always interesting to me when the leadership of a company says that engagement is high and all they really need to do is keep the momentum going. It’s interesting to me for two reasons:

1. That’s not really any easier than improving engagement. And the idea is that it will be easier to maintain. Just like any relationship in life, the employer/employee contract doesn’t go on autopilot.

2. It’s often true for leadership, but not the people who report to them. It’s too easy to think your personal professional experience is the same for others. Leadership is often more engaged because they can see clearly the vision and big picture and their role in it.

I’ve had more than one brand call and ask if we can do anything to improve morale at their company, without their leadership knowing anything about it. But leadership has to know about it because they’re central to its success. Research has shown that organizations actively seeking to improve employee engagement, including through the use of formal and informal recognition, financially outperform their competitors. The results of Watson Wyatt’s Human Capital Index Study show that better Human Capital Management (as measured by a composite HCI Score) is correlated to improved financial performance:
• Low-HCI companies: 21% total return on shareholder value
• Medium-HCI companies: 39% total return on shareholder value
• High-HCI companies: 64% total return on shareholder value.

So, am I saying that you’ve got a problem you don’t know about? Absolutely not. Here’s what I’m saying:
• Leadership needs to be sure they’re not just talking to themselves. When you’re close to the nucleus, you immediately understand things faster than people further away.
• Traditional surveys don’t always tell the whole story. Show me a survey where people don’t inflate or deflate the truth for one reason or another. I’d love to see it.
• Be sure people of all ranks and geographies get equal billing. It’s easy to subconsciously and subjectively dismiss findings that don’t appeal to what you want to hear or that can be easily explained away.

The beauty of being a leader is that you can have a far-reaching impact. Value your employees and they usually return the favor by doing their part to make your brand a success.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Sometimes Work-Life Balance Requires Work-Work Balance

Sometimes what you need to maintain work-life balance is to make a trade-off between two different kinds of work. My posts here on this blog have slowed considerably since sometime before Christmas. I went from averaging three posts a week to something like one a week — or less.

The thing is, I started a novel over the Christmas break. I wrote 12 and 14 hours a day, slipping it in between Santa Claus duty and cooking for our annual New Year’s hoppinjohn party. When I went back to the office after the holidays, I began working on the book in the early  mornings before work and on weekends. Which is exactly when I used to work on my blog.

Whenever you take on another work commitment, you might want to think about what you’re NOT going to do to make time for the new priority. That’s easier said than done. Usually those new commitments sneak up on you as a new client assignment, a special request from your boss, or an irresistible opportunity for advancement, recognition or visibility. They’re generally not the kinds of things you want to turn down. In an ideal world, you’ve got the capacity to take on more.

But if your plate is already full, you can’t keep piling on more and more without dropping something. Most of us have figured out by now that we can more consistently perform at higher levels when we avoid letting ourselves get completely exhausted. Also that reaching absolute exhaustion requires an inconvenient recovery time when we’re just not our sharpest.

Like they say, we all get the same number of hours in the day. Einstein didn’t get more than 24 of them, and neither does President Obama. Come to think of it, you can fit a lot into 24 hours. Most days, I feel like I have a fairly balanced life. But it stays that way only if I say no to some things, or at least put them on hold for a time while something else takes that priority spot.

Have you had to make choices in what work you can take on when? I’d love to hear what other people have experienced with work-work balance. Or if you tend to just take that extra work time out of your personal life hours.

Employee Portals: Making Their Jobs Easier = Increased Productivity

A lot of companies we work with are using their intranets to leverage their corporate brand and communicate their culture. After a couple years of being numbers focused, leadership is recognizing that engagement plays a key role in future success.

So, if you’re giving your intranet a tune-up to align it – and employees – with the company’s vision, then consider the following:

– What content will be on the site?
– You don’t want to bog employees down with another task.
– Your first shot has got to be your best shot.
– Recognition should be a part of it.
– It’s all about engagement/teamwork.

What content will be on the site? People sometimes like to separate engagement and tools from HR materials. A separate HR portal may be a more inviting resource for a spouse to find answers to family-related HR questions

You don’t want to bog employees down with another task. The price of entry for a successful intranet is that the site must be easy to navigate and user friendly. If it’s not, then it will become another part of the communications clutter that employees often have to weed through to get the information they need to do their jobs. A common barrier for communicators looking to leverage this channel in their organization is that people don’t want to add another task to their already busy day unless it benefits them.

Your first shot has got to be your best shot. Your first shot is your best shot at getting employees to interact with employees – and leadership – on your intranet. When employees check out a website for the first time, it’s like they’re visitors to a foreign country. They’re seeing everything fresh and new for the first time. If the experience is not good, they won’t travel to that destination again without a lot of hand-holding and convincing. We’ve even worked with some companies who walk away from or shelve a technology indefinitely to get rid of bad juju.

Recognition should be a part of it. Employees crave recognition and visibility, and social media can be a great tool for promoting both. Don’t be afraid to call out achievements and success stories from across the business. Nothing will make employees jump on board faster than seeing leadership actively supporting the new channel.

It’s all about engagement/teamwork. 
Start by interviewing employees and leadership about what they want from the new tool. Then, deliver content and tools that align what employees need with the organization’s business goals. When you strike that balance, employees want to use the site, and, when they do use the site, they’ll be working toward fulfilling the purpose of the company. You’ll really start to see results when employees are having conversations and solving problems that otherwise would have gone unanswered.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Gen Y College Grads Have What It Takes to Create their Own Jobs

Recent college grads looking for jobs right now certainly have their work cut out for them. The unemployment rate among people in their twenties is now nearly 20 percent. The other day a young jobseeker told me that even the good jobs waiting tables have all been snatched up, so that old standby of a fallback is no longer a sure thing either.

Applications to grad school are way up, often as a strategy for postponing entering the work force until the economy improves. Our 21-year-old, a rising college senior, has started mentioning how cool it would be to have a PhD. (We’re thinking how cool it would be to be done with paying for higher education for a while.) Even the grown-ups seem to be adopting that strategy. A single mom I know with four young sons was recently laid off from her job and went straight back to school to get her masters the following week.

Back in the recession of 1991, frugal spending was the highly touted solution to the economic downturn. Ken Kurson, in his article in this month’s Esquire titled “Saving Money Won’t Save You,” reminds us of the Tightwad Gazette approach to living on less and also writes ‘Too many people ignore the other solution — Increasing revenue.’ Most of Kurson’s article, however, was about  a 20-year-old entrepreneur who had somehow wriggled his way into an appointment to show him his version of the better mousetrap, a dorm-room seating solution called the Slouchback.

I predict we’ll see a large wave of 20-something entrepreneurs in the next few years, partly because when you’re making nothing, spending less is not much of an option. But also because Gen Y is wired from birth to believe in their ability to start and run a company. Many of our large corporate clients complain, in fact, about Gen  Y’s unwillingness to pay their dues like the generations before, and their assumed presumption that they could take over from the CEO right this second.

Launching a startup and running it successfully requires a mindset that’s not easily swayed by reality. Most entrepreneurs tend to be extraordinarily optimistic people, even in the face of crippled cash flow, client budget cuts and other inconvenient business developments. They have to be, or they would never be able to weather the emotional ups and downs that are part of the entrepreneurial life.

Gen Y is often characterized as having been raised with helmets on. Their parents, mostly Boomers, are said to have brought an entirely new level of intensity to parenting, and that as a result, Gen Y kids have been protected from the experience of losing, insulated with an amazingly high sense of self worth, and bolstered with the belief that they can achieve anything they can imagine.

I’d say that happens to be a perfect recipe for creating an entrepreneur. Judith Warner, in her New York Times Magazine article titled “The Why-Worry Generation” asks “Did Boomer parents actually do something right?” She points out that many Gen Y kids have seen their parents deal with layoffs or at the very least, fear of layoffs, so they don’t view the corporate life as the sure thing earlier generations once did. More importantly, she suggests that “their sense of entitlement and lack of  humility” may actually make them well adapted to cope with adversity. Their unstoppable optimism and high self regard provides them with unique resilience.

If you’ve got both resilience and optimism, then maybe all you need to be an entrepreneur is a big idea. Fortunately, Gen Y seems to be good at that those, too.