Learning in America

America is the land of advertising. MadMen - (named after Madison Avenue, not the mental state of ad people), Coke, commercial television, soap operas (originally radio shows sponsored by soap powders). Growing up Advertising Age came into the house with stories of accounts worth millions changing hands, and the stars of the adworld winning business with new ideas. Bill Bernbach, David Ogilvy, J Walter Thompson, Marion Harper and many more.

And now I was going to a 10 day training course, run by McCann Erickson. Nothing small - it was “The Worldwide Leadership Development Program” and would be attended by 40 of the brightest young things in McCann from around the globe. And me.

We gathered in Arden House, upstate New York. Donated to the University of Columbia by Averell Harriman, whose family had been one of the big railroad developers. Not a house, not a mansion, a palace.

I sat down for dinner with ten others. I was nervous. A guy with curly hair and a huge moustache offered his hand.

"Hi, Eric"

“Hi Eric” I ventured, “What do you do?”

“I’m Vice President in account management”. Gulp. What?! Vice President!

“Hi Lois, what about you?”

“I’m Vice President of Consumer Media in New York!”

“Rea...lll...y?” What was I doing here?

“What business do you handle Eric?” “AT&T Business to Business, countrywide!” “Big account?”

“$85 million (and we are talking 1988 here)” Now, at this stage, McCann Erickson Belfast, who I was proudly representing, was turning over, in total, £4.5million, and we were thrilled at just winning the Stewarts Supermarket account worth £1 million. This was one account. One. $85,000,000

What the…. was I doing here!


So we did the course, different topics every day, none about advertising directly, more about strategy, presentations, meeting management and innovation. We were given a project at the end of week one.

“Tim - what do you think about this?” Eric asked.

I gave an answer. We talked the same game, we shared ideas, we had the same experiences and they respected my ideas. I was no longer overwhelmed.

“Eric, you know something, my job is harder than yours!” “Why’s that?”

“Because most of my clients have tiny budgets, and a lot of them are owners of their businesses, and every penny is prisoner, in that they are spending their own money. I input to the media planning, the creative development and the client management. You have a research budget of $5million, can make test ads to try them out, a media team of 20, a creative team of eight writer-art director pairs. We have John and Dave.”

He laughed.

“You’re right! But you don’t have Bob Mitchell to deal with…(and that is another tale)”

So I took away from the week that it is all about noughts. Our population dictates our budgets, and it is the same in the US. They have 300 million people to sell to, we have 1.9 million. £100,000 in Belfast is £5 million in London and £30million in the US. But we do the same job, and we do it better.

Part Two

The McCann Leadership Development Programme was a success for a lot of the people there. Colin Schleining ended up being a President of a major US ad network, Chris Jordan went to the dark side as a client and headed up Coke in Canada, and Mike Amour is still plying his trade at the top of the ad world in the Pacific.

We had all hit it off and then some. Drinks in the evening, and jokes during the day. Three nationalities, Northern Irish, Scottish and Canadian, even though Colin was working in LA at the time. We were all the same height, all enjoyed the light side of life, and have stayed in touch ever since. I had the pleasure of visiting all three of their abodes, and the similarities continued. We all had Sony TVs, a collection of music that would have been interchangeable, and books in common too. The advertising chat was endless. Colin came to Northern Ireland too, and was bemused that we seemed to know everyone, until he tried waving at someone on the road himself and got a wave in return. He couldn’t understand why we get so little ice in our drinks when we live in a land of perpetual rain, while in the desert of LA ice is plentiful.

Mike and I bumped into each other. In New York. Ten years later. In a restaurant. Completely by coincidence. Margaret and I were there with another couple, and when I said to her that I recognised Mike across the room she was doubtful to say the least. It was him and we had a great catch up.

One of the sessions on the course was about meetings. The lecturer asked for volunteers. Guess who thrust their hands in the air with gusto? We did.

Then the trick was uncovered.

We were to sit and observe as the others were grouped together to discuss a topic of interest. We had to be completely quiet. Say nothing. Stum. Watch and take notes. Who contributed, who sat back, who took the lead?

The clever thing was that by asking for volunteers it had taken the natural loudmouths out of the game. Had we been round the table we would probably have been dominant. It is in our nature. Thinking that we have something important to say at all times. And it is also the case that some people contribute very little. They sit back and let others fill the void. So the natural order was disturbed, and we all learned that there is a balance. It is good to let others talk, and to encourage input from everyone. I still talk too much, and will probably always talk too much, but I try, I

The Business Lesson: Just because someone is quiet doesn't mean they don’t have something to say - and just because someone talks too much doesn't mean they are worth listening to.

(I'm still in touch with the guys on the right - One in NY, one in Canada, one in LA and one in Singapore, and Lois in the pics above is a pal on Facebook. .)

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2020 Tim McKane - on WIx. Belfast Northern Ireland