Lessons for the Ad World From That NFL Dynasty You Hated

Can the 'Patriot Way' be the advertising way?

The NFL's conference championship games are this weekend: the Green Bay Packers at the San Francisco 49'ers in the NFC, and the Tennessee Titans at the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC. 

Man, I love pro football. But right now, I love it just a hair less than usual. 

Because unlike in 13 of the last 20 seasons, none of those final four teams is named the New England Patriots, ending a two-decade dynasty. Or ending again, I should say. 

Many hailed the Pats' demise after Brady tore his ACL and MCL in 2008. Or after losing two Super Bowls to the New York Giants, in 2008 and 2012. Or in 2014, after losing the season opener to the division doormat Miami Dolphins, and three weeks later, a Monday Night Football blowout to the Chiefs. 

Despite injuries, upsets, the occasional deflated football and/or AV club witch hunt—pssst, the league has 13 bigger "cheaters" than the Patriots—and an NFL hell bent on parity, even the most ardent Pats-hater can acknowledge the team's sustained domination over the past 20 years: 

• 219 wins (averaging 13 per season) 
• 17 AFC East titles
• 30 playoff wins
• Nine Super Bowl appearances since 2002 (that's half of the Super Bowls over the last 18 years)
• Six Lombardi trophies
• Countless "Yo Soy Fiesta!" shirtless Gronk party pics

It's why The Sporting News ranked them the No. 1 sports dynasty of all-time, in any sport. And why, when asked for a message to Patriots fans who've been loyal "through thick and thin," Bill Belichick replied: "I wouldn't say it's been all that thin around here, personally." 

Yup, we've been spoiled. If I were a Browns, Jaguars or Buccaneers fan these 20 years, I'd be Nutrabullet'ing hemlock into morning smoothies. 

But despite (or perhaps because of) that domination: People. F*cking. Hate. The. Patriots. 

Hate the smug, humorless automaton Belichick and his grunting answers. Hate Brady, his six rings, his super'est-of-supermodels wife, his rising (and based on his sustained health and success, pretty damn proven) TB12 Method. Hate "Do Your Job," "No Days Off," "Still Here" and other cult-speak that outside the 617 area code sound less motivational mantra amd more "Successories" poster.

At the risk of earning hatred myself (or more hatred, considering my average Muse essay word count), I still believe that whether you work/root in Eagles, Packers or Rams country, the "Patriot Way"—that non-negotiable culture of accountability, team-first and winning—can apply to the world of advertising

To wit, some real quotes from messrs. Brady and Belichick:

"When you're one of the leaders of the team, there are no days off." —Tom Brady

A no-brainer for C-Suite'ers and seniors: Don't "lead" with empty words at Kool Aid-guzzling agency meetings. Don't be the guy/gal known only for bopping around the halls and offering empty positivity platitudes. Lead with tangible action and productivity. 

If you ask employees to work 24/7 on a pitch, you'd better be in the trenches with them. You—not project managers or your admin—should be the one making coffee, lunch and beer runs. If one hasn't slept more than three hours a night or eaten anything but Qdoba for a month, it sucks to see one's boss stroll in at 10:17 a.m., his muddy mountain bike Thule'd to his Tesla, click-clacking around in nut-hug spandex, pinkie-sipping an $8 latte before killing all the work on the wall. 

Instead, Brady it. Be the first into "the weight room" in the morning, the last one "studying game film" at night. It's why he's morphed from an afterthought sixth-round pick (No. 199 overall) to arguably the greatest quarterback of all time and a first-ballot Hall of Fame lock. When people see you've set impossible standards for yourself, and are always working your ass off to top them, they'll run through a brick wall for you—better yet, with you—to top them, too.

"Talent sets the floor. Character sets the ceiling." —Bill Belichick

Ahhh, the late '80s, '90s and even the recent 2000s, when the "most talented asshole" was still a thing. Those boils are thankfully being lanced more and more these days, when we've all done a better job of self-policing and -level-setting. So this is for myself as much as you: Let's make 2020 the Year of High Character. Of being the better/bigger person. Of being kind, respectful and professional re: one another's time, opinions, ideas and lives. Of helping others when there's—brace yourself—absolutely nothing in it for you. 

This country's had a pretty low floor lately, and at times our industry has, too. But we're raising it every day. More diversity and inclusion. Less tolerance for "how things have always been done." More dialogue and listening, less combative shouting. Calling out bad actors in our halls (IRL, not in our commercials). Refusing to work with the likes of Juul, Big Tobacco, Monsanto and others proven to value lies/profit over truth/people. That ascending floor can at least help us start to imagine a higher ceiling ... one where we can't even see the assholes, talented or not, down below anymore. 

"Too often in life, we blame others for us not being happy. We all have choices ... to accept people or situations, or to NOT accept situations." —Tom Brady

Scan Fishbowl or other industry blogs, or even check your own texts and posts. You'll see countless folks going Chernobyl-level blamey. "It's that ghosting recruiter's fault I'm not at Goodby!" "It's our hack planner's fault we didn't do Whopper Detour!" "It's 'diversity's' fault I didn't get that ECD job!" 

But Brady's right. Only worry about what you can control. I'm as guilty as anyone. Social media makes it way too easy to sink into that envious, frustrated, "envy, complain, repeat" quicksand. But blaming or lashing out when your personal  football takes a weird bounce is only briefly cathartic, if ever. You can either succumb to a negative situation or do something positive to change it. Contrary to popular opinion, all others do not have to fail for you to succeed. 

So if others—bosses, clients, recruiters, etc.—pigeonhole you as just a "skinny, slow 199th pick," but you know you're a first-rounder, prove it to them. If you feel you're better than a toxic or suppressive environment, leave. Best of all, leave and then prove it to them. You might not always reach your ultimate goal, but you'll at least be happier controlling, versus just "accepting," how, where and with whom you try. And you won't waste any more time gritting your teeth over blameworthy nemeses, real or perceived.

"To live in the past is to die in the present." —Bill Belichick

We're only as good to our clients as the last deliverable. There's too much competition (in-house, consultancies, each other, robots, robot consultants!) to rest on laurels. To me, it's all about hunger, adaptability and self-awareness. The lack thereof might be why once-heralded shops are now clawing to stay relevant—because they think they can still sprinkle magic fairy dust on the conference room table and say, "Yup, we're the agency that did X, hire us (mic drop)." When, frankly, few clients give a shit about 10 months ago, let alone 10 years. 

So while agencies and creatives "of a certain age/history" should be proud of past accolades that might get our feet in various doors, once inside you'd better still be able to DO, MAKE or CONTRIBUTE something beneficial or fresh. Thanks to holding companies, shrinking margins, or—I hope—agency leaders just getting wiser about not hiring lazy egomaniacs, the days of pricey talent hiding in a dark office corner behind a stack of dusty One Show pencils are over. Focus instead on how you can help someone else win their first one. 

"I've never eaten a strawberry in my life. I have no desire to do that." —Tom Brady

How did the strawberry hurt you, Tom? Can't find a connection to our business on this one. Except maybe ... don't eat three-day-old catering platter fruit left over from client meetings? Moving on ... 

"The only thing I ever wanted to be was a professional football player." —Tom Brady

No one grows up wanting to be a creative director. There was no CFO Barbie or G.I. Joe Digital Media Buyer with the kug-fu grip. But can we cut the self-loathing already? Especially when compared to a sector that's been poaching our young talent, Big Tech. 

As The 3% Conference's Kat Gordon recently posted, referencing a New York Times piece about "techlash" on college campuses:

"Advertising will regain some of its lost relevance and intrigue for young talent. ... [There's a] crisis of graduates wanting jobs that are both principled and high-paying, and finding that they've soured on Big Tech because of a series of 'ethical quandaries.' Meanwhile, advertising is in the midst of an explosion of purpose-driven branding. ... Seems a good time for the industry to be talking up the opportunity to apply one's creativity to building brands that are good corporate citizens and give back in powerful ways." 

Amen. After 25-plus years, I admit it's sometimes hard to muster up enthusiasm or be "principled" about selling cars, craft beer or burgers. But that's the gig we chose, or chose us. And while we didn't grow up with Mary Wells Lawrence or Dan Wieden posters like Brady did with Joe Montana, we can at least pretend we did. We can/should be proud of our industry again and stop polluting our younger colleagues with secondhand buzzkill smoke. 

Like the most successful NFL QBs, Brady still takes every first-team practice rep for fear of losing his job. Let's attack our jobs each day like we still have something to prove. Like there are 1,000 people out there gunning for our roster spot. Because guess what? There are. Loads of folks making a lot less money and working much harder would gladly trade places with our cushy asses. (I once worked in a Cape Cod fishmarket, gutting and de-scaling fish and delivering gazillion-pound swordfish, tuna and burlap sacks of scallops around to hotels and restaurants, making like $10 an hour. So yeah, I'll take sitting in a coffee shop or at home writing any day. Fewer calluses, mostly better smells.) 

"I'm a football coach. I'm not a doctor. They don't call plays. I don't do surgeries." —Bill Belichick

Despite all the hybrid-ization talk ("Anyone can be creative!"), let's pump the brakes. Before trying to fill our Batman utility belts with a bunch of "just-okay" skills, let's try to master one great one. Anyone can have one lightning-in-a-bottle brainstorm idea or parrot LinkedIn video buzzwords. But can they do it every day, hour, minute, on-demand, and then bring that idea to life in the myriad extensions and forms in which ideas now need to live? Likely not. 

So don't undersell yourself as "just" being a traditional writer, art director, planner, UX designer, whatever. Someone will need and respect that singular talent. The most effective situations are when we have the confidence and self-awareness to admit what we don't know, offer what we do know, and together create a well-rounded team of complementary skills. Belichick shouldn't apologize for not mastering artificial heart transplants any more than Denton Cooley should worry about not concocting defensive schemes to stop Patrick Mahomes. 

"I like playing. I wouldn't be a good coach. I don't have the patience." —Tom Brady

Speaking of staying in lanes: Some senior creatives in particular are great at "playing" (hands-on doing/making) and others at "coaching" (leading/managing). If you're the unicorn-y "player-coach," awesome. But please do one of them well at least. Because the days of the ineffectual ECD kicked back in a plush office as the vague "big idea guy/gal," or the "good culture guy/gal" CEO or planner bopping around the halls dispensing empty, back-slapping positivity platitudes, are over. As much as advertising (like most creative industries) can be a safe harbor for frauds, phonies and fools, it's also filled with smart folks who can smell when someone doesn't have any particular strengths to offer. So roll up your sleeves and play. Be the patient, mentoring coach. Do both. But don't do neither. Because unless you're a) making the work or b) making the work better, you're obsolete regardless of age.

"Do your job." —Bill Belichick

Self-explanatory. If "The Bobs" sat you down and asked, "What would you say ... you do here?" and your answer takes more than five seconds, please see yourself out. 

"I'd be so bored if I wasn't going out there knowing I could still do it. I still plan on playing for a long time." —Tom Brady

Brady turns 43 this free-agent offseason. And if you think 43 is "too old" in advertising—i.e., if you're a dope—that's like 71 in football years. But whether with the Pats or another team (spoiler: he's staying), he's gonna cash in. Why? Because someone will pay for that inherent, quick-twitch brain muscle that gets the job done better, and usually faster, than virtually anyone else. A sixth sense based on repetition, practice, stubbornness and unwavering standards that turns "old" into "experienced" and "cost-prohibitive" into "valuable. Experience and value offered by people like "Over30Under30" and many others.

I'm not saying those darn millennials and other young'uns don't/can't exhibit the same valuabe, admirable, "veteran" traits. Some ACDs, mid-levels and even juniors I've been lucky enough to work with carry themselves and produce well beyond their years. In Brady's world, look at young QBs like Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Carson Wentz, Dak Prescott, Josh Allen, DeShaun Watson: In flashes or consistently, they've all shown the same poise, preparation and execution of a Brady, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger or Aaron Rodgers. 

That Brady and these other vets have played so long at such high levels and STILL aren't bored ... that should inspire regardless of your age. As long as you feel you can get it done and aren't jaded/bitter/bored, keep playing. Brady says he still wants to play until he's 45. Seeing him still delivering and producing even if this season wasn't up to his usual nutso standards, who'd doubt him?

But let's also stop doubting ourselves. Let's stop nitpicking what's imperfect in our industry and start appreciating the good we're producing and delivering.

Let's declare that whether we're 29 or 59, our own mini-advertising dynasties—our careers—are only over when we say they are.

Let's champion selfless, non-negotiable cultures of team-first accountability and victory for all, not for one. 

Let's learn from the Patriot Way—as much as that pains many of you—and make it the Advertising Way.

And with that, let's go ... Titans??

Mark St. Amant
Mark St. Amant is a freelance executive creative director/creative director/copywriter and author based in Boulder, Colo. All his work and info is conveniently housed at markstamant.com.

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