What being in a band taught me about working at an ad agency

A picture of Joe's band

I’ve had a lot of jobs in my life. And I’ve learned different things from all of them. But by far, the job that taught me the most useful advertising skills was the 6 years I spent playing lead guitar in a rock band.

I started as a freshman in college and, despite appearances, it was a great learning (and beer drinking) opportunity. It drove my parents crazy, but in hindsight, nothing did as much to prepare me for my career as my years spent on stage. Some useful life lessons:

Load in everybody’s gear.

Loading in your gear is the worst part of being in a band. It’s why roadies exist. It’s a grind. But to earn the respect of your bandmates, you haul in a keyboard here and a kickdrum there. It matters. Everyone appreciates a team player. The same goes in advertising. When you’re working late, get your co-workers dinner. When you’re working in a group, give credit to others. Everyone notices the little things. Like carrying my amplifier.

Drive the bus.

Being in a band is being in a bus. You travel. Tons. And nothing is more annoying than watching someone drive poorly. They take wrong turns. They get lost. They go the long way. They stop too much. In advertising, the same is true. You can watch meetings get derailed. You can watch campaigns go sideways. You can watch clients write ads. Or you can get in place where you take control. If you want to make sure you’re going in the right direction, drive the bus.

Take soundcheck seriously.

In a band, nothing is worse than having bad sound. Whether it’s through your monitors or your mains, a good soundcheck can make the difference between a great show and a terrible show. Don’t half-ass it. Put in the time. Be responsive to the engineer during soundcheck and it will pay off when the show starts. In advertising, this means you should practice like you play. In internal meetings, present your work like you’re presenting to the client. In pitch practice, stay engaged. We are in the business of presenting ideas. Take every chance to get better. Otherwise, a horrible mix will ruin the show.

Quality over quantity.

Sometimes in a band, you get paid to play a four hour show. That’s a lot of music. The tendency is to barely learn a bunch of songs to fill the time. So rather than playing a really tight two hour show, you play a sketchy four hour disaster spread over two sets. The great bands don’t do this. They understand that more isn’t better, better is better. Same goes in advertising. Only show the work you’re proud of. Don’t create bad content just to fill a deck or satisfy a requirement in a brief. Only show the brilliant parts. In bands, they say “never play a song you wouldn’t want someone to record” and in advertising they say “never present an idea you wouldn’t want to produce.” Same thing.

Get the crowd to sing along.

There’s nothing better than this, really. Your singer stops and points the microphone to the crowd and they all go crazy. They’re involved. They’re passionate. And they will all walk away talking about what an amazing show they just saw. Same goes in advertising. Whomever you’re presenting to, get them to own the idea. Get them to contribute. Get them to write a bad ad. Make them feel like they’re part of it. If the other side of the table gets involved, you’re golden. If you get the client to “sing along”, you win.

Minimize your mistakes.

Everyone makes mistakes playing live music. The great players are the ones that can make their mistakes seem like moments of brilliance. They don’t just recover quickly, they make it seem artful. It’s all about confidence. In advertising, we all make mistakes, too. And the same rules apply. The brilliant ones turn mistakes into opportunities. They don’t just minimize a slip of the tongue, they know their material so well, that they have the confidence to pivot to make it seem like a pre-meditated, powerful insight.

Know when the show is over.

There is an art to controlling a setlist for a band. Sometimes you follow it as it’s written and sometimes you jump around to get the crowd onboard. In the band, it’s important to know when the show is going great and it’s important to know when it’s bombing. Sometimes you play more songs, sometimes you head for the van. In advertising, you have to have the same emotional intelligence. You have to know when a presentation is succeeding and when it is failing. If it’s failing, you may need to skip a few slides to get to the next idea. Sometimes you need to jump around your “set list” to make sure the clients are engaged.

Save something for the encore.

The encore is an awkward part of performing. Sometimes the show isn’t going well and you don’t have an encore. Sometimes it’s going great and you have several. The art of the encore is keeping something that you love unplayed, knowing that it might never be used. It’s takes discipline. In advertising, it’s good to have an “encore” of sorts ready at all times. Whether it’s on a slide or it’s something that you have tucked away in your brain (a “what if…” that you know is awesome), it is the icing on the cake. The decision calculus is whether or not, and when, the room is ready for the encore.

Leave them wanting more.

This one is pretty self explanatory. Applies to everything. It’s what makes the fans come back and it’s what makes the phone ring again tomorrow.

In advertising, you meet a lot of former musicians. And I think there’s a reason for that. On stage, you perfect the art of the sale, to a mass audience, in real time. That is an incredibly valuable skillset to have in our business. So while my parents and my investment banking friends thought I was crazy for trying to make it as a rockstar, it turns out all of those crushed dreams weren’t without value. At least I can say I learned something.

Joe Parrish is partner and chief creative officer at The Variable. He tweets @joeparrish

Joe Parrish

Joe Parrish is partner and chief creative officer at The Variable.

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