How the most difficult decision in my career is still paying off today.
Our careers are full of choices. Some are small and arbitrary. Some feel ginormous. The tough thing about tough choices is that the right answer is never clear at the moment we need to make them. And we may not know whether we made the right call for years. Or decades.
Recently I was asked to think about one of the toughest business decisions I had to make in my career. Several decisions popped into my head. Including big ones like whether or not I should quit my job and launch my own business. And whether I should risk asking a coworker to go on a date. (I have now been married to that coworker for 20 years.) But there is one particularly challenging situation I faced that not even Robert Frost could help me through. I call it The Roanoke Decision. Here’s the story.
In the summer of 2008, I had a business trip to Roanoke, Virginia. I worked at an advertising agency called Engauge. And I was to fly to Roanoke from Columbus, Ohio with a client for a night of focus groups. I was excited about the trip because I love the knowledge and insights gained from a focus group of my client’s customers. I had never been to Roanoke. And visiting new places is one of my favorite things. Along with brown paper packages tied up with string.
A New Challenge
But a funny thing happened on my way to Roanoke. A new client of our advertising agency, Nationwide Insurance, scheduled a TV commercial shoot on the same day in Charlotte, North Carolina. #RutRo
To this point in the project, all of the work I had done was behind the scenes. My boss, the Chief Creative Officer, had been meeting with the client and presenting the work. The client had proved to be challenging, and after each meeting, there was a new story about the over-the-top client and how difficult they had been to please.
Could You, Would You, On A Plane?
Eventually, we landed on a TV commercial script to produce. And because of other scheduling conflicts, I was asked to attend the Nationwide TV shoot. We determined that I would be able to travel to Charlotte the day before the shoot for location scouting and the important pre-production meeting. Then I could attend the first half of the TV shoot, and leave for the airport at lunch to catch my flight to Roanoke. At that point, the 2 experienced Associate Creative Directors on the account would manage the rest of the shoot. Easy Peasy.
The Best Laid Plans
Things did not go as planned. While attending the preproduction meeting I met two clients from Nationwide Insurance. One was Steven Schreibman, who was as over-the-top as advertised. He wanted the spot to be Spectacular! The other was Jennifer Hanley, who I was ice cold in the meeting. She had clearly done this sort of thing before, knew exactly what she wanted, and wasn’t about to suffer any fools who didn’t know how to deliver. This was going to be interesting.
The commercial was a simple idea. It was called ‘Burnout’ (think NASCAR victory, not Jeff Spicoli). The spot opens on a shot of a cul de sac in a quiet suburban neighborhood. Suddenly, a sports car speeds into the cul de sac and begins doing donuts. We cut inside the car to a shot of the driver, NASCAR champion Kevin Harvick, who tells the camera that he just saved a bunch of money by switching to Nationwide Insurance. Hence the celebratory burnout.
The 100-Degree Wrinkle
However, it was supposed to hit 100 degrees that day in Charlotte. So everyone involved was worried about how the heat would affect our shoot, the talent, and the car.
My team, including talented ACDs Jason Thomas and Oscar Reza, got to the set early. And it was already hot as balls. When the two clients arrived we met them and gave them the plan for the morning. We enjoyed a nice on-set breakfast together as the crew readied for the shoot and the sun began to broil the blacktop.
As the day warmed, so did my relationship with Hanley and Schreibman. The iciness and the craziness of the initial meeting didn’t come to the set that morning. Instead, they were both very pleasant. They were excited about the shoot and excited to work with Harvick for the first time. But they were also greatly concerned about the heat. (And not Dwyane Wade’s former basketball team).
I too was concerned about the heat. I was worried it would drench Harvick in sweat as he delivered his lines to the camera. I was worried about the impact the heat would have on the Corvette, which would be repeatedly pushed to its max as we spun it in high-speed circles. I was worried about the young stuntman who was going to be performing the donuts that afternoon. And I was worried about making a graceful exit in the middle of all of this to head to Roanoke.
What To Expect When You Are Expecting
The day went exactly as I expected. Meaning that I was quickly bonding with the new client, and the heat was causing real logistical problems for Kevin Harvick. He was a great sport, but would quickly sweat through his Nationwide polo and we would need to repeatedly break to freshen Kevin and his wardrobe. Which was slowing things down, and generating tension on the set.
Tick Tock Tick Tock
As the heat was burning up our time, I was making regular phone calls back to my office in Columbus. I was updating the account supervisor who lead the other account that was conducting the important focus groups in Roanoke. I was originally supposed to leave for the airport at 11am. But with the delays and tension on the set in Charlotte, I felt like I couldn’t leave at that hour.
What to do?
We decided to rebook my flight for another flight 2 hours later. I would have a car service pick me up at 1pm and speed me to the airport. I would then OJ Simpson through the airport, and make the flight just before they closed the boarding door. (Remember when we used to Associate OJ with running through airports?)
Bond. Personal Bond.
It was a good plan. But I still hadn’t told the Nationwide clients that I would be leaving the shoot. As so often happens in difficult situations, we were bonding. There was both stress and gallows humor as the clock raced faster than our progress. I worked with the producer, director and client to create a workable scenario and adjustments that would enable us to get all of the shots we needed. We decided that during some air-conditioned cool-off breaks we could record some voiceover work for the commercial and radio spots to save precious time.
Here it comes!!!
But 1pm was coming faster than Kevin Harvick in an 800hp stock car. And like The Clash, I had to decide, do I stay or do I go now? I knew that if I stayed there would be trouble. But if I go, it may be double. What to do?
I walked off by myself for a moment, and carefully evaluated the situation. Not just the logistics. But the intangibles. The relationships. The commitments. The business development potential. And both clients’ needs. There was a lot to process in a little time.
Then I called Peter Zenobi, the account supervisor, and reluctantly told him that I would not be flying to Roanoke as planned.
I decided that I had to be on Nationwide’s side. The degree of difficulty we were dealing with in the heat with the stunts and the celebrity talent was too high to walk away from. I recognized that I was quickly developing a strong rapport with both Jennifer Hanley and Steven Shreibman. And the focus group, while it was my original commitment, and I really, really hated to back away from it, would be recorded. And there would be a detailed report produced.
Ahead Of The Curve
While I didn’t technically go to Harvard Business School, I did read a book about it. In Ahead of the Curve, author Philip Delves Broughton writes about his experience as an MBA student at Harvard Business School. He reveals that the 2 greatest things gained in this prestigious program are 1. A remarkable network. 2. Confidence to make difficult decisions when you don’t have all the information you would like. And The Roanoke Decision was a clear case of having to make a tough decision without all that information.
Was it the right decision?
The heat-related challenges continued the rest of the afternoon. But we worked through it all. We got the footage we needed of the Corvette doing burnouts. But barely.
The young stunt driver needed a lot of time to get his driving dialed in. Which, in the 100-degree heat, took a toll on the car. In fact, the brand new Corvette, borrowed from a local dealership, overheated and shut down completely. So by late afternoon the car literally shut itself down, and could not be started again for 6 hours.
But we had what we needed. No one got hurt. And the Nationwide clients and I headed to the airport, together.
That night, on the flight home to Columbus, Jennifer Hanley and I sat together and talked the whole way. We developed a fast friendship. And before we landed, Jennifer said that she had a lot more work that she wanted to send to our agency.
Nationwide and Engauge quickly developed a very strong partnership. Soon we had an annual retainer with Nationwide of over $5 million. We handled the advertising for Nationwide’s sports sponsorships, including their high-profile NASCAR and PGA sponsorships, and work with NCAA basketball and the NHL. We refreshed their pet insurance brand, VPI. We rebranded Titan Insurance and created a very high-profile disaster response commercial, featuring Julia Roberts as the narrator.
My relationship with Jennifer continued to strengthen. And I developed strong relationships with many other great friends at Nationwide. In fact, my Nationwide relationships are among the strongest personal relationships I have developed in my career. (I considered listing all the great friends I made through Nationwide Insurance here, but it would double the length of the story.)
7 years after The Roanoke decision, when I made another difficult career decision to start my own advertising and idea agency called The Weaponry, those Nationwide relationships benefited me once again. In fact, they have led directly to our work with Hertz and Thrifty rental cars, Fifth Third Bank, and American Family Insurance. (Thank you Matt Jauchius, Dennis Giglio, Nick Ferrugia, Tiffanie Hiibner, Susan Jacobs, and Dawn Pepin.)
Starting that hot summer day in Charlotte I developed a very special relationship with Steven Schreibman. And when Steven passed away in May of 2018, the tribute I wrote about him on this blog became the most popular post of all time. And just last month, over 4 years after Steven’s passing his Mom, E.J. Bloom called to thank me for writing the story about Steven, and how she reads it often to enjoy wonderful memories of her wonderful son. We talked for an hour, like new old friends. Last week I received a package in the mail from E.J. that contained a copy of Steven’s book, Blood in My Hairspray. You can find the blog post here: Our time here is short. Make the most of it, like Steven did.
14 Years Later
Did I make the right choice on that blazing hot day in August of 2008, in the subdivision in Charlotte? When Roanoke was calling, and Charlotte wouldn’t let go? With more than a decade of great friendships, partnerships, and funny memories now in the bank, it would certainly appear I did.
When making difficult decisions, trust your instincts. There may not be a right or wrong choice. You may not have all the facts you want. But be confident in your decisions anyway. When you walk confidently in the direction of your decisions the universe rewards you. Know that you have the privilege of choosing your own adventure. Take advantage of that. Take control of your career and your life. Things will work out. Someday I expect to visit Roanoke. And I will thank the city for all it gave me in that trade years ago.
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