The Suit: Are you a great suit or an average one?
by Jason Harrison. When I started at Ogilvy as young adman, the folklore and legendary stories from RS-TM (the initials of the founders’ surnames: Bob Rightford, Brian Searle-Tripp and Roger Makin) were passed down from year to year with great gusto.
Tore in half
I remember being told about Searle-Tripp presenting a double-page spread to a very important client, who responded with, “I absolutely love this work, Brian, but what would it look like as a single page?” To which he replied, “Well, it will look like this” and tore the spread in half.
Another one was when a young suit arrived in Rightford’s office a few days after payday to alert him that he’d not been paid for that month. The response was, “Well, if you act like a client in this agency, then they need to be paying your salary, not me, so go ask them for your paycheck.”
Things certainly have changed.
But the one story that’s always stuck with me is of an experienced suit who was called into Rightford’s office to explain why a certain account hadn’t been billed that month. The suit started off, “Well, Bob, you see, er, I have been working very late and very hard and I have really, really tried to get the client to sign off the costs but, unfortunately, they didn’t sign it off before billings closed.”
Rightford closed his notebook, looked the experienced suit straight in the eye and said, “I’m really not interested in how hard you tried; I’m only interested in if you did what needed to be done.”
Hallmarks of a great suit
I love that story, because I believe it’s one of the hallmarks of a great suit: doing what needs to be done. It got me thinking about what else separates a great suit from an average one.
- Problem-solvers: Average suits take a client problem, cut it up into a hundred micro problems and proceed to dish the pieces out to every department via multiple job bags and then stand back for all the pieces to return “solved”. Great suits own the problem and they also own the solution by crowdsourcing and testing their thinking with multiple people to build something that’s smart and considered. If a suit can’t solve a problem, he or she is the problem.
- Decisive leaders: Average suits say things such as “I’ll have to check with traffic”, “I need to check with the creatives” and “I need to check with production”. Great suits say, “I think what we need to do here is three simple things”, “we both want the best possible solution, so let’s add an extra week and knock this one out the park” or “let’s just take a step back here because I’m worried we’re heading in the wrong direction”. They are decisive, because they know where they’re going.
- Ultimate distillers: Average suits are immaculate mystifiers carrying giant duffel bags of complexity into the agency. They say big words, in long sentences, to no one in particular. Great suits have an innate ability to simplify. They take highly complex and fragmented pieces and “join the dots” to provide absolute clarity and direction. They cut away; they never add.
- Engaging inspirers: Average suits suck the life out of a room. Everything is a problem (not theirs, of course). Everything won’t work. Everything is a panic. They’re a spinning vortex of “no”. Great suits light fires in people’s minds because they take everyone to a better place; they have a lightness and ease that makes people believe it is all going to work. They are the proverbial calm duck on the surface, while their legs are kicking frantically behind the scenes.
- Moneymakers: Average suits are happy to make money someone else’s problem. Give an average suit a monthly and regular retainer, and they are very happy campers. Great suits are hustlers. They work the angles, hunt the opportunities, close the gaps. Ensuring the agency is fairly paid is an obsession. They are always looking for ways to solve clients’ problems that they never even considered, which in turn leads to additional projects and opportunities for the agency. They never settle.
- Magic-makers: Average suits are more in love with the process than the end result. For them, ultimate success is when there have been no major upsets, the client is loving them and they can “close and charge that puppy”. Great suits understand that creativity is a messy and convoluted process. They jealously guard big ideas by ensuring there is fertile soil, adequate water and beautiful, positive sunshine. They get their power and inspiration from being as close to the work as possible. They have an intolerance for the ordinary and always leave their indelible fingerprint on the work. Their ultimate success is ensuring the thing that gets made is a thing of exquisite beauty.
Let’s not be…
The times may have changed but the fundamentals of being a great suit certainly haven’t. I never had the privilege of working with Rightford but I really do feel like I did, because he was the original suit. Through his drive, purpose and passion for doing first-class business, in a first-class way, he shaped a clear expectation of what it means to be a great suit for generations to come.
So, we owe him.
Let’s not be shit.
Jason Harrison started as a 23-year-old account executive at Ogilvy & Mather before moving to London five years later to run three agency teams in three different European countries. He joined his old mates again in 2011 as one of the founding partners of the M&C Saatchi Group at 33. He believes that creating beautifully simple solutions for an increasingly complex world will, in fact, save the world. His MarkLives column, “The Suit” is about inspiring and helping up-and-coming suits to be better at their craft. He is no longer on Twitter.