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5 Acting Lessons for the Advertising Biz

Actors can teach agencies a thing or two

I often joke that advertising is filled with two types of people: advertising copywriters who are biding their time until they become actors/comedians. Or actors/comedians who have given up and decided to become advertising copywriters.

I am definitely part of that second cohort.

Thankfully, I really like advertising and think the combination of creativity and problem solving make it one of the most interesting jobs out there.

I also think there’s an awful lot that can be learned from the world of acting and applied to the advertising world. Here are five lessons:

1. You are your own agent

When you’re a young actor starting out, you spend a lot of time figuring out how to land an agent. You have this idea that an agent is the gatekeeper to opportunity, fame, and riches. As soon as you land one, they’ll unhook the velvet rope and you’ll immediately enter the VIP section. Hello, A-list!

While a good, well-connected agent can open new doors, representation isn’t the golden ticket many think.

You are and always will be the person most responsible for your success. That means YOU have to put yourself out there. Maintain your image. Find projects. Build a fan base. Keep yourself engaged, working, and in the public eye.

The same is true for ad agencies.

I can’t tell you how many ad agencies I’ve heard say, “What we need is a GREAT biz dev person who will bring in the big clients!” That’s a fantasy. There is no new rolodex that’s going to walk through your front door and transform your business.

Same goes for individuals. Yes, a great recruiter or mentor or boss might help you find a new opportunity. But you can’t put your future in somebody else’s hands. You have to make your own opportunities, create your own projects, and build your own (yes, I’m going to say it) brand.

There is no savior out there, for your career or your agency. You have to do the work yourself.

2. Listen

A few years back, I wrote up my commercial audition tips for actors. (TBH, it’s a far more popular article than anything I’ve ever written about advertising.)

A key piece of advice: shut up and listen.

The casting director and director will tell you what they’re looking for. But you have to be quiet so you can hear what they’re saying.

Many times in the audition room, the director will give an actor direction. Whether it’s nerves or a desire to be agreeable, many actors pipe up with “Yeah, yeah, yeah…” as soon as the director starts to give the note. Many times, the actors miss what the director is trying to say. That’s not a great way to book the job.

This happens ALL the time in advertising.

In a new business pitch, agencies are notorious for making the opportunity what THEY want it to be instead of understanding what the client is asking for.

Good listening starts when you receive that first phone call, email, or RFP. Really unpack it. Read between the lines. Ask clarifying questions. What problem is the client trying to solve? Do they have a strategy in place and are looking for executions on that strategy? Are they open to a fresh strategic approach? Do they have media in mind or is it a blank slate?

And good listening should be part of every single presentation you make to that client for as long as you have them. (Insert shameless plug for my advice on how to make better advertising presentations.)

Even if you’re looking to push a client to take a bigger swing, it’s possible to defend work without appearing defensive. But it starts by listening carefully to a client and really understanding their feedback.

And, for better or worse, advertising (like acting!) is a service business. You gotta take the note. And then come up with a fresh, unexpected way to deliver. That’s the gig.

3. Embrace rejection

Working actors are some of the most resilient creatures on the planet. The majority of their career is spent auditioning and NOT getting hired for the role.

A working actor hears “No” far more times than they hear “Yes.” But they dust themselves off and jump right back into the next audition.

That’s not to say it doesn’t wear on them. It’s tough on the psyche to constantly put yourself out there.

(Whenever I’m casting a commercial, I always have enormous empathy for the actor who, I know, rearranged his/her whole day to drive across town, get to the casting agency, wait in the waiting room for an hour, scramble to rearrange plans as the schedule runs over, and then, finally make it into the audition room where they spend 30 seconds saying, “Mmmm, delicious!” only to be ushered out and never hear another word about it.)

But, again, that’s the gig!

The same is true for ad agencies and the creative people who pitch work to clients.

In agency land, new business pitches probably don’t happen at the same pace as auditions in cities like Los Angeles or New York, where a working actor can go on several auditions a week.

But the stakes are high for agencies. Not only do they invest time and money into a pitch (essentially creating “spec” work for a chance to win the business), the impact of winning a big piece of business can be profound for an agency.

And, after you win a piece of business, the audition doesn’t stop. Each brief from the client is a new audition. After all, in advertising, you present a LOT more ideas than you ever make. In my ad career, I bet that less than one percent of all the ideas I’ve ever pitched were ever made into actual ads.

For example, last year we presented 16 different campaign ideas over the course of two months for one of our clients. After each round, we had to brush ourselves off, get back to work, and come up with a different idea.

You can either pout about it or realize that it’s just part of the game. Embracing rejection will serve you well.

4. Make a strong choice

If you read the actor advice books, this one shows up all the time. You don’t stand out by doing the same thing every other actor did.

Yes, you need to listen to the director and understand what he or she wants from you. But that doesn’t absolve you of responsibility. You have to bring something new to the table.

That may be something that’s not in the character description or script. That requires some risk. (Like the time Margot Robbie slapped Leonardo DiCaprio during her audition.)

And you have to make that choice visibly obvious, too. It can’t be so subtle or internal that nobody in the audition room clocks what you’re doing.

The same is true for ad agencies and strategists and creatives. You have to add something to the brief the client gave you. A deeper nuance or understanding. An unexpected twist. A new way of approaching the challenge.

Like actors, there are approximately one gazillion ad agencies out there and they’re all vying for the same jobs. You have to bring something bold and fresh to the “audition” — whether that’s a new business pitch or round 27 of the back-to-school brief.

5. When you book the gig, over deliver

Have you ever noticed that some directors seem to work with the same actors over and over again?

Because they love working with them. They know that actor is going to deliver. They make the show/movie/play/musical better.

Smart actors know that booking a job is also an audition for every future project that director is going to make.

Advertising assignments are the same.

How many times have we seen a new CMO come in and replace the incumbent agency with one they’ve worked with before?

While that sucks if you’re the “actor” that got replaced (Hello, Eric Stoltz!), you understand it. The new director wants to work with someone with whom they’ve had success in the past.

So you have to develop your own fans. Consider each presentation to be an audition for all your future clients. So that when that mid-level brand manager becomes a CMO in a few years, they call YOU because they remember how good and fun it was to work with you.

And that goes for individual contributors as well. When you get an assignment, big or small, over deliver. Bring lots of options to the table. Make bold choices. Listen. Collaborate. Deliver work that works. Your phone will ring again in the future, I promise.


John Kovacevich is the founder of San Francisco ad agency Agency SOS. Yes, he used to work as an actor; no, he’s not famous. You can read all his musings about the advertising biz here.

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husband, father, writer, ad man, occasional actor

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John Kovacevich

John Kovacevich

husband, father, writer, ad man, occasional actor

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