What I Learned About Advertising From Working in the Mental Hospital (Part Two)

In part one, we covered two lessons from the mental hospital that work in the competitive advertising arena:

1. Things aren’t what they seem.

2. So, get out of the ivory tower and into the real world.

Here are three more. So, you can get all the benefits of working in a psychiatric hospital without actually having to work in one.

1. Track patterns that others miss.

After a couple of nights on the job, I realized I could work on any one of five different wards. And I wouldn’t know which one until I signed in for work at midnight.

The problem was that we had to write a ward report the next morning that described anything important that happened during the night. And we had to have it done by the time the morning shift arrived. But getting 49 patients up, dressed and ready for breakfast, given that some of them didn't want to get up, get dressed or have breakfast, left no time to write the report.

I learned, though, that each ward had its predictable patterns. That meant I could write the report at the start of my shift before any of it actually happened and be 95 percent right. Then I could take about five minutes in the morning to correct the other 5 percent.

Later when I ran an advertising agency, I saw patterns again as I watched our competitors get hot and win every client they pitched, then get cold and lose every pitch. I could only conclude one thing: They didn't know why they won when they won or why they lost when they lost.

So, find your own patterns, whether they’re in new business presentations or any other marketing efforts, and don’t trust them to memory; write them down. I kept a diary. It covered things as varied as how to help our clients win against the toughest competition, what to do when your competition offers the same thing you do and what makes people respond to a LinkedIn profile. It also included the three keys to winning presentations. They are, by the way, one: relevance; two: differentiation; and three: chemistry. That may seem obvious, but in my role as a new business consultant, I've seen presentations from around the world, and I don't see all three of these things in any presentations. Too bad, that's a winning combination but presenters all over the world missed it.

So, keep a diary.

2. If you want to persuade, don’t just say it; demonstrate it.

A lot of our patients had insomnia, so they would ask me for a sleeping pill. Attendants could not give drugs without a doctor's order, but we could give placebos.

I asked a smart nurse from the day shift if placebos worked. She said, “Of course, but only if the patient believes it will work.” So, the next time a patient asked for a sleeping pill I could have said, “Take this; it’s real powerful.” Instead, I said, “Okay, I’ll give you something, but I can’t give it to you here; your bed’s 30 feet away, and you’ll never make it back there.” I then walked the patient to the bed and told him he had to sit on the edge of it before I could give him the pill.

The next morning he said, “I don’t know what the hell was in that pill you gave me, but it knocked me cold as soon as I took it.”

Thank you, smart nurse from the day shift.

That nurse, and what she taught me, led to the ultimate demonstration ad.

Years later, the Catholic Church asked our agency for an advertising campaign to get fallen away Catholics back to church. Their message was strong: We're no longer the rigid, cold remote church that drove you away. We've changed.

But what angry, fallen away Catholic would believe that? Fortunately, we convinced the Church to make a confession and build their campaign around that confession: "If you've fallen away from the church, it's our fault, not yours." Yes, that was a demonstration ad. When the Church went public with the confession it proved that the Church had changed. Check out the ad that proved the point.

When you're trying to help the Church out of a tough spot, it helps to have a demonstration that makes people believe.

It also helps to have a good Jewish writer.

3. Treat the people you work with like you should treat the psychiatric patients.

After five years running our new advertising agency, my partner and I (both creative people) discovered a new word: profit. And we thought it would be nice to make some, so we hired a business manager to run the place. He was a brilliant Harvard MBA and later became president of American Express, but working with creative people frustrated the guy. Once when he was having a bad day he told me, “You can’t manage creative people; the best you can do is contain them!”

I’m not saying the people around you need psychitric help, but, like the inmates, they are vulnerable. And, in our business we need everybody to think creatively and share their ideas. When people do this they become vulnerable.

Even if the idea is not right, they need to know they did the right thing when they offered it. Their workplace needs to be a safe haven for them and their ideas. That should be obvious, but it’s not.

I used to tell our creative people that working in the mental hospital was my best training for managing them. They’d say, “Joe, you’re so funny.” And I’d tell them, “I’m not kidding; the only difference between you and the psychiatric patients is that they were more predictable.”

And they’d say, “Joe, you’re so funny.”