Scott Cohen | Crain's Philadelphia

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Scott Cohen

Background:  

Quattro Direct is a mid-sized advertising agency based in Berwyn, Pa., with the motto “Advertise Responsibly." Quattro handles the marketing, advertising and social media needs of companies such as Ditech, Verizon, Comcast, Metro PCS and Mutual of Omaha, among others. In the last two years, Quattro Direct has doubled in size.

The Mistake:

I have been with advertising agencies almost my entire career, and I have made a lot of mistakes. They’ve all taught me something, but it was my first that was probably the one I will never forget.

This was in the late 1980s and I was a young buck, a snot-nosed 20-something just out of school, and of course I knew everything there was to know about advertising.

I got hired at a fairly large agency in Philadelphia and figured I would go in there and teach them a thing or two.

I was assigned to work on the Bell Atlantic account (now Verizon) and I was working with a very experienced copywriter on a creative brief. But he was coming up with concepts I thought were not on point. So I kept sending them back.

Finally on Friday, he threw up his hands and got frustrated with me and said he wasn’t going to work on the brief anymore.

About an hour later, the senior VP of creative came over to my cubicle and said, “Scott, I understand you are having a problem with the copy. I rewrote it myself. Go ahead and read it to the client.”

There I was, my first week on the job, and what do I do? I look at the copy and then look this VP right in the eye and say, “It’s good, but it’s not going to win any awards.”

I will never forget the look on his face. If looks could kill, you know? He threw the copy at me, walked away and slammed the door to his office.

I also won’t forget the reaction of my co-workers. They were looking at me and saying, “Dude, that was really stupid.”

That was the worst weekend of my life. I was sure I was going to get fired—after one week on the job!

So, I decided to go in early Monday, wait for this man, who was older than my dad and had years of advertising experience, and apologize to him. But when I got there, he was already in his office, writing on his typewriter.

I went in, pretty sheepish, and started to apologize. He stopped me and said: “You were right. My copy wasn’t on point. I rewrote it.” And he handed me the perfect piece of copy for that account.

I apologized anyway—and he and I ended up working together for years and doing work I was really proud of.

There is a way to deliver a message, and you need to use diplomacy and tact.

The Lesson:

What I learned was that while it is important that you stick to your guns when you believe you’re right, you need to do it in a way that creates collaboration, not conflict.

There is a way to deliver a message, and you need to use diplomacy and tact. That’s especially true when you need to tell people things they don’t want hear. You don’t demean, you don’t attack. You keep your message focused on the issue and the solutions that you want to reach.

I have used that lesson to help build two successful advertising firms, and I still use it every day.

Our job is to manage client expectations, and the best and most effective way to do that is by being honest—and building positive, collaborative relationships. No matter what’s happening, no matter what mood you’re in, you keep things positive.

Follow Scott Cohen on Twitter at @scottjcohen.