August 17, 2004

avoid the watercooler gang


More thoughts on "How To Be Creative":

18. Avoid the Watercooler Gang.

They’re a well-meaning bunch, but they get in the way eventually.
Back when I worked for a large advertising agency as a young rookie, it used to just bother me how much the "Watercooler Gang" just kvetched all the time. The "Watercooler Gang" was my term for what was still allowed to exist in the industry back then. Packs of second-rate creatives, many years passed their sell-by date, being squeezed by the Creative Directors for every last ounce of juice they had, till it came time to firing them on the cheap. Taking too many trips to the watercooler and coming back drunk from lunch far too often. Working late nights and weekends on all the boring-but-profitable accounts. Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze…

I remember some weeks where one could easily spend half an hour a day, listening to Ted complain.

Ted used to have a window office but now had a cube ever since that one disastrous meeting with Client X. He would come visit me in my cube at least once a day and start his thing. Complain, complain, complain... about whatever… how Josh-The-Golden-Boy was a shit writer and a complete phoney... or how they bought Little-Miss-Hot-Pant's ad instead of his, "even though mine was the best in the room and every bastard there knew it."

Like I said, whatever.

It was endless...Yak Yak Yak… Oi vey! Ted I love ya, you're a great guy but shut the hell up…

In retrospect it was Ted's example that taught me a very poignant lesson- back then I was still too young and naïve to have learned it by that point- that your office could be awash with Clio's and One Show awards, yet your career could still be down the sink-hole.

Don't get me wrong- my career there was a complete disaster. This is not a case of one of the Alpha's mocking the Beta's. This is a Gamma mocking the Betas.

I'm having lunch with my associate, John, who's about the same age as me. Cheap and cheerful Thai food, just down the road from the agency.

"I gotta get out of this company," I say.

"I thought you liked your job," says John.

"I do," I say. "But the only reason they like having me around is because I'm still young and cheap. The minute I am no longer either… I'm dead meat."

"Like Ted," says John.

"Yeah… him and the rest of The Watercooler Gang."

"The Watercoolies," laughs John.

So we had a good chuckle about our poor, hapless elders. We weren't that sympathetic, frankly. Their lives might have been hell then, but they had already had their glory moments. They had won their awards, flown off to The Bahamas to shoot toilet paper ads with famous movie stars and all that. Unlike us young'uns. John and I had only been out of college a couple of years and had still yet to make our mark on the industry we had entered with about as much passion and hope as anybody alive.

We had sold a few newspaper ads now and then, some magazine spreads, but the TV stuff was still well beyond reach. So far the agency we had worked for had yet to allow us to shine. Was this our fault or theirs? Maybe a little bit of both, but back then it was all "their fault, dammit!" Of course, everything is "their fault, dammit" when you're 24.

I quit my job about a year later. John stayed on with the agency for whatever reason, then about 5 years ago got married, with his first kid following soon after. Suddenly with a family to support he couldn't afford to get fired. The Creative Director knew this and started to squeeze.

"You don't mind working this weekend, John, do you? Good. I knew you wouldn't. We all know how much the team relies on you to deliver at crunch time- that's why we value you so highly, John, wouldn't you say?"

Last time I saw John he was working at this horrible little agency for a fraction of his former salary. Turns out the big agency had tossed him out about a week after his kid's second birthday.

We're sitting there at the Thai restaurant again, having lunch for old time's sake. We're having a good time, talking about the usual artsy-fartsy stuff we always do. It's a great conversation, marred only by the fact that I can't get the word "watercooler" out of my goddamn head…

Posted by hugh macleod at August 17, 2004 9:50 PM | TrackBack

Posted by: Truth at August 17, 2004 10:11 PM

I perceive this as 'watercooler' being synonymous with 'rut' - as in stuck in one.

It's a scary and dangerous place to be (if you have the common sense and/or grasp on reality to realize it - course then hopefully you have the drive to do something to remedy the situation).
I just left a job that while I had potential to grow, was turning my brain to mush. There was nothing new and interesting, and the company itself was floundering at best.
I was one of the "watercoolies". I hated it. Me and my close [work] friend pissing and moaning every day. Though I've since done something about it, and she - well she's stuck doing what I was doing before I left (as well as her previous tasks).
We talk occasionally, but she just wants to talk to the 'watercooler' talk. Not me - I've got plenty to do now, and plenty to keep me going. (waiting for a server to startup, which is the only reason I got to read and write this today!)

Posted by: quiskan at August 17, 2004 10:23 PM

If I could draw, I'd make my own card-toons in reply:

1. Life's too short to work for jerks.

2. Seeking perfection, while floating like a phantom from gig to gig, sounds like a recipe for madness.

3. The grass isn't always greener on the other side!

4. We have to play the hand we're dealt. When it's bad, we complain about it. That's life.

Posted by: Love Bucket at August 18, 2004 12:07 AM

love bucket are you really maggie estep?

Posted by: cynthia at August 18, 2004 1:21 AM

This was a perfectly good post that made some vaild points until the ending. I came away with the distinct impression that you were subtly comparing your life choices to your buddy's, and implying that he had become the loser he used to make fun of.

Now perhaps that's not what you intended, but it's the impression I got.

Posted by: NJY from NYC at August 18, 2004 3:37 AM

I'm not the real Maggie Estep, just a fan...

Posted by: Love Bucket at August 18, 2004 3:40 PM

NJY, I hear ya. But I'd say it's meant to be far more ambiguous than that.

Far more.

At least that's how I saw it.

Hmmmm.... Conshidering my op-shuns, Mish Moneypenny...

Posted by: hugh macleod at August 18, 2004 6:18 PM


I'm feeling cyber-samaritan today. I tried to trackback this post, but I continue to get this error:

Error: Invalid TrackBack ID '2.65-full-lib'

I dug into the MT stuff (about which I know diddly) and found this in the plugin code:

if (my $pi = $app->path_info) {
$pi =~ s!^/!!;
$pi =~ s!^\D*!!;
($tb_id, $pass) = split /\//, $pi;

So in English what this is doing is finding everything up to the point where the digits begin, then it slices it into two pieces, left of and right of any forward slashes. Because your MT directory in your URL has numbers in it, it looks like when you come down to that last line, the value of $pi is "2.65-full-lib/mt-tb.cgi/277
". When it breaks into before and after the slash, it thinks the ID is "2.65-full-lib" and that $pass is "mt-tb.cgi/277". If your directory did not have numbers in it, this should all work because it will find the ID as 277 and pass as empty. Until either that code changes in the form of an updated plugin or your directory naming does, your trackbacks just plain ain't going to work.


Posted by: Dave at August 18, 2004 7:40 PM

In the early 90s I was a paper pusher for the federal government, where I became one of the watercooler guys. We complained that we did all the boring grunt work while various "fair haired lads" (the current management favorites) got promotions and recognition. We were sarcastic, witty, and accurate about our predicament ... but we weren't happy. We worked because we had to pay the bills ... nothing more.

To make a long story short, I left the job security of the federal government to work as an entry-level computer programmer. Now, a decade later, I'm much happier (and richer). My job is frustrating at times, but at least it's not the slow living death of a meaningless job.

Posted by: john g at August 18, 2004 9:57 PM

Wow, you have a great blog. Nice drawings.. I'll be a sure frequent visitor.

Posted by: rolandog at August 21, 2004 6:10 PM

Great and valuable post. Good to read about copywriting from the viewpoint of somebody who actually wants to work in advertising (versus a copywriter waiting to write their own book.. one day)

btw - good luck with the luxury stuff.

Posted by: Piers Fawkes at August 23, 2004 5:12 PM

Darn, I forgot to be a frequent visitor

Posted by: Rolando at September 19, 2004 11:36 PM

Don't you realise that your the watercooler guy.

you bitching about your former workplace people
that have probably moved on by now.

This is not a lesson, this is a sad case of you
classifying people in order for you to understand your position in the world better.

I like some of your lessons, but im afraid this one really isnt that great,

Heres a lesson..'the watercooler people are humans like you'

This lessons sounds like something more out of a movie than real life, in many christmas partys did you bitch about someone at?

How many things did you tell you wife or partner that you hate about work and the people....

lets face it..this is the reality about the work place, theres really no point in being stoic about it.... your a water cooler person....

Posted by: misnomer at December 15, 2004 1:21 PM

misnomer, I took something different away from this lesson. I've worked in environments where there was a "watercooler gang," always complaining but never doing anything about the things they complained about. It seems obvious to me that Hugh is pointing out that if you allow yourself to get trapped in that "kvetch but do nothing" cycle, it can paralyze you. He obviously understands that these people are human beings, but he's also pointing out patterns of behavior that aren't healthy. Finally, I'm a bit confused by your last line. Are you saying that since everyone bitches about work, we should all just give in to the impulse rather than take a look at the bigger picture?

Posted by: Infonaut at December 30, 2004 2:52 PM