The following last volume of our series, Work vs. the World. For nine weeks I have interviewed each of Rockit Science Agency’s team members about their work and how work and life are being affected by current events. As the globe grappled with COVID-19, I aimed to explore what it is like to be a part of the advertising industry in 2020 -- life at home, life at work, and life when “at work” means at “home.
To wrap up this explorative series, I spoke with Brad Bongiovanni, Rockit Science’s founder, owner, and the last team member to weigh in on these unprecedented, uncertain, challenging, and difficult times.
First, Brad makes a point to acknowledge a few cliches that shall set the stage for his story: the reality he faced in navigating the ever-changing landscape of advertising as it collided with work, family, and Covid-19. “Now that I have had time to take a step back and reflect, the previous months have provided me with a sense of calm,” Brad says. “Life is unpredictable,” he says, explaining that “the most anyone can do is plan on unplanned events.” Brad believes that, as a general rule, “the frequency and intensity of unexpected events amplify -- and illuminate -- who you are as a person.”
Pre-Quarantine was filled with days that were never one and the same. Brad says, “I tell people all the time that my struggles as a kid with ADD and ADHD have come full circle and play a significant role in both my thought process as well as my ability to pivot at any moment in an industry that demands it.” He continues to find light in knowing that, while his lack of mental rigidity may have an undesirable effect on Brad’s early academic career, he now finds many advantages in his abundant creativity as an adult: in advertising as well as in relation to various aspects of running a business. Even now as we speak, Brad says that tangent streams of thought are stemming out in all directions... Are the proofs for our most recent projects ready to go out? What feedback should we anticipate? How are we going to film on locations while abiding new mandated health safety measures? What else needs to be added to the proposal which is currently in progress? What is for lunch? Can we treat any potential clients today? And so on.
“My primary source of industry-specific news is AdAge,” Brad says. He subscribes to AdAge’s Daily Newsletter for the latest on brands and small to large agency trends. Brad notes that it is important to remember that Rockit Science Agency is a small agency (certainly in the grand scheme of things,) and that small agencies account for roughly 70% of the advertising industry. So, while you may see national news headlines concerning shake-ups and churning at the largest agencies, the small ones keep on ticking. Determining and triaging which news is relevant to your small business is an ever-evolving process. Brad believes that “it is more important now than ever to reach out to colleagues among various industries and talk.” He has a few “go-to folks” for discussing upcoming work, RFP’s, staffing, and especially the most perplexing problems. Brad asserts, “The moment you think that you have seen it all -- or, worse, know it all -- is the moment you get steamrolled. You have to be willing to absorb new information, new approaches, and always be ready to adjust at a moment's notice.”
Typical days would begin with Brad wrangling with his three young children while he and his wife both attempt to ready themselves for school drop-offs, short commutes, and, finally, their respective offices. Brad’s commute to the office had been the only “me time” he could afford before the day’s onslaught of emails, text messages, client requests, review meetings, conference calls, conceptual discussions, proposal deadlines, and so on. However, he says, “this seemingly chaotic ‘in and out’ stream of business is perfectly normal for how I operate.”
After stay-at-home orders were announced, Brad was immediately struck by a sudden silence. While the rest of us were working remotely, Brad alone would come into the office, make coffee, process a few quick reviews of projects, and engage in video conferencing from his desk. “After twenty-three years of working in the advertising industry in hyper-collaborative environments,” Brad reflects that he found himself “sitting in an empty office with only the quiet and a proverbial blank sheet (of paper).” Brad had to ask himself, “What’s next?” Luckily, he keeps a handy notebook with him at all times, which has amassed a fair number of creative gems and provided some direction. Rockit Science Agency has the most advanced graphics software on earth, a super robust online project management platform, and a business development portal. “Yet,” Brad muses, “here I am, writing notes and scratching in and out daily lists.” He explains that he “realized early on in my career that I did not write things down so that I could refer to them later.” Rather, he wrote them down so that he would be more likely to remember them. Early in the pandemic, Brad realized he was working with the same roles and responsibilities as before, with only a few additional hurdles scattered here and there. So, Brad began where he always has, by jotting down what he needed to accomplish for the day: A daily plan of attack. Then, one day turned into a week, which turned into a month, and so on…
For the first 24 hours of the “lock-down,” Brad said that his mind did begin to race, contemplating various outcomes and scenarios -- some good and some bad. The key takeaway here, Brad believes, was, “comparing the current situation to past high-pressure-moment experiences of his life.” In thinking this way, he says that he was capable of envisioning himself overcoming these new COVID-caused challenges and fears.
A second cause of “quietness” came from the subsequent significant decrease in requests for Brad’s time. It felt very strange to Brad that, all at once, he found himself working for hours at a time without interruption. It was an unfamiliar feeling to be able to work on one task from start to finish and not start, begin a new task, then a third, come back to the first thing, edit the second thing, and finish the third before being asked for anything by anyone. Getting into a desirable workflow and actively choosing an advantageous mindset while our office abided by stay-at-home orders was crucial to Brad’s success in this unusual setting. “How I viewed my suddenly available time was very much a mental game,” Brad maintains. As a member of our worktext chat, I can verify that this was, at times, a challenge for Brad. At one point, creativity (and likely also boredom) took over! Brad remembers, “I went and sat at everyone's workstation and took photos of myself acting as though I was conversing with another person.” For every desk, Brad sent a visual to the group chat; frame-by-frame we received his “picture story.” The response was swift - “I think he’s losing it...” said everyone. “Wilson!!!!”
“The events of the last few months,” Brad says as he begins to surmise what he has learned from all things coronavirus correlated, “have shown me must always be a strategically planned creative approach in complement to every spontaneous, swung-from-the-hip creative decision.” Brad communicates that we, as an agency, may not always have the luxury, in terms of budget or timeline, to develop the perfect plan, but that it is okay. What he believes is more important is confidence in one’s ability to trust their gut feeling -- an itch that is far more than just a feeling but is the wisdom of every past experience or lesson learned. “Sometimes,” Brad explains, “you will not have all the necessary information available. In these situations, you can only work with the knowns and the tools at your disposal; your gut is a very important tool.” “Just recently,” he shares, “we worked creating creative concepts for a large, statewide outreach campaign which had a robust research component with scientific behavioral data. The scientists running the program were having a difficult time definitively deciding on one creative concept to move forward with (they wanted even more data!). However, every concept we had presented to them was backed by the most recent research as well as tested through focus groups.” “I simply told them,” Brad says, “pick the concept that makes you feel good.” To this client, such an approach was “mind-melting.” We must occasionally remind ourselves that decisions, no matter how big or small, are ultimately depending on how they make us feel. Oftentimes, our clients look to the agency to provide recommendations or to verify that the direction they are wishing to move in is wise. Our credibility as an agency grows stronger as each of our team members encounter both new work and life experiences, challenges, hiccups, and extremes (such as working through a global pandemic). “I have realized,” Brad concludes, “that I do not want my advertising agency employees working remotely.” However, he adds that “if we must ever work from home again, we will *again* rise to the challenge.”