20 Minutes and 20 Years

This story came to me from David, a creative director I used to work with. It’s part of the lore an ad man accumulates over years in this business of “thinking up things to sell things.”

One morning, a client dropped in at the agency, carrying a board under her arm. (Before desktop computers infiltrated advertising’s creative environs in the 1990s, commercial artists sketched layouts by hand and affixed the work to cardboard, i.e., boards.)  The receptionist summoned the account executive, who, by chance, happened to be in the office. An impromptu conference in the lobby ensued. The client wished to see a modification to a magazine ad, as quickly as possible. So, the account executive dutifully carried the board to the creative director and relayed the request.

A half hour later, revised layout in tow, the client was back in her car, satisfied that the ad reflected her request. Even better, the artist had made a subtle, secondary change that seemed to elevate the design to the realm of award-worthiness.

A week later, the account executive received a phone call. The client disagreed with the invoice. By her reckoning, the fee seemed high. The work took place while she waited a few minutes in the lobby. “How long did it take the artist to do this?”

She got her answer. “Twenty minutes and twenty years.”

Of course, this same story has taken many forms. Perhaps the best-known telling is from the life of American artist James (Abbott) McNeill Whistler (1834–1903). The artist sought damages for libel from John Ruskin, an art critic who publicly excoriated Whistler for his painting, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket.

In court, Whistler testified the painting took two days to create. Ruskin’s lawyer asked: “The labor of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?” Whistler replied: “No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.”

1024px-Whistler-Nocturne_in_black_and_goldNocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, oil on panel. James Abbott McNeill Whistler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Painting resides at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Estimated value, according to Artvest Partners, is $25M to $45M.

2 thoughts on “20 Minutes and 20 Years

  1. A woman calls in a plumber when her washing machine breaks down. The plumber arrives, studies the machine, then produces a hammer and gives it a hefty whack.
    The washing machine starts working again and the plumber presents a bill for $200.
    ‘Two hundred dollars?’ says the woman. ‘All you did was hit it with the hammer.’
    So the plumber gives her an itemized bill: ‘Hitting washing machine with a hammer – $5. Knowing where to hit it – $195.’

  2. This is the primary reason we were told, “Never perform the magic in front of the client.” They had no concept of what went into the creative process.

What do you think?