Michael Lee: what clients and agencies are missing with the demise of the Three-Martini Lunch

Unknown-22-1Michael Lee is a former ECD of Euro RSCG New York handling Volvo Worldwide. Born in England, he spent 20 years working on integrated accounts including Intel, JP Morgan, ExxonMobil and Jaguar. In 2012 he set up agency search consultancy Madam.

As we await the new season of Mad Men next spring, I thought it worthwhile giving The Legendary Lunch a thought or two.

The Lunch, partaken in the many establishments on the side streets of Madison Avenue: The Jockey Club, The Palm, The Oak Room, Smith and Wollensky’s, where all involved likely emerged shaken and well-stirred.

The Lunch so infamous it was used as political ‘ping-pong’ in the 70’s by Jimmy Carter who claimed that the “working class was subsidizing the $50 martini lunch.” And by Gerald Ford, who responded “The three-martini lunch is the epitome of American efficiency. Where else can you get an earful, a bellyful and a snootful at the same time?”


But let’s not focus on what was consumed there, but what happened there. Why it seemed to encapsulate a famous era for advertising? Why it built such a robust reputation?

I think what happened there was that it created a space. A space and time for the agency to listen and for the client to talk. Unbridled by minions and protégés. Devoid of conference room etiquette. And definitely no conference reports to worry about.

I think The Lunch became a time for clients to confidentially unburden to their agency counterpart. (What happens in The Three-Martini lunch stays in The Three-Martini Lunch).

The Lunch became a merger of Confessional and Psychiatrist’s Chair….all melded with the skill of a bartender.

Now that’s a cocktail!

content_martininext2Now I’m not advocating a return to the Roger Sterling School of Business Management, but I think there’s something for agencies and clients to consider today.

I think agencies and clients should find the time where you can really talk and listen (and don’t take notes). Where business issues can be talked about openly and candidly. What new pressure is the CEO putting on the CMO? How to handle some pesky franchisees. The upcoming shareholders meeting and the likely fallout. And of course the outrageous fees the agency is charging.

Maybe that is why Cannes is becoming so popular among clients. Cannes is now a vibrant cocktail itself of marketers and media companies, agency network executives, digital gurus and chief innovation officers. And perhaps the good, spirited, adventurous and candid conversations that take place over a Pernod on the Carlton Terrace, a Carlsberg at the Martinez or Guinness at the Gutter Bar, are the new version of the Three Martini Lunch. Where talking and listening isn’t just about the data, but involves the sub-plot, and sub-text. Where an honest and candid conversation takes place in a creative and open environment.

The main point, for clients and agencies, is to find your place (and I don’t think breakfast meetings count) to talk and listen, to engage, to question, to ponder, to encourage, even to dream, what you can achieve……together.

On a side note, Tom Messner, founding partner of Messner Vetere Berger Macnamee Schmetterer (try saying that after a TML) told me of when he tried to introduce the idea of “The Three-Perrier Lunch” while at Ally & Gargano. Which, to me, is brilliant. But everyone thought it ridiculous, so he picked up his Olivetti, went off in a huff and started his own shop.

This post first appeared in Forbes.

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