The quick lesson:  If they ain’t buying, get over yourself and change it.

A few years back, Sunday mornings at our local bagel shop, I’d hear the same amusing exchange, over and over again.

A customer would point to the baskets of bagels and tell the bagel guy, “Could you pick out the darker ones, please? The ones that are more well done, crispier?”

The bagel guy would tsk and scoff. “What, you want them burnt now? We’re making bagels here, not pretzels.”

Every Sunday, every third customer, the same request, a dismissive response. “You’re asking for breadsticks or bagels?

At the time, I wondered why the old guy didn’t get it. Why not just bake the bagels three minutes longer, brown them up  more, give them a crisper crust? How hard was that? (Soon, a new bagel shop across town was happily serving up baskets of bronzed and crackling bagels on Sunday mornings. Their line was way longer.)

Years later, I got it.

The old bagel guy was stuck in his vision of a true and authentic bagel, which was this pale and chewy thing, a paradigm that was maybe drummed into his head when he was a gangly apprentice of seventeen.

To him, it was the customers who just didn’t understand. A brown and crispy bagel? That was just plain wrong. And he wouldn’t do it.

I now know where his head was at.

Me, I once set out to eradicate corporate technospeak from the world of marketing. I would single-handedly transform how tech and B2B companies talked about their products. Plain English, no buzzwords and bullet points, human to human, engaging, lively, crap-free. (I pictured myself being featured in Wired, or Fast Company. “Kania, The Writer: Changing how the techs talk tech.”  There would be these provocative pull quotes, and one of those moody black-and-white head shots where they crop out the left side of your face.)

When I described my ingenious approach to clients, they always nodded. “Yes, yes,” they said. “Let’s go for it.” They were excited.

Then, I sent them the content.

Oh boy.

They hemmed and hawed. They hesitated. In other words, they hated the copy.

They sent me detailed comments about what to change. They got their bosses on the line. Every phone call was a confrontation, a line-by-line squabble.

But I stuck to my guns, and re-explained and re-championed the vision.

Except they still hated the copy.

I was serving up stuff they didn’t like, and insisted on arguing about it.

I had become the old bagel guy. Worse yet, I played the old bagel guy nine times with six different clients over twelve months before I got a clue.*

Luckily, I’m not the only pretentious and thick-headed prima donna on the planet.

There’s a series on the Sundance Channel called All On The Line which dramatizes this neatly. It’s a ‘makeover’ reality show where the creative director from a big fashion magazine agrees to coach and pistol-whip a fashion designer who is struggling in the business. (I confess that fashion is an utter mystery to me, but the battles are instructive.)

A sadly recurring theme:

“Your stuff isn’t selling.”

Yeah, but it’s my style, my aesthetic.”

You need to make clothes that the market wants to buy.”

“I won’t compromise my vision and my viewpoint.”

“But that isn’t selling.”

“But, I have to be who I am.”

You’ll see the same refrain on Restaurant Impossible on the Food Network. A chef takes on a restaurant that is on the skids.

“Nobody likes your food.”

“But it’s what we’re known for.”


* My approach is still eminently right, by the way. It’s just now one arrow in my quiver.  Oddly enough, the clients who loved this approach the most were the irreverent tech start-ups who had no money to spend. The big guys with budget? No sale.