20 minutes and 20 years.
This story came to me from David, a creative director. It’s part of the lore an ad man accumulates over years in the business.
A client stopped in at the agency one morning, 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 and an impromptu conference ensued in the lobby. The client wanted a modification to a magazine ad as quickly as possible. The account executive carried the board dutifully to the creative director and relayed the request.
A half hour later, revised layout in hand, 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 work beyond her expectations.
A week later, the account executive received a phone call. The client disagreed with the invoice. By her reckoning, the fee was high. The work took place while she waited but a few minutes in the lobby. “How long did it take to do this?” she asked.
The answer: “Twenty minutes and twenty years.”
Of course, this same story has taken many forms. Perhaps the best-known comes 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.”