November 12, 2012

Thinking Around Corners

Filed under: Career Advice,Creativity,Leadership — Joe Grant @ 11:50 am

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Been to any meetings lately where people yak about problems but don’t solve them? Plenty, I’ll bet. Here’s why it happens: bosses train their employees not to solve problems.

You think I’m kidding? At the next opportunity, audit one of your internal meetings. Tell the folks you’re there merely to observe the process then keep your mouth shut. If they swirl around an issue without resolution, if they look at you for cues, or ask you what they should do, you’ll know you’ve got a group that can’t think for themselves and that you’re just a well-paid bottleneck.

How did these people become such sheep? Well, owners with their names on the door often enjoy a sort of unhealthy validation when they gift their subjects with “the answer.” They’ll complain they can’t delegate to the staff because “. . . they never have any good ideas.” And that’s true — because they’ve been schooled to come to Papa for answers, not generate their own.

Take heart. You can do something about it.

Don’t let people dump their problems in your office like the family pet dropping a trophy mouse at the master’s feet. Break the habit by demanding that anyone who brings you a problem also recommends solutions. And not just a stab-in-the-dark idea, but a handful of possible options, A, B, C, D & E, with a concluding reasoned recommendation on the best course of action. The formula is, What’s the issue, What will happen if it remains unsolved, What are several possible solutions with pros and cons, and — this is how leaders are developed — how they themselves will fix it. Make it a practice to turn away anybody approaching your desk without a solution. Even if it’s not a good one.

In fact, now and then let them prosecute their recommendations even when you know they’ll fail. There’s a legend at IBM that a junior VP once made a bad call costing the company about a million bucks and spent a sleepless weekend sure he’d be fired come Monday morning. Sure enough, even as he was putting his office doodads in boxes early Monday, the boss called. But he said, “Hold on. You’ve learned the lesson of a lifetime. You don’t think I’m going to fire someone we just spent $1 million educating, do you?”

Remember that no matter how smart you think you are you don’t hold the sole franchise on good ideas. Henry Kissinger, clearly one of our brighter public servants with no dearth of experience in world issues, taught his juniors never to plop a policy brief on his desk unless accompanied by suggested resolutions.

Thus he mined a trove of ideas while training a legion of colts to think around corners.

Problems are simply puzzles. They’re satisfying to solve and doing so builds confidence. You’ve probably gotten good at it over the years but if you’re the self-appointed protector-of-right-answers your folks will keep having meetings where all they do is rant about problems without fixing ’em. Why should they when they can visit the All Powerful Oz for answers?

And that’s the big lesson from the Emerald City, isn’t it. Dorothy and her buddies already had the keys to their issues inside themselves — all they needed was a little boost to their self-confidence from the guy behind the curtain.

Not a bad job for a Wizard, huh?

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July 6, 2012

One Firm, One Voice

Filed under: Leadership — Joe Grant @ 12:00 pm

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Our business attracts big egos. We’re all about opinions and judgments. That’s the wrong tone for the target audience. . . The logo’s too small. . . It’s off strategy. . . Maybe that’s why “teamwork” gets loads of lip service but when you look under the hood, it’s hardly there at all at most agencies.

Perhaps because it’s not natural.

You see, people are individuals; they focus on self-interest first. What’s in it for me? Any kindergarten teacher will tell you how tough it is getting kids to share and play nicely. You can talk all you want about man’s noble nature, egalitarianism, generosity… but those are learned behaviors.

Nevertheless, to avoid complete chaos in ad agencies and most other enterprises, we create teams – groups of individuals who pool their talents and energy to achieve specific goals. Teams are simply egos in harness.

Accenture, at least when it was still Andersen Consulting, tried to resolve the conflict between self-interest and corporate objectives with their One Firm policy which states that mutual long-term best interests outweigh self-serving and short-term decisions. People employed there say it works. If a local Accenture client at a US office, for instance, is referred for an overseas project to the London office, the British folks do the work as if it were their own client. Because it is. It’s a cultural mentality that says judgments and decisions are all about the greater good – what’s in the best interests of the firm, not the individual.

Great theory, but will it work in an ego-driven ad agency? Yes, I think so. If you keep a few principles in mind.

First, there must be a specific, overarching goal – something everyone understands, can envision, and own. It’s got to be clear, laser-sharp, penetrating, and – here’s the part often missing – it must mean something to everyone in the place.

As part of our diagnostic work we frequently interview staffers about their agency’s goal. You know what we hear? “Goal? What goal? I didn’t know the agency had one besides making more money for the owner(s).”

It’s shameful.

Think for a moment what the agency’s revenue growth means day-to-day to an admin, the junior copywriter you hired last week, or an AE handling a medium-sized account. How do they personally experience motivation and satisfaction from the corporate “make more money” goal?

Please don’t answer, They collect a salary and get to keep their jobs. If you honestly think that’s the big motivator for people, dust off your notes on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Treat people at the lowest level of personal need and that’s how they’ll behave – groveling and scratching for food and shelter and certainly not caring much about loftier goals.

Clear corporate imperatives compel. Classic examples include NASA’s goal in the ‘60’s of getting a man to the moon and back safely, Wozniak’s and Jobs’ vision of a computer on every worker’s desk (at a time when they were the size of a garage), or my favorite: Daniel Burnham, the renowned city planner responsible for Chicago’s magnificent lakefront boulevards and parks, who said, Make no small plans – they have no power to stir men’s souls.

But what about making money?

Dollars are the result of achieving the goal; they’re satisfiers not motivators. If you’re making a nice salary yourself but occasionally experience mild depression or disillusionment, re-read the last sentence. Money does not/will not make you happy – Maslow proved that conclusively.

Another thing to keep in mind is the agency goal should be both challenging and achievable. I call them “gulp goals,” something that when you say it out load the first time almost makes you gulp. There ought to be a little gasp in the room. . .  something that will stir men’s souls. You must believe and get everyone else to believe that it can be done. Some examples: Go from #9 to the top 3 in your market by the end of ’14. Sweep the local Addy awards. Or snag the largest local account from your arch competitor.

Goals like that transcend and neutralize energy-draining ego skirmishes and personal agendas. They provide focus, rally the troops, and unite egos so they pull in one direction. And that brings us back to the One Firm idea: Speak with one voice.

Goals which personally engage everyone minimize petty dustups and distractions and keep people pulling in the same direction. Everyone in your agency should be able to easily speak about (1) what the agency’s goal is and (2) what it personally means to him/her.

You always know an agency culture is strong when you walk the halls, choose a few people at random, and they all say essentially the same thing about what the agency’s trying to do – with one voice. It makes it fun to come to work when everyone’s aiming for something they believe in; certainly better than merely toiling daily to make the agency (or some guy at the end of the hall) more money.

And if someone asks, What’s in it for me? your job is to remind everyone over and over what the goal is! Think of Moses in the desert retelling how wonderful the land of milk and honey would be. Not a bad place to look forward to if you’ve been choking on dust in the desert for 40 years.

So get a goal – make it clear, specific, measurable, and check that it makes you gulp a little. Then make sure everybody understands it and that it means something to each and every one personally.

That way instead of trying to manage isolated egos charging off in different directions, you’ll be holding the reins of a few self-actualized teams stretching for and reaching their objectives.

OK. . . one of the goals can certainly be making more money.

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May 8, 2012

The Answer to Agency Training

Filed under: Career Advice,Leadership,Operations,Staying Fresh — Joe Grant @ 3:55 pm

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Brian Tracy, the well known sales trainer and author, wrote a piece a while ago, and he’s so right about this: “No matter what your job you’ve gone as far as you can with what you now know. Any progress you make from this moment onward will require that you learn and practice something new.”

But how?

Earl Nightingale hosted a popular syndicated radio program many years ago and founded the training company Nightingale-Conant. One of his aphorisms was just one hour a day of study is all it takes to get to the top.

Are you kidding me? Who has that kind of time!

But it gets worse. Nightingale actually claimed that 1 hour per day of study will put you at the top of your field within three years, in 5 years you’ll be a national authority, and in 7 years, you can be one of the best people in the world at what you do.

If he’s only half right, that’s pretty astounding.

I believe the heart of his message is valid. To get beyond what you already know,you’ve got to learn all you can about our business, particularly the “softer” skills like personal relationships, persuasion, and thinking-around-corners. Those kinds of skills which you probably didn’t study in school are what make people in the advertising and marketing arena successful, right?

The fact is you’re just not going to get much schooling of any kind in most agencies today. And with the speed of change, you can’t afford to wait for the company you work for to invest in you. To get ahead you’ve got to go get smart on your own.

Think about it: you don’t actually work for anybody anyway – you’re self-employed. No matter what level you’re at, you’re working for your own advancement, to better your life and your family’s.

So let’s get crazy for a moment. What would happen to your career if you made a decision today to invest, let’s say, 2% of your annual income back into yourself, for your own personal and professional development? It makes no sense to be cheap about your education — you’re investing in yourself!

Look at your clients. They’re constantly evolving new and improved products to be more competitive and grab more market share. Why not do the same? Nightingale claims if you do you’ll probably never have to worry about money again.

And here’s something that may strike you as over the top, but it’s worth considering. Brian Tracy says that if you read only one skill-improvement book a month, that will put you into the top 1% of income earners. If you read one hour per day in your field, that will translate into about one book per week. One book per week is 50 books a year and that’s 500 books over ten years.

If you did that I have no doubt you’ll be one of the best educated, smartest, most capable and highest paid people in our business. Regular reading will transform your life completely; it has for many others, including me. And it could’t be easier these days with Kindle and iPads.

Here’s a way to put this idea into practice.

Ask the successful people around you for their best book recommendations.Whatever advice they give you, immediately go out and buy or download those books and commit to reading for one half-hour every morning before you start work (that way you’ll eliminate the excuse of being too tired to read in the evening).

Sounds impossible, right? Yet many people spend hours in a health club “working out” and do nothing to improve their biggest asset, their heads.

I guess that’s OK if you don’t mind being stuck right where you are for a long, long time.

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January 17, 2012

Make Time for a Challenge

Filed under: Career Advice,Creativity,Leadership — Joe Grant @ 2:46 pm

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You know the line about give the busy man the work and he’ll get it done? It’s true. The more you do the more you can do, but here’s a twist you may find helpful especially if you’re trying to balance all the exigencies of running a company.

You’ll do more and be more satisfied with your job, too, if you take on something challenging and stimulating in your “off” time.

There are people – you probably know some – who run high-demand businesses yet still have enough time and energy to indulge in things they enjoy and grow from. They take on “parallel challenges” in addition to their demanding professional responsibilities. Effective people know that extra challenges make them better in all dimensions.

The magic in all this, especially if you tackle some long-buried desire to do something you’ve always wanted to do, is you’ll get more done at your regular job while you make a dream come true. Take on a “Gee-it-would-be-great-to…” project and daily work chores become easier and your confidence and enthusiasm improve. Along the way your neurotransmitter connections get polished up and all those mood-plussing chemicals we keep reading about start circulating more freely.

Like a sleeping acorn harboring the potential of an oak, dormant aspirations never really go away. They just need to be dusted off and fired up. Maybe you always wanted to play the piano, learn to fly, speed read, master French cuisine, ride a motorcycle…I don’t know. What’s important is it’s a blood-pumping challenge and when you take a step in its direction other issues in your life immediately become easier.

So what’s holding you back? Money? Doubt it, probably not at this point in your life. Not enough time?

Ahh. . .time! Let’s talk about time management for a moment. It’s so often misunderstood. The key is to remember that time management is not about time at all: it’s about priorities.

Think about the following.

1) We get done what we want to get done, what matters most to us.

2) Decisions about using our time, i.e. what we do next, are based on what’s important at the moment – if you see your wastebasket burning, getting that client brief written will not be as big a priority as dousing the fire.

3) Forget about how many hours are available or how many items you check off a to-do list. Processing more minutiae will just make the wheel in your personal hamster cage spin faster. Getting the important things done – the priorities – is what makes the difference.

At the heart of all this is deciding what those priorities are and then committing to them. And if you look inside and begin to actualize a long-unfulfilled desire you’ll be making a decision which will not only make you happier, it will sharpen your judgment and heighten productivity.

I mention all this because we frequently work with senior agency executives who don’t understand after attaining considerable material success why they’re so damn disenchanted. The answer is they’ve checked off the “run my own agency” box and now need additional challenges.

If your DNA programs you for measurable accomplishment, now’s the time to stretch for something else – true happiness and satisfaction don’t come from status quo. As the artist Paul Klee said, “Becoming is superior to being.”

A great resource on this subject of time and getting the important stuff done is First Things First by Stephen Covey.

Reading it would be a good priority, huh?

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December 29, 2011

Make it Happen in ’12

Filed under: Career Advice,Leadership — Joe Grant @ 10:55 am

Ask a group what it takes to succeed in advertising and you’ll get dozens of different answers. Here’s my take … based on many years working with successful ad people in growing agencies around the country.

Read – If you don’t continually feast on new ideas, you’ll produce only flat and predictable solutions, especially now as we’re nearly overrun with new technology and media options. Suggestions: The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Inc., Wired, and the many blogs, feeds, and tweets on every subject. It wouldn’t hurt to consult some of the classic leadership ideas of Peter Drucker or Jim Collins, either. It’s never been easier to stay au courant these days with Kindles and iPads. Every top ad guy I know reads voraciously.

Write – It’s a must for senior positions, and like tennis or golf, you can always learn to do it better. Get a coach, a teacher, a friend to critique your work – memos, plans, letters – and push yourself to improve. Don’t know how many times I’ve heard, “She’d be great for that job but can’t write a memo or plan to save her life. Let’s get someone else.” Clear compelling writing is imperative for success.

Present – Can you command a room? Just like writing, if you don’t present well you won’t make it up the ladder. Slay the butterflies by plunging into a local improv troupe to build your confidence and technique. Toastmasters is still around, it’s free, and it works, too.

Think – Strategically, that is. Everyone believes they can write a strategic plan but few even know what it is. Google “strategic planning” and you’ll drown in definitions and templates. Learn to think and write strategically or you’ll be stuck doing the little stuff for a long time.

Ask – Be curious, learn, and you’ll grow. Be inquisitive about everything and you’ll never be bored. Or boring.

Proactivate – Ours is a talent business – you need to stand out. But it takes extra work and often longer hours to separate yourself from the pack, so get used to it. Showing up just 9 to 5 and thinking “they owe me a better job” will keep you a back-marker.

Create – Progress is the product of innovation and innovation doesn’t happen unless you try new things – that’s creativity. An agency should be a Petri dish of

creative experimentation in all areas. If you’re the person who comes up with new ideas you’ll achieve more success than people who wait for things to happen to them.

Invest – When making decisions about your career, having money gives you freedom. Don’t kid yourself thinking that you’ll start saving or investing when you make bigger bucks. That’s stupid. It’s not how much you make but how diligent you are putting some of it where it will grow. And though you may be decades from even thinking about retirement, this is exactly the time to max 401k contributions and get smart about stocks. There are no pensions in advertising anymore.

Relax – A few pops after work or a quick puff on something may momentarily loosen those knots in your gut but over time that will quicksand you. Find someone who carries a lot of responsibility with ease and ask them how they deal with the pressure. Stress is a killer, but believe me there are keys you can discover to prevent your nerves from eating you alive.

The Main Thing -The real key to success is getting the important things done, not just minutiae. Anything less than a conscious commitment to the important is an unconscious commitment to the unimportant, author Stephen Covey says, and doing more things faster won’t replace doing the right things well. So figure out what will have the most impact for improving your work, your life, and your happiness and concentrate on that. You get what you focus on.

OK, enough proselytizing. Try some of the above and see if it helps provide more meaning and challenge – and success – in your career this new year.


November 14, 2011

3 Things Every Agency Owner Should Know

Filed under: Client/Agency Relations,Leadership — Joe Grant @ 2:03 pm

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1. Delegate Everything But Genius
We’ve counseled a lot of really bright creative folks over the years who’ve built their own jails and locked themselves inside. They wanted an outlet for their creativity so they started their own companies…and quickly got caught in the quicksand of “management.”

You know what that is – refereeing personality conflicts, motivating recalcitrant associates, approving supply purchases, making sure the conference room is cleaned up. . . Help!

Managing the little stuff is not what makes you successful. It’s capitalizing on your unique talents which nobody else has or can do the way you do. Anything else which distracts, upsets, perturbs, or otherwise beats you down to the point that you can’t do what you’re best at – and what you enjoy most – must be delegated or deleted. Hire it out or give it to somebody else to worry about. But don’t waste your most precious resource: you.

Your special talents are all you have to make your little enterprise work. It’s soul-splitting to create profound strategic ideas one moment and the next order paper clips. If you can’t delegate everything but what you master like no one else, get a therapist to help you understand why. Or else you’ll be welding the bars shut on your own cell.

2. It’s Not About You
Entrepreneurs can get so pumped up by contemporary can-do literature that they actually begin to believe they’re “partners” with their clients. They’ll say, “But we’re different than others – we’re true partners.”

Whoa! At the very best you’ll work determinedly to become a trusted resource, but becoming a true partner – with skin in the game, skin that bleeds? Not likely.

Think about it: a partnership is a business relationship in which you furnish part of the capital and labor for a money-making enterprise then share in subsequent profits or losses. Do you do that? No, your company merely provides a service and thinking you have a commensurate relationship with a client is a self-flattering delusion.

If you get over thinking you’re indispensable or equal it will be a lot easier doing what you’re really good at.

Truth is, it’s not about you and never has been. No matter how insightful or groundbreaking you think your contributions are, they’re merely a small part of your client’s galaxy of issues and opportunities. That’s why they don’t call you back when you wish they would – they have bigger (to them) elephants to shoot.

3. Know If Your Clients Are Happy
Market research is imperative because it’s so dangerous to “presume” what the market thinks of our products and services.

Yet in a client-centered business where relationships are based on so much more than just occasional purchases, we’re convinced we know how we’re doing.

Really? Then why do Adweek and AdAge have weekly cover stories about account firings where agency honchos misread the smoke signals and in their hubris believed their client relationships were impregnable?

Don’t rely on the account team to tell you how great things are; after all, their opinions are likely a conflict of interest. Instead consider having your relationships audited by a disinterested 3rd party because people, especially in close business relationships, aren’t comfortable telling you directly what you need to know.

They’ll complain about you to others, they’ll talk behind your back, but they won’t tell you face to face. It’s human nature – many of us can’t stand conflict. An objective survey will yield factual evidence of what needs to be improved – by both parties.

Many agencies use our Client Satisfaction Survey to improve client retention and reignite account profitability. To find out more, call or e-mail. Or read the Client Retention section on our website. As one client said, “I’m impressed the agency is actually auditing itself – it proves they’re committed to my business.”
(The above is from 15 Things Every Agency Owner Should Know. The article is available in its entirety on our home page.)

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September 12, 2011

Are Your Clients CPFs?

Filed under: Client/Agency Relations,Leadership — Joe Grant @ 9:09 am

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As a young account supe a couple of decades ago I remember it seemed like our CEO at Ketchum Pittsburgh did nothing but play golf or go to ball games and dinner with CEOs of our clients Westinghouse, ALCOA, H.J. Heinz, PPG, etc. What a life, I thought – to be paid all that money to schmooze, play golf, and have a cold one on the 19th during business hours! All while we lackeys sweated in windowless offices to get estimates approved or minor copy changes made.

Until one day there was a significant crisis involving a potential conflict of interest.

We were about to lose one of our largest blue-chip accounts (and my job would have gone, too) when the agency’s Big Guy came down the hall and announced to our account group that he’d worked things out with his close personal friend, the client CEO. Everything was fixed with a phone call.

As the years went by and more senior positions came my way, a couple of things became clear. First, no matter how diligently you worked or how good the work itself was, in this business things may get badly sideways for reasons beyond your control. Second, these pickles are best resolved by the top people – the agency president relying on the friendship and trust developed over time with his or her client counterpart.

I call it making your client a CPF – a Close Personal Friend.

Sounds a little unctuous, I suppose, until you remember that at its core business is all about relationships. . . and it’s easier to do business with a friend. Because with friends you forgive the occasional bumps and navigate rough patches knowing that your friendship will pull you both through.

It also helps to remember that clients are not just tools or a means to an end.

They’re people with families, issues, interest and hobbies, and problems, trying to do the best job they can. They deserve friendship. Some of my closest lifelong friends were once clients; our friendships have lasted way beyond mere business deals.

Agency/client relationships sustain and work best when they’re fastened firmly at the top. Because everything else is just too fragile: people come and go and reporting structures often change. So the place to attach and snug up the anchor bolts is where things are least likely to shift: at the top.

Don’t be like an agency owner we know who refuses to “get his hands dirty” by spending time with senior client people. He’s uninvolved, preferring to have his minions do that messy client stuff. That’s a mistake and in fact he’s on the way to tough times – his clients told us (through our Client Survey program) that shunning them will soon have negative consequences.

Look, it’s not all about schmoozing, that’s for sure. The agency should be held accountable for tangible outcomes and ROI, especially these days when every expenditure must be justified. Performance and measurable results are table stakes in any client/agency relationship.

But if you’re an agency principal, it’s in your interest to make all your clients CPFs. We need all the friends (and clients) we can get, right?

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May 3, 2011

The Senior Issue

Filed under: Career Advice,Leadership — Joe Grant @ 6:00 pm

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There’s a serious and potentially heart-wrenching problem in many agencies that bubbles just below audible conversation: senior executives no longer justifying their keep. It affects everyone. And it’s time to talk about it.

Here’s the problem.  People work awfully hard in our business and use up a lot of themselves in the process. That may be why in their 50s some conclude they’re not going to get a whole lot further than where they already are, so why push so hard? Maybe I can coast a little and still be well paid. I’ll retire soon enough, in a few years. But just not right now.

We call these people the “soon retiring” or SRs.

To some an SR who’s contributing less and less to the bottom line can appear to be selfishly harvesting profits and bleeding off a 6-figure salary. Toss in perqs (bonus, car, self-approving expense accounts, club memberships, etc.) and there’s a pretty big hole in the bucket.

Would the money spent on an SR yield a better return increasing new business efforts, developing new services, buying out a competitor, delivering serious training, or rewarding or hiring stronger talent? That’s the heart of the dilemma because those kind of business opportunities can be seriously thwarted by supporting an SR. More than once we’ve seen an agency starve itself from growth because it was carrying this sort of burden.

Yet it wouldn’t be fair to push that good ole’ SR out to pasture, you say. He or she was there at the beginning, risked so much, spent all those nights and weekends away from home (maybe a divorce along the way?). This is where it gets really torturous. You feel a moral obligation to be fair to folks who’ve given so much.

Alright. Let’s talk about “fair.”

Some say it’s not fair to allow the company to be held hostage by a highly paid but no-longer-as-productive SR. It’s not fair to those at full song trying to move the company forward. Ambitious younger people may seek opportunity elsewhere…and suddenly your competition has all the good talent.

OK, but what about “loyalty” and “reward”? Doesn’t the SR deserve a cushy last few years at the end of the work rainbow? Maybe, but some argue there shouldn’t be an unspecified “obligation” to keep anybody aboard indefinitely.

Reading this far you’re probably disappointed we haven’t revealed some bromide to fix this issue. Believe me, having guided several agencies through these treacherous waters there is no one-size-fits-all answer. It’s a tight complex knot of human compassion, economics, emotional baggage and unspoken expectations.

But there are a few guidelines we use when helping agencies unravel these sensitive problems:

1. Eliminate denial. Don’t pretend it isn’t happening or will fix itself. You, the senior team, and the SR must acknowledge that something’s out of whack. Face up to it because it’s the kind of thing you get paid to face up to. A Chinese proverb we’re fond of instructs that the beginning of wisdom is calling things by their right name.

2. See the whole picture. Decisions about SRs rest on the leadership team’s responsibility to do the best forallemployees. These difficult resolutions have to be right for the company and its health, not just the convenience of a few.

3. Dignity is fundamental. That’s dignity for all. Resolve to honor everyone’s ego and emotional needs as well as your own sanity and good conscience. I’m here to tell you that you can craft solutions which can sustain self-esteem and not make people feel like dirt.

4. Be fair. But don’t confuse fairness with generosity. Sometimes those of us with soft hearts make really dumb business decisions because our emotions overpower common sense. Your actions must be consistent with the firm’s core purpose and values. Remember that treating one person with a heavy dose of “fairness” at the expense of others is wrong too. Principles by definition are ecumenical.

5. Get outside perspective. It’s a sure bet that you’re too close to the situation to see it objectively because, ironically, you know too much. Seek off-site counsel – all parties deserve it.

6. Be safe. Wearing a life jacket doesn’t mean you hope to end up in the water. Get legal guidance before any precipitous decisions.

One more thing. We better figure this out or the well-meaning baby-boomer SRs will unconsciously throttle down a lot of otherwise healthy agencies. Remember, the clock ticks for all of us. YOU’LL be an SR some day.

We all will.

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November 1, 2010

Don’t Be a Firefighter

Filed under: Leadership,Operations — Joe Grant @ 3:30 pm


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clip-art-fireservice-firefighter-attackWe call it firefighter management – dashing from one flare-up to another trying to make sure everything doesn’t go up in flames.

You scramble to flush out new business leads, hit client deadlines just under the wire, do things yourself because it’s quicker than showing someone how to do them your way. You know the drill.

And so one year slides into the next leaving that disquieting feeling that you’re just not getting where you want to go. Tell the truth now: have you accomplished all you wanted this year as we’re into Q4?

The solution is simple but not easy. You need a timeout and I don’t mean just a few days off around the holidays. You need to step back, take a breath, get some perspective. And then come up with a way that’s going to work to achieve your goals.

Here’s how to do it.

First, lead a directed conversation with your best thinkers for a day or two (off-site is best) that starts with a snapshot of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats; define your agency’s key success factors; establish no more than five or six strategic imperatives; craft an ironclad action plan anchored by individual accountability and deadlines covering people issues, operations, marketing plans, financial milestones, and personal growth goals; set immutable dates for regular progress reviews; and – this is important – establish and enforce inviolable consequences for meeting or missing objectives.

That in a nutshell, folks, is a strategic planning action agenda with teeth (the consequences part). So why can’t more agencies do it?

Couple of reasons. First, it’s a little like a doctor performing self-surgery – the knowledge is there but operating on yourself is usually painful and always messy. Lots of agencies hold “planning meetings” which net little more than confusion, increased frustration, and more same-old same-old.

Another reason is a phenomenon called “goal distraction.” Example: you chase after a fat piece of business for months (“If we get this new account it will fix everything!”) but in the process take your eye off the ball running and growing the accounts already in-house. You will pay a price for that inattention later on, believe me.

Here’s another common goal distraction. You spend thousands trying to find that one extraordinary staffer, maybe shell out a stiff headhunter’s fee, but meantime completely ignore essential skill development which would have enormous positive effect (account leadership training, presentation skills, strategic thinking) because “we don’t have the budget for that.” You’ve fixated on hitting a particular target but ignored the essential ingredients of success.

Besides goal obsession, there’s yet another reason that homemade strategic planning often fails. Many agency leaders try too hard to be all things to all people, including acting as doting father figures to their staff “children” because their need to be liked is greater than their need to succeed, no matter their protests to the contrary. But that’s a subject for another blog.

The downside is a few months after you meet to put your plan together it begins to fall apart and it’s back to business as usual – flailing at the flare-ups, and trying not to hear the little voice in your head chanting Thoreau’s chilling admonition, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation…”

Let’s be clear. If you launch into next year merely hoping for better results without a new way to get the important things done, come Q4 2011 you’ll be right where you are now. Something has to change.

A consequence-laced strategic plan is almost as magical as punching a destination into the GPS and following turn-by-turn directions. You’ll get where you want to go.

Put a plan together and stick with it. You’ll spend less time carrying around those damn fire hoses.


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September 23, 2010

Cork the Whine

Filed under: Career Advice,Client/Agency Relations,Leadership,Staying Fresh — Joe Grant @ 12:01 pm


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It’s 1:30 and you breeze out the agency door bellowing, “I’m off to see those dumbass s.o.b.s again.”

Ah, the much anticipated client meeting! When you arrive a half hour later to do business with them, what do you think happens to all that bad karma?

Our business is simple: agencies have relationships with clients to help them sell stuff. If you have a bad attitude about your clients, things just aren’t going to go smoothly.

But they’re jerks, you say? Well, OK. Here’s some straight-ahead advice.

First of all, clients are your customers, for crisakes! Didn’t you once beg these guys to become a client, promising them your first-born and swearing you’d practically live at their place? Just think about that for a moment. It’s really all you need to know. Clients are your customers.

But if you harbor dark thoughts about what scoundrels these clients be you’ll not only infect your colleagues and extinguish their passion for working on this account, you’ll also plant an adverse message in your own subconscious mind, telling it you just don’t care. When you don’t care – even though you swear you’re a pro – you dam the ability to generate good ideas, deplete your energy, and imperceptibly arrest your skyward career. Not good.

Now if you’re an agency principal you have bigger issues. I’ve seen presidents bad mouth clients, post ridiculing emails and cartoons, and get up in front of Monday morning status meetings to publicly (but of course behind their backs) insult and drag down the very people they’d present a multimillion dollar campaign to that afternoon. Does this make sense? It certainly isn’t what anyone would call professional.

Look, clients are rarely bad people. They’re just ordinary folks much like you who find themselves having to work for a living and probably doing all they can to survive capricious management and pay their bills. They’re your clients, your customers. Don’t let your attitude cripple your ability to do business with them.

When you’ve got challenging clients, here’s a simple trick for getting beyond yourself by doing something for yourself. Yes, that’s a tortuous sentence but stick with me here.

Give them a gift, if you will, of a little something extra – something they weren’t expecting or didn’t ask for. But do it without any expectation of being appreciated. Maybe they will thank you; then again maybe they won’t. Thanks is beside the point here. You don’t give a gift to get thanks – you do it because it’s a good unselfish thing to do.

You might ask, why do something nice for someone who won’t appreciate it? Simple answer (and herein lies the magic): because it’s YOUR opportunity to behave one notch up on the scale of human beingness. You do it because it’s a small act of polishing your own self. In a way, I suppose, that makes it selfish but a good kind of selfish.

Clients have good and bad days; some clients are more difficult to deal with than others. Your job is to maintain yourself on a personal high road, not to get drawn to their level. The really successful account people we know seamlessly maintain their professional mien.

In the end it’s about the choices you make. You can choose to snarl and moan about what a lousy client they are, come home at night and kick the dog, take comfort in an extra scotch or two…

Or you can simply say it is what it is. And then concentrate on bringing your best game no matter the circumstances.


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