March 9, 2010

Science of Motivation


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One of the striking things about the ad agency business is that we claim to be a “creative” enterprise but rarely demonstrate real innovation in running our businesses.

In fact, some of the agencies we’ve counseled over the years are the most un-creative places you can imagine, with moribund management showing little understanding of what makes people tick.

If you own or operate an ad agency – or want to some day – take a few minutes to watch this startling clip from a recent TED Conference (Technology, Entertainment, Design) presentation by Dan Pink as he sorts out the puzzle of employee motivation. You think incentive pay programs work? Maybe you should think again.

This one’s worth every minute of your time.

Thanks to Cortney Cahill, Brand Coach at Kelliher Samets Volk in Burlington VT for bringing this to my attention. By the way, if you’re not familiar with TED check it out here: TED Ideas Worth Spreading.


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November 21, 2009

Social Media ROI



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We hear it from agency principals all over the country: “What do we do about social media? And how the hell do we measure it?” The answer is, in a way, simple. First, you’ve got to jump in the water and play around. Doesn’t matter where. Doesn’t matter how deep the water is. Just don’t wait for things to settle down or become clear. Get in, get a feel for it. You’ll soon see the needle move.

Here. Sit back for the next 4 fast-moving minutes and drink this in:

My advice to anyone waiting for definitive answers about social media is to quit waiting. It’s cheap and guaranteed to be a great ride.

Thanks to fellow traveler Fred Driver, one of the partners at d.trio in Minneapolis, for bringing this clip to my attention. Eric Qualman put it together and he has more insight to offer at Socialnomics.

September 10, 2009

The Biggest Mistake Agency CEOs Make


Well, after spending my entire adult life in the agency business and the last 16+ years consulting exclusively with agency principals, I’ve come to a conclusion about the single biggest mistake agency CEOs make.

It’s this: You won’t win the race unless you field the best horse you can.

Obvious, for sure, but think about it. In agency new business pitches, if you have the best people, you win; in Creative, if you have the best people, you win; in Account Service, if you have the best, you keep on winning. Have the best in your agency or on the track and you win. It’s as simple as that.

But it’s also why so many agencies fail to finish in the money. What holds agencies back more than anything else is bad hiring.

Not hiring ‘mistakes,’ BAD HIRING.

Though this appears to be a blinding glimpse of the obvious, I’d argue it isn’t so to agency CEOs and owners who often nudge hiring decisions downward to department heads with less-seasoned judgment, or to HR directors with little more training than they’re a ‘people person’ who demonstrates an uncanny ability to remember birthdays. CEOs, especially as an agency grows, too often abdicate their single most critical responsibility affecting the agency’s character and success: hiring the best.

Not so at an agency I know hovering around $50 million where the CEO will not sign off on a hire until he personally has taken the candidate to lunch or dinner. Why a meal? Because there he can’t escape what he knows can be an uncomfortable and often banal conversation wherein he can learn, often painfully, a lot about the candidate. He’s written off many $100 dinners that halted a hire at the 11th hour and claims it’s the best money he spends.

Sure, it can be awkward engaging in mindless chit-chat with someone up for a back office slot, but you’re a good judge of values and character – will this person deliver sound judgment affecting hundreds of thousands of dollars of agency income? Will he or she forge lasting deep relations centered on trust and honesty – both in and outside the agency?

You know, community theaters spend more time auditioning amateur actors for roles they’ll play for only a few weekends than most agencies do discovering if they’re getting just the right person. Too often it’s enough merely to “fill the position” when you should be putting the aspirant through as tough a grilling session as you’d give the ‘dude’ wanting to marry your daughter. Because it’s at least as important.

Hey, and if money’s in the way, veto those budget line items like buying new computers. More sophisticated equipment in the hands of the less skilled will only make your agency look inadequate faster. Instead, invest and then reinvest in the one thing that will always move you ahead: the best people you can get.

This is a great time to scout and enlist new talent. There’s more available (and affordable) cream out there than there’s been in a long while.

You can’t name anything that has more impact on your agency’s run for the roses than making your foremost priority hiring the very best.


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August 18, 2009

Smell the Gardenias


John is a good friend who owns a successful ad agency in the San Francisco Bay Area. At lunch recently we were talking about feeling trapped by the very thing you create – your company, your lifestyle, the crazy pace of advertising – and he shared an experience we can all learn from.

He told me he used to get in the office most mornings before 7. But now he’s not as religious about being the first one in. 9:30, 10:00. . . what’s the difference?

Of course nobody’s going to fire him for coming in later because he’s the Boss-Man, right? But you might be surprised how tough it can be exercising the privilege of rank.

For most it’s a see-saw of guilt and indulgence: one day you hate the damn place and say screw it, I’m leaving early or not coming in at all tomorrow. . . And the next you can’t get enough and find yourself working around the clock and loving it.

The problem is those tapes in your head. Gotta be busy, work at least as hard as anyone else, can’t leave when others are frantically rowing the galley ship like in Ben Hur. Those old tapes, by the way, were laid down by parents and teachers who believed that “hard” work was the only way to sanctify your life and succeed. What about “smart” work?

Over the years I’ve known hundreds of men and women who ran their own ad shops. And none of them should have any reason to feel guilty about coming in a bit later, taking Fridays off, or clocking fewer than 40 or 50 hours a week.

Because it’s not about having “earned” it. Or about what’s “fair” in anybody else’s mind.

No, it’s about taking your life to a place (I call this leading your life) so you CAN take the time you want to do other things besides just going to the office every day; it’s about being smart enough to realize you don’t have to make an appearance 6-plus days a week; it’s hiring and nurturing good people to do the things that once only you could do. Now that’s “smart” work.

And don’t tell me you don’t have people you trust enough to do things right. You either haven’t taught them well or you’ve got the wrong people. Fix it!

Well back to my pal John. Lately he’s been giving himself the pleasure of enjoying a second cup of coffee on his terrace with his wife instead of being first to the office.

He’s learned to put the drama of running an ad agency in abeyance every few mornings so they can sit enjoying the view, sometimes chatting a bit, sometimes just being quiet near each other.

One morning his wife noticed a gardenia blossom in full bloom nearby. She gently harvested it and sat there with it at her nose, drinking in the fragrance. She handed it to John to do the same – to take a moment to absorb a gift of the universe which, like so many other seemingly small things in a hectic life, are often overlooked. They linger for a while. . . You get the picture.

More often now John comes in a little later. He’s learned not to offer excuses to his staff –  if he wants to leave during the day, he just leaves. Most probably think he’s off to another meeting.

I think John’s one of the smartest people I know in the business, don’t you?

July 8, 2009

Sounds Like a Plan

NOTE: We Tweet almost daily with insights and links of interest to ad agency people. Click “Follow Me on Twitter” in the column on the right.


Almost every phone call I get from agency chiefs these days centers on how they’re just barely keeping their heads above water. Most say they’ll be happy to make it through ‘09 breaking even; almost all have suffered severe AGI shrinkage and deep staff and operating cuts.

Agency principals tell me they’re treading water until things get better next year. So no big decisions now, only the most essential hiring going on – it’s all wait & see.

Well, I’m a little concerned about how these CEOs talk. It’s like they’re paralyzed, waiting for things to go back the way they were. To return to normal.

If you’re in a holding pattern either as a company or on a personal level, you’re kidding yourself. Instead you should be dreaming and planning for what you want your future to be. . and taking the steps to realize it, i.e. to bring those dreams into reality.

Because now is the perfect time – while there’s a lull in the battle – to figure out what you’ll need to do to excel in your next episode. Go on a planning retreat, visit some other agencies to see how they’re doing, put the actionable elements of an operating plan together. But don’t sit on your hands!

I hear ya’: you say there’s no flippin’ way you can possibly plan because who can know with any certainty what tomorrow (or next year) will bring.

If you think our business is tough, how about the unpredictability of war. General Eisenhower is credited with orchestrating the largest and most complex movement of humans and materiel in history when he organized the D-Day invasion of Europe in World War Two. A few days later, a reporter commented, “General, you must have had one hell of a plan.”

“It wasn’t the plan that worked; it was the planning,” Eisenhower said. Meaning that walking through all the possible scenarios – what might work, what might fail, what had to be taken into account – was what made the mission successful.

Don’t believe it’s foolish to plan because of how uncertain things appear at the moment. There isn’t a firehouse anywhere where they don’t drill and prepare daily even though there’s no way whatsoever to predict where or how ferocious the next blaze will be.

Remember that what draws us forward are our dreams. . . and then creating plans to make them a reality.

And there’s never an excuse not to dream, is there.


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June 18, 2009

Difficult Bosses


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NOTE: We Tweet almost daily with insights and links of interest to ad agency folk. Click “Follow Me on Twitter” in the column on the right.

mean_boss_73212333 Bosses. Job satisfaction surveys say the #1 reason people stay or leave a job is the kind of boss they have. That’s even more important than salary.

So I was thinking yesterday about some of the bosses I’ve had or worked with. They all – every one of them – wanted to do a good job. But there were some who sabotaged themselves and their agency’s success, usually with a runaway ego or blinding pride.

There was the guy who absolutely refused to change what he knew were destructive behaviors. So a group of us, taking our families’ futures directly into our hands, staged an intervention to help him realize how he was hurting the agency and everyone in it. I’m not talking about a he’s-drinking-his-lunch intervention (he shunned alcohol; too bad, it might have helped!). No, his problem was extreme moodiness, swings from hyper-micromanagement to total apathy, temper tantrums (full-scale: throwing things, screaming, threatening to fire everybody on the spot). He refused professional counseling and last I heard he’s still limping along with a just a small staff. The rest of us left years ago.

There was another agency CEO who demanded every single communication be passed under his nose for approval. Talk about no empowerment! Work was always in queue for approval; things were constantly jammed up and late. Anything that mentioned money or implied the agency would be obligated in any way was subject to his OK or veto. He trusted nobody.

One more example: an agency CEO whose habit is to always reject all projects with “not good enough.” Many are plenty good enough of course, but she believes people are intrinsically lazy and never give their best unless they’re scourged like Roman slaves rowing a galleon.

For the record, I’ve worked with and for some really wonderful bosses, too – who understood that the work is best when people are positively motivated, happy, and can grow daily in competence and confidence.

What should you do if you’re in a tough spot? First, learn all you can from the situation. Keep your head held high and do your best to contribute and grow without sacrificing your dignity or doing damage to your soul.

But remember also that life is too short to work for a card-carrying jerk. Never let your fear of finding another job, even in these times, imperil your sanity or your health. You are not an indentured servant.

So what does a good boss do? Get some ideas by reading Style Matters: How to Behave When You’re The Boss on our website.

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