March 9, 2010

Science of Motivation


Subscribe using an RSS feed reader or by email.

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.


Subscribe using an RSS feed reader or by email.


October 16, 2009

Real vs. Perceived Value


Subscribe using an RSS feed reader or by email.

Smart, witty, provocative – that’s adman Rory Sutherland, current Vice Chairman at Ogilvy and one of the most entertaining brains you’re likely to meet.

I came across him at TED, the worldwide confab of technology, entertainment, and design leaders which now freely distributes highlights of their conferences on the web at this site. Anytime you want a little juice for your head, go there.

Meantime, sit back for a few minutes and be enthralled by Rory Sutherland’s take on perceived value. It’s a hoot.

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.


Subscribe using an RSS feed reader or by email.

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.


Subscribe using an RSS feed reader or by email.

June 18, 2009

Difficult Bosses


Subscribe using an RSS feed reader or by email.

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.

June 4, 2009

Dissolving a Partnership


Subscribe using an RSS feed reader or by email.

partnership Imagine meeting three ad agency partners for the first time in a nice private dining room to get acquainted before facilitating a strategic planning session the next morning. As the evening goes on things get so tense that one of them screams, throws the bread basket in another’s face, and storms out not to be seen again that night.


When we’re brought in to diagnose why an agency is stuck in neutral, the first thing we check is how healthy the executive team is. Or not. A single meeting is usually all it takes to see if the family is dysfunctional. And if it is, the whole agency culture is usually infected.

The problem children always stand out: they’re the excuse-makers, the naysayers (“We tried that before and it didn’t work”), they throw boulders in the path of progress. No matter what, they’re blameless when something goes wrong. . . or so they’d have you believe.

What to do?

First, remember that this is a business, not a counseling or rehab center. So put your emotions aside. If the senior team has an ineffective, overly-entitled member who effectively deselects him or herself from contributing to the agency’s success, don’t allow one person to hold the whole place hostage.

I’ve seen entire agencies scuttled by just one soured individual. Don’t let it happen at your place.

And don’t make excuses for not taking action.

Cost too much to buy them out? There’s always a way to set up a payoff over time; believe me, it will be cheaper in the long run. Been with you 20 years or more? So what. If they no longer contribute commensurate with their salary, it’s time to go. Seniority, after all, is about the past, not the future.

Too painful? OK, so you go through a rough patch working out the details of departure – isn’t that better than waking up every day with the problem over your head and seeing the agency falter for the next 5 -10 years?

Then there’s the “It will hurt them too much” excuse. Of course it will. But if they’ve risen near the top of your agency then they’re talented, capable, and smart. . . and they’ll find something else, no doubt a lot more satisfying. A new environment or challenge will be best for both them and your agency in the long run – how many times have you seen that happen when others left?

Easily 75% of our consulting work is bringing focus to dysfunctional agency leadership teams. Occasionally that means facing the music and making the changes that, believe me, everybody – staff, vendors, and even your clients – know are necessary.

By the way, the story at the top is true and had a good outcome. The food-fighter eventually left and went on to thrive in his own business. The other partners reconstituted and the agency continues to prosper.

You can write a happy ending, too.

May 27, 2009

Reposition Your Agency Now




SubscribeSubscribe using an RSS feed reader or by email.


man-in-hammock If you think the ad agency business as we’ve known it will be soon returning to normal so you can relax a little this summer, forget it.

OK, so we’re seeing ‘green shoots’ in the economy as Bernanke says – little glimmers here and there that we’re no longer flat-lining. But when we emerge from this tunnel the scenery is going to be quite a bit different. It’s delusional to think we can pick up right where we left off before the economic balloon shriveled.

Times have changed.

Instead of waiting for things to improve, why not use the next few months to re-cast your agency for 2010 and beyond?

  • First, create a true strategic plan. With teeth, more definitive than merely “make more money than last year.” Set hard milestones and accountabilities with consequences for performance or lack thereof. Ad agencies aren’t wishing wells where you hope things magically get better; they’re businesses and should be run that way.
  • Fix the nagging internal ops which always seem to sabotage your efficiency. You know what’s not working – eliminate the bottlenecks and soft spots. Now.
  • Purge mediocre or over-ripe staff who are no longer growing. Too harsh, you say? Well for the times ahead you need fresh vigorous talent who’ll lead your agency into tomorrow, not back markers hung up on how easy it was in the good ole’ days (it’s an ideal time to hire because there’s a lot of recently displaced top-notch talent available who can really impact how you attract and keep better clients. See It’s Time to Hire.
  • Reorganize to meet today’s client needs and changing markets. Don’t be held hostage by old agency models dating back to when mass media and 15% commissions were king. Take a clean sheet of paper and redraw your agency structure around what works best for clients, not what’s easiest. You’ll never go wrong doing that.
  • Analyze your fees and client agreements then adjust as necessary. It always amazes me how afraid agencies are to raise rates when so many of their costs are going up. Stop complaining about how hard it is to make a buck and instead hike your rates so you can stay healthy. Courage, men!
  • Digital, social media, i-tech . . . They’re’ not add-ons, folks, which you can claim you’re competent in just by hiring a person or two. They’re where things are right now and the springboard to, well, who knows?

Of course you don’t have to change anything at all. Hey, as clients begin to spend again and the pressure abates, you can schedule more afternoons for golf, right?

Or. . . you could dedicate some of those golf afternoons to concentrate on what has to change so your agency can get ahead of the curve. You can use part of the summer to make smart decisions and reposition your agency so it won’t be a victim of the times, technologies, and changing tastes – to make it a leader not a follower.

Then again you could just flop into a hammock and wait for things go “back to normal.”

May 15, 2009

Agency Leadership Disasters

SubscribeSubscribe using an RSS feed reader or by email.



A few stories from some agencies we know with suggestions to avoid similar fates.

When you read these you may think, “No way.”  Well, way. I’ve been in the middle of straightening these messes out as an “agency shrink” and though there’s a shade of obfuscation in each tale to identities , be assured they’re all true.

Agency T: A high-energy place, a big independent in a large town with brand new offices and just now coming off a couple of flat-to-awful years. Sounds good so far, but here’s the problem: the 7 VPs do everything they can to avoid each other – some actually brag they haven’t spoken in months! They have no regular meetings. Sadly, several say that even though they’re paid well, they hate coming to work because they dislike their colleagues so. They simply can not work as an effective group and so the agency misses opportunities and is a pretty miserable place to work for a lot of people.

Agency D: In business 18 years, 28 people on staff. Scraping by but they’ll probably survive today’s soft economy. Unless, of course, the owner’s unmitigated and TOTAL lack of trust in his 4 senior players doesn’t scuttle the ship. He says he can’t stand to even look at them they’re so incompetent, unreliable and disengaged. He hasn’t done anything about it because (1) “it might upset our clients” and (2) “it’s hard to get good people.” Folks, I’m not making this up.

Agency V: Dad now in his 60s started this place and did well (the biggest Mercedes, house in the mountains, and everything’s paid for). Brought his kid in a couple of years ago right out of college to begin to take over. The problem: Dad’s so afraid the whole thing might crumble that he’s paralyzed about doing anything differently than he did 25 years ago. This guy could be the poster boy for the Risk Aversion League and as a result the agency’s dying. Clients are bailing and there’s no new business to speak of. There’ll be very little left for the kid to run.

Warren Bennis, who has made a career studying why some leaders are great and others fail, would probably tell you these agencies are in serious trouble because of titanic leadership breakdowns. Let’s look.

There’s no shared dream at Agency T, only personal agendas. It’s the CEO’s job to blend differences in style and provide direction and meaning to achieve a common unifying mission. Bennis tells the story about the Manhattan Project and George Kistiakowsky, a great chemist who later served as Eisenhower’s chief science advisor, who threatened to quit because he couldn’t get along with a colleague. Project leader Robert Oppenheimer simply said, “George, how can you leave this project? The free world hangs in the balance.” Conflict, even with brilliant and diverse people, is resolved by reminding people of the mission. Works especially well at agencies.

How’d you like to work at Agency D where the owner doesn’t trust his key people and they don’t trust him? How this guy came to hire so many people he dislikes and distrusts would keep Dr. Phil happy for several shows, but the point is if you’ve got trust you can ride out all kinds of storms. Trust starts with the CEO generating and demonstrating faith in the senior team – if it isn’t there it won’t be anyplace else in the company.

Over at Agency V, Dad’s gotten way too comfortable. I call this the WAS disease – We’ve Arrived Syndrome. If the top banana isn’t fueled by urgency, risk taking and experimentation then the agency is careening toward perdition. The son wants to diversify and maybe acquire some competitors (they’ve got the cash), but Dad won’t agree to it. Too risky. Bennis says willingness to risk failure to achieve results is at the heart of all successful ventures. I’d add that success stops when risk ends.

Full disclosure: Warren Bennis’ short article, The Secrets of Great Groups, was the inspiration for these opinions.

Your 2 Cents

How about you – have any horror tales you’d like to share? Morals to the story are highly encouraged so we can all learn.

Blog at