Weakness in the Shadows of Strength
One of my all-time favorite quotes comes from the great Irish playwright and poet, Oscar Wilde, “I can resist everything except temptation” (scripted from the play, Lady Windermere’s Fan). We’re all human — each one of us prone to temptation and the foibles of this earthly experience.
Ad agencies are merely the sum total of the humans that inhabit their halls. 90% of an agency’s inventory disappears nightly via the elevator. When the sum of the parts of that human total exceeds the whole, a creative agency is in a position to catch lightning in a bottle — to be magical. It is this elusive magical elixir that seduces agencies, tempting them to succumb to their weaknesses.
Recently I ran a reference check on an ECD and while speaking to their former Account Planning partner, I asked him what this particular candidate’s strengths were — and then I asked about their weaknesses. The Planner’s answer was enlightening (that is his job, after all): “his weaknesses are merely shadows of his strengths”. That was a simple but seismic insight.
Our weaknesses are merely shadows of our strengths. This applies to all people-first companies, like creative agencies. Human nature is fairly predictable. Chaucer taught us through his Knight in Canterbury Tales that there is “nothing new under the sun” (turns out that even this message wasn’t new as it appeared first in Ecclesiastes 1:9). So what can we learn from our weaknesses in trying to grow our creative agencies? What temptations will most likely to lead to demise? What sins do we commit that may ultimately lead to our death?
The Seven Deadly Sins of Advertising:
Pride — the excessive belief in our abilities. There’s a fine line between confidence and pride. We often demand that our people “take pride” in their work. This is a strength that is shadowed with weakness. An example are the ridiculously self-important and self-promotional case studies that appear on agency web sites. Not only do they reveal strategies to our clients’ competitors, they often make it seem like our clients couldn’t succeed without us. We make it seem like we have some special secret sauce that other agencies don’t. Another example is the way we put silly TM’s on processes that are pretty much self-evident and use fancy words when simple ones will do. Agencies don’t appear humble, even if their people are. It’s like we’re all seduced by our profession, as if we think we’re on Mad Men, or something. Makes me want to get out of Biz Dev.
Envy — the desire for others’ status or abilities. Is this a wannabe business, or what? I mean one crappy little designer, Bogusky, takes an 18-person shop and makes them a global creative superpower and everyone thinks they can do it. I guess anything is possible, but it took Alex 10 years to become an overnight sensation. And it required tireless devotion and a deal with the devil at the crossroads with Robert Johnson for that to happen. Agencies should focus on what they can be the best at in their region and pursue that. They should talk their core target and invite others to listen in. They should have a simple, humble mission and stick to it. We’re an envious industry — when there’s a big public account review and we’re not in it, we secretly hope that NOBODY wins it. It reminds me of being a college basketball coach. Those guys open the USA Today in the morning and hope they see that everyone lost the night before.
Gluttony — or in the old days when language was elegant, profligacy. The inordinate desire to consume more than that which one requires. McGarry/Bowen comes to mind. Sure they’re on a roll now. But, just wait — pride and gluttony goeth before the fall. How is it possible to win all that business and service it diligently? But, let’s scale this sin down to the local and regional level. So many agencies get caught up in new business “activity”. They call it a “numbers game”. Tell that to your new client — that they were a number, welcome aboard. Guys sometimes call me and say that they can’t do their job properly because they’re “in 4 pitches this month”. What? It’s hard enough to pitch ONE properly. Not to mention pitch one and keep your current clients happy at the same time. We wind up just hoping that the line coming in the front door is slightly longer than the line going out. Gluttony also destroyed agency compensation models. It got so bad that clients hire consultants to monitor their agency’s financial efficiency. And it spurned entire gumshoe departments known as “procurement”.
Lust — inordinate craving for pleasures of the body. Why did you choose advertising as a profession? Let’s face it — the babes are hotter than anywhere else. Admit it, you horndog. Maybe the bigger question is why do all the hot babes get hired by agencies? I’m sure I’ll get hateful comments branding me as a sexist or a pig (or maybe both, if I’m lucky). Whatever. Chicks dig the longball.
Anger — also known as wrath, it’s manifested when an agency spurns love and opts instead for fury. You can spot an angry agency pretty easily. Doesn’t matter how big or small it is. The receptionist sets a condescending tone. Your parking is not validated. The pizza’s cold. People appear stressed, overworked and challenged to keep up with their tasks. The under-staffed team hasn’t received bonuses in years. A few people make all the money (usually fat, white guys in the suburbs). Only a few opinions are valued. Anger can also often be subtle and passive-aggressive, more difficult to recognize and decipher. Haters appear to be lovers. Lovers appear to be haters. Nobody knows who not to trust. We’ve all worked somewhere like this at some point.
Greed — or, Avarice. The desire for material wealth or gain while ignoring the spirit. Don’t get me wrong — material wealth is fine. We’re all in this to make money. It’s the ignoring the spirit part that is deadly. So, whatever happened to Pro bono? It’s all but gone from the industry. And when we do it, it STILL comes with an ulterior motive: “If we can’t win awards on Pro bono, then why do it?” Huh? Think about the hypocrisy of that statement. How many agencies are truly integrated into their communities? How many align themselves with institutions, educational and otherwise? You always hear the bullshit line, “the soul of the agency” — and then you look at the client list and they sell booze and fast food. Don’t get me wrong, booze and fast food are legal and part of the great capitalist dream. But booze is the third leading cause of death in America and poor diet is not far behind. We often get paid to help people kill themselves. We glorify the temptation. That’s our craft. So, at least be penitent on your way to the bank. The most successful people I’ve known in this business treated their career and their agency as if it were a vocation — not a profession or a mint.
Sloth — I love that word. It just sounds so much like it is, almost onomatopoeia. The avoidance of physical work. Agencies expect to “get to the next level” (they rarely define what that actually means) as if they are simply entitled to it. Everyone wants to succeed, but few are willing to prepare for success. Bobby Knight said that. He probably stole it from Chaucer, who probably stole it from one of the Prophets. I’ve noticed that there’s a high correlation to agencies that talk about “getting to the next level” all the time and ones that are barren and desolate at 5:15 PM (unless it’s freelancers in the creative department fixing the mistakes and revisions of the FTE’s). And it’s funny when the FTE’s complain about how hard their job is. It’s friggin’ advertising! Go dig ditches for a week, then come back and explain how difficult your agency job is. Fat, drunk and strategic is no way to go through life, you horndog.