Archive for February, 2010

For dramatic effect in this post I’m going to say that there have been two attitudinal moments of truth in my career to date.

The first was learning and embracing the art of delegation.

The second was dropping the lead agency mentality that had been instilled in me after 18 years in advertising agencies.

These were both instances of a leopard actually being able to change its spots.

Big deals.

Delegation first.

There are drawbacks to being a perfectionist, as I learned the hard way.

To the old adage, “If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well”, I rather arrogantly added the unspoken mantra, “If a job’s worth doing perfectly, do it yourself.”

Up to a point that attitude is a ticket to career progression in account management.

Up to a point.

It’s also a ticket to 60 hour working weeks.

So, up to a point, it’s a stressful but sustainable approach.

But after a point it’s an attitude that actually serves to impede career development.

Promotion brings with it added responsibility. Responsibility for more work and more people.

You get promoted on the basis of consistently delivering work of a high standard. And the expectation is that those standards will be maintained across an expanded workload.

And, all of a sudden, the DIY perfectionist attitude is no longer sustainable.

The bottom line is that an ambitious perfectionist has to learn to delegate whether he likes it or not.

I’ll admit that placing trust in others and devoting a significant proportion of my time to developing people rather than doing stuff didn’t come as naturally to me as it does to others.

But I did learn quickly.

And I was soon delegating with the zeal of the recently converted.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

So, if you want to get ahead you have to be adaptable. You have to be able to drop deeply ingrained but counter-productive attitudes in favour of counter-intuitive but ultimately profitable alternatives.

Which brings me onto that lead agency mentality thing.

Firstly I should point out that there’s a difference between lead agency status and lead agency mentality.

And secondly that lead agency status is a good thing unless it brings with it a certain type of lead agency mentality. More on which shortly.

Clients want two things from their lead agency.

They want powerful, engaging, high-concept ideas and communication platforms.

And they want close collaboration with other agencies to fully realise the potential of those ideas across all channels.

Lead agency status means that you get the high-concept briefs and the retainer fees that go with them.

But a lead agency mentality seriously impedes the lead agency’s ability to deliver on the second part of the client’s wishlist; collaboration.

Carrying a lead agency mentality and not delegating effectively have a lot in common.

Both infer an insidious arrogance on the part of the attitude holder. And both act as an anchor to progress.

At my current (digital) agency, we sometimes enjoy lead status and we sometimes play a collaborative role with 3rd party lead agencies and other disciplines.

Whereas I spent my time in advertising working exclusively on a “lead” basis.

Much has been written about how ad agencies need to adapt to retain their traditional lead status in a digital world. And a lot of that writing focuses on the additional skills required.

But I think the new attitudes required are just as important.

I have learned a massive amount in the last two years. But the biggest revelation has been the open, generous, naturally collaborative attitude of digital natives.

And the lead agency mentality of some ad agencies is in stark contrast to this generous spirit.

Picture the over-competitive kid in the classroom hiding their work with their arm to prevent anyone from copying. Probably not the most popular kid in class, but a reasonable analogy for lead agency mentality.

I’ve watched with interest of late client reactions to lead agency mentality from their lead agencies.

More and more clients are using all-agency, cross-discipline meetings as a means to manage projects.

Some of these are exemplar cases of how to collaborate to maximise the return on an idea. They include excellent lead agencies who don’t bring any counter-productive attitudinal baggage with them.

And some are pretty far from exemplary if truth be told.

And it pisses clients off.

Why the agencies concerned can’t tell that they’re pissing the client off is beyond me. But I’m sufficiently long in the tooth to know that I’m reading the signs correctly.

“Getting” digital isn’t just about staying on top of emerging technologies. It’s about displaying the open, generous nature without which many of those technologies would never come to fruition.

The less than exemplary lead agencies need a moment of truth. The penny needs to drop re. their lead agency mentality as it did for me with delegation.

They too have to be able to drop deeply ingrained but counter-productive attitudes in favour of counter-intuitive but ultimately profitable alternatives.


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Some time back I had a visit from the then managing director of Seychelles Breweries.

He was an ex-pat Scot looking to return to Edinburgh.

Now I myself relocated from London to Edinburgh for a better quality of life but, as you can appreciate, his motivation for a move wasn’t so immediately obvious to me.

It turns out that he and his family were feeling a bit overwhelmed by the oppressive hyper-localness of island life.

Everyone was very friendly, but with that friendliness came the disconcerting knowledge that everyone knew everything that you and yours were up to all the time.

“I see you had a picnic on the beach yesterday”.

“I heard you went for a bicycle ride with your daughter at the weekend.”

“Your wife was wearing a lovely dress yesterday.”

In fact it sounded a bit like the worst kind of daily trivia Twitter updates, but in reverse.

Rather than you issuing a banal stream of trivial tweets telling the world what you’d had for breakfast, the world was telling you what you’d done instead.

That kind of ambient awareness is one of the nice things about Twitter. It fills in the gaps between actually meeting up with people.

But there can be too much of a good thing when it comes to ambient awareness that you can’t control on an otherwise paradise island with an otherwise dream job.

Be careful what you wish for.

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A client apologised for the internal politics of their organisation the other day.

But it really wasn’t a problem.

Because the nature, the source and the implications of those politics were being explained in detail at the outset of a project.

Politics are only ever a problem when they are undisclosed, unexpected and appear late on as a reason why an idea that is otherwise fit for purpose can’t happen.

Politics are a real-world factor.

And commercial communications experts should be used to dealing with all sorts of real-world factors.

It’s an applied science (art), not a ‘pure’ one.

A fact that many creative people conveniently forget or ignore when they put ideas in front of you that haven’t got a hope in hell of ever running.

Then they try to make you feel bad for being the political messenger.

I’ve always gone out of my way to understand the politics associated with a given client or a given project.

And to impart that understanding as part of the briefing process.

The best creatives embrace these real-world factors. They either work around them or actually use them as a source of inspiration.

The most famous example of this would be the Silk Cut and B&H poster campaigns which were highly creative solutions to the tight regulations applied to cigarrette advertising.

(I’m no fan of tobacco by the way).

I am a fan of elegant solutions to apparently difficult briefs though.

I trained as an engineer and we talked all the time in that environment about elegant solutions to messy, real-world problems.

In this respect marketing communications has a lot in common with engineering.

So clients shouldn’t apologise for politics as long as they’re highlighted up front.

And good, experienced agency folk should respond positively to the real-world commercial challenge and creative opportunity that they represent.

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Three little words.

Not those three little words.

These three little words.

“You’re the experts.”

When a client says these words and means them, they might as well have said “I love you”.

They might as well have said “I love you” because “you’re the experts” has a powerful emotive effect on a good agency.

You want to reward the client’s trust with something awesome.

You think about their project when you should be thinking about someone else’s.

Word that they are a great client spread’s round the office like wildfire, and other people want a piece of the action.

You over-service them.

I’ve done it myself.

I’m in the middle of doing it now as a matter of fact.

(Client X has inspired this post.)

When I was MD of The Leith Agency I saw other people do it.

The time analysis versus fee income wasn’t pretty.

But that’s the benefit of being a great client.

MD’s and FD’s worry about money and margin.

But there are more important reward currencies for account directors and planners.

Professional respect, trust, appreciation, opportunity to do something great.

Any client that pays over the odds with these things will always enjoy a good return on the investment.

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