Serial quitting in Adland. I smell a rat.

July 8, 2010


“I want more crumbs. Here’s my notice.”

Not long ago an interviewee had the stones to ask me about some recent “defections” from the agency. He wanted to know if “rats were jumping ship.” I told him the truth: that some people had quit but, to a man, they’d cited personal reasons for leaving, most involving geography.

With all due respect son give me a break. According to your resume you’ve worked at four shops in as many years. Were you jumping ships every time you left one of them? Were you the rat? Seems inappropriate, if not hypocritical, for you to be worrying about attrition given you’re already an expert at it. I did not say these things to the man but part of me wishes I had. For the record, he’d only occupied his present job a matter of months. But here he was, looking for a new one.

Another thing I could have told him was the only reason he was in my office at all was because those other folks had quit. If they were still here he would not be. When one door closes another opens. Surely, the man knew as much. After all, he’d already opened and closed his share.

Back in the day, I could understand an interviewee worrying about ‘sinking ships.’ Once upon a time folks got in a company and stayed there, presumably moving up the ladder. A raft of voluntary departures might indeed be indicative of a sinking ship.

Not anymore. On the contrary, we constantly are told that these days, in this business, the old rules just don’t apply. Catch as catch can. What have you done for me lately? We’re operating in Internet time! Okay. Fine. But shouldn’t that apply to old ideas about job security as well? If you’re only in a job until something else comes along, then maybe you’re not allowed to ask those questions. Your actions belie the very concern you are fronting.

Whether I like it or not, commitment to an employer is old-fashioned. Especially in this business. I can live with that reality. But I won’t abide questions about attrition from a serial quitter.

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30 Responses to “Serial quitting in Adland. I smell a rat.”

  1. Jeff Louis said

    I’ll take the spot he didn’t fill!

  2. jim schmidt said

    Somebody really said “Are the rats jumping ship?” Were you interviewing MIckey Spillane? Talk about an anachronistic phrase.

    • SRP said

      The phrase came up.
      Yet, I’m used to anachronistic phrases. Hell, we invent them! It’s the hypocritical nature of the question that bothered me.

  3. tjay said

    Agreed, the question was certainly of questionable timing and taste. However, not everyone with multiple tours on their resume is a rat these days. Some are wisely multifaceted in an evolving industry.

  4. Anne Ross said

    with all due respect to internal process. I can promise you would have never seen such a candidate from me. Regardless of the quality of a book– attitude, aspiration and contribution must be assessed to define the “great” candidate. Frankly, any candidate who has had 4 positions in 4 years? This pattern should speak for itself.

    • SRP said

      They think they are controlling their futures by jumping to “better” jobs but they are only commoditizing themselves and the position.

      • tjay said

        “they are only commoditizing themselves and the position” This is encouraging. Not the idea that creatives are behaving this way. The fact that you make this statement suggests there are still agencies out there that are not engaged in commoditizing the creative position. Maybe large agencies don’t do this. Unfortunately a lot of creative professionals suffer the unpleasant experience of being hired to bring a missing capability to an agency in response to a new business need. After working long and hard for the successful completion of the project, some trully talented individuals find out the hard way that the company really sees creative as a means to an end. Can a hiring manager see the difference when looking at dates on a resume?

  5. Tad DeWree said

    I am always amazed at the members of our industry who think job jumping is a reasonable course.

    Anyone who is good in this business, rarely needs to ask for a raise and changing agencies is usually heart-wrenching decision.

    Some people are good at getting jobs, and they need to be, because they know that accountability travels about 1-2 yrs behind you and if you can’t deliver the goods, best be good at polishing a reel or resume.

    I have so often interviewed potential hires or freelancers that want too much money for too little effort. Many return every couple years once they get it.

    Companies care less about what they pay than what they would waste. Work hard, make your agency money, and you’ll be surprised at the living you can make. Talked about it a month or two back at http://m4blog.com

    Good topic, Steffan.

  6. Jake said

    Maybe this wouldn’t happen if agencies gave raises. Some agencies in Chicago haven’t given even most valued creatives raises in 2-3 years, citing ‘raise freezes from New York.’ only way to make what you deserve is to move around. This isn’t employees choice–it’s the system. Reward your people and they will probably stay.

  7. tracy said

    Tad, I especially love this: “accountability travels about 1-2 yrs behind you.”

    I have no doubt that there are people out there who have good reasons for leaving after short stints but, if it’s a pattern, I have to question that individual’s relationship-building skills. Their maturity, their views on personal responsibility and teamwork. Their willingness to play well with others. Their willingness to never stop learning. Their ability have a little humility when need be.

    Call me old-fashioned but, this is a two-way street. Employers need to give employees the same consideration and respect they expect given to the company. Respect, I think a lot of people are short on it these days.

  8. Jeff Louis said

    I worked with a Senior AE from a prestigious shop in another state who “moved up” by taking more money at an unknown, uncreative agency in a large metro. He felt that moving up was diversifying his paycheck…

  9. SRP said

    A lot of good points and counter points. Clearly, it’s a major issue. FYI: An intern at my agency told me today that when she toured other agencies before interning here they (all the students, etc) were told over and over again to ‘job jump’ for money and choice assignments. Creative directors and HR people were giving our new troops those marching orders… Crazy.

    • Mary Houghton said

      Yes, Steffan and I were discussing this earlier today and it was great to hear from a successful advertising man that he looks down upon this. I had the privilege of touring many brilliant agencies in New York last year and was told numerous times that the only way to move up the advertising ladder is to jump ship and apply elsewhere for higher ranking jobs — thus creating a cyclical process. Unfortunately this feeds transientness, and it seems the best creative work would come from those that actually care not only about themselves, but also about their agency.

  10. Why not ask? That is something I would want to know. I asked a partner and the CD of a major independent shop when offered a job some years ago what he would do if the account I was to work on were lost. He gave me a good answer.

  11. Dree said

    As an adman, he should have found a more tactful way to ask that…

    On a slightly related note, Gen-Yers are notorious for choosing the 365-day tenure. If one believes the theory of generational culture, that is.

  12. Charletta Lynn Barton said

    I loved this post and I am compelled to respond. I am not in the advertising business, but I do enjoy your creativity. Thank you for allowing me to enter your world for a little while.

    ‘The Rats of Advertising’ may very well be the next short story that I’ll write. Of course, I will have an esteemed “Rat Master” who will never tolerate hypocrisy from any fledging rats, mice, hamsters, or other rodents. However, I will make sure the “Rat Master” of my tale will have great sensitivity to the plight of squirrels (tree rats)as they are the hardest working cousins of the rodent family. Squirrels will actively work to procure, solicit, respond, and demonstrate loyalty. They find a territory and will remain until they are forced by health or performance ability to retire. They are experts in the territory which they will work and often reside. Squirrels are wonderful in branding and advertising excellent working environments.

    I do not believe the “interviewee” was a rat. He may have purchased a costume or garb to disguise that he is a simple roach who lives off the works of rats. However, it is impossible for a roach to morph into a rat. A roach may find a disquise and wear it well. Yet, I’ve never come across a roach that could fool a rat. As a matter of fact, I think roaches are easily consumed bt rats.

    The squirrel is the ultimate “Rat Master” as it is a rodent too. An interviewee may want to avoid certain squirrels who are very skilled artisans. It is true that roaches have been around much longer than rats. However, roaches do not have a rat’s great skills of survival. No matter how much effort is displayed by a rat, it will never be welcomed in productive environments – unless it is to be used for food or experimentation. A rat will never become a wise, friendly, intelligent, most tolerated, and often beautiful squirrel.

    • SRP said

      Charletta-
      All non-ad people are welcome here -Thank you.
      Clearly, you’ve spent a lot of time watching Disney cartoons! Who would have thought there was so much life in the old cliche’ “rats fleeing a sinking ship.”😉

      • Charletta Lynn Barton said

        I have two young children, so I am always watching Disney, Noggin, or PBS Sprout. I learned a lot from those seemingly timeless cartoons and music shows. I have learned to appreciate my education (LOLOLOL!) Best Wishes.

  13. jim schmidt said

    Loyalty in the ad biz was pretty much ruined when the holding company model took over–a model basically based on the how the mob works. The smaller mobs, or in this case outlying agency in Chicago or Detroit or LA–kicks up money to New York or London or Paris–wherever the Godfather or CEO happens to reside. Because all bonuses on the local level are based on being able to kick that money up and make more on top of that, people have to be fired even when agencies are profitable. The only place to be in a holding company model is on top. Someone very high up at a holding company once told be that unless you’re making $350,000 or more, the folks at corporate have no idea you even exist. The best advice I can ever give any younger person in our business is to do good work, get clients of your own and if you have to walk from your day job you can walk from you day job. The reality in our business is in the end you’re on your own anyway.

  14. Jana O'Brien said

    And we wonder why there are so few “big enduring ideas” now? Perhaps because there are so few “big enduring creatives.”

  15. Herbal Essence said

    Your interviewee was an ass, but I’m afraid you sound a little Pollyanna-ish Steffan. You should know that changing agencies is basically the only way to get promotions, money, and better opportunities.

    When productivity and loyalty is regarded as worthy of reward by management rather than ridicule, people will stay.

    • SRP said

      pollyanna-ish? Guilty as charged. But if we concede that loyalty is worthless and transiency is vital what does that say about human beings as a whole? Why stay with your spouse if she’s giving you attitude? Why commit to relationships at all? Hey, we’re all free agents, right? F–king sad.

      • Herbal Essence said

        I predict a whole lot of agencies are going to find it very hard to hold onto their top talent in the coming years.
        Management shall eat the rotten crop grown from the poison they’ve sown the past several years.
        Will they learn their lesson? Doubt it.

        And yes. We are all free agents. Trust and loyalty is a weakness in this industry.

  16. tjay said

    “Why stay with your spouse if she’s giving you attitude? Why commit to relationships at all? Hey, we’re all free agents, right? F–king sad.”

    Yes, sad. And also, not quite the same thing. Yet, while you’re on the subject of commitment: it doesn’t matter how loyal one is. Commitment to an agency, or a person, who doesn’t think of you, but only of what they can get out of you — or the next whatshisname? just like you — does not a relationship make. Even so, most talented creative professionals are committed. Unfortunately the rats get most of the attention and the promotions. That’s sad.

  17. jim schmidt said

    I’ll commit to my wife –the mother of my four children. And I’m committed to the clients who trust me to help them grow. But to a company run by some asshole in New York or London or Paris? Don’t think so. All they want to do is make money and they’ll do whatever it takes to make more. And that includes getting rid of anyone at any time. Or selling themselves and then getting rid of the redundant people. And to makes things even more perverse I’ve seen agencies loyal to some of the worst people on earth–people who sexually harassed women, people who stole other people’s ideas, people who were just plain evil. Why? Because they had a relationship with a client. Now that’s fucked-up.

    • SRP said

      Lot of passion and pain in these remarks.
      Probably for good reason.
      Yet…
      Conceding all agencies are run by scum is one thing. Showing and telling everyone who wants to be in advertising how to behave like scum is worse and it perpetuates the problem. I’m in MGMT and I like to think new employees can trust me, even if there are a-holes in New York, Paris or London. For all its flaws we try to do the right thing by and for our staff, financially, emotionally and otherwise. And, sorry, I don’t believe a job-jumping opportunist would make a good husband or father. Character is character. If it’s compromised in one area of your life the other parts suffer.

  18. jim schmidt said

    Steff, how many people did you know at Burnett who were loyal to Burnett but not to their spouses? I’m not going to name names here, but I know plenty. And plenty at other agencies in town. There are in fact many people who are far more loyal to their place of work than they are to their families. One often has nothing to do with the other.

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