During inevitable dry spells, why do agency folks become so damn clueless?

February 25, 2011

Even the stars are dim.

In the absence of new briefs most ad agencies flounder. Having not planned for drought (we never do), the lack of organic growth or new business is almost always painful. Unfortunately, we are seemingly incapable of healing our own wounds. And bullish to a fault, we never see them coming. It’s not a good formula. But we’re smart, right? We can sell sand in the desert. So why is it we only know what we’re doing when we have something to do?

I’ll start by looking in the mirror.

For all our advertising awards, and the big salaries that go with them, most hotshot creatives have no clue how to help the agency out. Suddenly, the idea people are bereft of ideas. We bitch and point fingers. Our humor grows dark. Instead of working (on what?) we surf the net forwarding racy videos to one another. When that grows old, we update our portfolios.

And account people sans accounts are just as clueless. Fred has been milking the same cow so long he doesn’t know how to do anything else. He’s frustrated at Betsey when her milk runs dry. Dumb fucking animal! But just below the surface he blames his agency. They didn’t give him what he needed to take care of the cow. And it’s not like he didn’t ask them and warn them. Deeper down Fred blames himself. It’s his account for Christ’s sake. He could have done more or done differently. And now it’s too late. Instead of thinking what he might do for the agency to make up for the shortfall, Fred runs to his office and updates his Linkedin account. After all, he thinks, “they don’t pay me to make rain.” Wonder why?

Who’s “they” and “them” anyway? It’s your agency. Here’s an idea: Why not get together and try to figure out ways to help out the firm? In over 20 years working in numerous creative departments, I’ve never seen that happen. Not once. Which makes me just as culpable. What excuses did I make? That they didn’t pay me enough? That they wouldn’t listen to me anyway?

And so it goes during dry spells. From top to bottom, agencies fall apart. There are many reasons for this. One big one might be that ad agencies are not built for anything but growth. Holding companies demand profits that might otherwise be allocated to prudent reserves. Somewhat irresponsible for agencies during good times, it can be downright fatal during bad. When the hallway chatter turns to ‘cuts’ everyone becomes a headless chicken, both in courage and intelligence. Yet, even if privately owned companies endure hard times longer and/or plan for them better, I can’t help feeling there’s more we all could do to mitigate the problem.

I’m in my own little dry spell right now, but if/when I get my next job I’m vowing to initiate planning for tough times. Maybe it’s a think tank wherein the agency’s best and brightest brainstorm ideas. Maybe it’s a redo on the website. Unfortunately, fear cripples planning right when one needs it the most. Management tends to hunker down, invariably settling on cuts. And why weren’t contingency plans created during flush periods anyway? It’s a cyclical industry; tough times befall all agencies. There has to be a better way for us to handle them.


11 Responses to “During inevitable dry spells, why do agency folks become so damn clueless?”

  1. Incredibly interesting post Steffan… One that requires a lot of thought.

    Your accurate analysis really asks the question, how can professionals, who pride themselves on being creative and intelligent, often wearing it as a badge, be so useless when it comes to critical matters like ensuring the pipeline of business is flowing well?

    I believe that creatives/planners and account people are notorious navel gazers, ensuring to read AdAge and every industry rag, rather than filling their brains with biz dev and sales skills, that is ultimately more likely to both add value to their company and ensure their job security.


  2. Anne Ross said

    terrific post…we are a tiny recruiting firm. Have survived 4 downturns. “Prudent reserves” in our business means a year’s worth of living in the bank. And when things get tough, we use the time to learn about new thinking, help juniors who want to learn about the biz, and even share our own observations about what is happening out there in the professional community. Down time give us time to recharge and rethink, inspire and be inspired I think it is called “engagement.”

  3. jim schmidt said

    The holding company model is the same one used by the five families of New York–kick up bucks to the folks at the top. It works great for the folks at the top, not so great for the lower end employees who are always being dumped at the end of the year so executives can make their numbers and get their bonus checks. This system is based on survival of the fittest. All employees should understand this and act accordingly.

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Paul Biedermann, Michael Thomas. Michael Thomas said: During inevitable dry spells, why do agency folks become so damn clueless?: http://t.co/w1YTSd7 […]

  5. jim schmidt said

    Simple, most people who work at agencies are not entrepreneurial at all. They’re used to existing within a large system in which they think about their day to day tasks and that’s about it. When things go bad they gossip and finger point.

  6. diane cook-tench said

    Taking on smaller accounts or doing pro bono work can also be beneficial during quiet times. One memorable example that comes to mind was a time when Cliff Sorah (an art director back then) brought in the JFK Library to The Martin Agency. Winning creative recognition for the wonderful work done on its behalf also helped bring in new business while keeping the creative people pumped up. It hasn’t been bad for recruitment over the years, either. wechoosethemoon.org/

  7. […] Dry spells are tough, try looking to the linchpin hierarchy. […]

  8. Hi there! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be okay. I’m definitely enjoying your blog and look forward to new

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