For ad agencies, getting from good to great often harder than improving upon failure.

November 13, 2012

While I’ve never read the popular business book, Good to Great it is a topic for which I’m familiar. In a previous engagement I helped a challenged agency get into pretty decent shape. Alas, we never achieved greatness. We didn’t lack vision, I believe, but rather the courage to try new things. Maybe we were scared of failure. Of pain. Or perhaps we were comfy in the okay-ness of merely being good. Likely all of the above.

Hold those thoughts.

Many folks rib me because I’m religious about working out. So be it. I was a fat kid and took far worse abuse. Freshman year of college I finally decided to do something about it. I took up running. Lo and behold, I lost the baby fat. In my 20’s I was running 5 miles a day, 5 days a week. However, in my 30’s I began putting on a little weight. I tried increasing my distances as well as changing my routes and gear. But the weight stayed. I’d read how strength training could provide a solution for removing pounds. Yet, I shunned the behavior, thinking the gym was for muscle heads and poseurs. I wanted to get smaller not bigger. I also knew about the importance of diet, specifically removing fried foods from it. But eliminate fries and calamari? Pass. So, I kept running and eating what I wanted. Nothing changed. I remained ‘secretly’ chubby. Not fat but not totally fit either. In other words I was in good shape but not great. At some point in my 40’s I saw myself shirtless in a photograph. The squishy parts threw me into a quiet rage. Christ, I thought, I didn’t run every day to look like that.

And so I began hitting the weights. It made me sore and miserable. But it also made me thinner. I have not stopped since. Now I work out most days, running only periodically. I am in the best shape of my life.

Awesome power, baby!

Maybe fair and good agencies need to look at themselves this way. Perhaps they are carrying a few extra pounds that hold them back from achieving greatness. Showing up and working hard might not be good enough anymore. Winning and growing business while doing work that matters requires a tougher regimen and enduring some pain. Yet, cutting fat (i.e. firing people) is hardly the only way for agencies to get lean and mean. After all, I did not take a blade to my belly fat, though that option certainly existed.

I believe the solution involves changing behavior. Getting out of our comfort zones. In terms of my body that meant letting go preconceived notions about fitness and getting more aggressive in general. At an agency that could mean changing how one goes to market, taking risks with certain clients, breaking protocol. Breaking some eggs, too. Remember changing people who are happy with good is often harder than fixing shit. Both require hard work. But the former requires courage.

Presumably, we all want to be great. But are we willing to do things differently to get there? Sometimes we need a kick in the pants, like viewing an embarrassing photograph or losing to an agency that really is great.


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