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Left side of my tank…

I maintain a 180-gallon reef aquarium in my home. Try to anyway. The coral reef is the most complex, delicate and beautiful ecosystem in the world. Lighting. Filtration. Water parameters. Flow. Everything has to be calibrated and monitored in order to even passably mimic a real coral reef. One or two miscalculations and your reef crashes. Suffice it to say, this is not your father’s guppy tank.

Still, or maybe because of the challenges, I am an addicted reefer. I can easily spend two hours in twenty-four with my hands in the tank and even more online doing research. Nothing tweaks my nerd DNA more than scouring websites, gaping at corals, bidding on equipment, or contributing to a forum. Reef porn is real.

An ad agency has a lot in common with my reef. Though it can be more polluted (joke), the hallways and cubes of an agency ecosystem are populated by equally diverse and complicated organisms. Some species, like the showy creative, can in fact be very sensitive. While others, the account director for example, can be very aggressive. Given the two must live together the experience can be challenging. Certain aggressive species torment smaller creatures, nipping at their work, crushing them. Biting criticism takes its toll. The wounded creative hides in his cave, camouflaged by earphones, avoiding the persistent predator. If the biggest fish in the tank is a bully, everyone suffers. When the tank becomes mired in territorial disputes, the whole thing crashes. Sound familiar?

It doesn’t have to.

Last night I observed my cleaner shrimp nibbling parasites off a troubled yellow tang and I realized that there is wonder here. When all these myriad creatures work together, giving and taking in harmony, the results are truly breathtaking. The solitary superstar flashes brilliance. A school of darting Anthias shows the awesome power of collaboration. If the tank masters accept the occasional skirmish, providing nourishment to all, then the ecosystem will flourish.

Author’s Note: A version of this story was published in Reel Chicago

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I maintain a 180-gallon reef aquarium in my home. Try to anyway. That’s it up there. The coral reef is the most complex, delicate and beautiful ecosystem in the world. Lighting. Filtration. Water parameters. Flow. Everything has to be calibrated and monitored in order to even passably mimic a real reef. One or two miscalculations and your reef crashes. Suffice it to say, this is not your father’s guppy tank.

Still, or maybe because, I am an addicted reefer. I can easily spend two hours in twenty-four with my hands in the tank and even more online doing research. Nothing tweaks my nerd DNA more than scouring websites, gaping at corals, bidding on equipment, or contributing to a forum. Reef porn is real.

An ad agency has a lot in common with my reef. Though typically more polluted (joke), the hallways and cubes of this ecosystem are populated by equally diverse and complicated organisms. Some species, like the showy creative, can in fact be very sensitive. While others, the account director for example, can be very aggressive. Given the two must live together the experience can be challenging. Certain aggressive species torment smaller creatures, nipping at their work, crushing them. Biting criticism takes its toll. The wounded creative hides in his cave, camouflaged by ear phones, avoiding the persistent predator. If the biggest fish in the tank is a bully, everyone suffers. When the tank becomes mired in territorial disputes, the whole thing crashes. Sound familiar?

It doesn’t have to.

Last night I observed my cleaner shrimp nibbling parasites off a troubled yellow tang and I realized that there is wonder here. When all these myriad creatures work together, giving and taking in harmony, the results are truly breathtaking. The solitary superstar flashes brilliance. A school of darting Anthias show the awesome power of collaboration. If the tank masters accept the occasional skirmish, providing nourishment to all, then the ecosystem will flourish.

Is your agency like this…

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Or this…

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Creative boutique. Process driven. Sweatshop. These are some of the terms we use to describe one advertising agency or another. And while they are often accurate descriptors –delightfully or painfully so- what is less true is that the agency chose to be defined that way.

Allow me a metaphor. In the fish keeping hobby, of which I am a passionate member, we are all familiar with how corals get their beautiful colors.  They do so via a symbiotic relationship with algae called zooxanthellae, which provide nutrients to the host animal. (Yes, corals are animals not plants.) One square inch of coral may contain millions of these microorganisms, which transmit their iconic gorgeous colors. Or they may be drab brown, depending on the zooanthellae.

For better or worse, an agency becomes the clients they work with. If an agency has one dominating and difficult client it will become a dominating and difficult place – a sweatshop. It matters little if the agency’s beloved mantra extolls a different and virtuous path: “The Power of One” “The Truth Well Told” “Human Relevance” If its clients demand, for example, an endless slew of cheap “how to” videos and “creative wrappers” for their email campaigns and tool kits then that is what the agency will be. Conversely, an agency that is hired to make sexy brand campaigns, and actually produces them, will be known for doing that kind of work. Everyone wants to be the latter. Many become the former.

The coral reef is a fragile ecosystem. Without the right nourishment it bleaches and can die. With fewer and fewer bright corals, it loses its ability to attract. Usually what happens is the reef becomes an ever uglier place, even hostile, with its beleaguered inhabitants struggling to survive, using all their resources just to maintain.

Large reefs can tolerate a fair amount of blah corals and still be healthy. The ugly stuff is swept under a carpet of jewels. Smaller agencies do not have this luxury. Many of those succumb to the prevailing currents. “This is what we do,” they say, about making Power Point for example. And they survive, albeit one dimensionally.

Improving the reef (agency) is rarely just about chasing after better fish (talent). Desirable species would come if the reef were healthy. Management isn’t the solution either, although predation at the top is often an outcome. Above all, the solution is not about redoing the agency website. The mission statement is always aspirational. Who doesn’t want a creative culture? But it matters not if clients don’t adhere to it.

The solution, obviously, is to find those clients –even just one- that arrive with creative zooanthellae alive in their DNA. Even a small “zoo” culture will inspire the host and all those considering residing there. If a small agency cultivates one of these it quickly becomes a “creative boutique.” Big agencies on the cusp of bleaching need to make room for these delicate corals, even if it means expending valuable resources. The smart ones do. The puzzle is how do you attract them if your current culture is meh? It can be done. Back in the day, Fallon McEelligott became synonymous with awesome creative by committing to myriad tiny clients, fanning gorgeousness out of them. Much later Crispin, Porter & Bogusky did the same, using burgeoning social media as their live rock. The corals grew fast and furious. Grey in New York was a big gray slab that hit it big with E-Trade babies. Leo Burnett in Chicago rose above its bedrock of CPG coral with its “curiously strong” campaign for Altoids, which was a tiny speck when it arrived. Later, they achieved amazing results in unexpected places by creating Mayhem for Allstate. Transformation happens. But not without catalytic clients.

Though few like to admit it, luck plays a big role.  Without the right clients, a talented crew and a good leader is a meeting you don’t want to be in.

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The firefish goby. (Nemateleotris magnifica) From the warm waters of the Western Pacific, it’s not considered a difficult fish in the reef keeping hobby. Unlike its strong name, the firefish is peaceful. Even shy, often darting into nooks and crannies when alarmed. It won’t pick on other fish or nibble on corals.

I picked one up from my local fish store a few days ago and introduced it into my reef aquarium. Unfortunately, the inhabitants of my tank were not as hospitable to the firefish as it was to them. Within moments of releasing the goby, it was harassed by several different fish. You see, many reef fish are as territorial as they are beautiful. As soon as the startled firefish visited another section of the tank, a resident attacked it. They didn’t want to eat the goby, merely to chase it away. Not in my neighborhood, each told the firefish. Go wave your dorsal fin somewhere else.

The bullying continued and soon I feared for the creature’s life. With good cause. A pecked upon fish is vulnerable to disease. Worse, the wounded animal is easily taken for dinner by the invertebrets living within the rocks and on the sand floor. They aren’t called the “clean up crew” in the hobby for nothing. My crabs, shrimp and snails would make quick work of the struggling firefish.

When the animal disappeared from my tank, I pretty much knew it was lunch. Even so I looked everywhere for it. With a pen light I gazed into every recess, behind every rock. Nothing. Not even a frail skeleton. Terrified, the firefish must have swam deep into a small cave, died and was eaten. Hopefully, in that order.

I’ve lost fish before. Over the years, hundreds. You get used to it. But this one hurt a little more because it touched a nerve. I, too, had to leave a reef of sorts: my job. Only a few days ago I’d been ensconced with my tank mates. And then…

My aquarium had been a pleasant distraction, same as a garden brings another solace and tranquility. The firefish was my first addition since I’d left my post. Now it was gone. I’d failed. The perfect metaphor, yes?

No.

This evening when I was feeding my tank, up from the depths emerged the firefish wielding its great dorsal fin like a sword. Not so shy anymore, he hovered middle of the water column like a samurai. No longer did the other fish bother him. Looking right at me, he took his evening meal. I realized the firefish hadn’t been hiding; he’d been gathering his resolve. And now he was ready to take his proper place, front and center, this coral reef. As he chewed the krill, spitting out bubbles, I imagined him saying: “Fin up, brother. We got this.”

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Up from the depths, front and center…