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An account strategist for Ogilvy & Mather in the Philippines died at his workplace, sick from pneumonia but apparently unwilling (or unable) to leave. I don’t want to comment on this particular man or his firm. It’s a tragedy and I’m sure everyone feels bad about it. Especially the man’s family. Yet, I’m pretty sure the root behavior won’t change. Not at that agency or all the sweatshops like it.

Here’s why: Fear. Be it of a losing a pitch or one’s job, fear of not getting what you want (raise, promotion, attention) or having it taken away, is insidious.

Fear is a powerful motivator but it comes at a tremendous price. (Look what it is doing to our country.) When fear creeps into an agency’s culture, it is always toxic and usually incurable. Fear makes people do bad things to other people and to themselves. Fear creates an environment of hostility and mistrust. I’ve seen it and felt it and have been hurt by it. Likely so have you.

The occasional all-nighter to win a pitch is NOT what I’m talking about. This is a good thing, bringing people together to win a glorious prize. However, when such activities become an expectation the bonding soon becomes bondage.

Mocking the so-called trend to “work from home,” people are afraid to leave at a reasonable hour, aware of the critical eyes upon them. The creative director who wants to see work at 10PM quickly turns from hero to heel. Yet, he or she is likely afraid of not calling the meeting as well. Probably because the agency’s managing director is expecting to see work first thing in the morning. If the presentation is not perfect then the MD will blame the CD for not working harder and longer. The cycle gets repeated. The virus of fear spreads.

While literally dying on the job is thankfully an ultra rare exception, there are far more commonplace consequences that are lethal. For example, each affected human is in turn hurting his or her family. Continuity at home becomes hopelessly disrupted. Marriages suffer. This makes everyone resentful and bitter: the employee to his boss for not giving a shit and to his spouse for not understanding. Resentments at home and office fester. The bitterness may lead to isolation, anxiety and depression. Alcoholism and “acting out” thrive in these conditions. Finger pointing. Blaming. Misconduct. People become the crappiest version of themselves. All because of fear.

But so what? Sweatshops work. For a period of time results are wrought. But it never ends well. For the individuals and eventually the agencies. Like an over-watered plant, the tips look good but everything below becomes rotten. I once worked with a guy who wanted a sweatshop more than life itself. He got his wish. I left that job. And he his home. Everyone loses when fear takes over.

For fearless creative hit me up: https://steffanwork.wordpress.com/

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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.