The creative services industry is having a pretty easy time criticizing itself these days.
Go ahead, read Frenemies.
Or, read Madison Avenue Manslaughter (ouch, that title…).
Or, check out Time’s Up — whose mission is to “drive new policies, practices, decisions and tangible actions that result in more balanced, diverse and accountable leadership; address workplace discrimination, harassment and abuse; and create equitable and safe cultures within our agencies.”
Phew, that’s a lot to address. Must be a lot wrong in agency land!
Clients and their jump-ball RFPs and breakneck deadlines. Tech companies hoovering up creative talent. Holding companies squeezing every drop out of the bottom line. The patriarchy! (which I am not making light of and is a serious problem for agencies).
Across that buffet of grievances is a common salad dressing: The perpetrators ruining life for ad people are always them.
But I think our biggest problem isn’t a them problem. It’s an us problem.
The friendly folk of adland are unhappy less because of the macro forces at work on our industry and more because of the behaviors, expectations, and codes that have been passed down through previous generations of creatives, account execs, and agency management teams.
In other words: Physician, heal thyself!
I’m talking about culture and behavior. Which are things you learn, and things you can change without transforming anything other than how you comport yourself.
Accounting a full list of these habits would take up more time and space than this post allows, but I’d like to name a few things that I really think we should all stop doing to ourselves.
Here’s what I’ve got.†
Stop treating people like they’re lucky to have a job
What is this, a frat house? Are we paddling pledges here?
There are a LOT of senior agency people who have a habit of making junior agency people feel like they won the lottery to get their jobs.
But those junior agency people earned those jobs with their talent, skill, and hard work!
There’s a baseline assumption that young people should feel privileged to work insanely long weeks for very low pay. And that their opinions and ideas and drafts are nothing more than cannon fodder.
It’s like we’re training qualified, smart people to feel unworthy, unconfident, and bitter. If you were a client, is that who you’d want on your business?
This creates unhappiness by fostering self-doubt, anxiety, grievance, and an impulse to make the boss happy above all else (e.g., taking care of yourself, doing right by the client, etc.). And, even worse, it drives talented young people away. Forever.
The real truth is that any job at a good agency is a good job, and that good agencies are good because they hire good people. So if you work for a good agency, it’s probably because you’re a worthy professional who can make a contribution. And you deserve to be aware of that fact.
Stop overvaluing dazzlers
Dazzling ideas! Conceived in dazzling work sessions! Delivered by dazzling people in dazzling presentations full of dazzling Photoshop comps!
Wow, how advertising people love that dazzle.
But guess what — extraversion and talent are not the same thing.
Being really good at talking doesn’t mean you’re more creative or insightful. And yet, far too often, the people who assume control of our ideas are charismatic conference-room alphas who suck up a lot of oxygen and attention.
This habit creates unhappiness in many ways.
One, it stifles introverted types who think before they speak or prefer less showy modes of communication (and who have mountains of great ideas to bring to the table).
Two, it diminishes the substance of our work. Dazzlers are often guilty of (in the words of David Ogilvy) “skidding about on the slippery surface of irrelevant brilliance,” a tendency toward lazy thinking and client-wowing at the expense of substance and problem-solving.
Overvaluing dazzlers promotes frustration and jadedness by rewarding people who are good at performance but bad at listening, who tend to be irritating bosses and confounding leaders, which sows discontent across agency ranks. And that’s too bad, for all of us.
Stop acting like brands are celebrities
There is a propensity among ad biz people to worship brands. To get giddy. To hang on their every word. To act like being their friend is the most amazing thing in the world.
This habit has a warping effect on both parties.
Clients need agencies who tell them the truth, even when it’s hard. You can’t do that if you’re living in world where Brand X is always the star.
And when we fall into the trap of letting infatuation crowd out reality, we do dumb things that make us unhappy.
Things like acting like EVERYTHING is riding on big pitches.
Or torturing ourselves before big meetings.
Or letting imposter syndrome paralyze our brains — because why would this big, important, famous brand want anything to do with little old us?
Well, because we can perform a really valuable service for them, that they really need done. If we can keep our heads on, that is.
We can change this behavior by revising our assumptions
Look, here’s the thing: bad behaviors spring from bad assumptions.
1. We’re smart and our clients are dumb
2. If you’re creative, you have license to act like a child
3. Senior people are worth more than junior people
…I could keep going. We could all keep going.
Behaviors like those I’ve mentioned in this article are old and entrenched. I don’t think they’re going to go away overnight. I also don’t think that they’re for “management” or “the business” to fix.
I truly believe that anyone in this business can notice them and change.
Those of us who hire and mentor young people can choose to show them more respect.
Those of us who are making our way as junior team members can have a realistic sense of our own value.
Anyone at any level can take a deep breath and remember that Nike and Apple are places where mere mortals work hard and make mistakes. And we all could do a better job of thinking through the depth of our ideas before spouting off.
I know I’ll try.