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Thursday, September 30, 2010

We Have the Best People

In recent weeks, I have been working on a major project regarding the future of advertising agencies with the primary emphasis on mid-sized shops. I will be interviewing a large number of people via e-mail, on the phone and as many as possible in person. My plan is to distill the findings of the full report into two or three Media Realism posts. The really granular data will be kept proprietary and no one who participates will be identified.

One thing is quite striking as I talk to people all over the country. Not a single agency principal denies that their shop and peer group of mid-sized agencies faces major challenges ahead. But many dismiss the structural problems that they need to address with a comment such as: “we are going to be okay no matter what happens because we have the best people”.

Now, I think that it is important for leaders to be proud of their teams. But many strike me as completely unrealistic. The other day someone told me that his digital media supervisor was the best in the U.S. Gently, I probed, “do you mean the best here in Louisville?” (the market was NOT Louisville) He said no, simply the best anywhere.

The young fellow was wildly enthusiastic about what he was doing but he basically worked alone. His CEO had never sent him to any media conferences or symposiums on digital issues. He read everything that he could get his hands on and he even told me that my blog was interesting but would be obsolete in a few years as traditional media declined. I had to agree with that and thought he had strong potential. But it seems obvious that others in major markets who work with more peers will pass him by unless his efforts are absolutely Herculean.

In the digital space in New York, Dallas, Chicago, and Los Angeles people often get together and share ideas, e-mails, and blogs. When they stumble across new venues or ways to work with them, they talk across agency lines. When they get together, these kids are on fire. The enthusiasm is akin to fans going to a Star Trek convention. Many may come off as geeks but they are totally engaged and in love with their jobs. My new friend in “Louisville” will have little of that if he stays put.

Others tell me that they are going to be okay because the senior team has been together for years and they all get along. That is very helpful for new business presentations where people can finish each other’s sentences, help a colleague who is having a bad day presenting, or just illustrating that there is real chemistry among people who genuinely like each other. And, the workplace has less tension if no one is abrasive. But, I have worked at places where people were very effective and created great advertising who did not like each other at all. Also, friction sometimes helps a group change and get stronger. Every now and then a new injection or two into the management gene pool can shake things up and usually it is for the better.

For decades, we have all heard the old cliché that an agency’s assets go up and down on the elevator each day. Just because it is a cliché does not mean that it is not true. And, great work is being done especially in creative in places such as Lincoln, Nebraska, Milwaukee, Salt Lake City, and Portland, Or. The climate is changing fast and becoming more challenging for the mid-sized players. Regional accounts are drying up and every week it seems that some national business that a mid-sized shop has and cherishes goes away as a major multi-national firm buys their client. Another growing problem is that agencies in the hinterlands do not pay as well as they used to and the best minds often go elsewhere when choosing a career.

There are remarkable talents out there in the land of mid-sized shops. But can these outstanding young men and women morph into renaissance players in our industry if they stay in a 50-100 person shop with little outside contact?

Many people are kidding themselves. They do not have the best people. Not even close.

Much more to come on mid-sized shops.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you can reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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