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Friday, January 4, 2013

Is Management Often Immoral?


Happy 2013!

Over the years, many large companies have been caught in actions that many of us would consider to be immoral. The big auto companies have often been singled out as not making small inexpensive changes in design that could have saved a significant number of lives on our highways. And, depending on your politics, Shell Oil, Dow Chemical, Monsanto or Nike may make your personal hit list of organizations that have not always acted in the public interest.

Whether these companies committed crimes or not is beyond the scope of this post. Yet, many have found their actions offensive at times. What has always intrigued me is that it is that the corporations seem to be doing the questionable acts rather than the management. I refuse to believe simply that unfeeling and amoral sociopaths run these corporations.  Canadian journalist Wade Rowland struck a responsive chord with me when he wrote that, in a sense, “the corporation manages it managers”.  When poorly made products cause damage or are made via exploitation, complaints are generally swept away under the banner of “progress”.  Air or water pollution issues, for example, are often cast aside, according to Rowland, as an “externality” as profits rise and jobs are created. It is a challenging thought.

Recently, a few readers have contacted me about a similar problem in our industry. One was a young media planner way out west. He explained that he had put together the best media plan of his life for a substantial client. It had a nice mix of digital and conventional components and he felt did a great job of hitting the majority of their target audience with a real chance of breaking through today’s substantial clutter. He presented it internally a few days before the client planning session and his CEO said it was a complete non-starter. The creative chief had a great idea for a TV campaign and that was where all the money would be spent. My young friend countered that the production expense on the spots would mean that the market support list would have to be cut substantially and not all that many people would see the spots. His CEO ended it by saying “it is important that this agency produce some quality TV executions this year”. My brave friend then said “but what about the client’s needs?”  “Screw the client, we need to do this”, replied the agency chief.

Distraught, he thought of quitting. But he tells me that he has a new baby, a fair sized mortgage and he does not exactly work in an advertising Mecca so he would have to move several hundred miles away for a similar position and would need to sell his house first. That may not be easy these days. So, he may be stuck in his situation for a few years. I informed him, in an attempt to be soothing, that I suffered similar issues a few decades ago when I recommended radio and we were forced to do TV in a small roster of markets due to production costs. He e-mailed back moments later that “20-25 years ago, TV worked better than it does now. So, you were forced to do something that was not optimal but still might have worked. With no digital and hardly any local cable allowed, this is doomed and I am part of it.” That shut me up pretty quickly.

Separately, I heard from a radio salesperson that I have known for about 15 years. He lives and breathes his medium, customizes some marvelous promotions, and is a man whose word is truly his bond.

At 52, he is going through a bit of a mid-life crisis. He says, “I know my station(s) do not work nearly as well as they used to even five years ago. Old clients who trust me are probably paying too much and come to me because of our long-term relationships. My college age kids belittle me by saying that no one listens to local radio anymore.  I suggest that radio has sent them to nice schools, bought them great clothes and sends them to sunny spring break destinations and they laugh in my face. My wife tells me to stop complaining, go to work, pay the tuitions and keep funding the 401k. I am in a tight spot. My general manager is a decent sort and he tells me that headquarters just wants the money every month. They lecture him about debt service and the need to increase revenue regardless of the local economy. What should I do?” I suggested that he consider going to a TV station with a manager who “gets it” or apply to a local cable interconnect.

Both of these men are thoroughly decent and are real pros. But, given the current climate and their personal situations, they simply cannot resign and find something better in a few weeks. Digging a bit deeper, are their managements immoral? Or, are they simply being manipulated by the corporate entity itself. Profits must rise, as must revenue and ad agencies need to produce good TV to attract new business. Are both managements simply so immersed in the now that they cannot step back and see the reality that my two friends do? There is no easy answer but as our world changes rapidly over the next few years, these issues will hit all thinking professionals.

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

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