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Monday, July 27, 2015

Truth-Tellers in Ad Agencies?

In recent years, management observers have often talked about the importance of having a “Truth-Teller” or two in your organization or one whom you can call on frequently. A “Truth-Teller” is not a whistle-blower which describes someone who complains to the press or a government agency about the misdeeds of a corporation. Rather, a “Truth-Teller” is often an eccentric who has a great look at the future. They cannot tell you when some drastic change will happen but they will warn you about it. Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison might be famous examples. On a smaller scale, they can point out flaws in an organization that will hurt long term prospects. Truth-Tellers have been described by management guru Larry Downes as “the canary in the coal mine of your industry.”

I polled some ad agency executives and a few clients and tech people and asked about Truth-Tellers. The responses were interesting so I will share a few with you:

1) Small Tech Firm Owner--“Oh, yes, we have a Truth-Teller. The guy worked for us some years  back. He drove us crazy but was brilliant. We simply could not grow the company fast enough to keep his interest. He went out his own and made millions with a start-up. We have stayed friendly and when he is not sorting out options as a minor Venture Capitalist, he stops by, observes, and tells it like it is. His biggest issue is that our staff is not inquisitive enough. Over the last few years, he has saved us from making some big mistakes.”
2) Medium sized ad agency CEO--“My staff is devoid of Truth-Tellers as most of my people are afraid of being fired so no one speaks candidly to me. I use my CFO to bounce ideas off of some of the time. He is good evaluating the work ethic of our staff, knows who cheats on expense accounts, and who understands profit and loss on the account team but he still knows little of creative or marketing. Also, he does not spot trends at all. My best Truth-Teller is a client who has known me for two decades. He is older than I and is candid about the plusses and minuses of my staffers. Also, he has another agency for some work and tells me where they excel and we do not. It is never hostile but honest and valuable.
3) Small agency chief--"I have a good friend who owns a somewhat larger agency about 1,000 miles from me. We meet at a conference every year and catch up and talk every few weeks. Our bond is our concern about our long term survival. We saw a guy speak at a convention a few years back. Both of us were impressed so we had him come to our shops to observe us and do a detailed analysis of our strengths and shortcomings. I got mine first and was impressed. A month later my buddy got his and it was 90% like mine. I mean that! Some entire pages were identical. Sorry, Don, but consultants helicopter in for a few days, make some (seemingly) intelligent comments, leave and charge a bundle. Never again. My friend and I need someone who can be honest with us but also knows what is going on in our shops. Hard to find."
4) Fast Food Operator (20+ stores)--my Truth-Teller is free cash flow, period. My finance guy strips away the nonsense and is brutally honest. I know my corporate culture in important and my husband and I work at it but in times of disruption like these, our money guy is the ultimate Truth-Teller. He saves us from making some stupid mistakes. Our customers tell us how we execute although I worry a lot about those who say nothing but never come back.”
5) Small Ad Agency Creative Director--“We use a free lance graphic designer who works with maybe ten other shops and a few clients directly each year. He sees what others are doing well and poorly. He is the most valuable non-employee imaginable. My staff and I know when we are behind the curve on many issues just by spending time with him.”

A common thread in the comments through all whom I contacted was to be careful that those really close to you are only telling you what they think you want to hear. A Truth-Teller does not have to be in your face all the time or be a chronic complainer but he or she needs to be secure enough to speak up when something is going wrong. Sadly, many with the best potential as Truth-Tellers simply quit and move on to better things. Also, two people told me that if you tell staffers that they can say anything to you, mean it. If you can foster a culture of Truth-Telling, you might actually wind up with a real one.

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

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