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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Stockholm Syndrome at Ad Agencies?

Recently, someone whom I know casually wrote to me and asked me to draft a post on the presence of Stockholm Syndrome at Advertising Agencies. I wanted to dismiss the idea as absurd but I sent out a few feelers and was more than a bit surprised at the reactions that I received.

To recap for those who have not heard the term in a while, Stockholm Syndrome is generally defined as “a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express sympathy and have positive feelings toward their captors, sometimes to the point of defending and identifying with their captors.”

Reviewing the working definition, I again thought that the concept was ridiculous when applied to ad shops. After all, employees at ad agencies are not captives. People can quit, move to another agency, another state, or leave the industry. My mail, however, said otherwise.

Here are a few comments from people whom I value and trust:

“The problem definitely exists and I am certain that it is present in a number of American  businesses. In recent years, I have seem a number of people who are overworked and underpaid defend their superior even when their treatment has been rough or belittling. Today, more people seem to be happy to remain employed and put up with a lot of grief and actually defend the supervisor or executive who treats them badly.”

“Don, the Great Recession was frightening and many of us are scarred by it. When we saw some shops closing and friends getting fired left and right, it was a severe blow. You know how I was always in the CEO’s face lobbying for more money? In 2008-2009, I kept my head down and worked like crazy. When some of the staff would go out for beers, I got annoyed when they attacked our chief. I made some comments to defend him and then stopped going. There was no raise for five years although he did give small bonuses to us starting in 2011. We were thrilled! Now, I ask for a raise each year but I am far more low key than before. The boss is a sarcastic bastard and sometimes is mean. Yet I defend him sometimes and so do others on the team.”

“We have several people on board who seem to have the scent of Stockholm Syndrome. They are treated I think very unfairly but they never mention the thought of leaving. It disturbs me. They are not stars but are very serviceable employees. I think that they are being exploited. The way she speaks to them is really shabby.”

“Some of my peers are indeed captives. They work in a city where there is no where else to go. We almost went under during the big downturn and our recovery has been slow. One guy will have a hard time selling his house and the other is afraid to move from his hometown. I will be gone in a few months if my plans gel. Honestly, I did not see this issue clearly until I made the decision to leave. I was defending my jerk of a boss to my wife for a couple of years. No more.”

“Stockholm Syndrome! Give me a break! The weak economy and the rapid shift to digital has hurt a lot of us at small and mid-sized shops but there have always been people who put up with a lot just to keep their jobs. My son was reading Dickens for school and we discussed the character Uriah Heep  in David Copperfield who always said how humble he was. He was just a yes man and so are the people who some say have Stockholm Syndrome. These people are afraid and know that they have not kept up with the changes and neither has their agency. Many are not that young. The boss is nervous too and takes it out on defenseless staffers who cannot and will not fight back verbally.”

“I think Stockholm Syndrome is an exaggeration. BUT, as things improve I think some executives are taking advantage of people’s fears. My CEO and CFO were talking the other day and I overheard them laughing saying that, “The poor fool hasn’t asked for a raise in 8 years.” I was not meant to hear the comment but I was deeply disturbed.”

What do you think? Is this phenomenon true everywhere or is it more prevalent in 2015 advertising agencies.

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

Thursday, September 10, 2015

American Marketing Arrogance

Last year, I took a great trip through Italy and, after other family members went back to work, my wife and I headed for Venice. It was in May prior to tourist season so the weather was great but the crowds were not oppressive.

One day after breakfast, we strolled from the hotel and were headed for a vaporetto (water taxi). As we passed a bakery, we stopped and decided which of the luscious treats that we might buy. In the bakery, I spotted a distinguished looking man holding court with a few cronies. Imperially trim, he had on a perfectly cut Milanese suit and a shirt with the distinctive Turnbull & Asser collar that I can spot from a mile away. Also, in one hand he had an Italian pastry and, in the other a flute of prosecco. To myself, I thought, that guy knows how to live. It was about 10:45 in the morning.

The next day we passed the same bakery at roughly the same time and saw him again with two new companions. He was impeccably turned out and was also again munching on a sweet and had a prosecco in hand as well. The following morning we had to leave the unique floating city but passed by the bakery on the way to the vaporetto to take us back to our rental car. He was not there and I assumed he was stuck in a boring meeting as many of us are apt to be at 11 am. As our vaporetto was taking off, I saw the Dapper Dan hop on to the back of the water bus. He was carrying a slim attache case and seem to know several people on board and engaged in some very animated conversations punctuated by lots of laughter. A few stops later I looked up and noticed that he was gone.

I found it striking in many ways. It is a big world out there with about 7.1 billion people. Of the 200 countries on earth, each has a distinct culture. And, within many countries there are unique places such as Venice and unusual individuals such as the mystery man I have described.

Americans can learn something from this. No, I am not going to say that we waste our lives chasing money or conforming to corporate straightjackets. It is simply that as marketers we must step outside ourselves as Americans and remember that few people think, act or live as we do. There are many paths up the mountain to happiness. This is a huge advantage from my viewpoint that the advertising holding companies have over domestic shops. They have seasoned people on the ground all over the globe. These pros are familiar with local likes, dislikes and taboos. I recently had a conversation with a marketer who said that he was going to roll his successful US advertising campaign to 22 countries next year. He felt customizing it locally was an unnecessary expenditure. When I used my Venetian lawyer (financier, realtor, playboy?) as an example of how others think and live differently, he said, “The guy sounds like a drunk to me if he is drinking that soon in the day.” I wish my acquaintance well but his type of American marketing arrogance usually ends badly.

It is a big world out there. Take note, adapt to it, and revel in it!

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

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Is America a Plutocracy?

I am going to use a $10 word in today’s post as I am seeing it used more and more often these days. The word is Plutocracy along with fellow traveler Plutonomy. Webster defines it as a society that is controlled by a wealthy few.

While I had sometimes seen the word as an economics history student a long time ago, I first considered it seriously 10 years ago when three Citigroup analysts--Niall Macleod, Ajay Kapur, and Narendra Singh released a research report to their high wealth clients. In it, they described the United States as a Plutonomy. To sum up their position I quote them--“Plutonomies have occurred before in 16th century Spain, in 17th century Holland, the Gilded Age and The Roaring Twenties in the U.S. What are the common drivers of Plutonomy? Disruptive technology-driven productivity gains, creative financial innovation, capitalist-friendly cooperative governments, an international dimension of immigrants and overseas conquests invigorating wealth creation, the rule of law and patenting inventions. Often these wealth waves involve great complexity, exploited best by the rich and educated of the time.”

Ten years later, can you honestly say that these conditions have gone away? The analysts at Citigroup also said that the very wealthy few, while clearly small in number, account for a large slice of income and consumption. They also said the rich minority is “swelling from globalized enclaves in the emerging world.”

Now, those of you who have read this blog for a time know that I have always stated that income inequality will always exist in a free economy. It has to be that way. Some work harder, others are smarter and some are luckier than the average person. Capitalism rewards those who outperform.

Looking ahead the highly regarded Boston Consulting Group (BCG) put out a report last summer that was optimistic about the U.S. economy for the immediate future. They said that the sub-millionaires (many of us) would grow their wealth by a compounded 3.7% per year until 2019. Those with $100 million plus in liquid assets (15,000 people worldwide) will likely see a compound growth rate of 9.1%. Is there anything immoral about this? Absolutely not if the money was earned honestly and taxes were paid.

To those of us who are marketers and not asleep at the switch, it is obvious that a two tier market has emerged that is far sharper than a few decades ago. High priced items such as single malt scotch and luxury cars are doing well while more mundane or everyday products have sluggish growth. I have noticed how mid-level clothing has not gone up much in price in recent years but the quality has declined significantly. No one seems to grumble.

The Citigroup team closed their memorable report by reminding people (in 2005!) that we had one person, one vote in the U.S. They warned that labor might someday fight back and there would be a political backlash against the rising wealth of the already rich. I have yet to see it in a big way as Donald Trump’s poll numbers continue strong as I write. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has struck a responsive chord with those who feel disenfranchised in our Plutocratic society and is polling surprisingly well.

The real chatter that I hear today, even from educated people, is about the upcoming NFL season. So, we could be a Plutonomy but few people seem to know it or care.

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