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Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Work/Life Balance in Advertising

About thirty years ago, a new term began popping up at advertising agencies. People would either quit the agency or leave the business altogether. The reason the remaining staff often used for the departure from the firm or the industry was “burnout.” Since then and across all areas of the business world the concept of work/life balance  has received increasing play. I talked to a number of agency people about the issue. Here are some comments:

--“The kids are constantly connected. So, someone who would have been obsessive about work decades ago is worse now. They need to turn off the smart phones once in a while.”

--“Don, face it. Anyone who makes it to the absolute top has a life that is almost always out of whack. Sports figures, politicians, investment bankers, entrepreneurs, you name it. You can be balanced and successful but to get to the very top of the heap you have to be obsessed. A few of these people are happy. Many are miserable. Some will die without friends and leave behind a trail of ex-spouses and distant and messed up children.” There is a lot of truth in this. When advertising becomes an all consuming passion, other areas of your life get shortchanged. I have met and know many wildly successful types who were laser focused on their careers or building their shop. They tend to be one dimensional and not a lot of fun.

--“I finally received my wake up call after a health scare a few years back. My second wife had just divorced me and I threw myself even more furiously than normal into the agency work. I suffered from sleep deprivation, lack of exercise, poor diet and while I said I thrived on it, high stress. My kids hate me and I can’t blame them. I am slowly putting my life back together and trying to establish a decent relationship with them. Sometimes I still have to work late or on weekends. It is nowhere near what it once was. Also, I never miss or am late for any event for my children.”

--“Trying for balance is really hard. People who are clerks in accounting may be able to always do 9 to 5. Anyone else who is doing it is not a player even at a small agency. There are times that you simply have to put in savage hours. You have to be careful to pull back to normalcy after a big siege. Some people cannot do it.”

-- “I tell the kids on my staff to take a Saturday or Sunday off from their e-mail. Some cannot do it. So, I am very careful about sending questions or suggestions out on e-mail on weekends. If I do, I get responses back quickly at bizarre hours. Ideas need to stew a bit in their own juices. People need to re-charge in all disciplines.”

--“Look, agency work is not investment banking. We do not work the hours they do but the compensation is much less. I watch the team carefully. If someone is wrapping their personal identity and the agency together, I make some take some time off. Some cannot do it.”

--“Some of the millennials scare me. They seem to think that work and family are mutually exclusive. They have no problem with lack of time with family and friends. A few have told they are forgoing children and one said he will go without a significant other as his career comes first. I love the business but some of these people are obsessed. Also, they cannot relate to the consumer with such a narrow life.”

The “forgoing children” comment really struck me. And, there is some research for it. The University of Pennsylvania did a longitudinal study called “The Wharton Work/Life Integration Project.” In 1992, 78% of their graduates expected to have children. By 2012, it had dropped to 42% with low double digits saying that they would NEVER have children. Status and money outweighed parenthood. I find it amazing and sad.


If you define yourself totally by your job, show up on weekends when there is not a genuine need, check in with the office a few times a day during vacations, you may be at the breaking point in terms of being out of balance. Your career is a marathon not a sprint to steal an old cliche. So, may I suggest you attack the work you love, but learn to back off now and then.

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

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Fill In Your Gaps!

Over the last two months, I have participated in a marathon e-mail thread with a business man whom I have never met in person. For reasons known only to God, he has been reading my blog almost since day one although he has never been involved in an ad agency or the media. He comments from time to time directly to me and asks interesting and sometimes very penetrating questions.

As the years have passed, he has opened up to me on a variety of subjects. With his permission, he is allowing me to recount an approach that he has taken to running his company that is quite different from that of mainstream North America businesses.

I will let him tell the story with a few edits to insure anonymity: “About 13 years ago, I was riding high and began to think that I had the game figured out. I ran a solid little company with 22 employees. We were profitable, I thought ethical, and we had found a solid niche in a growing area of commerce. Then, the tech revolution invaded our space and business started to drift away. We still were in the black but my self confidence was crushed and I began to have some sleepless nights. After a few months of careful study, I made a decision that everyone, even my wife, thought was complete madness. I appointed an outside board of directors of three people.”

“When I first told a few close family and friends about my plan, everyone was skeptical. They said that I was not a big company and an outside board was frivolous and expensive. I felt it would be the only way to make my company grow or perhaps save it. What I had noticed was that many American firms had a CEO who put cronies on his board. The CEO called all the shots and, when you looked at it, interlocking directorates were a real thing. Your buddies gave you a big bonus regardless of corporate performance and they received fat fees and perks for being a director. Clearly, I was not going that route nor could I afford it. What I did know was that I had gaps in my understanding of the business world--big gaps. I needed a few people not in the trenches with me day to day who would look at my company with fresh and honest eyes. I spent a year looking for the right team and then made my move.”

“My board, in addition to me, consisted of three outsiders-- a retired C.P.A with a pristine reputation, an itinerant tech savvy 32 year old who was abrasive but brilliant, and a fellow who ran a mid-sized ad agency. I told them that I could not pay them much (I had budgeted a total outlay of the cost of one employee including benefits) and I would put them all to work. They were not there to rubber stamp my suggestions. Finally, for the ad guy, a big caveat. He was a friend and I do not hire friends. So, the deal was that he would NEVER get my business if our advertising budget grew to be substantial. All agreed to the terms.”

“The old C.P.A. stopped in to the shop quite regularly. Our financial person was young and had fantastic detail orientation. She was really defensive about his presence. The old boy handled himself with grace. He taught our CFO some cash management skills that she would never have attained working solo. Also, he helped with negotiations on insurance and other vendors, even driving a bargain on our lease. Our tax returns were done by him as well. Finally, he worked with a major firm regarding our 401k plan and he personally presented the options to the staff. Some 92% of the team joined the plan. Is your participation rate that high?  The CFO realized the board member was a huge asset. He encouraged her to get a graduate degree in accounting and I paid for it.”

“The tech guy kept us current. Every time we thought that we were “cutting edge” he leveled us with tart comments about how many had been doing that for a few years. The whole staff warmed to him over time but he did not suffer fools well. We learned a lot from him and he introduced us to several consultants who also helped us.”

“The ad guy was great as he really knew a lot about marketing. He would tell us what he was doing in new media and admitted that if some of his smaller clients would hire a smart young person interested in social media that would not need his group at all. Also, he had research resources regarding our competition that proved to be invaluable to us. And, no, we never gave him our growing account.”

“After a few years, each of the board members was given a (small) piece of our firm. With skin in the game, they became even more dedicated to us. My heir apparent is a lady who now sits on our board as well. Today, we have 41 full time employees and bill four times what we did 13 years ago. Not bad! I am no genius but the smartest move that I ever made was to admit that I needed help that was unbiased and never political.”

Okay, a great and true story. Could you do this or should you do this? Probably not. You may not have the money to execute a similar plan or you may not have such illustrious and available talent in your hometown. When I floated the idea to a small agency head, she said she did a similar thing on a much smaller scale. “We all have contacts whom we can go to for advice without formalizing things. Most of us do not use them enough. I have found one way to work it is to let people know how much I appreciate their counsel. Some I take to a nice lunch or a round of golf at my club. Others I invite to my home a few times a year and to any large parties that my husband and I throw. A few showed up for a college graduation party for my daughter and gave embarrassingly expensive gifts. An older “go-to person” once told me he had done everything he wanted to do in life except go to the NCAA Final Four. Amazingly, I was invited a few years back and sent him and his son. To say that I have a friend for life is an understatement.”

I have sometimes written of my “kitchen cabinet” whom I go to for quotes for Media Realism, help with a project, or for an opinion or update on a topic. And, yes, there are people who come to me as a springboard for ideas. As John Donne put it, “No man is an island.”

So, clearly, we all have gaps. Recognize it, reach out, and you may change your situation for the better.

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


Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Case for Management Humility


I have followed politics fairly closely my whole life. One thing, among many, really grates on me when it comes to politicians. Whether it is someone being elected to the U.S. House or Senate or perhaps Governor of a state, invariably in the victory speech many will say, “This is a humbling moment for me.” My thought is always something along the lines that if he or she is so damn humble, how come he is running for high office?

In business, as the years have passed, I increasingly see authentic humility as a very valuable management trait. Most people say that leaders have to be confident and who can argue with that? Yet, too often, with many it appears that confidence drifts into arrogance and it generally ends very badly.

Real humility is not weakness or timidity. To me, it is recognition that others have a lot to offer and that all of us make mistakes. I have always noticed that leaders whom I considered to be humble listen better than others, received negative feed back without getting defensive, and tended to build trust with employees as well as great loyalty. They were not indecisive but were clear that they did not have all the answers.

At times, I worked with some very bright people who were very disrespectful of competition. In an agency shootout, they would say, “We have this one. XYZ agency is full of idiots and we know what they are going to say in their pitch.” Needless to say, not all or even many of those pitches were won. Perhaps the winners did not come off as arrogant to prospects or maybe the chemistry was better or they listened to and responded to the future clients needs. A bit of humility might have helped our cause a great deal.

Years ago, I was at a media conference and the keynote speaker was a well known media mogul. After his speech, his sales chief, who knew me, grabbed me from the audience and said that he wanted to introduce me to Mr. Big. I said certainly but was dreading it. I thought the real life billionaire (back when it meant something) would shake hands and brush me off quickly. Instead, he started asking me questions about the future of media and even about two of my clients which floored me. He looked me straight in the eye the entire time. Generally, in those settings, big players look about to see if they could speak to someone else deemed more important. His sales guy interrupted and said they needed to go. The mogul shushed him and he kept asking questions. I was flattered but almost intimidated by his attention. As we split, he thanked me and said he had learned a few things. It was an interesting moment for me as his press image had been quite the opposite. The alleged megalomaniac came off as humble to me.

Is humility making a comeback? In some quarters, yes. Take finance. Warren Buffett tells people that if you win six out of ten times in investing, you should come out rich at the end of the race. Billions are pouring in to index funds that buy the entire market and do not try to merely pick a few winners. I have noticed that many wildly intelligent and well educated young people buy index funds. They tell me that the low fees will help them over time. They are content to only perform as well as the overall market. A humble approach to investing for sure.

In the media world, there is no shortage of forecasters. Yet, the truly prudent hedge their remarks far more than in the past. They expect to be surprised as technology changes our game with great speed these days.

A few people seem to be naturally humble. Most of us who do learn it, however, learn it by failure. When you realize that there are many things that you do not know, humility often takes hold. Is your corporate leadership humble? It will be a big plus in the turbulent times for advertising and marketing ahead.

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

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Will Big Data Kill Advertising Agencies?

On December 1, 2015, I put up a post on this blog entitled “THE BIG DEAL ABOUT BIG DATA.” It generated a significant amount of response. Criticism tended to come from principals at small and medium sized ad agencies who, to a person, tended to downplay its influence in the coming years. As you might expect, I politely differ with that conclusion.

The appeal of Big Data to any marketer is quite simple. Using it, one now has more information about customers and prospects than ever before. How can you argue with that? Well, some critics say that there is too much reliance on data. Big Data users increasingly, in their view, look at short term sales and ignore the long term impact of what is happening with the brand. I have some sympathy with the later point as most people still do not understand that conventional advertising takes time to work as you need several impressions for a campaign to “register” with the target audience.

The other point that both proponents and critics wisely bring up is that the mountains of data currently available to many companies is only as useful as the skill of the people analyzing it. You need talented analysts who can separate the wheat from the chaff. Sadly, far too many agency types continue to say that a creative breakthrough remains the decisive key to success even in our brave new world of Big Data.

In writing and speaking with a number of people both agency and corporate, a few key issues popped up. Here are a few of the best verbatim comments:


Former mid-sized agency executive who is now a corporate marketing chief--“As a virtual agency brat who grew up in the business, I was skeptical of Big Data. My boss, a hard nosed guy with a maniacal focus loves ROI metrics because they make marketing expenditures accountable. His sole focus seems to be to drive cost of acquisition lower. We are getting better at it. So much so, that the old tightwad hired a brilliant young woman and later a young guy to work our data harder. Their modeling may seem crude relative to the retail giants but our performance is getting sharper each quarter and our cost of acquisition keeps dropping. Our agency keeps wanting to look under the hood at what we are doing but he keeps them at arm's length and cuts back their budget. Sales are up and so are our internal bonuses. The agency is getting testy. The only reason we keep them is that we are not a $100 million account. The CEO feels we would get lousy service at a giant. He is intrigued at what the holding companies may know from dealing with the world’s best companies but wants to matter with whomever he uses.”

Corporate Marketing Executive--“The smaller agencies just do not get it. More and more of us are moving our data analyses in-house. We are seeing trends in our business and sometimes even little things that make up the trends. Agencies are way too superficial and charge way too much for the little that they deliver. We will cut back their involvement, especially with the share of the marketing budget, for the foreseeable future.”

Soon to Retire agency owner--“I do not know what to do. We simply cannot compete. I cannot afford a system that can handle the needs of some prospects nor can I pay the people we would need to do the job correctly. The future of agencies is going to revolve around agility. How can we respond quickly if we cannot afford to tool up or staff up for the job? My younger partners are still dreaming of winning Clios. I am so glad that I married a wealthy woman.”


Consulting Firm Executive On Big Data--“When I joined these guys a while back, they told me that they could turn data into profits for clients and also provide brand driven insights. I said to myself Brand Driven Insights! What malarkey. Well, they are doing it and I am learning so much. The advertising agency model is broken. Other than the holding companies, most need to start from scratch. Media buying services may have to change the most.”

Is Big Data going to kill creative? No, but creativity must be wed with Big Data to maximize results.  And the in-house threat mentioned above should send a chill up the spine of every mid-sized or small ad agency CEO.

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