Friday, April 13, 2012

Starbucks, friends and the modern agency.

Yesterday over Madison Avenue there must have been a full-moon rising. I had four calls--spread about one every three hours from advertising friends who were suffering some sort of career distress. For whatever reason and probably related to the fact that I have been in therapy for more than 30 years, these four people turned to me.

One of the people--a group creative director at a big agency--met with me last evening at a Starbucks on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I treated her to a cup of coffee--a small one which they call a "tall" in Starbucks and as I was paying I realized what is wrong with our business--and it has nothing to do with "the changing media landscape," or "the death of marketing," or anything else.

When we ordered at Starbucks the woman behind the counter refused to give me eye contact. She didn't acknowledge that she heard my order. She never asked if there was anything else I wanted. When I said "thank you," she didn't respond. When I said "thank you" again--looking this time for a response, she muttered--reluctantly--no problem.

It occurred to me that the problems within advertising agencies are similar to the problems I experience at Starbucks.

1. There are really no "brands" among agencies. No code of beliefs and behaviors. We might have strictures governing logo usage. But that's not what a brand is.

2. There are fundamental lies built into our organizations. Just as a tall is not a small, most people in agencies are "mis-titled." They're creative directors who have little time to create and no authority to direct. Or copywriters who seldom write copy. In other words, the jobs people have to do have little to do with their capabilities.

3. Finally, we have, like Starbucks, eliminated grace, politeness and kindness. Most people in the industry from the top to the bottom work their keisters to the bone. They are never thanked. (If anyone from a holding company is reading this, a 3% raise every 24 months is not a thank.) The tone of official emails is most often either condescending or castigating. Senior management--much less holding company management--is like the captain of a foundering ship that never leaves the bridge. They don't know the people, who they are, what they do.

In short, what is destroying our business is not fundamental flaws in the "agency model." What has destroyed it absentee ownership. Ownership that is absent even when they're present.

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