Monday, July 26, 2010

Fear Hurts Creativity

Why Is Everyone So Scared?

I have observed fear in the advertising business. I am sure advertising is no different than most other businesses, but it is what I know best.

Everyone is afraid. Agencies are afraid of their clients firing them. Employees are afraid that their agencies will fire them. Senior executives are afraid of their holding companies.  The sad part is that fear enables bad work to be concieved, sold and produced.

Fear manifests itself in many subtle ways. A good friend of mine is a career coach. She uses my office occasionally. Recently, she was here to see a confirmed appointment. She got stood up – no call, no email, no text. A day later, her appointment told her that there was a business emergency that was so critical she didn’t have the time to call to cancel. Huh? How long would it take to send a text or email?

Some would pass this incident off as mere rudeness and lack of manners. It might be so, but it happens so often that I believe it is more than discourtesy - it is fear. Last week I had a 9:00am appointment with an agency senior vice president. On the morning of the appointment I received a text message timed at 11:30 the night before, saying the client had called a 9:00am meeting. Again, huh? A client disturbed her in the middle of the evening? When I met my candidate we discussed that the client called her at home. I asked her why she didn’t say something to her client since the meeting was not an emergency. She told me that she was afraid to say something to the client, “After all, we are in a service business.”

My candidate missed the point. Being in a service business does not mean that we have to allow clients to walk all over us and be rude and uncaring. Calling an account person at home in the middle of the evening is a control thing. It shows a complete lack of respect for the agency and its people.

It reminded me of an incident when I was an account person. At the time I worked for a wonderful agency, McCaffrey and McCall. We were pitching an account and I was the account lead. True to this client’s reputation, the director of advertising actually called and woke me at 2 am with an idea; we didn’t even have the business yet. He wanted me in his office at 8:30am to discuss it. I agreed to go, but I also told him that calling me in the middle of the night and scaring me half to death was off limits. After my meeting, I went straight to David McCall and told him what happened and how I handled it. He agreed that I handled it correctly, but was incensed that someone would call me in the middle of the night. He immediately called the prospect and told him that if they wanted to hire us, we would love the business, but that he could not call people at two in the morning. Those who knew David will know that this was right in character for him. (We got the business and subsequently turned it down because no one wanted to work on it.)

I believe that the account person who sent me a text at 11pm could have earned a lot of points of respect both for herself and her agency had she said something to her client. I presume her agency and her management would have backed her up just as David McCall supported me.

Sadly, the fear that prevented this account person from standing up for herself is all too common. As a recruiter, I often get stood up by executives who have scheduled a meeting with me. They simply don’t show up. This often happens at lunch time. Their explanation is inevitably that a last minute meeting was called or they felt they did not dare excuse themselves from a long-running meeting in order to make call to say they could not make their appointment. It is fear that prevents someone from excusing themselves to make a quick call.

This leads to a bigger issue.

If people are afraid to leave a meeting for a few minutes, they surely must be afraid to stand up to clients when it comes defending the work. And they probably don’t stand up internally to argue against an idea they don’t agree with.

Ironically, disagreements often result in better work because it forces everyone to rethink the work. The only way people and agencies can gain respect both internally and externally is by standing up for themselves and the work. Strength always wins.

There is a great Bill Bernbach story that illustrates the point. A client once complained that the body copy in an ad was too long. The client said, "Only ten percent of the people will read that copy". Bernbach's response was, "Then that copy is for the ten percent who read it." The client approved it.

All ad agency people know that there are many clients who will only approve the safest work, work that will not get them in trouble and work which, while probably not as effective as it should be, will not cause any criticism. Clients who are afraid of criticism never learn to trust their ad agencies. But that trust has to be earned and can only be brought about when there can be open discussion with give and take on both sides.

Ad agency employees need to be encouraged to be strong. That is the only way they can establish mutual respect with clients. If an account person or creative person is strong (they also have to be right) the work will get better. That can only happen when there is no fear of retribution and no fear of being fired.

When that happens, there will be no more clients calling people at home in the middle of the evening. And recruiters won’t get stood up because someone was afraid to excuse themselves from a meeting.

I would love to have your thoughts as to why there is so much fear and what can be done about it.


  1. Once again you nailed it. This is so contagious and not in a good way. And we should know.

    Thanks for being a beacon of hope in helping us navigate the waters.

  2. You're best post since you started this blog. And great advice, especially for anyone starting out in the business.

  3. I canceled an appointment to finish reading this post -- it was that good!

  4. Well put and well written Paul. It's a shame that there are actually agencies and clients that instill that fear of "you better be available 24/7 or someone will be". I've always told those that were part of my team that you condition people to your availability. If you answer an email that invades personal time, you've set yourself up for a life of having a blackberry/Iphone as a ball and chain versus a communication device. All said, there is no excuse for a lack of courtesy and professionalism regardless if outside the "client or boss calling". As someone told me, unfortunately, "Common sense isn't so common". Best, J

  5. Clients who are able to collaborate and use their agency partner in the right way are rare, aren't they? I am a client, and I'm saddened to see/hear of my peers sometimes exhibit the following fatal mistakes with their agencies:
    - ruling by fear... clients who do not have grounded strategic know-how, creative vision, or plain ol' confidence may pick up and dial at 2am.
    - seeing "them" as a "vendor"... an agency helps a business/a brand create perception, persuasion, and ultimately power (marketplace power). too bad so many clients are in the dark about how to unleash their agency to do just that for them.
    - get that you are paying for "strength"... agencies that are strong are those who are straight-shooters. i pay for honesty, naked insight, detailed thoughts, unbiased opinions. creative strength always stems from the nuggets of truth you unearth about the target. i help guide through strategy but lead me with your creative strength, people.

    Keep calm, and carry on, all.


I would welcome your comments, suggestions or anything you would like to share with me or my readers.

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