The other night I was watching CBS’s “Undercover Boss” and I had a fantasy. It was that agency management actually spent time with their own account and creative managers – you know, not their senior cronies, but the ones who actually do the day-to-day work - writers, account managers, planners, even their media people. I was thinking about the CEO's and COO's of the holding companies as well as the management people at the largest of their agencies. Do these people even know their day-to-day people?
If you have not seen “Undercover Boss”, the premise is very simple. The CEO or other senior executive puts on a disguise and works incognito with several of his or her company’s operating departments in order to learn firsthand about his/her people, their jobs and their job issues. Inevitably it results with the executive developing a much greater understanding of his or her own people, their company and how it functions on a personal level. More than that, it gives the CEO an appreciation for the jobs and the issues which his/her people perform.
If holding company (or the most senior people at their ad agencies) senior management would spend time with their own troops, they might be surprised at what they learned. They would be shocked at the hours their people spend (I often see candidates who tell me that their normal week is 60-80 hours). They would be disheartened that committed and productive executives have not had salary increases in years (it is not unusual that I meet executives who have not had a raise in three or four years). They would be disturbed by the amount of wasted time due to errant direction by clients who were unqualified or who had not gotten their management to agree to the direction they provided (I hear this story virtually every day). Every one of these situations can be corrected by the CEO, even the client issues – assuming the CEO has a proper relationship with client senior management.
There will always be false starts and changes in direction. That is the clients’ prerogative and it is part of the business. (I sometimes think, however, that when agencies are losing money on an account, if the client purchasing people actually saw that the agency was being given poor direction by its own people that the situation could be improved.) And that is where senior agency management can step in and deal with those issues.
It is a natural tendency for the senior account directors to assure their management that things are going well and under control. But I honestly believe that senior agency management, especially at the largest agencies, are often out of touch with their own people and accounts. I know a wonderful story to this effect.
Many years ago, a very well known agency president was told by one of his largest clients that he was not involved enough with the business. Of course the president vociferously denied that he was uninvolved and told his EVP on the account. (This story was told to me by the EVP.) A few days later they were in a NY management meeting and there was a knock on the conference room door. A gentleman walked in and asked the EVP to sign something. When he returned to the table, the president asked the EVP who it was who had disturbed them. “That,” replied the EVP, “Is your senior vice president, account director.” He had been with the agency for three years. The president started attending meetings both at the agency and with the client.
Now that may be extreme, but I do not believe it is terribly unique.