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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Falling Up



I have wanted to write this blog for a long time; I first mentioned it a few years ago in a post about interviewing.  The concept of falling up in business is not my own.  It belongs to the late James Michaelson.  Most of you won’t know him.  Jim was the original new business person.  He worked for Marion Harper, the founder of Interpublic, first at McCann and then at IPG.  Jim went on to work for Jerry Della Femina, Ammirati & Puris and a host of other agencies.  He used that description to describe a person who he had worked with and for who he did not particularly like or respect.  Obviously.

But it is a great concept.

ladder to success
It has to do with empty suits, some of whom are highly successful, who keep climbing the ladder of success despite dubious achievements.



There are lots of people in business like this.  They look good, they talk good, they manage up well.  They get promoted.  They take credit (sometimes due, sometimes not).  They often achieve great positions.
The person who Jim Michaelson was talking about became president of a big agency.  He was always in the right place at the right time.  He was an account guy.  When he joined each company his creative partners initially loved him, because he was trained at the right agencies, looked good and said all the right things.  It always took about three to five years to discover that he was an empty suit.  He rarely got fired, because that would cause bad publicity, but he was often told to look for a job.


Each successive agency was impressed with his background; he got hired because of his résumé.  (I have often cautioned about simply hiring a résumé, but it happens all the time.)  Each time, this executive was hired, he got a better title and more pay. Ultimately, he got found out.

Today he is out of the business.

How many people like this do you know?

20 comments:

  1. A brilliant post!! That's all I have to say!!

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  2. I knew Jim Michaelson Paul, and I can almost hear his expletive laden riff on this story. I didn't know he worked for Mrion Harper. When he called me at McCann pumping me for business intell., he never mentoned it -- too bad. Both Jim and Marion were brilliant practitioners of their crafts.

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    1. Steve: I am so glad that I decided to reach out to Jim. We became friends and he told me many war stories. In the days long before computers, he kept file drawers in his office. If an advertising person's name was in the trade press, he kept a file on that person. He showed me the file on me - I wish I had it now; it was every mention of me that had ever been in the trade press. He was quite a character.

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  3. Paul, thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing this post. I could tell you several cringe-worthy stories of ad agency "empty suits" who uncanningly advanced and who also side-stepped getting laid off while many truly skillful and competent people lost their jobs. You are correct: they know how to "manage up". They have no compunction about throwing someone else under the bus to save their own butt, and make those in power totally believe that they are the brilliant ones. And, the 3-5 year lag to them being "found out" is so true - that's if they don't do their hopping to another more lucrative position first/before being found out. In some cases, I witnessed first-hand that their strategies backfired because after getting other people fired/laid off, they were left to handle business that they in fact knew little about or had not taken enough interest in to keep the client happy. Clients are not dumb, thank Goodness. And the ones who have the wool pulled over their eyes by these empty suits typically are empty suits themselves. Wish I could name names - they would deserve it. As an epilogue, I've witnessed at least three of these "imposters" lose their own jobs after a few years - what goes around comes around, and for some of them it came back in spades.

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    1. @Anonymous: Thanks for your thoughtful response. Many of the points you make are really true. I got a chuckle out of your comment about strategies backfiring because they ended up having to handle business themselves. You actually gave me an idea for a follow-up post on why it takes 3-5 years for these people to get found out. I will work on it.

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    2. Glad I inspired you Paul! Look forward to your subsequent blogs.

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    3. That would be my question as well. Why would it take 3-5 years for the void in the suit to become apparent? I think we have to look at the people doing the hiring. Are they inexperienced? (presumably not when recruiting for a senior position). Overconfident? ("I know this guy has flaws but I'll correct them"). Greedy? (Mr. Suit probably markets himself as having intimate ties to desired clients). Or just inattentive? A lot of the problem is on the 'buy' side: caveat emptor.

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    4. Steve: I am working on the response to this. I will post either next week or the week after. If you are a follower you will get it when I post; if not, check back. However, as a preview: Very senior people are much harder to find out. Juniors either perform or not. Juniors get found out quickly but the more senior people get the longer it takes. I will cover the reasons in my response. Thanks for your comment.

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  4. This could lead to a million stories, you know! My favorite was at a California shoot I was creative-directing. The client couldn't find the account guy and asked where he was; it was an angel/devil moment. Didn't want to make our agency look bad, but I was dying to reveal that he had returned to the airport to exchange a rental car he didn't like. He "earned" several promotions.

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    1. @Mike. Thanks for sharing that story. I love it. Makes you understand why account people are often just considered bag carriers.

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  5. Oh, so he was at Bozell, too?

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  6. Great article. I think we all need to acknowledge that in advertising the persona is valued to the extreme...looks, cloths, handbag, shoes, manicures, car, agency lineage. Mirrors our society. We are what we value. I worked at MULLEN in NC. It was not uncommon to have lets say the head of strategic planning give a repetitive talk that could be applied to any client or new biz pitch. This person was extremely difficult to deal with every department knew it, they were jealous at new hires, were clicky, wouldnt share info or collaborate, and honestly were downright nasty. But they continue to do the top role. It comes down to what an agency president or coo values...sometimes I think they value the fear of what might happen if they let a person like that go....will they find a replacement....etc....

    Its time to look at the real cost of these people to an enterprise.

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  7. I second that Anonymous. Had a bad experience at Mullen in Winston Salem. Mostly they tend to keep bad talent and the top-tier they are lucky enough to pull in don't stay long after finding out what is behind the curtain so to speak. I really didn't get the whole EVP planner thing. Perhaps that is because I have been at other top agencies and saw right through it and frankly had no respect for this person's drama. She would yell at the President directly in front of everyone and carry on like a child, very disruptive to the process, big lack of entitlement. Listen, we all can have a good shout out if one is passionate, this isn't what it was about, we are talking consistent behavior. I guess there is a loyalty club that if you put in the time everything goes and all look the other way because the top doesn't make the change I think they know should be done. I agree, I think with their location they can't attract or keep top talent, client base is poor and creative is sub-par, Boston continues to shine. Tough but they should consider shuttering this office and integrating it with Boston and just keep their operational stuff there...

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    1. I actually heard a head of account planning (not at Mullen) say things like, "that guy looks cool! Look at those tattoos! We should have more people like that around here."

      He fell up until he fell out of a job--to little dismay of his colleagues.

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    2. I love what you wrote....he fell up until he fell out.

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  8. @anonymous (both of you). I appreciate your directness and honesty. Thanks for sharing with my readers.

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  9. Not related to the ad industry, but the last two books I read both marveled at how Bernanke and Geithner survived and benefited from their failures. Maddening nonetheless.

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    1. @Julie: Thanks for the comment. My only thought is who would want those jobs anyway?

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  10. The great Jim Michaelson. One of my favorite new business hunters in the ad agency world. A true orignial who was the definition of relentless and smart. That deep smoky voice would announce Jim before he started speaking and caller ID was available. There are tons of ad suits who fail upwards but politics is the buzzword of business and it has propelled many people forward in the corporate world as well.

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    1. @JoeFroh: Right you are. I loved Jim; it was my privilege to know him. In terms of failing up, Politics often plays a big role, but more often than not,people hire "resumes". Their logic is, "If he worked at all those great places on on those great accounts, he must be good for us."

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