Tuesday, August 19, 2014

What Ever Happened To Corporate Loyalty

Years ago, when the ad agency Scali, McCabe, Sloves had lost Volvo, Marvin Sloves called me to ask me if I could take care of one of his long-term account people.  The person had been with them for almost his entire career.  Marvin was worried that there might not be a place for him at the agency if they did not replace the account immediately. He told me that he would protect him for as long as he could.  Now that is loyalty. (And he kept this account person there for about 18 months until the employee found a new job.)

Where is loyalty today?

I just interviewed a woman who had spent 19 years with a company and lasted there through four mergers.  That is a pretty good run, to be sure.  The fifth merger just happened and they finally got her.  It only took one week after the merger was complete – not even enough time for her to meet the new management or to be evaluated.  She was just a line on an accounting form.  It wasn’t as if they were closing the office.  It was merely that the acquiring company replaced her with its own people, regardless of client consequences.  Her old company made no effort to explain or to apologize.  They never even talked to her (or her clients, for that matter).

That is callous.

Sadly, it is not unusual in this climate of mergers and acquisitions.  Past good deeds are quickly forgotten, if they are remembered at all.  There aren’t many like Marvin Sloves, who actually take care of their people when an account is lost or in a merger.  I used to get lots of emails and letters from senior managers when someone had to be let go.  Those emails always enclosed a resume and said something nice about the people. They also asked me to help those people get a job. I don't see these kinds of letters much any more.  I think part of it is that people being let go is the norm, not the exception.

The result of the lack of loyalty is that the second there is a rumor about a merger, acquisition, account loss or, even a poor quarterly performance, résumés hit the street.  As well they should, because there is no sense that if the worst happens, the company will be loyal.  And, as a result, companies no longer expect loyalty from employees. 

I remember my dad telling me, when he sold his agency, that he was most concerned about the “lifers” who had worked for him, especially in support roles. He made a handshake agreement to protect as many as possible and was furious when the people who took over his business did not keep their word. That was in the early 1970’s, and he warned me way back then that business was changing. 

When I was an account person, it never occurred to me that I might be fired if my agency lost an account.  It just wasn’t part of my employee psyche.  Today, it is something that every employee lives with, no matter how senior or junior, no matter how well they have performed.

And it isn’t just advertising.  It is something that pervades the entire economy.  That is truly a pity.  It is an essential change in the way all companies do business.  

I guess we have come full circle. I remember seeing old movies where in the 19th century, people joined a company and stayed for life. Today, companies hope an employee will stay two years. And employees hope the company will allow them to stay just as long.  According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average tenure of a job is 4.4 years.  I am sure that among advertising and marketing executives it is far less.


  1. Exactly right! Just check the company tenure of most people on Linkedin. Doesn't matter if you're a CEO or an Account Executive. 1-2 years; maybe 3-5 years if they're lucky. Many under 6 months. It's a really strange world now, and we have no one to blame but our greedy, self-preserving, and uncaring selves.

    So, props to Marvin. Very proud that I had the honor and pleasure of working with him. BC

  2. If it's known that employees will stay at an agency for an average of 2 years, why do HR people always refer to how long someone has been with an agency? I've been told if you're only at an agency for 2 years then move on, you're considered a "job hopper". The concern is you'll leave them after 2 years too.

    Go on to LinkedIn, look and see for yourself that many employees of agencies, where these concerned HR people work, have had previous tenures of at least 2 years.

    Why are they making such a big deal of it, if it's a known industry practice to leave an agency after at least 2 years? Why not offer better pay, better assignments and greater upward mobility so employees will stay longer or become lifers?

    1. @Anon: I have thought about this often and you are right. But companies like to pretend that their people will stay and stay. Ironically, even HR turns over quickly. More often than not, the stories I hear from people who have stayed for under two years make complete sense.

  3. Corporate loyalty still exists. Sadly, the loyalty is to shareholders, not employees.

    I'm proud to say that my longest stint with a single agency was just shy of eight years. I was fiercely loyal to the privately-held shop until senior management decided to implement across-the-board salary reductions in order to cope with several account losses (not mine). I saw the writing on the wall and jumped ship within six months. The shop subsequently folded.

    In my experience, the agency business has always been rather volatile. Strangely, these days, a long tenure at a single shop could potentially be viewed by some hiring managers as a liability.

    1. @Anon: Very long tenure is only a liability if the person looking for a job cannot convince the potential hirer that he/she is adaptable to new ways of doing things. Sometimes that can be a very difficult transition.

  4. Dear Paul,
    Excellent commentary and thread. My longest tenure was at BBDO NY for 11 years. Considered long by some, short by others. My experience was that the agency started by hiring the right person for the agency, not the account. Generalists were encouraged to join. Over my time there I had the privilege of working on all major accounts except domestic brand Pepsi. And I only left because I was offered a marketing position by one of my clients. Other key elements engendering loyalty included: everyone being under one roof (account, creative, media, etc.), face-to-face communication (no shadows behind email), accountability, integrity, and the pride that comes with developing and executing great work. Most importantly, during my time Phil Dusenberry was at the helm, and he always set the top-down example. The main characteristic he was admired for besides his talent was undoubtedly his generosity. Phil was a guy who never forgot where he came from, and went to immense lengths over his life to help those around him. He was unendingly loyal, generous and inspiring to loving family, just as he had taken many junior colleagues under his wing over the years. He reached out to aid and mentor innumerable people outside the advertising world with an informational interview, a recommendation, and his incomparable words of sage advice. Phil set the tone for the agency as a whole. Our success was achieved with a shared vision, drive and hard work which Phil encouraged and expected. Phil once told me, "do what you love and the rest will follow." He created an environment where loyalty was an organic component of the culture. Something that can be achieved today, if leadership sets the example and understands it is earned -- day in and day out.

    1. Charles, what a lovely tribute to Phil Dusenberry. I believe that loyalty comes from the top down. Once upon a time there were a lot of people like him in the business. The holding company and publicly traded model changed all that. Sad. Thanks for this great comment.

  5. Loyalty to shareholders trumps loyalty to employees.


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

Creative Commons License