Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Why Titles Are Important

The truth is, we all know that titles are unimportant.  Right?  What really matters is the function, the authority and the importance of a job. Money, too. The title is immaterial.  Or is it?

Most of my readers won’t remember the advertising agencies Wells, Rich, Greene or Messner, Vetere, Burger, Carey (The original name of what is now Havas, but even most people who knew Messner, do not remember Walter Carey, their original partner).  But both companies tried hard to make titles unimportant.  It was a really good try, but, ultimately, they had to give in.

At Wells, Rich, Greene, the iconic Mary Wells tried to make titles trivial.  Originally, everyone had a different title.  On one account, an account executive was called just that. On another, he or she would be an account manager and on a third, the title would be client liaison.   The same thing happened with more senior titles: one would be management representative, another would be management supervisor and a third would be group director.  The same thing followed in the creative and media departments.  As the agency grew, they actually ran out of titles and had to duplicate.

That lead to the real problem: people at comparable levels became jealous of each others title and it caused major issues among executives. And, on top of that, when employees prepared a résumé, their titles were so arcane that no one knew what their title meant.

At MVBC, they had no titles at all.  They patterned themselves after law firms, I had no issue with it but employees did. They felt they needed to tell their friends and family what they were.  When people wanted to look for a job, I would ask their money and we would create the title for their résumé that most fit their salary.

And therein lays the issue with titles.  It isn’t complicated: people need to have the reassurance that their friends, relatives, acquaintances and others know who they are and, possibly, what they do by their titles. That certainly includes those who might receive or review their résumés.  

I used to say to people who were leaving Messner, if you are making $50k you are an account executive.  If you are making $60k and someone works for you, you are an account supervisor (that is 1989 pricing). If you are making $200k you are a group director, which was their function anyway.  I would send out a résumé from WRG and the person’s title was account representative and the first question I would be asked was, “What does that mean?”  I would have to reassure my client that I was sending an appropriate candidate.   Years ago, the famous Chicago Ad Agency, Leo Burnett had few titles.  Account executives could be very senior.  Account supervisors had salaries which ran into the low $100s (high for that title, even today).  When a Chicago person came to New York, which was rare, I always had to explain to New York hiring managers or HR people what the Leo titles were and meant. It was always a problem.

Today, with the heavy emphasis on digital recruiting, titles are even more important because résumés may be read and screened by junior people who don’t know what an offbeat title is or means.  Or worse, résumés are often read by scanners which are programmed to look for specific titles and cannot interpret an offbeat title or one not programmed.  As a result, companies that do that often lose out on very good people.

In advertising, different titles may mean the same thing.  For instance, while account director is the most common title today for the level above account supervisor, at some agencies, the next level is a management supervisor or management representative.  Creative titles are also confusing.

The point of all this is that we are all human.  And everyone is not familiar with every organization or culture.  At virtually all law firms, juniors are associates, the next level up is associate partner and seniors are partners or senior partners.  When one looks at a legal résumé, it is not difficult to figure out the seniority of the person it represents.

In New York City, sometime during the 1990’s and the Koch administration, the city passed a tax on all corporate officer’s salaries.  Companies actually paid an extra tax on the salaries of their vice presidents.  To avoid these taxes companies dropped the officer’s titles. That is how, at some organizations, Ogilvy is a good example, the titles, “partner” and “senior partner” were born – they were not taxed.  That tax has subsequently been repealed, but many organizations still are reluctant to bestow officer titles.  People used to joke that in advertising, everyone was a vice president.

I have a number of clients, in and out of advertising, whose titles do not match common equivalent titles.  Believe it or not, it is very hard to recruit for them.  Someone who is seven or eight years in the business expects to have achieved a certain title level.  Someone who is a senior vice president, is reluctant to go to another company without a comparable title. Many people refuse to accept a title which lower that what they expected, despite the money, despite the function or authority.  It is most certainly understandable.

So titles may not be important within a company and a culture, but they are very important outside that company.  When creating titles, companies need to take recruiting into account.


  1. When it comes to agency new business development and you're calling on the CEO, president, or CMO of a prospective client company, you'd better be, at least, the CMO of your agency. Because "titles" are important, as a matter of respect, to the object of your affection. Bill Crandall

    1. Fully agree, Bill. There are many companies that fail to appreciate this issue and undertitle their biz development people and then wonder why the are not performing as expected.

  2. Totally agree with everything you say, Paul. Titles in the advertising agency world make our job as recruiters more difficult. But, in addition to titles, I want my clients to give me the number of years of experience or the accomplishments that they are requiring for the ideal candidate.

    I still recall when I was at FCB on the Mazda business back in the early 90's, Account Executives who were doing their jobs well, were promoted to Account Director. Upon leaving FCB, they were looking at Account Supervisor positions. And, those Management Supervisors were being bumped up to Account Director...while FCB didn't have the title Account Supe. You were an A-E, then an Account Director, followed by Management Supervisor.

    For the past 17+ years as a recruiter exclusively in the advertising niche, I require my client partners to give me more than just "we need an Account Director on the ABC account", for the reasons outlined above.

    1. Thanks, Jamie. I have written about getting real and actionable job specs many times. I remember the issue with FCB. It was among the first agencies to use the AD title.

  3. I remember that well! The mid-size independent agency I was at then took away all of our Vice President titles on paper. But after a minor revolt, we were permitted to keep them on our business cards (and resumes).

    I was at Y&R when they had the titles of Partner and Senior Partner. They actually synced up to Group Management Supervisor and Senior VP. It was very confusing for me, recruiters, and prospective employers after coming over there from a GMS position, and then trying to leave for a Sr. VP position.


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