Tuesday, January 30, 2018

What Makes A Superstar?

When I wrote a couple of weeks ago about a bad seed who had been a superstar, I received a communication from one of my readers asking me to define what makes a superstar employee.  I thought this was worth writing about.

Superstars are people who have a number of things that have happened in their career, often simultaneously, but occasionally, sequentially.  Mostly, they get promoted quickly (and don’t necessarily have to change jobs in order to get promoted) and regularly.  They get rotated on to different businesses or have a multitude of experiences which gives them a broad view of the business.  They exude competence and passion; and, most of all, they exude their success, but not in an egocentric or arrogant way.  

Most of these people have worked both at the right companies and on the right accounts.  In advertising, the “right” agencies are either the big shops or the highly esteemed smaller agencies – these days, Wieden & Kennedy, Droga5, 360i, R/GA (to name a few).  All these companies have one thing in common – they are highly regarded by the rest of the business.

The “right” accounts are those where the work is highly visible and well regarded.  The creative work is probably well known and recognized.  P&G, Samsung, IBM, Lexus, even some of the major retailers, fall into this category.  People who have worked on these kinds of businesses are generally well trained and highly in demand.  This is not only true of advertising, but all business in general.
Superstars tend to have a very broad view of the business and, even in the early stages of their careers, have adopted their own point of view about the business. They also are highly directed and motivated. When they interview, the exude passion and love for what they do – doesn’t matter what their discipline – writing, art direction, producers, strategists, account people – there is something almost intangible that they communicate that makes people want them on their team.  In advertising, they have an innate understanding that creative is ultimately what counts but have learned to value and befriend their clients, again, their disciplines don’t matter.. Most work hard and long and love it. 

They are problem solvers and unselfishly do whatever is required of them. Their employers are constantly challenging them with difficult assignments and projects because they are confident that the superstar can confront the issue and resolve the problem.  Most often, people want to work with and for them.

Sometimes, superstars become so because they are in the right place at the right time.  In advertising, marketing and other service business star executives end up working on accounts that grow dramatically. They have good relationships with their clients and as the clients get promoted, these they get promoted because the client likes them.  More than one agency president has come up this way.

As superstars progress through their career, they are a positive influence on the people who work for and with them.  Knowing that there is strength in numbers, they are able to unify the people who work for them.  Employees generally love reporting to these people because they become mentors.  
 Even in junior positions, they are unafraid to voice opinions and can bring people around to their point of view. In short, they are all leaders.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Ageism In Advertising

Ageism in advertising is an open secret but is rarely discussed.  There is a tremendous amount of age discrimination in the advertising business.  Some is overt and most is very covert.  Everyone in the business has always said, “It is a young person’s business.”  I never thought much about it until I became a recruiter many ago.  At that time I met many people in their fifties who were worried about their ability to get a new job; they were right.  Many had to leave the business because they couldn’t get rehired.

I naively believed that the problem might resolve itself since the business was starting to be run by the Baby Boomers.  The population is getting older, people are living and working longer so I assumed that as people aged, they would continue to work and be productive.  I also thought that as management of agencies aged, they would hire older people as a reflection of themselves.  I was wrong.

It is a cultural problem. Agencies remain very age conscious.  They are afraid when they go on a new business pitch the client merely sees a group of older people; as if, older people can’t be creative or have great, strategic ideas. Agencies believe that clients falsely believe that ideas and creativity come from youth.  In point of fact, the heyday of the creative agencies came when their leaders – Bernbach, Ogilvy, Chiat and many others – were well into their late forties and fifties.  The biggest problem for some agencies with leaders who are now in their fifties or older, is that they actually believe that they are too old, so they surround themselves with youth.

The result is a cult of youth which demeans and minimalizes skill and experience.  The truth is that there is no substitute for life experience.  One of the things which caused the dot com bust was that when the economy tanked in the late nineties, the twenty-something executives who ran those companies simply did not have enough experience to know how to handle their companies in crisis.  By the time they started hiring older executives to help steer their companies, it was too late.
Ageism is pervasive in our society, not just advertising. 

My observation is that there are several kinds of ageism.

Financial Ageism
No secret: older executives most often make more money than younger people.  When companies have financial problems, it is easier and more profitable, at least on the surface, to find excuses and terminate an expensive person and replace her/him with someone who costs less.  This is not the place to get into the pros or cons of that, but suffice to say, that is often penny wise and pound foolish.

The first time I became aware of this was many years ago, when a magazine sales person who I liked very much and who was highly successful was replaced with a very inexperienced person who actually knew nothing.  The magazine (a major one) rationalized that if they gave this new sales person their major advertiser accounts,  they would not lose them because those advertisers needed the magazine.  (My friend went on to a competitor and within about eighteen months managed to pitch and win a lot of business away from his old employer.)

Intentional Ageism
This happens when companies feel that younger is better. Often, there are problems with the business and companies blame those issues on aging executives. (I once ran account management at an agency and refused to stay until 2am to approve a mechanical – I had very competent staff, and lots of them, to do that.  I was told I was too old – about forty – to run account management.) 

This is less true today than a few years ago, but it still exists in many ways.  Creative directors in their fifties are deemed to be too old to have the ability to work late and be productive to come up with great new ideas.  They are often replaced with younger people, often without explanation.

Inadvertent Ageism
This often happens in two ways.  When a new senior executive is hired they may be young and simply cannot relate to the older people who surround them. Those people may be terminated simply so that the new, younger executive can have his or her “own” people.  It is intentional, but it is not thought of as discrimination, but merely a management decision.

Or, and this is the most insidious, when a job opens and perfectly qualified executive is rejected because they are older than the person they would be reporting to.  The more experienced executive may be deemed to be threatening to the hiring manager or may be assumed to be a “bad fit” by an ill-informed human resource person. The result is that the older executive is not passed on to interview. This not only happens to people who are in their forties or fifties or older, but it happens to younger, successful executives who are out of work.  The problem is that companies put square pegs in square holes and do not train or retrain their executives on handling and managing employees. Often, management is completely ignorant of this happening.

Most businesses don’t do a lot of training any more.  But certainly there is absolutely no sensitivity training about age, anywhere.  I heard a story recently about a very young writer complaining about the age of voice-over talent auditioning for a commercial.

I have seen many senior executives who are out of work become highly successful consultants to the very clients they used to work for.  Some even get revenge by working with these companies to hire new agencies.

Ad agencies have been working hard on diversity.  This is an issue which largely affects hiring minorities.  People over fifty are certainly a minority in the advertising workplace and should be included in issues of diversity.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Adventures In Recruiting: The Bad Seed – A Strange Tale Of A Liar

There once was a superstar account executive.  I placed her at a great small agency.  Margeotes, Fertitta Weiss.  It was a really good placement because she was destined to become a big star; she had come out of a big agency with all the requisite background .  For this post, we will call her Meghan.

Meghan was well liked and doing a great job.  She was at the agency for about six or seven months and called me to ask advice.  She had been approached by another recruiter to go to the agency that then handled Revlon; she would be an account supervisor..  She told me it was her dream account.  She told me how much the job was paying (of course naming the highest amount she was told, which was probably 50% more than she was currently making) and asked me what she should do.  I told her that I did not think she had enough experience to handle Revlon which was a very difficult account; I believe she had been an account executive for under two years.  I also told her she was doing very well where she was and that in about another year she would be promoted and be making at least the money that this job was supposedly paying.  I also explained to her that Revlon was very difficult and notoriously fickle, changing agencies frequently.  I did tell her that if it was her dream account, she should probably take one interview, but that I did not want to be involved as it was awkward for me since I placed her at the agency and was not involved with this situation.  I also asked her not to discuss it with me.  I knew the recruiter who called her and told her to work with him and not me.
Nevertheless, she kept calling.  She called me to discuss every interview she had and every discussion she had with her recruiter.  It was a little odd and I told Meghan again that I was uncomfortable with the conversations since I had nothing to do with this.  I mostly just listened politely, but don't remember saying anything beyond that she should be talking to her recruiter.

A few weeks went by and early one morning, out of the blue, her boss, George Fertitta, called me and asked, “Is there any reason why I should continue to work with you?”  I was shocked and I asked him what he was talking about.  He told me the Meghan had told him that I recruited her and sent her to another agency and that I got Meghan an offer to work on Revlon. I was dumbfounded.  Recruiting out of a company a recruiter works for is a no-no and highly unethical. I immediately got into a cab and went to the agency so I could have a face-to-face with George.   Meghan saw me and ran to her office and, literally, locked herself in and would not open her door or talk to me.  Through the door I asked her why she told her boss that I was her recruiter, but no response.  It was bizarre.  George told me that he would like to get to the bottom of the issue, but that never happened.  Meghan never again took my calls.  (Incidentally, for some reason, she did not take the job and remained at MFW.)  

I lost the account…temporarily.

Meanwhile, I had placed another senior person there.  She, too was a star; her name was Susan.  Meghan worked for her. 

Strange things started to happen to Susan.  She would find the client in a conference room, but did not know about the meeting. There would be creative meetings she knew nothing about.  It was still before computers and people sent out memos.  While Susan’s name was on memos, many were never delivered to her. Consequently, she missed meetings, deadlines and important information. The agency thought she was disinterested and after many similar incidents, Susan was terminated.  It left her dumbfounded.

Then, one day, George saw Meghan in the hallway and asked her about something having to do with a client.  It was one of those innocuous hallway meetings we have all had.  Meghan told him a whole long story about her conversation with the client just the previous day, including that there would be a meeting with the client the following week, but she had not yet sent out the memo. Her conversation was filled with many details.  Later that morning, by sheer coincidence, George was speaking to the client and said something about Meghan's conversation and the upcoming meeting.  The client told him that he had no idea what George was talking about – he had not spoken to Meghan in about a week.  George was incredulous and questioned the client about the conversation and its details.  When the client expressed no knowledge of any of it, George Fertitta realized that he had been lied to.

He thought about the situation and, then, connected all the dots and said to himself, “Oh my God, Paul and Susan.” He realized that Meghan was a congenital liar and immediately fired her.  It was too late to rehire Susan, who was now gainfully employed elsewhere. 

George called me and asked to have lunch; on the phone he gave me a brief explanation of what had happened.  The purpose of the lunch was to apologize to me.  I felt vindicated. And to this day, George Fertitta is the only person who has ever apologized to me for a mistake.  I continued to recruit for him until he sold the agency and retired from advertising.

But the end of the story came about two years later, when a friend who was the new president of an agency called me to replace a non-performing executive.  You guessed it – Meghan. 
Now in two years Meghan had gone from being an account executive to, what was then the next level above supervisor, management supervisor.  The president felt she was not performing to her title; he had spoken to her several times but she did not or could not improve her performance. In fact, she parried every criticism, blaming the issues on people above and below her.  I explained that the reason why was that she was the only MS in the business who had probably never been an account supervisor.

Suffice to say that Meghan lost her job and, to my knowledge, never worked in advertising again because of her bad references.   

I recently looked her up on line. She is now in real estate, but on the website, I saw that she even lied about her titles and success in the advertising business, claiming that she was an EVP at this last agency and there far longer than she actually worked there.  Hard to believe, but very true.  Pity her clients.  I can only imagine what she tells them about properties she is showing.

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