Sunday, April 25, 2010

There Is Too Much Fear In The Business

I have observed fear in the advertising business. 

It manifests itself in many subtle ways.  A good friend of mine is a career coach. She uses my office occasionally to interview. This week she was here to see a confirmed appointment.  But she got stood up.  She called both her client's cell and office.  She sent a text.  A day later, her appointment told her that there was a business emergency that was so critical she didn’t have the time to call to cancel. Huh?

Some would pass this incident off as merely rudness and lack of manners. It might be so, but it happens so often that I believe it is more than that. This week I had an 9:00am appointment with a reasonably senior account manager.  I received a text at 11:30 the night before (I got it when I woke up) saying the client had called her for a 9:00am meeting. Again, huh?  A client called her in the middle of the evening?  She allowed it because she was afraid to say something to the client about calling her at that hour for ordinary, non-emergency business.   When I mentioned this to her, she said, "I cannot do that". 

What is going on in business that a client would call late into someone’s evening and demand a first thing in the morning meeting.  I believe it is a control thing on the part of the client.  And I also believe that the account person could have earned a lot of points of respect both for herself and her agency had she said something (I would have told the client not to call at that hour unless it was an emergency and the would have been in my boss's office at 8:30 to tell him/her what I had done.  I would have also told the CEO of my company.).

This is not a rare occurance.  And it doesn't just happen with clients.  We often get stood up by executives who have scheduled a lunchtime meeting. They often call later in the day. Their explanation is always the same – they felt they did not dare excuse themselves from a meeting in order to make the call that they couldn't make it. This doesn’t just happen with junior people; I have seen it with $250,000 senior executives. What is it that could possibly scare people so much that they don’t dare announce that they had had a lunch date and have to excuse themselves for a moment so they can call and cancel? Who would not forgive this kind of common courtesy? Surely employees are allowed to take lunch.

This leads to a bigger issue.

If people are afraid to excuse themselves from a meeting for a few minutes, they surely must be afraid to stand up to clients when it comes to the work. Or even to stand up internally to argue against an idea they don’t agree with. Disagreements generally result in better work that the agency can believe in and in better thought out rationale for that work. Which enables agencies to fight for it with their clients.  But if people are afraid to speak up, unresolved issues perpetuate themselves into bad work.  And that work becomes, "The Emperor's New Clothes", so to speak.  The only way people and agencies can gain respect both internally and externally is by standing up for themselves and the work. Strength always wins.

Just remember Bill  Bernbach's famous line when a client complained that the copy in an ad was too long saying, "Only ten percent of the people will read that copy".  Bernbach's response was, "Then that copy is for the ten percent who read it."  The client approved it.

Agencies need to fight for their work, encourage dissention and discussion.  Fear of retrebution only causes unhappiness and excessive turnover.  Respect is earned, not granted.  And for goodness sake, when meetings are running long, allow people the sense that if they need to cancel a lunch, it is acceptble.

I would love to have your thoughts as to why there is so much fear and what can be done about it.


  1. Amen!

    I think there is yes, a fear of clients, but simultaneously, a decline in manners that transcends business. Recently, the NYT had an editorial on the decline of the RSVP:


    I think that, for some reason, people have lost a certain sense of respect towards social obligations. I wish I knew why.

  2. Hi Paul,

    I agree there is fear in the work place, always has been. In an industry such as advertising, fear of acceptance can freeze creativity, which is normally scrutinized anyway, especially in a difficult market.

    Some shops create that fear, focusing on their business as a commodity to execute rather than a strategy to create which can cause them to lose their edge.

    Successful entrepreneurial shops that today encourage full self expression and teamwork sometimes forget their values and courage of their convictions as they see revenue fall and people downsized. This can start from the client, who spread fear of cutbacks through procurement demands as their margins drop, due to the fear of a lack of consumer spending.

    All this fear permeates to staff at all levels, especially senior levels that are high overhead and worry about keeping their same financial and responsibility “cushion”.

    People do not choose to be afraid; they are thrown to it by circumstances. The power is to remind people that they do not need to have circumstances dictate how they react. Rather to stand in what they believe to be in the best for their client’s long term interest. Whether it is money saving options outside of what procurement dictates or personal responsibilities that must be completed to allow for a staffs full and most productive concentration on business issues.

    When I see someone act in what might be fear, I will ask them, "What's up"? Give them the opportunity to make a choice, which at times may end in the same decision but from a more powerful perspective.

    “Forgetting we have choice is the disease that kills creativity”. I believe strength comes from choice. Having choice in and out of work is the best way to nurture both and live a fulfilling life!

    Best Wishes,

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