Monday, September 27, 2010

The Real Mad Men

Most of you don’t realize that I come from an advertising family.  My dad had an agency, started in the late twenties and merged into Interpublic in the early seventies.  It was called, at the end, Gumbinner-North.  It was a big agency.  At one point it was the twentieth largest agency in the world, ranked even higher domestically.  It was a creative agency before anyone categorized an agency in terms of its creativity. I actually worked in the mail room there (yes, I started in the mail room) and did a year as an assistant account executive right out of college.

The agency was started by my uncle, Lawrence and a gentleman named L.S. Goldsmith in 1926.  My dad, who was younger, joined them the next year.  Lawrence was an account guy (merchandising), my father the producer and head of media (I used to ask my dad what he was or did and his response, right up until he died in 1981, was that he was “an advertising man”).  The agency had major accounts – Tareyton Cigarettes, Savarin Coffee, Hartz Mountain Pet Food, Smirnoff Vodka, Mums Champagne, Pepto-Bismol and a slew of others.

I am too young to remember a lot, but people who know that my dad had an agency often ask me whether Mad Men is a realistic depiction of advertising in that era.  Well, it is and it isn’t.  Here is my perception.

My dad and my uncle did have bars in their offices, but to my memory, they were only used for clients and after work (my dad was always home for dinner by 6:00ish).  They did drink at lunch however.  My dad went to Gino’s on Lexington almost every day for lunch and had one vodka Gibson.  Smirnoff, of course.

They were well staffed.  In the late 1960’s he was very proud that they were able to get their head count down to about 11 people per million in billing.  That is a far cry from today’s under one person per million. 

Until the mid-1960s, the creative idea was made by the writers, who wrote it and then gave the concept to the art directors for illustration.  The writer/art director team concept, as I have been told, was started in the late fifties but was not universal until the late sixties.
There were no account planners.  Information was gathered by researchers and media researchers.  Account people were responsible for consumer insights and worked with the research people to develop strategies and creative direction.

Clients were well entertained, lunches were long and wet.  But those lunches served a very good purpose – it was about bonding and creating a tight relationship between the agency and the client.  My perception is that it kept accounts at agencies longer then. Yes, there was plenty of account switching, but I don’t think it was as cut and dry as it is today.  There were no search consultants.  A lot of the pitching was done over lunch and became about determining if the agency and client liked each other and could work together.

New business presentations were very much made the way they show them on Mad Men – two or three principals meeting with the client and presenting their ideas about the brand or company. 

Generally, the president and chairman of the client company were involved in advertising, just as it is portrayed on Mad Men.  Consequently, decisions were made quickly.  I can remember the presidents of several companies coming into the agency to see a rough-cut of a commercial on a moviola.  In fact, my dad retired in the early seventies, but told me one of the major changes taking place was that presidents were slowly becoming uninvolved with the advertising.  He thought it was unfortunate.  And he proved right in that respect.

Most senior executives had a private secretary.  It was a sign of success when one no longer had to share.  I wish I were old enough to be definitive about the sexual escapades within the office.  But I suspect there was ample messing around.  Let’s just say that families were not invited to Christmas parties.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Adventures in Recruiting: The Turtle and The Scorpion

Everyone knows the story of the turtle and the scorpion – you know the one where the scorpion asks the turtle to take him on his back to the other side of the river.  The turtle says he will do it if the scorpion promises not to sting him.  The scorpion promises, hops on the turtle’s back and, just as he reaches the other side of the river and is about to hop off, he stings the turtle.  As the turtle is about to die, he asks the scorpion why he did it after promising not to, the scorpion replies, “Because I am a scorpion.”

Advertising has its scorpions as well.

This story is amazing. I disguised the characters and the agency, but it is true, and happened as it is written. One of my candidates, a former employee of the agency and who remembered the story, suggested this would be a great story to post.

Not too long ago, I had a candidate who was finalist for the director of account management job at a well known, mid-size agency..  He had been interviewed by everyone he needed to see - the head of planning, the human resources person, the chief operating officer and the CEO - and was close to getting an offer.  The candidate called me to tell me that the director of planning had called him and asked to have breakfast. They had previously met but she told him how excited she was about him joining the agency and how much she was looking forward to working with him; she assured him the offer would be coming and she told him her purpose was to get to know him better so they could get off to a quick start.  I called my client, the chief operating officer.  He thought it was a good idea.  He knew about the call and had encouraged the invitation.

My candidate thought it was a great idea, also. On the appointed day, the breakfast lasted until close to lunch.  They discussed the agency in depth. She asked him if she could talk frankly and off the record.  He asked the same. 

The planner was open with him and discussed issues: staffing problems, new business problems, things they could work together to fix. He told her his views and philosophy and suggested things they might do together to build the agency.  It was all very positive. He left the meeting thinking highly of her and the opportunity.  He was psyched.

I called my client, gave him a debriefing and discussed timing.  An offer would be made in a day or two.  The agency was working out the financials.  But then, days went past with no communication with the client.  The job seemed to fall into a black hole.  I heard nothing.  A week went by and then two weeks passed. Now, if you are a recruiter, this is fairly common, particularly at senior levels.  I knew they were working on an offer, had to get it cleared with the holding company and would then get back to me.  While I was somewhat concerned, it was/is not unusual.

However, three weeks later I was surprised by the news that they would not be hiring my candidate. Indeed, they were not filling the job at all; rather, they were promoting the planning director to run account management.  I was told this by the COO, who was as much in the dark as I was and had simply been told by the president of the agency of the changes. 

A couple of weeks later, I learned what happened.

After the breakfast, the account planner went to the president and made a case for not filling the head of account management job.  She explained she could do the job, had once been an account person.  She laid out a plan for the agency.  It was everything that my candidate had told her. Everything she told the president was word for word what my candidate had naively laid out at the breakfast. The entire breakfast had been a setup for this.   The president bought it.  After all, he could save a very substantial salary and promote from within.

The end of the story is that after about six or nine months, the president discovered the subterfuge when the candidate could not perform as expected.  She was subsequently fired. My candidate went on to another job at another agency. 

The moral of this story is to be careful what you say and who you say it to before being hired. However, I do know that in life, it often happens that what goes around comes around. 

Monday, September 20, 2010

Ad Age's Best Places to Work in Media and Advertising

This morning Ad Age published its list of the best places to work.  It is a really interesting list.  While there are some familiar names on it, McKinney, Carmichael Lynch, there isn't a single major New York City agency on the list .  Pity.

I would like to see Ad Age do a follow up article explaining in depth why each of the chosen agencies is listed.  And I would hope that the "big" agencies and media companies make an effort to find out what these agencies are doing and to copy the model.

I wish I were recruiting for more of these places.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Agencies Need to be Courteous to Employees Who are Leaving

When companies hire people they go out of their way to be nice. In my experience, in order to attract people, companies do all kinds of nice things – they wave vacation rules, give sign on bonuses, at senior levels they hire administrative assistants and lots more. But what about when an employee leaves?

If an employee resigns, companies expect the courtesy of two weeks’ notice – which is customary, but is rarely mandatory. But when an employee is terminated, it appears that most agencies forget all about the courtesies extended on the way in and bend over backwards to be insensitive and uncaring.

My hat is off to Jerry Della Femina for the inspiration of this blog post. In his classic book, “From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor,” Jerry wrote about the “floor of forgotten men”. Years ago, when someone was let go, the agency would do them the courtesy of providing an office to use for a period of time. It was generally not their old office, but it was space somewhere within the agency. People would use those offices, often with a phone and someone to answer it. They could even pretend they still worked at the company. It was a nice transition out. Inevitably, after a few weeks the former employee would stop coming in.

It was a nice courtesy. And it just doesn’t happen anymore except for the most senior of executives.

Why not?

I find it an insult that an employee, especially one who has worked at a company for a long period of time, once let go, is often told to clear out his or her belongings and be out of the building by the end of the day or sooner. I have heard many stories about someone from “office services” literally standing over an employee while they pack their office (nice service, huh?). That same office person then literally escorts the employee out of the building. In a worst case scenario, those employees, who the day before were trusted and valued, are escorted out of the building by a guard.

I know of one case where an account management supervisor who had been with an agency over ten years came back to her office after a client meeting only to find that an offices service person was sitting at her desk to escort her out of the premises. There was only one problem. Human Resources had not been able to fire her because she was in a client meeting. And, to make matters worse, when she went to her office, she was accompanied by her client. She was actually told, in front of her client, that she could not pack her belongings and that someone would do it for her and send them to her the next day. The conversation, as told to me, went something like this:

Employee: "Who are you, what are you doing in my office?"
Office Service: : "What do you mean, who am I?"
E: "What are you doing at my desk?"
OS: "It is no longer your desk.  I am here to escort you out."
E: "What are you talking about?"
OS: "You have been terminated."
E: "You must be mistaken.  Get away from my desk."
OS: "It is no longer your desk.  They didn't tell you?"
Client: "I cannot believe this."

She went to her immediate supervisor, who also did not know. They even confiscated her laptop, which was personal, thinking that it belonged to the company; it was later returned, but they had erased her hard drive.

It is true. It happened. And it is humiliating.

The theory about terminated employees and escorting them out (incidentally it does not just happen in advertising, but everywhere) is that it is better for morale if the person is immediately gone. I am not sure about the morale issue, but I know that it sure is lousy public relations.

One thing I do know is that for employees who continue to work at a company after other employees have been “disappeared”, empty offices are an even worse sight and are a constant reminder of bad times.  It certainly is not good for morale. And it is terrible public relations.  The employee, who just a day ago was a loyal and verbal proponent of the company, suddenly is telling all his or her friends how horrible they were treated.  Ultimately, it can make people not want to work at .the company.

I do not believe that this policy is the result of top management. In fact, I am not sure that most CEOs and COOs are even aware that their company does this. In the instance mentioned above, the president of the agency apologized and told her that it was not their policy to do this and he would make sure that it would not happen to anyone else. I hope so.

I hope that all companies will reconsider the unkind policy of throwing former employees out. Aside from the fact that it will undo all the good will that has built up during that employee’s tenure, it is just plain cold. And it isn’t what the business should be about. Advertising is a really nice business. But occasionally people in it forget what it is like to be kind and courteous.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

We Miss the Choices

I look at the advertising agency landscape and I realize how much it has changed in the last fifteen or twenty years. We talk a lot about how the business has changed – holding companies, fees, digital, silos, fewer people being asked to do more – but we don’t really talk about the kinds of agencies out there.

Once upon a time, clients and employees had real choices in the kinds of corporate cultures they could choose. If one was creatively driven (that does not mean a lack of strategy), there was Scali, Ally & Gargano, Wells, Levine Huntley, Chiat/Day. Strategically, there was Ayer, Grey, Esty, Cunningham & Walsh. If a client needed worldwide muscle, there was Bates, Kenyon & Eckhardt, Lintas, D’Arcy. All these agencies have one thing in common: they are all gone. Most have merged and submerged into the giants. Parts of them are still there, but not the whole. 

Employees had ample cultures to choose from. If Grey didn’t work, an employee could go to similar shops –
Compton, Dancer, Bates. If a client was unhappy with Chiat/Day, but liked their creativity, they could go to Messner, Warwick Baker, Margeotes. Mad Dogs. One could move to a highly respected small, strategic agency like Waring & LaRosa or a huge creatively driven shop like BBD&O. You may disagree with my categorizations, but the point is that there were a huge number of choices of all sizes and shapes.

(The shame is that advertising people under the age of 35 don’t know most of the agencies I just mentioned.)

I cannot think of a single advertising merger during the last twenty or so years where one plus one equaled two or more. In most cases, when the smoke cleared and loyal clients left, one plus one equaled about one and a half, if they were lucky. Perhaps there were back office savings which justified the purchase or merger, but for the most part the cultures were destroyed and the very clients that were “purchased” left the agency. There have been a few exceptions – the purchase by Publicis of D’Arcy and then the merger of the old Bloom agency into it is one that comes to mind immediately.

The holding companies buy and sell agencies and completely disregard their individual cultures in favor of "savings". In some cases, I believe that the mergers are well intended, but often misguided. Look, for instance, at the disastrous merger of Ammirati & Puris with Lintas. Ammirati was a wonderful agency, started in the mid-1970's by the very talented Ralph Ammirati and Martin Puris. By the early 1990's it had become a powerhouse creative agency with accounts like BMW and Burger King. Lintas, a worldwide giant, always suffered from creative issues. Although there were worldwide pockets of creative strength, the agency also suffered from business issues. Most people forget that the initials at LINTAS stood for Lever International Advertising Service. Putting the two agencies together was an honest attempt to strengthen the creative of one, particularly the New York office, and improve the worldwide reach of the other. Instead, it turned out to be an unmitigated disaster, causing the ultimate demise of both shops.

But I digress.  The point is that the business has become homogenized. The late, great Phil Dougherty, ad columnist for the New York Times, once said to me that all agencies were the same. His logic: If Bill Hamilton, the esteemed creative director of the old Chiat/Day New York, could move to Ogilvy, then Ogilvy and Chiat were the same place. I always disagreed. But in retrospect, he had a well taken point.

There are a few agencies today which have differentiated themselves - Crispin, Kaplan Thaler, Mother, Strawberry Frog, Goodby, BBH, Deutsch, Kirshenbaum, Widen, Fallon, Amalgamated. If a client hires them or a new employee goes there, they pretty much know what they are getting. If you look at most of these agencies, there seems to be one thing in common: They all have a leader who has a distinct personality and a public persona. They are all also all about the work.

Hopefully, these shops will continue to grow and flourish.  This is a business of personality. It always has been and it always should be. Personality here is defined as size, culture, creativity.  The business needs more choices.

I would like to hear your comments and share them with my readers.
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