Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Whatever Happened To Common Courtesy When Letting People Go?

Truthfully, there is no proper way to fire someone.  It is the end of the year and ad agencies and other companies have been preparing for 2013 by paring staff.  This year, as always, I have heard so many stories that I thought it worth a comment.

I think it is wonderful that no one actually ever gets fired.  They get cut back, laid off, downsized or reorganized out of a job, none of which is their fault.  but if they are not the cause and are victims of circumstances, why are companies (not just ad agencies) so cruel?


It used to be that when someone was let go, they were generally given a couple of weeks notice (sometimes longer) so they could look for a job.  At an appropriate time they were either given use of their own office or moved to another office for some period of time.  Jerry Della Femina wrote about it in his wonderfully funny book, From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor. (Mandatory reading for anyone who loves advertising.)  He called it “the floor of forgotten men.”  At some point those people either got a job or just stopped coming in. It happens slowly and inexorably, but it happens in the nicest way. 

I always believed that anyone who worked for me should be terminated by me, not by HR or some unknown and faceless executive.  But I guess I am unusual in my ethics.  Today, it is rare for someone to be let go by their supervisor.  More often than not, their supervisor disappears and some (often unknown) HR person makes an appointment and then does the “deed”.  At that point, more than one person has literally been escorted out of the building.  No chance to pack their things, no good-byes; doesn’t matter if they have worked there six months or six years.

It is a terrible way to end a relationship. Over the years I have heard horrendous stories of people being let go.

One theory says it is better for morale to have people quickly disappear.  There is another that says that if terminated people are seen around the place it is bad for morale.  Neither is right.

What happened to common courtesy and allowing terminated people to have some dignity?

If it is a reorganization or a cutback due to shrinking revenues, what is the difference?  People should not be tossed out like they were never there. Being escorted out of a building or told to leave in a few minutes is totally demeaning.  I understand that it is difficult for senior executives to have to face the people who used to work for them..  But I believe that that is the price one must pay to be a senior executive.  The only people who should be made to leave immediately are those who are fired for real cause – gross malfeasance or some other heinous action.

What I don’t understand, is why a company would not want a terminated employee to leave in the best of circumstances, at least feeling as if they were let go in as nice a manner as possible.  That would certainly minimize a lot of bad-mouthing and poor public relations.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Where Does The Need For Category Experience Come From When Hiring

My post last week must have struck a nerve.  While there were a number of comments on the website regarding the limitations in hiring posed by the nonsense of demanding category experience, I received lots of direct emails on the subject.  No one seems to disagree with me, including clients.

So where does this insane need to hire comparable experience come from?

I think there are a lot of hiring managers in Account, Creative, Planning and Media, who just assume that category experience is necessary.  I guess on the surface it makes sense to hire someone who might know something about the brand and the category.  But the mandate has become an issue.  I received one facetious comment about not hiring someone who has worked on rum for a vodka account.  However, most things being equal, if two candidates showed up for the vodka account, one of who had worked on vodka and the other on another type of liquor, I would bet dollars to donuts that the vodka person would win, even if he or she were the lesser candidate.
I also think that human resources professionals know that people with category background are easier to place and most HR people and hiring managers simply want the job off their plate so they will take the path of least resistance.

I have even assignments for assistant account executives with six to nine months experience, who must have prior category experience, as ridiculous as that is.

In fairness, most managers are overworked and when they are looking to replace someone they are understaffed.  Hiring someone who might know something about the category is a short-term fix because it requires less initial hand holding.

But I think the anonymous comment from a CMO who said that this comes from frightened account people is the most realistic answer.  Telling a client you have hired someone who knows the business is a very easy sell.  Telling a client that you have hired someone who is merely smart but will have to learn the category may put the hiring manager under a microscope. 
Bob Berenson, the former President of Grey Advertising told me years ago that when an account person resigns, it is generally left to their supervisor to tell the client.  Inevitably the supervisor panics and says something to the client like, "I am sorry to tell you that Paul has taken a new job.  Don't worry, we have started the search already.  And we will find someone better than Paul." At this point the need to reassure the client rears its head,  "And, we will find someone who knows the category already so there will be no glitch on the account."  At this point  finding category experience becomes engraved in stone.
I had a meeting with an agency president not too long ago and he complained that all their account people were alike and that I should find more creative account people for him to meet.  He was shocked that his people were asking for category background.  And therein is the issue.  Senior management must get involved and approve job specs if they want to hire better people.  (Most specs we get say something like, category experience preferred but not mandatory.  But that is tantamount to telling a recruiter that the company really wants category background. If those specs have been approved by senior management, that clause is pretty innocuous.  They don't realize that preferred actually means mandatory.)

I would be remiss if I did not mention that clients sometimes play a role in this by demanding it of agency hires.  I also believe that this can easily be deflected if agency management cared to because I believe it comes from junior marketing people who are not interested in creativity.And account people who are not strong enough to tell their clients that they will hire the best person for the job, regardless of their background. 

Advertising is a creative business and the creativity should be reflected in the hiring.

When client’s insist on dictating the job specs, agencies should push back.  But often, particularly with junior hires, management would prefer to be uninvolved.  At senior levels, hiring prior experience is safer and easier.  But, after being an account guy for many years, my observation was always what Anonymous wrote:  Client’s rarely care if the agency is sure of itself and wants to hire a smart person.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Category Experience Is Limiting Agency Hiring

When I was first recruiting, I received an assignment for an account person to work on one of the imported car brands.  I found a great candidate who had worked for a number of years on domestic brands.  When I approached him on this assignment, he was delighted and commented that he was dying to work on an import.  I didn’t pay much attention to the comment until I went to introduce him to the hiring manager.
I nearly got my head bit off.  “How could you send me someone with domestic experience?  Don’t you know that we never look at anyone with that kind of experience to work on an import?”


Now, many years later, I still don’t understand the limitations that ad agencies put on themselves, especially since good talent is at a premium. The problem has gotten worse during the time I have been recruiting.  Perhaps the issue is the fee system.  Under this form of compensation, clients can pretty much dictate who an agency hires and what kind of background they must have have.  

The corollary to this is ironic.  When jobs stay open for a long period of time, those same clients complain that the agency is dragging it feet and that they need a person in place.

And it isn’t just a question of category experience.  That request is often coupled with a demand that prospective candidates also have other specific skills – television production, digital, social media, CRM.
 Check List   Check List   Check List   Check List    Sometimes the check list (job specs) become so narrow that finding a good candidate is almost impossible. (I once had an assignment for a senior account supervisor or junior account director.  That person had to have had experience as an actual investment banker, but they needed at least three to four years of ad agency experience..  All this for about $100k. Sure. Sadly, it wasn't a joke.   It was about nine years ago - before the crash.  The job stayed open for almost a year and the agency finally hired someone with decent financial experience, but he was not an investment banker!  They could have done that within weeks after giving me the assignment.)

I have seen jobs go vacant for months.  I have one client in a southeastern market who will not pay for a relocation, but has had a job open since January.  They insist on category experience, but most of the agencies which handle this particular category are not located anywhere near their market.  They have rejected candidates with that experience but who had it several years ago; their experience is  “no longer relevant”. I actually cannot understand their thinking, which is partially dictated by the client, but the agency needs to fight back.. 

Category experience is a frustrating part of ad agency recruiting life these days.  And I honestly believe that it is hurting both the client relationship and agency creativity. I frequently have candidates call me out of anger and frustration.  They are perfectly qualified for a job, but cannot get interviewed or, if they have seen one person at a company and cannot get passed on because they have similar but not exact experience.  It is exasperating for them and for me.  And, once again, it proves that agencies are hiring resumes, not people.

There are still a few strong agencies out there that will go to their clients and say that they have found a really bright person they are going to hire who does not have category experience, but that person brings a lot of other experience, including new thinking, to the party.

I have one client who is willing to hire just bright and wonderful people regardless of experience.  It is accepted practice among their account people to simply hire smart people.  They have some of the most sophisticated package goods clients in the business.  Ironically, I work with other agencies that handle the same parent company package goods clients and they refuse to look at the same people their sister agency successfully hires. It makes no sense that two agencies with the same client would recruit completely differently.

Can anyone explain this to me?  How can agencies (and their clients) expect creativity if everyone they hire comes out of the same mold?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Six Secrets To Save An Account

I interview a lot of senior advertising executives.  Many of them have saved accounts.  I have made it a point to ask what they have done to correct a bad situation.  I realized that their solutions are always pretty much the same.  The results seem to fall into several categories and I thought I would pass on the things I have learned.

Agencies and clients rarely part due to creative differences or strategic disagreements.  Mostly, I have heard about agencies losing business over lack of communication and lack of connection.
1)  Listen to the client   
This is an issue I hear virtually every time someone tells me that an account runs into trouble.  Clients complain that their agencies are simply not listening to them.  

This mistreatment manifests itself in many ways, including not doing what is supposed to be done when it is due.  One person who saved an account told me that he simply started to deliver on time work.
Listening to clients doesn’t mean rolling over and playing dead when it comes to creative work.  More often than not, it means that the client needs a willing ear on the part of its agency.  Many agencies seem to treat clients as if they don't know their own needs.  Sometimes this is actually the case, but the smart account manager knows to listen to his or her client, develop the asked for work on a timely basis; that breeds trust  and when the client trusts the agency, they are able to push for better solutions, if necessary.
But first and foremost, clients need to know that the agency is on its side.

2)  Meeting with clients in person
Some time ago I wrote that email was killing the business.  Nothing beats a face-to-face meeting.  It is critical that senior agency people meet with senior clients on a regular basis.   

I just interviewed an SVP who had been running a major account which changed agencies recently.  He told me that the EVP previously running the account at its old agency had lost touch with the client because he had only gone to the client twice in a year.  Ouch.  To make matters worse, the agency was in NYC and the client in NJ. 

The former EVP, at the turn-over meeting, had insisted that the client refused to see him or kept cancelling meetings.   His mistake was waiting for an invitation; it became a vicious circle.  Many senior managers have faced this issue in one way or another.  The smart ones don’t wait for an invitation. They simply show up and, after a while, the client realizes that their agency really does care.

Getting to know the client applies to junior people as well.  It is critical that account executives, supervisors and account directors visit clients regularly. Ditto the creative people.  A relationship cannot be built on the phone or with email or even Skype.  And if the people who are doing the day-to-day work do not have a proper relationship with their counterparts, the foundation of the business will be weak.

Agencies have to become part of the client’s business.  That can only be accomplished by being there.

3) Knowing the client’s business
Many agencies have simply relegated themselves to executing work.  That is not a way to build a relationship.  There are many things which should be done in order to build trust and a partnership.  That is what account people are supposed to do. 

An account which went into review was recently saved.  The person running it made sure to get his account group to really dig into the business.  They came up with insights which were new to the brand group.

The creative work they presented showed a depth of knowledge and commitment.  The agency kept the business.

This is the kind of thing which agencies do when pitching an account but often forget about once the get it.
Knowing the client’s business enables the agency to sell better work and it builds mutual client/agency respect.

Getting back to basics saves business. 
4) Knowing all the client marketing people
Senior people at agencies need to spend time with people other than advertising people – brand managers, promotion people, sales people, manufacturing and the like.  These people are a gold mine of information and insight, not to mention a possible source of new revenues.  I heard a great story about an account director who befriended the client’s specialty sales people – military, incentives and premium, food service. 
These people became great advocates for the agency because they felt that someone was paying attention to them (which goes back to point number one).  They also became a source of additional revenues for the agency, because many of them have specialized budgets which the agency had not previously tapped.

Too many agency people go to visit the client, have their meeting and leave.  Having a meal and walking the halls does wonders for the relationship.
5)  Exchanging Ideas with the client
One person I interviewed told me that twice a year he instituted what he called a group grope.  He called a meeting of his entire account group, including planners, digital, media and creative and had all the clients, including the CMO, in attendance. These meetings have a loose agenda; their purpose is ostensibly to brainstorm about the business. They are informal and fun.  And they take place off campus.
It gives everyone a chance to know each other, to develop ideas and to learn each other's business.  These meetings generate ideas which are far afield, some actionable, some not.  But much good comes out of these get togethers. Everyone gets to really know and respect each other.
Both client and agency look forward to these meetings. The clients feel that they are partnering with the agency.  The account person told me that for the next meeting, they are trying to get the client CEO to attend.

Doing this saved the account.

6)  Involving clients with the creative process
One really good account person told me that she always brings clients into the development of the work. 

The creative department does tissue sessions with the client.  In turn, the client becomes both a source of information and inspiration.  When the final presentation comes, the client feels as if she is part of the process and supports the work.  The account people have learned how to manage the client during these critically important sessions.

 Making sure that the client has a vested interest in the work does wonders for the relationship.
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