And other lessons I’ve learned as a young agency leader
“Advertising is dying, guys. The something radical that needed to happen just hasn’t happened. All those once-upon-a-time greats of advertising? They’re all gone or are directing movies now and there’s no hope for more. Got your best years ahead of you? Pack your bags and run to the next hot content shop already.”
I couldn’t agree less.
In fact, I’m confident that the quality of talent in advertising today is better than ever. It is the go-to poaching ground for any company looking to find the brightest, smartest people to work for them — people who’ve worked their backsides off and done more good work than most the same age. Some of the best entrepreneurs of this generation first found their feet in advertising. Even today, there exists no better liberal arts degree than what a few years in an agency can do for a young person starting out. ‘Lack of talent’ is the least of our problems.
Every day I get to spend time with some of the most talented, resourceful and creative people that I know. Every hire and every resignation becomes a huge moment when you’re building an organization that’s trying to be protective of its culture. I used to take these moments maybe a bit too personally. I’ve learned to appreciate that rarely will a young person stick with any job for as long as what was the norm. And that’s okay. If they’ve left the place better than they found it, they will have me rooting for them wherever they go. For those who are here, who trust us with their careers, it is our job to help them become the A-players we’re always searching outside for.
I have found that it generally starts with showing more faith. Faith requires a hands-off approach, letting small things go, and importantly, encouraging trial and failure. Rewarding failure, even. It starts with accepting irreverence. Staying patient with impatience. Sharing responsibility and placing trust even when you’re uncomfortable doing so. These are all so much harder than it sounds and more often than not, I’ve failed (surprise!).
Try all of this as a leader and you’ll want to pull your hair out at the seeming lack of discipline or the apparent lack of control. I now realize that my job is to let go a little and continue creating that safe environment where everyone thrives. It’s difficult to measure the effect of this on the day to day but I need to believe that it is bound to pay off in the long run.
It’s obvious that advertising’s evolution needs to be a bit more considerate to the motivations of a young person in 2017. Structures need to be flexible if not break altogether. Art + copy needs to evolve. The talent that’s coming through today does not necessarily fit the legacy structures we created a long time ago to run our businesses. We invest time and energy to hire the most creative, versatile talent, but when they arrive, we often tell them to fall in line. No young employee should be told that there’s only one right way of doing something because this is how we’ve always done it before.
People want to work in environments where they’re heard and get to feel like they’re part of something. Where hierarchical structures don’t impede personal progress. Where they believe that if they put the right effort in, they have a genuine shot at becoming CD, even if they’re just 25 years old. Every agency boasts of great culture and fun work but do more people than less in your team believe that their best shot at success at this particular moment in their career is with your organization? Can they trust their personal growth with you even though you might have larger organizational and business goals to go with?
I often enjoy throwing a sports analogy into the mix. Corny as it may sound, there’s a lot of people management lessons I’ve taken on by watching football managers. Jose Mourinho’s go-to tactic seems to be ‘us v/s the world’. It’s impossible that an Antonio Conte’s passion on the touchline does not to transmit on to his players on the field. Pep Guardiola ensures that even the biggest superstar falls in line with the larger cause. Various styles but all intended to get everyone rallying together. At the end of a championship winning season it’s like they’ve all been best friends fighting together for years. There is no chance that it was the same throughout the year. These teams worked hard at it. They bought in to their leader’s philosophy. The manager, over the course of the year, found the right combination and not just a team of high flyers. Right people for the job who complemented each other. The right culture.
What culture definitely isn’t is free food and bean bags. In a great culture, every new hire raises the general average of the team. Roles complement one another. The ‘Kevin Pietersen is a superstar but not a team player’ problem that the English cricket team has, is managed way before it becomes a Kevin Pietersen problem. There are superstars, there are grafters, there are smart workers, there are the dependable, and there are mavericks in every great team.
Advertising has restricted itself by defining job descriptions, maybe a little too strictly. We assign talented people to very specific deliverables — a symptom of dividing them into usually inflexible silos like account management, creative, strategy etc. There’s probably no need for a quick fix, but what we could do is to try working towards thinning the boundaries within our structures.
Recently a younger colleague introduced me to the concept of full stack employees and I’ve tried imagining how an advertising version of a full stack professional might look. They’re the ones at the center of any collaborative project. They’re constantly curious and read a lot. They’re on top of what’s new. They’re usually ego-less about credit. They thrive in other’s happiness and creative contributions. It’s just about getting the best version of the work out. If they’re a servicing person, they’re the ones that don’t mind writing a bit of copy when it comes to it — anything to help sell the idea better. They are interested in making culture-impacting contributions. Most importantly, they get people and they get things done. It sounds like a fancy term for an all-rounder, but we’ve only had all-rounders in advertising during times of fast approaching deadlines, never permanently.
As you read this I’m sure a few names already come to mind. They could grow to become focal points within your agency. Build around them. Build to support them. And then encourage more full-stack employees to grow - working within their existing teams to create as much of that border-less utopia as they possibly can.
If you are a junior or mid-level employee, this from Jeff Weiner sums it up best: Relationships matter; be open, honest and constructive; demand excellence; take intelligent risks; act like an owner. In short, give a shit. Be versatile and true to your strengths. Companies like Webchutney have always been at its best when a group of young, passionate people with more authority than their experience “merits” are at the front-lines. When young employees show more pluck than what their designation suggests. Prove every day that you can be counted on, that you respect the culture and others in it and that you will get the work done. Show the loyalty your organization deserves and more often than not you will be shown that in return.
If you are a senior leader reading this, allow yourself to be reverse-mentored. Let’s stop believing we are always the smartest people in the room. Our experience should be put to better use than just that of an ‘approver’. An effective leader today needs to be a coach - an inspiring communicator, someone who shows emotional intelligence and someone who is comfortable involving everyone in decisions. Our job is to get the best out of talent on whom we’ve already placed faith in, by championing and supporting their growth. We’ll do well to remember that every single person on our team today walked in through our doors on day 1 — highly motivated to do their best.
I keep going back to Simon Sinek’s concept of the ‘circle of safety’. Demonstrate your trust and that you have the backs of everyone you call a colleague. When you hire someone, give them the time they need to find their feet. On the good days, let’s let them know they did good. On the bad days, remember why you hired them in the first place. Nurture them. Support them. Back them till you don’t have an option to. Let’s focus on helping give them meaning to their work and therefore help them stay in love with advertising. And at the end of the day, they’ll make us look good.
(The author is the executive vice president and branch head at Dentsu Webchutney, Bangalore and a Campaign Asia Top 40 under 40 recipient for 2016.)