Red Paper
April 23, 2010 | By Tim Williams

In the agency business, your inventory literally goes up and down the elevator every night. Knowing what motivates your people – and what demotivates them – is critical for successful agency leadership. Based on insights from hundreds of interviews and numerous surveys of agency employees, here is Ignition’s view of what employees want and need from their agency leaders — the chronic issues that press upon the minds of agency people and affect both their morale and performance.

Add talent, not people

Every agency has its stars, its key players who usually lead the charge. Once agencies have a few of these people, they then set out to add some “bench strength” – people who can support the star players. This approach to staffing can work sometimes. On championship basketball teams, the bench players are often indistinguishable from the starters. The whole darn team is good, which is one of the big reasons they win their games. But too many agencies are content with only mediocre bench players.

It starts with the belief in strength in numbers. If we were running an army, strength in numbers would be very important. But we’re running an ad agency, and in a creative enterprise there is only Which would you rather have, one brilliant account executive or two average ones? One art director that produces spectacular work, or two art directors that produce average work? One exceptional media planner, or two that would be considered just O.K.? Agencies, like other companies, often make the mistake hiring quantity over quality. As Peter Drucker says, “You should never hire people whose main qualifications are their lack of major weaknesses.” The goal, according to Drucker, isn’t well-rounded people, but people with real strengths where you need them. 1

Agency legend David Ogilvy ran recruitment ads looking for “Trumpeter Swans who combine personal genius with inspiring leadership.” When you’re in a mad scramble for more help, it’s difficult to resist the temptation to make do with ugly ducklings. But in the long run, the agencies with the best track records add talent, not people.

Recruiting the right people is an art, but there’s also some science to it – something most agencies tend to overlook. No one should ever be hired just on the basis of a resume and an interview. It’s too easy for the applicant to make the resume and interview look good. This incomplete approach routinely results in the wrong people in the wrong jobs. The hiring mistakes in some agencies are legendary.

Most agencies recruit for experience (deduced from the resume) and attitude (discerned from the interview), but recruiting good people must be based on three key criteria:

  1. Comprehension. Does this person possess enough knowledge about the job and the business?
  2. Competencies. Does this person have the skills and abilities to do the job?
  3. Character. Does this person’s character, attitude and personality fit the culture of the company?

While you may never achieve a perfect track record of hiring great people, you can dramatically improve the odds of finding a good fit by using one of the many assessment tools on the market. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can assess character (personality, attitude, and work habits) from an interview. You can’t get this information by asking point blank questions. You need to use a validated assessment tool, many of which are available for use online.

Focus on the strengths of your people, not their weaknesses

When agency principals meet behind closed doors, wait long enough and their topic of conversation inevitably turns to underperforming employees. The question is are their employees really underperforming, or are they just in the wrong job? Research by The Gallup Organization shows that the vast majority of employees feel miscast in their jobs. Gallup’s Marcus Buckingham advises executives to “Think of people management as casting. In business, as in movies, casting is everything. If a good person consistently underachieves in his role, even after encouragement and training, the likely reason is that his talents don’t match his role. He is miscast.”2

In other words, we need to set people up for success – not failure – by putting them in positions where their strengths are maximized and their weaknesses are minimized. This applies even to veterans on your staff who may be in management jobs they simply aren’t cut out for (more on this later).

Even David Ogilvy acknowledged his inability to be good at everything. In a memo to his senior managers in 1971, he wrote:

“Long ago I realized that I lack competence, or interest, or both, in several areas of our business. Notably television programming, finance, administration, commercial production and marketing. So I hired people who are strong in those areas where I am weak.

“Every one of you … is strong in some areas, weak in others. Take my advice: get people alongside you who make up for your weaknesses. If you are strong in production and weak in strategy, have a strategist as your right arm. If you are strong on strategy and weak in production, have a production genius as your right arm.

“Don’t compound your own weaknesses by employing people in key positions who have the same weakness.”3

Focusing on strengths also means accepting that, just like companies, nobody is good at everything. As previously discussed, that’s the primary fallacy of conventional performance reviews in which the employee is expected to be both creative and organized, a good strategist and a strong people-person, and other sometimes mutually contradictory qualities.

If you have people with exceptional talents, chances are they will also have exceptional weaknesses. (In fact, these weaknesses are likely to be mirror images of their strengths.) The sooner you accept that fact, the happier you’ll be as a manager.

The top-performing agencies don’t waste their emotional energy complaining about how their people don’t do their jobs. Instead, they place them in positions where they can succeed and focus their efforts on building their personal strengths, not “correcting” their personal weaknesses.

Why do we tend to characterize employees by their weaknesses instead of their strengths? Because that’s how our managers treated us as we were coming up through the ranks. But you can stop the cycle and transform your company’s approach to employee development into something better.

When you think about it, most agencies have two kinds of account executives:
  • The account executive with a track record for getting jobs produced on time and on budget, but no real talent for thinking strategically.
  • The account executive that writes brilliant strategies and creative briefs, but falls down on logistics, administration, and keeping the client happy.
Agencies usually also have two kinds of copywriters:
  • The writer that develops outstanding concepts, but stumbles when it comes to body copy or long-form writing.
  • The writer that turns out excellent text, but doesn’t contribute much to the development of concepts.

Every person brings a different set of knowledge, skills and talents to the job. The knowledge and skills parts can be improved through training and coaching. But when it comes to talent – a person’s innate abilities – that’s where management must make sure each person has a job description that makes the most of strengths and neutralizes weaknesses. If a talented art director just can’t keep track of timesheets, get him the help of an assistant who can. If a gifted account planner does a great job of gathering consumer insights but a poor job of turning them into a client presentation, pair her up with a writer who can. Don’t throw the baby out with

the bathwater.

Beware of dinosaurs, hacks, and bad apples

At least once a year, make a list of all of your employees, and sort them into one of these four groups:


Critical to our success and positioning

Important contributors to our success and positioning

Marginal contributors to our success and positioning

Detrimental to our success and positioning


Employees who fall into the first two categories are keepers. Those whom you view as marginal should either be redirected into new roles where they can become more important contributors, or help them move on to another job. And for those who actually have a detrimental effect on the agency, you have no choice but to help them find employment elsewhere.

Terminating an employee is difficult business. But when you have underperforming people, you are doing both the agency and the employee a disservice by keeping them on board. There are plenty of good reasons why continued employment is bad for both parties:

  • The underperforming employee has a negative effect on those around him. Other employees are usually the first to see that this person can’t or won’t do their job.
  • The underperforming employee contributes little to the success of the agency, and in some cases may even be disadvantageous.
  • The underperforming employee is likely unhappy himself, because he’s in a role that is not well suited to his strengths. He would actually feel more fulfilled and contented elsewhere.

There is usually only one reason not to terminate him – the agency manager finds the process too distasteful. Just consider that you will probably be helping – not hurting – the miscast employee by helping him move onto something where he can be more productive. And you’ll most certainly be helping your agency.

Provide opportunities to learn and grow

Sadly, professional development has all but disappeared from the agency scene. Long gone are the days when agencies would put budding young assistant account executives through a six-month course before they could legitimately claim the title “Account Executive.”

The disappearance of training is not just a matter of economics. Agencies stopped their training programs in the go-go years of the 1990s. It’s a cultural shift that has contributed to the trend agencies have been lamenting the most: the loss of client confidence in agency people as experts and trusted advisors.

Rob White of Fallon may have actually underestimated the rate of change in the advertising business when he said “Every 18 months, what we don’t know about our business doubles, and the time to learn it halves.”4 Which makes the current lack of training in agencies an even more desperate situation.


Training can actually be accomplished in a number of different ways:

Inside training consisting of in-service courses by department or function, provided by qualified on-staff instructors. These internal sessions can also be taught by professionals from outside the agency.

Outside training consisting of seminars and conferences hosted by industry associations, consulting firms, or other providers.

Formal training provided by colleges, universities, or other institutions of higher learning. Of course, many of these classes may provide credits leading to an advanced degree.


Agency staffers can’t sharpen their skills or align their skills behind the brand unless you provide the opportunities. Training shouldn’t be one of those things that you’ll get to when you have the time, because you never will have the time. You just have to get to it anyway.

Get new employees off on the right foot

At the end of their first day of work, most agency employees are armed with a desk, a computer, and a network password – but no formal introduction to the agency. At the end of their first week, they’re still lacking a basic familiarization with the agency organization, systems, or culture. At the end of their second week, a lot of new employees have concluded that they will pretty much have to figure these things out by themselves.

Contrast this with the agencies that take new employee orientation seriously. And what better opportunity to align your people with your positioning than teaching new hires about the agency brand? Use an employee’s first day to orient, not to work. The first day creates the first impression. Talk up the agency brand up front, and your people will know you’re serious about it.

When you think about it, your people are actually the most prominent manifestation of your brand. The former steward of one of the most well-branded companies in the world – Nike – argues that your brand is defined “by the accomplishments of your best employee – the shining star of the company who can do no wrong – as well as by the mishaps of the worst hire that you ever made.”5

Give more feedback more often

Some agencies have a notoriously bad reputation for doing performance reviews. The reason supervisors and employees alike have a distaste for performance reviews is because they are based on job descriptions that make perfect performance virtually impossible. Not only do agency staffers vary widely in God-given abilities like attention to detail and interpersonal communication skills, they would have to be super-human to score a “10” on things like “demonstrates a complete understanding of all facets of a clients business.” (We all know nobody is that good.) Rather than rating employees on mundane qualities like office cleanliness, focus on what the employee can contribute to the organization.

It’s what your employees do well that adds value to the organization. Strengths contribute everything, weaknesses contribute nothing. So use the performance review as an opportunity to focus on developing people’s strong points, and try to make their weak points immaterial.

Let your staff know where the agency is headed

It can be argued that the most important quality of leadership is communication. In fact, a fair number of studies show that the leading predictor of success in business is not intelligence, experience, or even enthusiasm – it’s communication skills.6

Communicating with your staff isn’t difficult, but it does take time and discipline. One way to keep your staff informed and involved is to issue a regular company-wide e-mail that reports on the initiatives the agency is undertaking to refocus its brand. While you’re at it, you can give a brief update of what’s happening in the agency – current client successes, outstanding employee performance, new business

activity, etc.

Sometimes the most overlooked form of communication with the staff is the simple staff meeting. Staff meetings shouldn’t just be for special occasions. If the agency is too large to gather the entire office, encourage meetings by department or division. Report on the progress you’re making in each of the agency’s five practice areas – product, people, process, promotion, and place.

Remember that staff meetings are a superb opportunity to recognize performance, share information, motivate the troops, and have some fun.

Clarify roles, responsibilities, and expectations

Topping the list of “people” concerns in a lot of shops is the issue of accountability. “Nobody around here is accountable,” protests the agency CEO as he picks up yet another dropped ball. Meanwhile the culture seems to say, “Firings will continue until morale improves.”

Well-ordered agencies know that clarifying expectations is the cornerstone of accountability. It’s true in personal relationships, client relationships, and employee/manager relationships. Sadly, many agency managers are either too afraid or too busy to outline clear expectations for their staff members. The result is always the same: disappointment that employees aren’t doing their job.

If you want to improve accountability at your agency (instead of just worry about it), take the time to discuss your expectations with your employees. Incorporate them into the employee’s performance review, which then becomes a kind of agreement between manager and employee. Stephen Covey believes the development of such an agreement is the central activity of management. “With an agreement in place, employees can manage themselves within the framework of that agreement,” he says. “The manager then can serve like a pace car in a race. He can get things going and then get out of the way. His job from then on is to remove the oil spills.”7

Performance objectives are the heart of the performance review. At least every six months, ask your employees to review in writing how they did on their performance objectives. Meet to discuss their self-evaluation, give your own input, and then agree on performance objectives for the next six-month period. This process of clarifying expectations and evaluating results is actually a very positive and productive experience – for both parties. It breaks the cycle of employees not understanding what management expects of them, and management being constantly disappointed that employees are not living up to expectations. If it sounds simple, that’s because it is. Commit to doing this with all employees for one year, and you’ll never go back.

Look for management talent

It doesn’t matter how many times we see the oft-touted “Peter Principle” at play, we continue to promote people with absolutely no aptitude for management into management positions. Why? Because they have “earned” it. They put in their time as an art director, so now it’s time to make them a creative director. They were brilliant as an art director. But now they’re a near disaster as a creative director. Sound familiar?

Solution number one: live through two or three years of frustration, after which you either terminate the employee or he leaves anyway. Solution number two: try to give the employee some management skills by sending him to a few seminars for creative directors, hoping this will produce a change in behavior. Solution number three: realize that you’ve made a mistake, and offer to give the employee his old job back with no reduction in salary.

None of these solutions seem very appealing, do they? Yet this is what happens day in and day out at most agencies. You can break this cycle with one simple but unconventional change in your thinking: Create a career path for exceptional people who wouldn’t make good managers.

The problem in the traditional staffing scenario is that as people advance through their careers, once they reach a certain level in their functions they have nowhere to go but into a management position. What about giving these employees other symbols of success instead, such as more money (perhaps as much as a manager) or a better title? You can find ways to bestow physical and psychological rewards on your best people without necessarily elevating them into a management position. The agencies that think this way don’t really want to put their best professionals in management, because then they will lose the tremendous contributions these people make to their respective craft – account planning, media, creative, etc.

You can give more money and more prestige to your best performers without making them managers. It’s a revolutionary thought, but the people who are excellent in their discipline should have the ability to earn as much as their manager. In some very progressive companies, star performers can even earn more than the people who manage them. To confer public prestige (which most good people crave and deserve), use a system of titles that connotes the level of expertise an individual has reached in their discipline.

“Agencies take their top creative talent and promote them into management roles where they don’t get to do the work anymore,” says GSD&M leader Roy Spence.8 To allow creative directors to do what they do best – create – GSD&M created the position of “creative operations director,” which handles the administrative duties usually reserved for the executive creative director; including work distribution, dispute mediation, hiring, and firing.

In the agency business, we constantly encourage our clients to break the rules. So go ahead and break one of your own. Don’t make ascension to management an automatic career path. Keep your best people happy doing what they do best.

Treat your people like your best clients

Think of it this way: your employees don’t work for you, you work for them. They’re the reason you’re successful. They keep the jobs going, the income flowing, and the business growing. Sought-after agencies treat their employees with courtesy, encouragement, and respect.

This is crucial in a business that employs artists – writers, art directors, creative directors, etc. While artists like money just like everyone else, it’s not the reason they come into work every day. They come for psychological rewards. The currency of their trade is acknowledgment, appreciation, and admiration. Talented creatives are repelled by authoritarian management styles, which is why agencies with a “master and servant” management approach never make it onto the national scene.

When you start each business day, ask yourself what you can do to help your employees, not what they can do to help you.



1 Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive, Harperbusiness, 1997.
2 Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton, Now, Discover Your Strengths, The Free Press, 2001.
3 David Ogilvy, The Unpublished David Ogilvy, The Ogilvy Group, 1986.
4 Rob White, APG/US conference presentation, Miami, Florida, July 2000.
5 Scott Bedbury, A New Brand World, Viking Press, 2002.
6 Lamille Report, Top Executives of the 1990s.
7 Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, Simon & Schuster, 1989.
8 Agency of the Year 1998, Adweek, January 25, 1999.

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