Dear Jeremy, there have been a lot of new senior staff appointed at my agency recently, leaving us all a bit unsettled and unsure of where the character of the agency is heading. What’s the best approach: team up with other members of the "old guard" and stay true to the traditional culture of the company, or get to know the new faces and their way of working?
About 40 years ago, the agency I was with hired an account executive at board level; in itself, an unusual move at the time. And I vividly remember the MD saying: "The fantastic thing about Barry is that he’s absolutely not a Thompson person!" And, indeed, he wasn’t.
But when you come to think about it, to define and admire a person entirely because of what he isn’t is a rum thing to do. The great majority of JWT account executives at this time (I think they may still have been called "representatives", a quaint relic from the past) were well-mannered, reasonably well-educated, honourable and conscientious.
They were natural team players. So if the critical qualification required of potential senior recruits was that they should simply be none of those things, there was plenty of scope. We had no sociopaths, for example, and no serial molesters. We had no self-obsessed Napoleons and no fantasists. We had no creeps and no chancers.
And Barry was a chancer. A chancer with charm, it’s true – but a chancer nonetheless. He couldn’t help it; that’s how he was. He was at his absolute best as a chancer – and when he tried to appear thoughtful, strategic, honourable and conscientious, he floundered hilariously. I think we tried to pair him off with some of our more dodgy clients, quite forgetting that dodgy clients appreciate well-mannered and conscientious account managers even more than the straighter-laced: they need them more. Barry was soon a very unhappy person – and entirely understandably felt bound to blame his unhappiness on the alien culture in which he found himself.
So I wish I knew a bit more about all these new senior staff your agency has recently recruited. If they’ve been taken on mainly because they’re not like the old guard (ie. you), you’re all in trouble. Like opposition political parties with no credible set of alternative policies, they’ll define themselves not by what they are but by what they’re not. And what they’re not is you. They will have been led to believe that they’ve been taken on to shake the old place up. Nothing that they find on arrival will meet with their approval; the very fact that they’ve found it will be proof enough of its current irrelevance. The old guard will become older and more and more guarded. Positions will become entrenched and gangs will develop. Already you’re wondering which of the two gangs you should ingratiate yourself with.
The answer is neither. An infusion of new blood doesn’t have to entail a culture transplant. The whole point of an infusion of new blood is to prolong the useful life of an existing organ. If you can help make that happen, the members of both gangs will be immensely grateful to you.
So grateful, in fact, that a year from now, there’ll be only one.
I’m in two minds about my agency’s relationship with intermediaries. When we pitch through several of them, we never get anywhere, and the general feeling is that there is a prejudice against us because of a disagreement over a pitch. Is it worth us trying to improve our relationship with them, or should we cut our losses and work only with intermediaries that give us a look-in?
Please write out 500 times: "The most probable explanation for failing to win a pitch is that, in the eyes of the client, another agency made a better one."
The moment you allow your staff – or worse, encourage your staff – to believe that the dice are loaded against you, then, perversely, they will be. Already, you’re developing a prejudice against certain intermediaries on the unproven ground that they have a prejudice against you. This will become widely known, not least by those intermediaries for whom you will have developed a prejudice in favour. (And don’t try to pretend otherwise; you can’t spurn some without automatically being seen to prefer others.)
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