EDITORIAL: Structure can't be replaced by talent

One of the more solemn cliches in advertising is that the real assets of an agency are the people who work there. It's true, of course, and never more so than in these difficult times of wage freezes and large-scale redundancies. Attracting and keep talented staff is as important as the ability to attract clients and has a distinct bearing on it. In many ways, however, it is more difficult.

Clients are used to working within certain corporate disciplines and are prepared to exercise a degree of patience as they climb towards the top ranks of the marketing world.

Advertising people, in contrast, tend to be highly impatient, sometimes irrational and highly egotistical. Taken at their most extreme, creative people want to do work that makes them famous, account people want to keep their clients happy. In theory these two aims are not mutually exclusive (if they were no brilliant work would ever see the light of day) but in practice very few agency managers spend a day at work without dealing with high levels of friction and disagreement.

The talent issue has recently been aired in an influential article in The New Yorker, reprinted in The Times last week. It uses the example of one company that took the talent mindset very seriously - a company where McKinsey conducted 20 separate projects, where McKinsey's billings topped $10 million a year, where a McKinsey director regularly attended board meetings and where the chief executive himself was a former McKinsey partner. The company, of course, was Enron, which, along with its auditor, Arthur Andersen, has been driven out of business.

The writer Malcolm Gladwell successfully argues that smart people might be overrated in business, that the self-fulfilment of a few star employees - a key driver for many advertising agencies - might possibly be in conflict with the best interests of the company as a whole. Discussing Enron's collapse and its reliance on those legions of brilliant young men and women from McKinsey, Gladwell makes a startling point about business structure that many in the advertising world are beginning to ponder. "They (The McKinsey people) were there looking for people who had the talent to think outside the box, he writes.

"It never occurred to them that, if everyone had to think outside the box, maybe it was the box that needed mending."


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