Feature

Why being a shit will backfire on you in the end

The Apprentice-style big cheese is pure TV; what gets the best out of staff, and advances you most, is respect.

Unstinted ambition...might end up confining you to the middle ranks
Unstinted ambition...might end up confining you to the middle ranks

The chief executive of a large marketing services company - a big cheese indeed - is on a transoceanic flight with the chairman of his global holding company: an even bigger cheese, a veritable drum.

Discussing the financial performance of his company, the chief executive starts to take the relevant document folder out of his briefcase when the chairman suddenly reaches across and snatches it out of his hand.

"What are you doing?" the infuriated chief exec fumes. "That's mine, not yours," the chairman snarls.

"Everything in that briefcase is mine, not yours."

A tug-of-war over the rapidly disintegrating file escalates, along with the fury and volume of the ?exchanges. Shortly, the chairman leaves and spends the rest of the flight on the other side of the cabin.

There is a perception that this type of horrible, petty and childish behaviour happens all the time in the business world, especially in advertising, and TV programmes such as The Apprentice and Dragons' Den don't help.

A top businessman taking pride in presenting himself on national TV as a loud-mouthed ogre yelling the witty catchphrase "you're fired" at terrified failures will do nothing to dispel the age-old idea among junior employees that to get to, and stay at, the top, you have to be deeply unpleasant.

Yet this doesn't have to be the case. Everyone who's ever got to the top has had to make thousands of unpleasant decisions - some huge, some microscopic - and then see them through.

Every time an executive creative director turns down an idea in a minor internal creative review, or a chief executive refuses a small pay rise, he's a potential villain. The trick to avoiding the accusation of villainy lies in your demeanour.

Richard Hytner, who has climbed to the deputy chairman role at Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide with almost eerily unanimous affection from just about everyone he's ever worked with, says: "I do think it's disproportionately important to do the unpleasant stuff with as much sensitivity as possible, given its deep potential impact.

But, inevitably, not many who get to lead agencies are rigorously trained HR professionals, so unwittingly they can sometimes deal with it rather badly."

There are many examples of management situations being handled "rather badly", such as the chief executive who called his new account-handling department together and told them they were all useless, or an executive creative director who took over a creative department after it had won more awards at the BTAAs than any other agency - and promptly tore all of the ads off the walls, calling them "crap".

A diplomat was once defined as someone who tells you to go to hell but does it in such a way that you look forward to the journey; but without diplomacy, in the position where you have to make and act on nasty decisions, you're doomed to be a nasty bastard.

There is no nice way to fire someone - there are just some ways that are less unpleasant for the recipient than others. And it takes not only sensitivity but also understanding to appreciate how best to handle it.

"There are people who are passionate about business and people who are passionate about ‘the' business," Phil Georgiadis, the chairman and chief executive of Walker Media, says, as an explanation for why some managers handle their people and the issues around them better than others.

It is a point taken up by Gay Haines who, during her time as the worldwide head of Kendall Tarrant, and in her current role as a partner of Grace Blue, has probably placed more top advertising people than anyone else in the past 20 years.

"Strong leadership of an agency is essential, and the best chief executives lead from the front. However, at holding-company level, the needs and operation are a little different," Haines says. 

She points out that if you're one stage removed and detached from the daily dramas of the front line, you could be losing sight of the actual tensions and pressures of the people you deal with and appear insensitive, if not worse. 

John O'Keeffe, the new global creative director at WPP, has climbed about as high as you can get on the creative ladder, and he's emphatic that "shits rise to the middle and then don't get any further".

"They get dropped from the team because no-one will want to work with them. Advertising is now such a collaborative business that you need people on your side and they're simply not going to go along with you if you're a shit," he says.

He believes that it's in the over-stuffed middle-management level, before natural selection weeds out the unpleasant ones, that you'll find the least attractive behaviour.

In the relentless yomp to the summit, looking neither to the left nor the right, people often have no idea about how they're behaving in relation to everybody else.

Nothing superfluous ever encroaches on the vision, which is often limited by the self-serving blinkers.

Nothing is more important than winning - so such people have no idea of how badly they're behaving.

But in a story of almost biblical hubris and retribution, O'Keeffe tells how, as a young writer, he was forced by a large agency creative director team to take some work out of his portfolio and tear it up in front of them, his humiliation fuelling their vanity. Years later, one half of them came to him for a job.

He smiles and says: "As I said, the shits don't survive."

Managing upwards rather than simply managing is a particularly frequent failing at this level, coming to terms as they are for the first time with what they may see as the contradictions of helping their own staff while furthering their own career.

An account manager talks of being called into a creative team's office and literally screamed at ?for several minutes over some copy she'd "failed to sell".

Leaning against the wall were her account director and group account director. "They said absolutely nothing; it was all so petty.

It was a line of copy on a poster for internal use -but presumably they'd decided that it was more in their interest to stay in with the creative team than it was with me."

Andrew Robertson, BBDO's president and chief executive, adds: "When you're on the way up, you have much smaller horizons, with only yourself to look out for and, yes, you could be more selfish."

But with 16,000 people as his responsibility now, he echoes O'Keeffe's point: "You need ?other people too much to abuse them. You just can't do it and be a nasty guy."

It would seem, then, that the nature of the business dictates that only the humane make it to the very top.

Hytner says: "We do have one or two Macbeths with their ‘vaulting ambition that o'er-leaps itself', egged on - no doubt - by Lady Macbeth indoors."

But he optimistically looks forward to a time when more women make it to the top. "I'd be surprised if it ever crossed people's minds to describe the Cilla Snowballs, Farah Ramzan Golants and Kate Stannerses as villains, but my guess would be that our existing and future women leaders will be hugely aware of the effect their behaviour has on those around them."

So it seems Sir Alan is safe from a top ad person taking his seat.

After all, given what it's been fed, what audience would believe in a top businessman or woman who said "well done" or "do you know, you could be right"?