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5 larger-than-life agency personalities

5 larger-than-life agency personalities Daniel Flamberg

Everyone thinks that working in advertising is like being in a fun factory. The reality is that it's much more factory than fun these days. The outsized personalities and outsized profits of my early days in the business have been homogenized, sanitized, processed, and downsized over the years -- and even more so by the current recession.


The day-to-day practice of advertising involves two under-staffed and under-siege bureaucracies slamming into each other as they create and produce mountains of marketing communications materials in a myriad of formats to satisfy the needs of regional, national, or global brands. Agencies and clients are risk-averse organizations focused on running high-volume production processes that are fast, cheap, and efficient. Young, eager, smart talent fuels this game where 85 percent of the time and effort is dedicated to cranking out stuff and just 15 percent is spent on strategic thinking, big ideas, and occasionally snappy, memorable, or effective ads.


Driving the ad game are a set of personality types that vaguely resemble those on "Mad Men" -- characters who can be counted to think, act, and talk in predictable ways under almost any situation. Agencies have traditionally attracted people with broad interests, short attention spans, and little ability or tolerance for corporate life. Iconoclasts, wise guys, alternative thinkers, smart alecks, frat boys, hippies, geeks, neurotics, and hot women have traditionally populated agencies. The cast remains mostly the same, though the intensity, texture, and range of behaviors have changed dramatically over the years.


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They can make terrific recommendations for dining, entertainment, leisure, and personal services and will frequently make the arrangements or accompany a client to a restaurant, a golf outing, a ball game, or a salon. They look great in clothes and never refuse an opportunity to fill out the agency or the client tables at charity affairs.


As co-workers, empty suits carefully guard their perceived prerogatives and hoard their perks. They are prissy about their space. Many have a sense of noblesse oblige -- that they contribute to the agency's image and positioning by contributing good looks, breeding, legacies, or a sense of decorum. They can be counted on to dump their work off on others, ignore deadlines and timetables, never know any important details or data, but they often claim credit for others' work. They rarely stay late or put themselves out and never praise colleagues in front of bosses or clients. They are the co-workers you love to hate.



Magicians are the idea people who make the magic that agencies sell. While over-represented among the ranks of art directors or copywriters, magicians work in every department, often distinguishing themselves as strategic planners, media negotiators, or digital wonks. They provide the spark behind every idea and campaign.


Some have native intuition. Others grind it out. But all magicians have an inherent and mysterious understanding of people and the uncanny ability to find the right connection between goods, services, or concepts and their natural audiences. They understand the psychology, the levers, and the channels of communication and can magically marry them together in ways mere mortals can't. They don't need speeches, threats, or chemicals to stimulate or accelerate productivity. They express themselves naturally in creative concepts, in media plans, in web designs, or UI schematics -- or even in dense data tables.


Like crude oil, diamonds, or truffles, magicians have to be found. They cannot be made. The trick, for agencies, is to find and keep enough of them to achieve the critical mass necessary to power or sustain critical departments and then have the management legerdemain to leave them alone and nurture their gifts. Many are good at rallying co-workers to the cause because frequently everyone instantly gets their brilliant ideas and naturally grasps why they are so brilliant.


Motivating and managing magicians is especially difficult since the majority of their great insights and ideas are shot down or modified beyond recognition by clods or cowards. Theirs is a world of highest highs and lowest lows often presented or obscured by oversized or persnickety personality traits. Some are famously insecure or shy. Others never quite get the credit they deserve. And a notable few are over-the-top prima donnas and divas. Many agencies, formally or informally, assign senior account people to be their advocates or protectors because they are the critical resource for agency success.



Experts are the tortoise to the magician's hare. Experts have intense and deep knowledge of functional areas linked to carefully crafted tool sets and processes to help them do their jobs. In many instances, they are their tools. They assign the highest value and esteem to those who know what they know and those who can manifest expertise on-demand.


Experts exist in media, direct, relationship, CRM and database marketing, interactive, project management, traffic, production, and support departments. Experts demand that you follow their lead and follow their processes to enjoy the fruits of their labor. They jealously defend their turf and, under stress or tight timelines, frequently require colleagues to kowtow to them.


Nerdy and temperamental by nature, experts are defined by what they know and what they've done. Few are bashful. An expert will gladly tell you his or her greatest hits and will regale you with tales of how they saved the day. They take themselves very seriously and genuinely believe that no one else can do what they do.


They seek and hoard access to information and parse it out gingerly to those around them. They keep score. They remember every slight. And they hold grudges. They are all about the details but can get distracted by nuances or spun off course by their intrinsic interest in data and new information.


Intense and sometimes anti-social, they require careful handling and frequent stroking. Quick to find fault with others and quick to bemoan their lack of credit, they see themselves as prophets without honor in their own land. Many have specialized degrees and are wannabe or has-been consultants. It's a conceit that sets them apart and, in a weird way, motivates them. They live to be underestimated.


Too often overlooked or undervalued as "below-the-line" functionaries, experts usually understand much more about the client's business, organization, structure, procedures, IT architecture, digital landscape, data channels, and internal politics than the clients themselves. They are natural spies and always develop expert allies buried deep in client organizations.


They usually know what's really going on before anyone else. This enables them to develop useful intelligence and practical work-arounds to satisfy demanding clients or impossible schedules. Experts ensure that an agency can get smart fast, troubleshoot problems on-demand, find critical inflection points to add value to client relationships, smooth ruffled feathers, or gain competitive advantage.



Pleasers reflect the pre-feminist culturally-conditioned behavior of women, who make up the vast majority of professionals in every advertising agency. Nobody really knows why they have an insatiable need to be "good" girls by earning the praise and approval of any nearby authority figure. But they do. By manically internalizing the notion of customer satisfaction, pleasers provide the daily energy, attitude, and lubrication that make ad agencies work.


Everyone loves pleasers. They are always friendly, polite, and on-call. They will drop everything and fly across the country in the middle of the night to attend a frivolous meeting. They will put aside their own plans to listen to a client talk endlessly about every real or imagined relationship in their life. They will re-do copy or art nine times and make their teammates nuts to satisfy a client's whim. They will write decks, formulate reports, format spreadsheets, predict internal politics, and tell clients what to think as they laugh at your jokes. They have your back. And they never say "no." Pleasers are the imaginary best friend you dreamt about and hoped for brought to life.


Pleasers live to please. They take orders easily. They rarely push back. They believe in the system -- no questions asked. They find security and validation in the routine of agency life and with every moment of pleasing delivered.


Many also live to complain. The "yin" of their never-say-die attitude is offset by the "yang" of their whining. It's a unique pathology with its own origins, history, and psychological benefits. Pleasers inherited the mantle of Sisyphus. And yet without pleasers, there is only chaos and conflict.


Pleasers provide the "give" in client-agency relationships. They deliver on the fiction that clients know their own business and have clearly defined marketing needs that can be distinctly communicated to agency partners. Pleasers finesse prickly personalities, tense situations, business crises, and tactical conundrums with the hope that a friendly face and sweet temperament can sort it all it. Ironically much of the day-to-day ad business rests on this sexist premise.


Daniel Flamberg is managing partner at Booster Rocket.


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Helping dominant brands extend their share and grow customer loyalty and helping insurgent and start-up brands capture attention, awareness and market share. Danny Flamberg has been building brands and building businesses for more than 25 years. He...

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Commenter: Ian Cruickshank

2009, November 10

Painfully accurate and subsequently as useful as it is amusing for anyone in or dealing with agency personalities.

Commenter: John Clark

2009, November 04

As always, a delight - Now the record is straight!