Confessions of an agency CEO: ‘We don’t take care of our people’

This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

In advertising, it’s not unusual to make the switch from the client side to the agency side of the business — and vice versa. A number of high-profile marketers make the move to the client side because of greater control in decision-making. The creative side appeals to those who would flex their creative muscles a bit more.

For the latest in our Confessions series, we speak to the CEO of an agency, who started off on the client side and has been on both ends of the spectrum. Excerpts:

You moved from the client side to the agency side after many years. Why?
As we started seeing the rise of digital as a marketing vehicle, I pretty much started arguing with my bosses saying we need to dedicate more of our budgets to digital. I felt trapped. I felt like I was constantly arguing upstream, and it’s a really tough place to be when you want to be creative and innovative. My agency had been my client. At first I started helping them with a couple of projects, and then I came on full time.

What was the last straw?
I was exhausted. And I wasn’t exhausted because I was doing good work. I was exhausted because of arguing and telling people why and showing people why. I spent so much time doing that I felt like I was losing my creativity.

What’s the best part about agency life versus being on the client side?
Working on multiple clients. In TV, I was working on my brand, whereas now I can work with a handful of TV clients, but I can also work with packaged goods, and I can work with electronics, financials, and they’re all different strategies. So it keeps it exciting and really fresh.

And the hardest part?
Making peace with the fact that you’re no longer the client. I don’t get to make all the decisions anymore. You know that this path is probably the right one for your client, but you can only guide them so far; they ultimately are the decision-makers. And they may not always choose the path that you’ve laid out.

What do you think is the biggest problem in agencies today?
We all try to be very shiny and pretty, but we don’t take care of our people the way that we should. Employee benefits are great and they are important, but I think that the benefit we forget is how do we take care of the individual, the person. I think mentoring is a really important way to do that. There’s a lot of politics at play and people fear for their jobs.

Do agencies have a talent crisis?
It’s a self-inflicted crisis. Agencies don’t treat their staff the way that they should, and they don’t mentor people and don’t build bonds with people. And that’s why people leave. If you know that you have an employee who’s due for a raise and who’s having a hard time financially, see what you can do within the company. If you know you have an employee having a family crisis, give him some time off without them having to ask. Be part of their team, and they’ll be a part of yours.

And what are your thoughts on millennials?
Millennials unfortunately have been raised in a world where everybody gets a trophy and everybody’s wonderful and everybody is talented and everybody deserves everything. I may or may not have got kicked out of a PTA once because I said not every kid deserves a medal at these mini-Olympics they were doing.

That’s harsh. Do you want to elaborate?
There’s no impetus to be the best, and there’s no impetus to drive and say, “I want to be in the first place.” Millennials haven’t been taught that hunger, that fire, that drive. I’ve had millennials walk in for interviews and ask, “Oh wait, where is my office?”

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