‘You have to manage up’: Confessions of a former agency exec on corporate politics

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 →

Agency culture is known to be politically driven, which is covered by perks like nice offices, unlimited vacation days and casual dress codes. That means it is really hard for people to step up and do meaningful work. Those who are climbing the executive chain would do well to avoid saying anything controversial, and the worst case, people who stay at the agency and wait to get promoted are ones who cannot land a job elsewhere, according to a mid-level executive who recently left advertising. 

“You have people at the agencies who basically don’t want to speak out as much as possible,” he said. “First and foremost [for them] is just to protect their status within the organization, which doesn’t incentivize them to serve the best interest of the agency and the client.”

In today’s Confessions series where we grant anonymity in exchange for candor, this ad veteran shared his thoughts on agency politics that get in the way of delivering the best results for clients. Below are excerpts, slightly edited for clarity.

Give me an example of agency politics at play. 
If the client wants to sign on a new third-party ad verification vendor, what would be the best for the client is to do a rigorous analysis on all the available options and make a quantifiable business case on why one is better than the other. But instead of that process, the business decision will often rest on a group or an individual who is leading that conversation. It doesn’t include the input of other people who may want to weigh in on this matter — it is dictated by the preference of a single person who has a better political standing.

How does this affect the work?
Agencies are not good at using feedback to improve the organization. Let’s say you are a product manager at Google and you want to make changes to AdWords. If you can demonstrate your idea can benefit the company and advertisers in the long run even though there might be a hit in media revenue in the short run, Google will take that advantage immediately. When you talk about agencies, it is about how much revenue they can get in the short term — they are not able to realize the benefit from that change until far far down the road.

How would that affect a person’s career development?
The further up in an organization you get, the less influence you actually have on the ground because you oversee more and you are not necessarily making day-to-day decisions. And as the fewer competent executives there are at your agency, the less incentivized you are to suggest an alternative. You have to manage up. You don’t want to go in a different direction from what your direct boss or your boss’s boss has planned. They also have even less visibility on the ground than you do, so it creates a paradoxical situation where the people who theoretically have the most influence are trying not to speak up while senior executives don’t have honest feedback on people on the ground or in the middle ranks.

Doesn’t sound very innovative.
Agencies like talking about innovation. For instance, they may build an interface and call it a “social listening tool.” But there’s no underlying technology that makes the agency work easier and more accurate. I’ve seen so many desperate attempts for innovation. In most cases, they are more of a branding tool than anything else. This is partly incentivized by the current pitch process. Clients continue to evaluate agencies by if they can craft a great sales pitch and serve their business at the bottom-of-the-barrel price point. So for agencies, how to paint a nice picture for clients is much more important than their ability to deliver.

What needs to change culture-wise?
You really need to empower people who are not in the executive ranks, incentivizing them to bring the best to the forefront rather than play defense in corporate politics all the time. The real challenge for agencies is getting A players on the ground and paying them competitive wage. On a given account team, you probably have six or seven associates who do lots of manual work. Some processes can be better automated so you can hire fewer people, say two associates, and double their salary. And if you get rid of one svp, you can probably hire five junior-level people or three middle managers.

Join us at the Digiday Agency Summit on March 1-3 in Nashville, Tennessee, where we’ll be talking about agency culture, talent and silos.


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