Rebuttal: No, agency people aren’t unhappy

Pramit Nairi is vp and user experience director at independent advertising agency RPA.

On Sept. 19, this Digiday piece listed off all the reasons agency people are unhappy. Everything from negativity to egos, pessimism to hyper-competitiveness, and bad attitudes to criticism was cited as why.

The reality is, all of it is true. But isn’t it also true of any other industry? Look at technology — everyone thinks their new tech toy should come out sooner, be faster, bigger, more private, more social, cheaper, more durable. Look at fashion. Look at automobiles. Everything that touches consumers has gazillions of opinions from the peanut gallery and lots of competition. It’s not too uncommon to hear, “The maker of the Acme widget doesn’t know squat. I could do a better job.”

But are we in advertising really that thin-skinned? It’s just a job. We generally get paid pretty fairly to do it, and we do it relatively comfortably in climate-controlled offices and more. That’s more than what most of the working world can lay claim to. We don’t have to dig in coal mines or work our tiny fingers into needle-like points to deliver our work. There are long hours, there are uncertainties and there are challenges. If there weren’t, any dodo could do this, and we’d all be wondering why we’re out of a job because computers took over.

I’m not trivializing the toll this takes on people and their minds. It’s like a tour of duty — work hard, take a break. If you want it to be a walk in the park or never have your artistic side squashed, don’t get into advertising or work at a company that has clients. Maybe an artist-in-residence or a job as a Subway Sandwich Artist is better suited for you. But if you’re willing to do the work, put up with the fact that you’re doing work that your client has hired you to do (spoiler alert: this isn’t about you and what you like), then this is for you. Your client doesn’t get it? Ask yourself, what have you done to really understand your client, their business, and their challenges? You don’t feel in control? What have you done to deserve control? Ask these questions every single day.

There are hundreds of other agencies fighting to take a little bit off your turf, but if you’re honest, open and, above all, hardworking, that rarely manifests into anything serious. Yes, sometimes weird things happen — people have malicious or hidden agendas, there are corporate restructures or the bean counters just want to save some beans — but those are outliers. Most client-agency relationships aren’t terrible if they’re founded on the core tenets of honesty and openness. Dedicate yourself to making your client successful; the happiness bit will follow. If you strive to keep your client happy before making them successful, someone else will come along with a way to make them successful first, leaving you out on the curb.

In terms of culture, it’s pretty straightforward. Go to the top. What are the founders like? What is management like? How accountable are they, and how involved are they? There are the great three Ps (People, Processes, Purposes), and while everyone obsesses about the first two, the last one is generally the most critical in the beginning. Why does the company exist in the first place? Everyone holds companies like Google, Apple, Intuit, Intel, etc., on a pedestal when it comes to benefits and culture, but the reality is that they’ve figured out their purpose first. It came from the founders. It lives on with management. If you’re complaining about company culture, ask yourself: What is my agency’s purpose? And it can’t be “to do innovative and ground-breaking work.” If that’s it, then it should be a startup creating products or services. You’re an agency. Your purpose is to make your clients successful. That’s it. Do what it takes to deliver on that. Everything else will follow — awards, free food, agency hot lists … all of that.

To close, sure, we could all ratchet things down and be nicer, but the reality is that what we’re missing most is honesty and frankness. We’re too mollycoddling and gentle with each other. It’s as if we’re afraid to hurt feelings and will twist and bend to say anything but the truth only to complain that we’re angry from being twisted and bent. Instead, simple honesty will go a lot further, coupled with a deep understanding and appreciation that we’re all in this together and for our client. Everything else will fall into place.

PS: About “unlimited vacation.” Don’t fall for it. It’s just an easy way for companies to keep the liability of accrued vacation off their books. It’s the same trick that wireless carriers use on you. It sounds great, but no one ever really uses it. A tangible count of vacation days — you know, in digits that you can put on a spreadsheet or on your fingers — is great because it then forces you to use them. Take the vacation — and turn off your company email account when you’re on it. Your mind needs the rest. Your family will thank you. Your future self will be happy.

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