June 25, 2012

So You Wanna Run An Ad Agency

If you're the typical wildly demented ad professional, you probably think that some day you'd like to run your own agency. Since I've been doing that for several centuries I thought I'd give you a few tips.

Managing an ad agency is like delivering a baby. It seems pleasant enough in theory. But until you've actually done it you have no idea how messy it is.

Forget everything you've ever seen on Mad Men. Running an ad agency will not make you beautiful, handsome, or sexy. I suggest you Google me.

There are only two types of people who work at ad agencies -- crazy people and people training to be crazy.

From where you sit now, your colleagues seem good-natured and sensible. When you're their employer, you will soon find that all the good-natured and sensible people are over at Subway making pastrami melts.

One day someone you have worked with happily for 10 years will come into your office and close the door. She will tell you that she has left her husband and two children. She has fallen in love with your biggest client and is now living in the back of his 4-Runner. As soon as he tells his wife about this (which will happen "any day now") they will be moving to Oregon to make leather candles.

One afternoon you will be on a conference call between several of your staff and a film production company. The production company's director will be going on and on about how much he loves the storyboard they're bidding on. While he's doing this, your agency producer will be entertaining the troops by using his right hand to make the universal gesture for "whack-off." Two weeks later a letter will arrive by messenger informing you that a legal action has been instituted against you for enabling a hostile work environment.

One morning at 3:30 am your home phone will ring. It will be the the nice young Stanford graduate you hired in your billing department. He has been arrested for shooting off a gun at a strip club. It's all a terrible mistake, but can you come downtown and bail him out?

You will think of your agency as "your team." And, like all teams, they will have a remarkable capacity for petty grievances and will go out of their way to undermine each other.

Running an ad agency has nothing to do with making ads, working with clients, or managing accounts .

Your only real job is to keep crazy people from killing each other.


Chris Seiger said...

That's what you get for hiring Plaxico Burress in your billing department. Stanford my eye.

In my perfect world, surrounding my magnificent house of glass, ad agency people aren't crazy like you imply, but instead, people of irrevocable personality. Or is that irreconcilable personality. In any case, they're characters. And stuff always happens with, to or because of characters. 

In fiction, it's called "development." I suppose in your case, it's called bailing out a Stanford grad who busted some caps in a strip club. Either way, life is never, ever boring. And what are lawyers for, after all?

BeyondReach said...

Chris - in my experience characters are only good in comedy and for Fox News. Generally they are just disruptive. The OctoMom is a character but what good has she provided. BTW - well done on Plaxico comment

Chris Seiger said...

I think characters are necessary. It would be incredibly and unbearably boring to work without them. I do, however, agree that the wrong characters could lead an agency into disrepute or worse, onto "The Pitch."

alex fraser said...

Hi Bob,
This isn't related to the post above but I thought you may be interested. 
Steve Henry (you probably know who he is, excellent former copywriter & CD) wrote today about Cannes in a blog for the UK's Campaign magazine. 
Most of it is pretty run of the mill stuff but I was intrigued by the bit at the end:

"At one point I was giving a lecture to a bunch of talented young creatives in a Cannes academy run by Bob Isherwood.
We were riffing on the challenges facing the industry and a guy in the front row said “all it takes is for Google to turn the dial up and it’s game over for the ad agencies.”
You know that time when you’re a kid playing outside, in the glorious late summer sunshine, and you sense that your Mum is about to appear at the door and tell you it’s time for bed …
It felt a bit like that."
I have posted a question asking what Google could specifically do but I doubt I will get a specific answer. I think this is part of the whole self hating adman thing where saying advertising is dead etc makes you look clever. 
I reckon if Google has a dial they'd turn it. Who wouldn't?

Keep up the good work. 

Les Comely-Fashion said...

Bloke I know who had once set up his own agency but now is ECD of a big corporate one said "If you need to find a way to get rid of a lot of money, very quickly, set up your own ad agency."

Darryl Jonckheere said...

Wow, never a dull moment. Crazy because advertising attracts a lot of inquisitive creative types? 

This post sounds like a rough script for the season 6 opener of Mad Men. 

Phil_Adams said...

Running an ad agency was the worst job I ever had.

I ended up running an agency because I was good at winning business, building relationships and creating environments conducive to good work being created and bought.

None of which prepares or qualifies you for the nightmare that you so eloquently describe.

I did a six year stint as managing director, managing egos and trying to be interested in the cost of photocopier ink.

I reinvented myself as planning director of a digital agency. I'm learning everyday and I'm reasonably good at my job again. I am much, much happier.

And I'm a direct fee earner, which is (fingers crossed) a more secure place to be in a marketing services group than general management.

Be careful what you wish for.

Mickey Lonchar said...

The thing about running an agency that makes you a frequent visitor to the Maalox aisle is that you always seem to be on the knife's edge. A single phone call can literally mean the difference between writing fat bonus checks or tagging the furniture for auction. 

You got the account/you didn't get the account. The client loved the campaign/the client pissed all over it. The bank approved your new line of credit/the bank snickered and said no freaking way. An endless game of financial whack-a-mole. What, the phone's ringing? What's it going to be today?

As infuriating and volatile as agency people can be, they are also some of the smartest, most interesting people you will ever meet. And, even though it works against your 'management instincts,' the best thing you can do is create a safe place for them to be weird.