The A-holes Rule.

I’m not a huge fan of rules.  Creative people as a species are naturally averse to them.  But if you want to develop a business with a strong culture you need some rules to guide you.

When I joined my first agency executive team our first order of business was to create some simple rules to govern the organization. Because we believed that a great organization is made of great people who enjoy working together the first rule we unanimously agreed on was the ‘No Assholes’ rule. For those not familiar with the rule, or the obviousness of the phrase, it means that your organization will not tolerate people who act like A-holes.

Preventing the A-holes from joining your team isn’t easy. Because they are on their best behavior in interviews. Sometimes we sniff them out (yeah, I said it). But often they sneak past our filters.  So as much as we try to prevent an A-hole from getting into our organizations in the first place, they get in. So now what?

You just get rid of them, right?  After all, no one likes an A-hole. Unfortunately it’s typically not that simple. Because let’s face it, there are a lot of talented A-holes. The drive, intelligence, confidence and will of a typical A-hole makes things happen. It’s common for them to make a quick impact and create immediate wins.

But that upside comes with an equally significant downside. Because A-holes are uncomfortable to be around, they drain morale and sap energy. The unfortunate reality is that when you retain an A-hole, it sends a terrible message about your values to your most valued employees. You’ll watch them drop like flies.  Among the employee your retain you’ll lose untold dollars in productivity as co-workers gather to talk about what an A-hole the A-hole is.

Of course the worst problem of all occurs when the A-hole develops a close relationship with the client.  Because then the agency has to decide whether they want to lose the valuable contributions of the A-hole and irritate or lose a client.

I recommend a proven 2-step process to handling such problem employees.  First, ask a handful of cross functional team members if they think the co-worker in question is an A-hole.  If the consensus is yes, put on your scrubs and perform the Assholectomy.

There simply is no room for the distraction, the division and the drama caused by A-holes. Accepting them tells the rest of the organization that it’s okay to be an A.  That can’t happen. Because eventually enough people will leave, or threaten to leave that you have no choice but to get rid of the jerk anyway.

After implementing the A-hole rule in the past, I’m proud to say we purged several very talented but very difficult people. And the culture, vibe, productivity  and love for the organization improved as a result. That’s why the ‘No Assholes’ rule will be printed on page one of The Perfect Agency Project handbook.

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The perfect agency could be like the DMV.

Advertising agencies talk a lot about change. And with good reason. Over the past 19 years I have seen the flavor of the moment hop from Full Service to Media to Interactive to Digital to CRM to Experiential to Social to Mobile to Data to Omnichannel to Dynamic Messaging. I’m probably missing something. Wasn’t there a Nano-Wow moment?

So how does the perfect advertising agency avoid getting caught flat-footed?  In Ken Blanchard’s book, Customer Mania he shares a story that provides a potential blueprint. Ken visited the DMV in San Diego, and to his surprise, the experience was quick, efficient and pleasant. Which prompted Ken to approach the director and ask how he had transformed this typically unpleasant environment into one that offered outstanding customer service.

The director replied, ‘My job is to reorganize the department on a moment to moment basis depending on citizen need.’  To accomplish this he cross trained the staff so that everyone was flexible enough to absorb customer demand at any given moment.

 I love this thinking. Because it puts the client need-of-the-moment in the spotlight.  No one is focused on what they used to do. Or what they would like to do. Rather, they are focused on a very dynamic reality.

With the DMV example in mind the perfect agency must do three things to handle the constant shifts on the marketing landscape.

  1. Train employees to have a wide variety of skills. This means teaching brand-focused team members digital skills. Teaching digitally focused team members CRM skills. And teaching content-focused team members design skills. That way we can swarm to the demand, whether it lasts for the day or the decade.
  2. Morph daily.  Stay flexible, pliable and stretchy. Move people around. Explore new technologies. Encourage team members to work on a wide variety of clients. Experiment. Don’t create ruts.  The stretching stimulates the brain. Which leads to creativity and innovation.  In short, create motion to keep the agency in motion.
  3. Poll your clients.  Ask them what kind of expertise they expect to add to the mix next. Find out what current efforts they expect to swell. This gives you a weather forecast. And if you can get in front of it the wind will fill your sails.

So let’s be like the San Diego DMV. Let’s stay on our toes.  Keep our ears, eyes and minds open.  And let’s be the resource our clients want us to be.

The Perfect Agency Project

I am an advertising enthusiast.  Well, technically I’m an advertising professional since advertising has been my primary source of income for almost two decades.  But I call myself an enthusiast because I’m enthusiastic about the industry and energized by its ever-increasing potential to help businesses grow.

I’ve had a pretty decent career so far.  I started as a copywriter.  And at 37 years old I became the Chief Creative Officer of a 275 person ad agency with four offices.  Recently I was asked what challenge I want to take on next.  The answer is simple.  I want to spend the rest of my advertising career creating the perfect agency.  No big deal, right?  Just perfection.

To be successful I’ll need two things.  First, a vision of what the perfect agency looks like.  And second, the drive and determination to narrow the gap between the idealized vision and where we stand at the end of each business day. I believe that the ideal can be achieved at any agency, as long as the team is committed to continuously absorbing and implementing the best ideas.  I expect this to be a stimulating journey.  And I’m sure feathers will be ruffled.  On this quest, I also expect to have a lot of fun, to create a lot of interesting work, to develop deep relationships with my clients and coworkers, and to make a lot of money for the agency and our clients.

I’ll share my learnings, experiences, challenges, conversations and successes along the way.  And I want to hear from you.  So I am calling on the experts, the newbies, the peanut gallery, and even the clients’ wives, and husbands. I want to hear as many perspectives as possible.  Because if I’m to help create the perfect agency it’s going to have to work for everyone, employees and clients alike.  Oh, and by the way, in the perfect agency we might not call people employees or clients. Oh snap! That’s called foreshadowing.