Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Halloween Special: How To Survive An Ax-Swinging Attack Inside The Agency

Albert Brooks demonstrates how to get fired from your ad agency job. (WARNING: F-bombs)

This one's a Trick Or Treat leftover from a few weeks back. Thought the title was most appropriate for raising the hairs on your neck this Halloween. Enjoy.


Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’ve likely been hearing a lot about the economic mess our country is in right now. And while Congress works to pass a plan to help bail out Wall Street and troubled homeowners, a lot of people are nervous. That includes the people who work in the business of advertising and marketing.

Let’s face it, ad agencies and marketers can be insecure and neurotic enough even in the best of times. But throw in what experts believe is the worse economic crisis since the Great Depression, and even the most stable of businesses can start to shake like Barney Fife on nine cups of espresso.

So what do you do if the country’s financial crisis becomes your employer’s financial crisis?

Here’s the deal. In a crisis you have 3 ways to react. You can freeze up and do nothing, you can turn and run, or you can stand your ground and fight. History shows that it’s the people who stand their ground and fight who come out ahead in the long run.

So if you’re ready to stand up and fight you need to think about yourself the way your boss thinks about you.

Survival Tactics:

As an employee, keep in mind that when it comes to your employment and whether you should stay or go, your boss is most likely thinking, “What’s in it for me?”

As the boss is processing that question, here’s what you hope he or she will think of when thinking about you:

1. Easy to manage.
Your boss has a ton of stress. Between interactions with clients, the agency partners, and other stresses including family and personal finances, your boss may be one Xanax away from his own meltdown. So when it comes time to decide who stays and who goes, it just may be the employee who causes the boss the most stress who gets the ax. So things like keeping a positive attitude and not whining over every little thing, can go a long way toward keeping the peace with the boss–and toward keeping your job.

2. Extremely talented.
Whether you’re a copywriter, art director, web programmer, media buyer or whatever, there are varying degrees of talent. How talented are you? Granted, talent is usually directly linked to salary. So the price tag that came with your high level of talent may be the deal breaker for keeping you on board. But if your boss is comparing two employees of equal salary, then you want to be the one your boss sees as having the most talent. So if you’re a creative and you don’t think you’re as together on talent as you should be, maybe it’s time to grab some award books and do some serious studying up on your skill set. Just be careful about doing it on the company clock.

3. Understands the business.
I’ve seen some very talented ad agency creatives who were pretty clueless about the business they were in. Heck, I was one of those people myself for several years. Understanding the business means a lot of things. For example, it means understanding the mission and values of the company you work for. It means understanding that we’re in the business to make clients money by increasing their sales. It also means understanding our clients’ businesses and understanding their customers. Be one of the people in your agency who gets it so that when the ax starts to fall, you won’t have to get it then.

If you think you’re short on business sense, start reading more of the industry publications and websites especially Advertising Age as well as those relating to the business of your client. Maybe even schedule a meeting with boss to talk about aspects of the business you’d like to know more about. Your enthusiasm to learn more about the business may impress the boss enough to mark you off that mental cut list.

Mad Men's Don Draper explains productivity.

4. Highly productive.
Productivity means money to the agency. If you can crank out three ads in the time it takes your co-workers to do one of equal quality, you are the more productive employee. If you’re the employee who takes eight hours to do what your co-workers can do in two hours, start looking at how you can work more efficiently, without sacrificing quality. You may need to set up some systems to get things done faster.

For instance, a few years into the business, I realized it was taking me too long to create concepts for ads. Then I started working with a system that helped me produce ideas much, much faster. Soon I was creating more in 2 hours than I had previously done in 8 or 16 hours. And the ideas were actually better and more solid than ever. I think just having a system in place, relieved me of a lot of stress and gave me more confidence going into any project that I could come up with great ideas. That alone was one of the greatest breakthroughs for me personally in my career.

Having said that, if you’re a junior level employee, it’s understood that you are not going to be as productive as the senior level employee. That’s why you likely earn much less. But still, you want to be more productive than your junior-level co-workers.

Also, be careful about how you use your time in terms of doing personal business at the office. Personal emails, surfing and mindless chit-chatting with co-workers isn’t productive. Sure now and then, we all need a break. Just keep in mind that time is money. It’s different in every agency. If your whole department is in the hallway joking with the boss, then by all means, get in on the fun if your have the time. Which leads to the next point.

5. Strong relationships within the agency.
At the end of the day, business is all about relationships. If you have strong relationships within the agency, that always is a plus. It doesn’t mean you’re bulletproof. But if your relationships in the agency are bad, it often means you’re likely a stress to someone. Which goes back to point number 1 – Easy to manage.

The key to good relationships is trust. People have to know they can trust you. I don’t think there’s a short way to tell you how to get to this point in your personal development. This comes down to being a person of solid character. Someone who doesn’t talk about coworkers behind their backs. Someone who does what you say you will do. Someone who doesn’t point fingers when something goes wrong. Someone who’s willing to say, “I made a mistake,” when necessary and suffer the consequences. There’s so much here to this, but I just can’t cover it all. Unfortunately, there’s not a “Character Development” class required to get into business.

Also, teamwork and cooperation go a long way toward strong relationships in the agency. If you’re all done with your work but see a co-worker crunching to meet a deadline, make a sincere offer to help. Your co-worker will likely return the favor for you sometime.

6. Strong relationships with the clients.
If you have bad relationships inside the agency, but you have strong relationships with the clients, you may be safe. Especially if you are the key relationship between the agency and the client. But most often your relationship with the client is based on the results you are bringing to the table. And that all goes back to how well you understand the agency business and your client’s business.

However, if you are one of 3 people from the agency who has a great relationship with the client, don’t count on this saving you. Regardless, if your job security is based on your relationship with the client, the second the client takes another job two thousand miles away, your pink slip may be waiting for you.

Reality Check:

Now here’s a question: do these qualifiers sound familiar? If your agency has any kind of internal review process, they should. Because these are just the kinds of qualifiers that appear on employee reviews. So if you’re questioning how valuable you are to your employer, go take a look at your last employee review and you should see the answers. If you don’t feel good about how the review reads, let’s hope you’ve been making a lot of improvements since then.

Again, there are sometimes when even the best of employees get cut. After all, no one ever said life was fair. The good thing is, if the above descriptions fit you, the recommendations you get from your boss for your next job will go a long way toward getting your next job.

Got more ideas for how to avoid getting axed? Let's hear them.

Kevin McIntosh is a freelance copywriter in the Nashville market. His work can be seen at

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