“One generation plants the trees, and another gets the shade.”
That proverb went through my mind as I walked in the lobby of a recent AAAA conference to see hundreds of copies of AdAge and Adweek laid out across a table. Both magazines featured stories about the Chairman of A Certain Minneapolis Agency (let’s call them “ACMA”) on the cover, lamenting the agency’s supposed fall from grace.
I distinctly remember seeing the same guy pictured in the New York Times a few years ago. Back then, he was basking in success, the recipient of a profile so fawning that my dad called me and said, “He sounds like a great guy.”
So what happened? Although the pump-and-dump hype cycle of the business press sells lots of magazines, it masks the bigger phenomenon that occurred at ACMA and other agencies who were hot one year and not the next: the tree planters left, and shade lovers took over.
For those of you who are students of ad history, you know that in the early days, ACMA didn’t hire well-known people who had already won creative awards out the yin yang. No, the agency made people famous along with the great work, reveling in the pseudo-fame that is creative advertising superstardom. You know who they are. But those people, having planted the trees, hired a new generation of people content to rest in the shade.
That’s not to say there aren’t talented, hard-working people at well-established agencies like ACMA. But somewhere in the hiring and promotion cycles, something goes haywire. I’ve seen history repeat itself at agencies near and far: people do great work in relative obscurity and get acclaim and fame for themselves and the agency. The agency gets recognized, earns a great reputation and starts hiring people who’ve already earned the fame elsewhere. A sense of entitlement takes over, because the shop, in essence, gets to pick and choose people to work there.
This next generation of leaders decide that since they’ve become famous for planting the trees, they can show up with a gold or silver shovel in their hands, choosing to spend much of their time enjoying the shade. Meanwhile, the agency gets too full of itself and loses accounts and people, and along comes another group of tree planters at another agency to steal the thunder.
The cycle infects the work as well as the hiring process. Agency HR people and hiring managers look for people with “pedigrees,” the ones who’ve already planted the trees—but have no real incentive to keep doing so. Inevitably, turnover and turmoil ensue—and that’s news everywhere from Adweek to BusinessWeek to industry blogs, as it has been recently at ACMA.
So is your agency full of tree planters or shade lovers?
I’ve always believed the best advertising people have an element of hunger and discontent in their personalities. It’s rooted in a simple desire to improve upon what’s been done before. Which is not the same as being disagreeable or arrogant, although those qualities are easily confused. Most people enter the ad biz hungry. But at a certain point, after initial success, contentedness take over: an impossibly cushy gig, a desire for more family life or merely the belief that one’s shit doesn’t stink. And in the course of an advertising career, that contentedness coincides with promotions to managerial positions. Many great Copywriters, Art Directors or Account Executives have no business managing other people as Creative Directors or Supervisors.
Look, it happens in many fields—take music. Bands start off young, pissed, inspired and raw. They make great music, sell CDs and get rich. Then they’re not so pissed and inspired anymore. So their subsequent albums aren’t all that good. But they still have their fans, and there are plenty of state fairs for those bands to play at for the rest of their careers.
But in the ad industry, we’re in an age in which the trees are getting cut left and right, and new ones are planted all the time. The fame, the glory and the reputations that are made can quickly fade. The Web has given rise to a new dimension in marketing ideas, thinking and executions. Plus, it’s given our industry a whole new level of transparency. We see new campaigns, hear news and call bullshit on poseurs so much faster these days.
To thrive these days, agencies should look for the tree planters. They’re not the ones who ensure an agency can grow strong and healthy, provided the roots remain in place.
Don’t wait to make sure your agency is doing the right things with the right people. Start digging.