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December 1, 2009
Learning and Leading from the Middle

When it came to our professional careers, my brother and I had little in common. For twenty years I made ads at a variety of agencies, from obscure boutiques and specialty shops to giants such as NW Ayer (RIP) and Young & Rubicam. And for twenty years my brother was a frontline firefighter for the FDNY. While I always enjoyed hearing about the always entertaining, sometimes heroic exploits of the members of 41 Truck in the Bronx, we rarely discussed my exploits in Adland. For instance, in the days after 9/11 while my brother was at Ground Zero, I was in Boca Raton with my client at a yogurt convention. Taking a creative risk or saving an account was no match for the risking and saving of lives.

It wasn’t until we both neared the end of our careers, both essentially as middle managers in our mid-to-upper 40s, that I realized our professional lives had more in common than either of us realized, and that rooted in our small patch of common ground were truths and insights applicable to any career. My brother was talking to me about a recent apartment building fire at which his captain, a man more than ten years his junior, gave an order that was tactically and potentially tragically flawed. My brother had more time on the job than anyone in his house but had chosen never to take the Lieutenant’s or Captain’s tests. The 24-hour tours that firefighters worked allowed him to spend more time with his family and at his second job as a mason than the more structured five-day a week routine of an officer. It was a choice. But, as he was discovering outside the building that he and his fellow firefighters were poised to enter, that choice was not without consequences. He pulled the captain aside and told him that there was a better, more procedurally correct way to fight the fire. When the young captain (who had risen in rank more rapidly than normal because of senior level loses suffered during and after 9/11) balked, my brother persuaded him with, let’s say, more vigor.

I surprised even myself when I told my brother, “That’s exactly what I’m going through.”
      “What do you mean?” he asked.
      “Of course, no lives are at stake in my job. Just, you know, things like market share for a hairball-resistant cat food, or low-fat yogurt. But for the last five or so years I’ve been answering to more and more bosses who are considerably younger than me. Some are considerably more talented than me and some of them are open to suggestions from someone beneath them with more experience. But others, not so much. They see any suggestion as a threat and would rather send people in the wrong door of a burning building than concede a mistake. We made choices throughout our careers,” I told my brother, “and now we have to live with the good and the bad of it.”

In my brother’s case, it was a decision to remain a rank and file firefighter in order to see more of his family and make a better living. But my situation was more complex. In 20 years I had gone from golden boy to rising star to burnt-out CD to disillusioned drone to the comeback kid to wise, valuable, thankful for the paycheck veteran to someone who decided to try his hand at another dream to…You get the idea. At one point I was on the verge of running a creative department, and though the easy answer would be to say it wasn’t right for me, the truth is that I wasn’t very good at what it took to succeed at that level.

I recently told a version of this story to an audience of students at the Brandcenter at VCU on a stage usually frequented by true titans of the ad industry. I told them that I was far from a titan. And it is precisely because I had never had my name on the door of an agency, or made the legendary Super Bowl spot, or been on the cover of Fast Company in an ironic t-shirt that there was value in my tale. Most of us will not reach the top. Many will rise to the middle. Others will yo-yo back and forth from the middle, and others, frankly, are there for a reason. They don’t have sufficient creative or strategic brilliance or a personality capable of withstanding the daily pressures of high profile leadership. One student raised her hand and asked if I was suggesting that she aspire to middle management. “Hardly,” I answered. “But if that’s what suits you best there should be no shame in it. And if that’s where you end up despite wanting to rise higher, you can still be of great value to an agency.”

We work in an industry that emphasizes (often rightly) stars, but at the best agencies there are many other brilliant celestial objects revolving around the alpha star, each with his or her unique skills and experiences. When I was a so-called creative on the rise at NW Ayer running a major pitch for the first time, it took a veteran art director with no executive aspirations to pull me aside and tell me what I was doing right and wrong, whom to watch out for, and whom I could rely upon. He also told me I didn’t know squat about typography. I soon discovered that agency leadership might not be in the cards for me, but I realized there were some things I could do as well if not better than anyone else. From the middle we can mentor and learn from the next generation of juniors in our field. From the middle we can also learn from and tactfully provide insight and guidance to our leaders. The best agencies and leaders recognize the reciprocal aspects of this dynamic.

From the middle it is possible to save an idea, an account and, in my brother’s case, something more.

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James P. Othmer is the author of "Adland: Searching for the Meaning of Life on a Branded Planet" and the novel "The Futurist." He is currently conducting seminars in conjunction with We Interrupt This Story, a forthcoming book about the narrative revolution in branding and culture. Follow him on Twitter.

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