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November 14, 2009
We’re All Peons and Gunslingers

It bothers me that the ad agency world has turned us into this. If you’re in your 20s and making peanuts and working ungodly hours, guess what? You’re a peon.

If you’re 40 or over and all you’re getting is freelance gigs, guess what? You’re a gunslinger. In your 30s? Enjoy your third decade, my friend.

Are you unemployed? Are you unhappy in your ad job? You are my reader. These are trying times for the advertising industry. And as I looked around for someone to blame, an interesting article in my local newspaper appeared.

It was commentary by one of the local ad agency heads about the direction that advertising is headed. It was the typical stuff I’ve heard ad execs spout to impress clients—new media landscape, frugal consumer, measurement, accountability, blah, blah, blah. The agency head closed by writing that this “is one of the most exciting times in history for advertisers and their agencies.”

Exciting? I’m not sure the thousands of unemployed ad professionals would label 2009 as exciting. That said, what really steamed me was not one word in the article was given to acknowledging what this major agency has done to its workforce, from parting with proven performers to whacking an entire dept. I’m sure it was a business imperative but where’s the transparency?

Wait, I found it. This video is personal testimony from Kansas City homebuilders. It’s brutally honest. Note how they talk about their employees and how tough it was parting with them.

Last time I checked, it’s people inside the ad agency that produce the work. It’s account people. It’s creative people. It’s media people. It’s Web people. It’s IT people. It’s operations people. It’s the receptionist. It’s the mail guy or gal. And when all these people feel stressed, they simply do not produce at a high level. Their heart isn’t in it.

Yes, I’ve read that productivity is up and it’s one reason why unemployment will remain high. Maybe that’s true with widget production, but advertising is a business of ideas and ideas suffer when people are dazed and confused or overworked, uninspired or lacking in experience or talent.

Get this. This fall, I’ve been interviewing best places to work, from an HVAC contractor with over 100 employees to a top 10 CPA firm. Both companies are hanging tough in this economy and one reason is how they treat their people. One general manager put it this simply, “Happy employees. Happy customers.”

That’s simply not the case in the ad business. It’s more like Mad Men and the case of Salvatore Romano. You think you’re loved, years pass and then one day you learn your true value when the client wants you fired.

That’s the lesson for peons. I hope you’re not offended by that label. I was young once and a peon. What you get for your youth is opportunity. My advice to peons is to soak up the opportunity but don’t respond in kind with loyalty. You don’t owe the agency anything. Get your experience and seek greener pastures.

The lesson for gunslingers is harder to impart and accept. You’ve been at the ad game for a long time. It’s hard not to feel that you’ve paid your dues and are due some respect. Sorry. This is business. If they can get someone who costs half as much as you and produces 75% of your capacity, you’re toast. And they don’t have your baggage—high salary, vacation, kids, insurance risk, unwillingness to move, etc.

My fellow gunslingers, start thinking like a gunslinger. You’re riding in to save the day or shoot it out with other agencies in a pitch. Those are the opportunities I’m getting these days. Regular paycheck from an ad agency? Good luck with that.

More than anything, I’d dying to hear about an agency out there that puts its people first, clients second. Does it even exist? Please contact me if you know of such an agency. I want to interview them. Call me nuts but I think an agency that treated its employees as well as clients would do exceptionally well.

Maybe when the smoke clears and the ashes of so many agencies are swept away, we’ll see a new brand of agency sprout up that values its people. Until then, we’re all peons and gunslingers.

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Mike Ogden is a digital/senior writer based in Kansas City. Ad agency stops have enabled him to create for major brands like American Century, Capital One, Sprint, and USAA. Seasoned and sharp with a touch of gray, Ogden, aka Og, is known for creating and championing ideas. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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