Like all industries, the agency world was not spared from the catastrophic year 2020. Agencies big and small had to learn how to serve their customers, get new business, and create engaging new jobs – all from the comfort of their own home. Not an easy task, of course, but most of them have found out and learned a lot about themselves and their customers in the process.
However, when I look back on 2020, perhaps the most valuable lessons come from agencies that were in hot water when their leaders got into serious trouble. The list was long and terrifying: JWT, Droga5, The Martin Agency, Mindshare, Ogilvy, BBDO, and The Richards Group.
What can be learned from the mistakes these agency executives made? What explains how such otherwise smart, successful leaders might display such abuse of power, poor judgment, and disregard for colleagues?
The answer lies partly in an oversupply of arrogance, pretension and narcissism on the part of people who feel impervious to criticism and indispensable to the market. Ultimately, a lack of core values like humility, empathy, integrity, and a moral compass has brought the industry into this moment of reckoning.
Yes, leadership can be a challenging, frustrating, and stressful endeavor. But it can also be very rewarding personally and financially. It's an honor and a privilege that should never be taken for granted. But it is so often.
Over the course of my advertising career, I've been fortunate to work for some great leaders. Men and women. I've also been fortunate enough to work for some not-so-great leaders. Men and women. I say luck because they taught me not to behave.
Here are some observations, thoughts, and lessons from over 25 years in leadership roles. Some are obvious. Others paradoxical. But that's life. They can all help us avoid the mistakes made in 2020 and help us do better in 2021.
- The essential qualities of good leaders cannot be conveyed. You don't need awareness training to accept and believe in the values of inclusion, equality and diversity. Genuine caring, generosity, and honesty are fundamental, inherent, and authentic qualities of good leadership, which in turn create inclusive and diverse cultures.
- Good leaders appreciate and enjoy the complexity of human nature. People are emotional, unpredictable, irrational, complex, and contradicting. We behave counterintuitively and paradoxically. That's because we are human. Getting everything working is not part of the job. It's the job.
- As the great philosopher Yogi Berra said: “You can observe a lot if you just watch.” Good leaders hear a lot if they only listen. You're confident enough to know that you don't have all the answers. You listen to the smart people and see the difference between making decisions and choosing them. They believe in the principle of leadership expert Ken Blanchard: "None of us is as smart as all of us."
- Executives value complainers, critics, and gimmicks who want to improve things. Richard Farson writes in his insightful book Management of the Absurd: Paradoxes in Leadership, “Often times, the people who complain the loudest have the best insight into how to fix problems.” So let them.
- Leadership may start at the top, but too often ends there. Good leaders empower, encourage, and enable others to take the lead. You will find talents who are self-motivated, passionate, innovative and cooperative. Too often we celebrate the myth of the lonely hero; the star that single-handedly reaches greatness. But advertising is a team sport. Warren Bennis writes in Organizing Genius: "Large groups and great leaders create each other."