5 Ways To Make An Agency Creative Feel Like An Award Winner.

“Inside the mind of a writer is a truly terrifying experience.”
– Robert DeNiro at the Oscars, March 2014

Ouch, Bobby. As creatives, are we that insecure and in need of constant praise? Really? Well, maybe we’ve got the confidence and passion but like anyone, we do need to be recognized.

That’s where many agencies can maximize a terrific opportunity to show they care about the work, the work, the work. If it’s all about the work, recognize it. “Oh, do we really need to give everybody a cookie or sticker?” says The Insensitive Account Director. No. But if you did a good job in hiring talent at all, you’d know their work is worthy of recognition. Not cheesy recognition (“you win a free apple!”) but real recognition.

1. Framed Work On The Walls
Client walks into your agency and go into your conference room. Spends 3-5 minutes there. They can spend that time looking at exposed brick or they can look at some actual, real work. Work that inspires. Work that makes them laugh. Work that’s provocative. On the way in and out of the meeting they also see work hung in the hallways. Most importantly, that’s the stuff that your creatives see too – the stuff you live and breathe and celebrate. By the way, imagine a great piece your agency did as the jumping off point for a discussion vs. the typical small talk about how you took the kids up to Wisconsin for the weekend. Sorry, I fell asleep by the time that last sentence was completed.

2. Work On The Online Walls (i.e. Your Portfolio)
How is this hard? You choose a piece, you upload it. You write something about it. Done. Oh yeah – and you give credit to the creatives who made it happen. Every single one of them, plus account and production folks. Come on. I know you’ve got the time for this.

3. Give Credit In Front Of The Client
A client asks, “Who did this great line/this visual?” The standard answer is typically, “Oh, we ALL did. It was a TEAM effort.”

I know it’s a feel-good thing to say that, but it’s also perfectly OK to say, “Steve did the design and Luke did the copy. These guys did a really great job, didn’t they? ” This is your team. You brought them on. OWN IT. Why shouldn’t they be pointed out for making you look good?

4. Give Credit In Front Of The Agency
You may saying, “Oh, but how can we do that, Dan? You’re saying we should pull together a bunch of departments to just recognize our own people?” You’re overthinking this. It’s called email. You type it out. You give it some careful thought and consideration. And then you send it. Even if it’s only to your own department to say something like, “You know, I don’t always say it often enough but I’d like to personally thank (NAME) for (THING THEY DID TO MAKE YOU LOOK GOOD). I’m confident our client will love the result but even before that, I’m very proud of what we’ve put together with great sacrifice to time at home and sleep.”

If this is somehow too difficult for someone to do, it’s a problem of ego, laziness, fear, caring or a combination of all four.

5. The Internal Awards Show
Do you just want to rely on judges who don’t know your work? Creatives need tender loving care too and it’s not beneath you to celebrate their brilliance. Most Creative. The Best Ad The Client Should’ve Bought But Didn’t. Best Status Update That Uses Talking Cats. I don’t care. 

It’s not that winning outside awards don’t feel great. They do. They really, really do. But is it possible that a great feeling could also be experienced by the recognition you bestow on them within your own walls? If done right and actually meaningful with something the creative craves as a reward, the answer is yes, quite possibly. Which might save you thousands of dollars in entry fees and travel accommodations. Hearing praise from you, hopefully someone they very much respect, isn’t too shabby either. Why? Unlike those total strangers, you’re the one reviewing their work each and every day.

If you notice a pattern here, it’s that each of these ways requires you to give them some PDA: Public Display of Affection. No, I don’t mean making out with them. I mean publicly declaring your affection for their work to others.

There shouldn’t be any degree of risk in doing this if you truly believe in your people.

Because ultimately, you just have no idea how much of a long way a kind word and a kind action can go in the impact of someone’s day, someone’s focus, someone’s loyalty and heck, even someone’s life.

We all could use that feeling a little more often, don’t you think?

What other ways have you awarded creatives in your agency? Share them!

Of Blackhawks, Parades and The 5 Levels of Employee Retention

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You don’t get to celebrate a sports title coming to your city every day, every week, every year and in some cases, every few decades. That’s why as I took a few hours out of my day to savor the importance of celebrating this moment with the NHL champion Chicago Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup parade, I considered the hundreds of thousands of people who had joined me.

Sure, some of them might have had to take a vacation day or make up an excuse (“I..(cough, cough)…don’t feel so good, boss.”). Yet I know of at least a few Fortune 500 companies here that told their employees: “Go. Take this in. Spend some time within reason to applaud this team for what it meant to our city.”

It’s what I’d call a Retention Moment: These special moments where you supply and support your people through a surprising “extra” that caters to what they truly value most in life. Not what you think they want or think they would like, but what you definitely know they want.

Today it was related to sports. But other examples can relate to spending more time with family, getting tuition reimbursement and so much more.


What does this have to do with branding?

A lot – especially in the way of internal branding. You don’t build employee advocates of your company just because you gave them a raise. You build up that loyalty by understanding what makes each person tick and then giving them an easier path to celebrating more of what they value in life.

Unfortunately, retention matters at different levels to companies. If it even matters at all. In my mind, these are the 5 Types of Retention a brand engages in:

Retention Level 5: You’re One of the Family

I know how much you value time with your family and it’s been so hard to get everyone together in your house to take a true vacation. Here’s an extra $_____ to enjoy yourself on your vacation. Have a great time.

If you’ve ever seen the end of each episode of “Undercover Boss,” you know there’s a moment where an act the boss does leaves that employee in tears of gratitude. Why? Because the boss recognize their challenges as much as their accomplishments and he actually does something about that. It takes a special kind of person to reach this level. It’s a leader who wants to be there for his people because he cares about them. He knows that it’s pointless to expect them to fully productive at work if there’s traumatic issues at home. He helps them free of expectation, because it’s the right thing to do.

Who leaves an environment like this? Unless the role is menial, it becomes incredibly hard to – and that’s a very unlikely scenario because a boss who doesn’t care about the employee’s role isn’t suddenly going to shower them with rewards to try to bribe that employee to stay. No, when you reach this level, you’re the genuine article as a boss and an overall human being.

Retention Level 4: Victory Is Ours

To recognize our win of the Chrysler account. I am sending along a message via e-mail to our top brass mentioning the people on the team by name. Because without them, we never would have won this. I’m also taking our team out tonight to a nice restaurant to celebrate the moment.

Recognition of individual team members and celebrating every important win. It takes nothing but it’s still not always done. You shoot off an e-mail pointing out their specific achievements. You give an internal award (which doesn’t have to be financial). You frame their picture or images of their work. You savor the victories and make sure it’s a shared one. The more permanent these acts, the better. The more frequent these acts, the better. If you last celebrated a win 6 months ago, you’re missing Retention Moments. A company at this level doesn’t. Ever. Sometimes they don’t even need a reason for celebrating other than the fact that it brings people together.

Retention Level 3: Now We’re Getting Somewhere

There’s a championship parade downtown. Anyone who wants to go watch it can feel free to do so. This is a great thing for our city and I know many of you are fans. You will be paid for this time off and it will not infringe on your vacation/sick days.

This is still unexpected. Not everybody may want to go take advantage of this offer, but it doesn’t really matter. The leadership put it out there and that’s what counts. It’s not celebrating the individual but it’s still something the company can take advantage of. Well, Frances, the bitter and jaded Office Manager who’s 1 year away from retirement, may have an issue with it because she doesn’t like sports. Oh, lighten up, Frances.

A company at this level actually cares about following through to help the individual reach their goals – not in a way that tries to weed out underachievers but in a way that tries to bring out the best in people. They actually look forward to this planning with their employees – and beyond the talk, there’s action and evidence that the employee gets to where they want to go. Whether moving up means a promotion within the department or moving to another part of the company entirely, there’s a mutual dedication to maximizing the company’s talent in the right place.

Retention Level 2: Going Through The Motions 

It’s that time of year. We have to do an Individual Development Plan. Let’s sit down Friday and think of 2-3 goals you want to achieve. You’ll be expected to reach them next quarter. Or maybe that was within the next year. I can’t remember. Anyway, we’ll talk more and figure it out.

This is the average and expected. Many companies fall into this category and wonder why they don’t have more of a culture. Boss and employee sit down, review goals, critique, move on. They’ll remember it two weeks before they have to talk about it again. So what are the chances that this employee feels their work is being valued when talk of their development is treated like a chore or afterthought? Not much.

Retention Level 1: Why Hasn’t My Own Statue Hasn’t Been Built Yet?

I’m a terrific boss. I’ve been in this business for many years and everyone should be glad to be working here for me. I give them a job, a desk, a paycheck, a decent amount of time off and the ability to work on great accounts. If someone doesn’t like it, they can leave.

Egomania, ahoy! It’s all about him. Not his team. He thinks he’s the gift from above and all his minions should be happy to work in his presence. You’ve got to be kidding. While he’s imagining the documentary HBO is going to film about his life’s story, his employees are updating their resumes and portfolios to get the hell out of his environment tomorrow. But of course, in his view, they’re totally replaceable anyway. It’s a wonder he even knows all of their names – and in fact, he may not. It’s his world and they’re just living in it.

Where are you on this scale? How can you move up?

As you can guess, the manager who looks outward rather than inward, has greater humility than ego and takes the time to understand what his employees truly value rather than assuming it’s all about raises, bonuses and merely earning a paycheck can be the foundation of a better culture. That better culture can breed more brand advocates. You’ll also notice the scale moves upward from one manager thrilled with his own greatness to that manager striving to understand what makes each individual person happy (and supporting that in a selfless, compassionate way). People who are happier, more challenged and rewarded in a customized way are more productive people.

These elements are related in building the brand within – don’t kid yourself in thinking otherwise.

If you’re in any kind of position of influence, the momentum to move your company up the scale just may start with you.

That’s worth parading about town over.

The End of Meetings, The Start of Missions

As I was reading my Facebook stream this morning, a simple message from Sally Hogshead, author of the book, Fascinate (and a great, inspirational speaker on creativity) struck me:

“Every meeting should be planned with a specific change in mind. Nobody needs more status quo!”

As I thought about this, it occurred to me that the whole problem with meetings is that most of the time, things don’t get done. Or not enough gets done.

One objective = one meeting.

What we need isn’t more time. We need less of it.

See, we’ve become far too comfortable in trying to do a lot with the time we have. Because we come armed with too many objectives. Whether we’re talking about co-workers or clients, the excuse here has always been that getting everybody together at once is rare, so we need to make the most of when it does happen by shoving everything possible all those people have in common in one meeting.

You don’t. Staying true to Ms. Hogshead’s mantra, you couldn’t possibly make more than one big change as a result of one meeting that’s efficient. That’s why it’s more than a meeting. It’s a mission. And the purpose of that mission is to achieve an answer to _____.

As I mentioned in an earlier post about brainstorming, this doesn’t have to mean locking everyone in a room for hours. It means having a clear agenda, having a defined period of time when brainstorming is going to occur and having a clear stopping point. Part of the reason meetings are such a drag is because they have no clearly defined beginning, middle and end.
If it’s not that big of a deal and doesn’t change business as usual, why are we meeting? Good question. Maybe we shouldn’t be. At least not in the conventional way.

Which brings us to some tools that maximize what we really need to be having most of the time – efficient conversations. Yammer, Skype, Google Hangouts and 37 Signals’ Basecamp product are just some of the simple tools to help us collaborate quickly by instant message or video. What about that extra-curricular stuff people tend to chatter about that isn’t absolutely central to the main reason for assembling together? Push it into this area too, using these types of tools for what they’re best for – communicating quick questions or even holding a virtual brainstorm.
Call these the new “meetings” if you like. Because they aren’t business-changing like a “mission.” But they are still much better than the tired, old method of waiting for everyone to cram together in one place to talk.

We’re not getting any more time to spend with our colleagues and clients. We’re getting less of it. So don’t just meet. Make it your mission to hit the ground running – with one purpose, one defined period of time and one result that strives to shake up the status quo.

Although they may not actually say it, everyone in the room will be mentally thanking you for it.

Going In-House Isn’t Always The Cost-Cutting Move You Think.

I recently got into an argument with another agency owner who seems to believe that cutting costs and doing great creative work can’t share the same place in a marketer’s mind. He felt that Chief Marketing Officers across the board are fine with settling for “good enough” work these days by bringing their team in-house rather than hiring an agency and that doing so is a cost-cutting move.

I can’t agree with that logic because CMOs have a short window of opportunity – less than 2 years on average. And in that window, it is unlikely that creative work deemed merely “good enough” is less likely to produce very positive results. Yet I won’t get into a subjective argument about which tends to be more creative and strategic, in-house or outside source because in some instances, the in-house route works out fine. More than fine, actually.

But I have a big problem with the uniform “in-house is cheaper” stance. That doesn’t always pan out, particularly if you value having a strong creative product across a variety of mediums. I also have a big argument with the notion that if one outside source doesn’t produce results, going in-house because you “can’t do any worse” is the way to go. Actually, in a lot of ways, you can do worse. Much worse.

Believe it or not, I’m not trying to sell you exclusively on doing things externally. But if you want it done right and want it done strong and consistent, getting positive results from an in-house agency requires building and maintaining a strong team. That costs money if you’re going to build a team of any sort of substance.

Beyond money, to build and maintain a strong in-house house team, you need talent and versatility.

Let’s start with the shell of a creative unit. Creative Director. Copywriter. Artist. Production Artist. Hire outside exceptional, dependable people for this. You can’t turn Bob in Accounting into an artist just because he took a Photoshop class at the local community college.

Planning on buying and negotiating media? Throw a Media Buyer onto the list. If the Creative Director’s going to wear that hat too, bump up their salary even more.

You plan on using the Internet in some capacity, correct? Let’s give you 2 web people, one who can do front-end web design and one who can do back-end programming. It’s rare to find a web person who can do both sides well and if you do, you’d better bring the bucks for that one. One of your artists can handle all manner of front-end web design? Good for you. Then bump up their salary even more.

At this point, you could conceivably be at at least $500,000 for the year and probably much more. And I haven’t touched upon a Strategic Planner/Account Planner, a very useful and important function to have.

Am I forgetting anything? That’s right, of course – the media you’re actually going to buy. That costs money too. But since you’ve spent as much as you have on staff overhead, cutting costs big-time here could very well mean cutting out entire media choices. Choices that offer reasonable avenues to connect with your target audience.

I also haven’t included the vast technological software your staff will continually need in order to create, research, plan and more. If you think those can be had for cheap, you obviously haven’t seen what a new copy of Adobe Creative Suite runs these days.

On the other hand, let’s say an outside source knocks on your door with creative talent, experience and all the other right things you’re looking for. They cost $5,000 a month for what you need, including talent and resources. But you’re spending $60,000 a year for their services vs. over $500,000 for your in-house team.

In this example I’ve outlined, if we’re looking at the argument on the basis of cost-cutting, you will put substantially more money into your in-house team than you will by hiring outside help.

Regardless, this debate is not as black-and-white as some would make it out to be. It doesn’t have to be an all “in-house” or all “external hire” situation, folks. In fact, a relationship that encompasses some in-house people collaborating with agencies or consultants just might be the best-of-both-worlds answer you’re looking for too.


You’ll Never Have Enough Time. Thank Goodness.

This blog post would be better if only I had more time to write it. But the window I have to write it is now. And I like that. Because it mirrors the nature of a crazy, fun and manic business we chose to be a part of. The “Hurry Up and Wait” state of advertising agencies and marketing firms is something I’ve had to deal with in every culture I’ve been a part of, including my own.

Agency people like to imagine a perfect scenario like so:

Agency creates product. Client approves product. Product goes out into the world. Everything is on time. On to the next project.

Gosh, that was a fun daydream. Now let’s see what happens in the real world.

Rounds and rounds and rounds of tweeking and honing the creative product in the eyes of the Creative Directors, Account Executives, Executive Creative Director, Head Account person, etc.

The creative product gets beaten up more than Rocky Balboa before it even goes out the door.

Then it goes to the client. Client has to take it to their boss. Product sits on boss’ desk for a while. It’s a priority, but there are even bigger priorities to attend to. Agency waits and gets antsy – “Why haven’t we heard from them?”

Hours pass. Days pass. Then…BOOM! Client gets feedback back from their boss and tells agency to change A, B and C before the end of the day.

It’s here that the measure of a creative person is taken. They’ll complain right off the bat with a “What? Now? Before what time? You’ve got to be #$@*ing kidding me with this.”

But then, they’ll settle down, realize that the impossible is actually possible, come together and come back with, lo and behold, a better product than last time.

I’ve seen it happen over and over and over again. It does no good to complain about the pattern or try to wish for a more efficient production path. Instead, we have to embrace the beast, not fight it. And realize that yes, things don’t hit our desks exactly when we’d like them to, but it also gives us an opportunity to shine in the eyes of our client once more. Many of them do realize that the time they have to give us what’s required can be somewhere between tight and insane. They’re not clueless. But they’re also looking for partners who can make them look good in the eyes of their bosses, their peers, their board. The last thing they need is a group of whiners who lecture them by saying, “We could that better if only we had more time.”

We all wish we had more time in business and in life to do the things we want to do on our terms. But the funny thing is, when we are given more boundaries, we find ways to excel within those boundaries.

I truly empathize with any creative person who has to be suddenly brilliant on the spot. It’s not ideal and there’s a great deal of pressure involved with that. I suppose that’s why I’ve always favored teams brainstorming concepts rather than forcing one person or one partnership into their corners and telling them to bring me their deliverables like I’m the king of the throne. When we can be fighting the clock together instead of individuals, we can beat the clock, create a smart solution and go with the flow as our clients need us to be.

There will never be enough time. But we have to accept that fact and consequently set the table for an environment where one writer or one designer can have the reinforcements they need to take on Father Time. This kind of efficiency is good for the individual, it’s good for the agency from a business perspective (hello, we do have to bill sometime!) and it’s good for the client.

When it comes to prioritizing what to do, my friend and colleague Rob Jager from Hedgehog Consulting looks at it this way – “There are 6 things that can be done in a day. List them out in advance and put the least important thing 6th. That way, you don’t feel so bad if you have to kick it to the next day, but make that thing #1 the following day.”

Time’s up. Gotta run.

Why You Can’t Give Social Media To An Intern

“Could I just have some college kid do it?”

It’s a question I’ve heard before from small business owners when they consider the prospect of taking on social media. Before I answer that question, let’s do an experiment – and I genuinely don’t mean to sound like a smart-aleck when I say this, but rather to illustrate a point:

I’d like you to give up control of your company.

Not for a day or a week, but the next 3 months.

And I don’t want you to hand control to your VP or COO or CFO but a kid who is still in school who will be interning with you for 3 months.

He’s going to lead client meetings, speak with investors via conference call and interact directly with your prospective customers.

What, you have a problem with that? Sounds preposterous, you say? It makes you more than a little nervous and nauseous?

Of course it does.

And that’s essentially what you’re doing when you let a college kid handle social media for you. Because there are a few roles that put your brand on the front lines of interaction quite like social media. It’s the blessing and, for people who mishandle it, the curse. It’s oh-so-easy easy to take a glance at people who post on Facebook or Twitter and think, “How hard could it be?” The problem with that outlook is that it dwindles social media to an afterthought rather than an integral part of your brand strategy.

In fact, it doesn’t even consider strategy at all. It doesn’t consider the bigger reason and purpose for why you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s saying, “This is what everybody seems to be on these days, so we should be doing it too.” Maybe you should. But not like this.

To be clear, I like interns and think they’re valuable. I’ve managed many and watched them have an impact on the industry I couldn’t be more proud of in writing and in design. They comprise some of the most rewarding relationships I have ever had in this business – and those people know who they are. Yet, when they come into the advertising and marketing world, even they would admit they have been given instruction in a closed environment that, try as it might, can rarely if ever simulate what it means to work in the real world in real time to represent a real company.

In other words, when they enter your environment, they’re a lot like Luke Skywalker the first time he faced Darth Vader without intense training. If you threw them out there and wished them luck from Day 1, you’d be lucky to emerge with just a flesh wound. As time goes on, you teach them the ways of what you’ve learned to impart hopefully some good things by the end of their training – things they never would have learned in the classroom. But that still doesn’t mean they’re ready to handle social media. Why?

The main challenge is that the person who handles social media has to get a great feel for your mission, your culture, your goals, your tone and manner, what can be said, what can’t be said and more. They have to understand the audience they’re interacting with and how that audience has to be respected. They need to be able to monitor and mine for insights that can be communicated to management (after all, I assume you care to know if what you’re doing is working, right?). They need to be a fountain of good content that resonates with the people you want to attract most.

Fulfilling those responsibilities is a very full plate for anyone. It’s next to impossible and downright unfair to someone who is just learning the basics of marketing. It’s not their fault, really. It’s just where they are in life. Of course, if a university isn’t teaching enough about new media, it’s certainly not helping.

It’s a place of experience and understanding that the “face” of social media of your company has to operate from that the intern doesn’t have. This person can come from within your company or can come from the outside world – yes, in all transparency, I do this for people who don’t have the time or internal resources or understanding right away to handle it. But the people who trust me to handle this great responsibility know that I am not a Junior who is in the middle of taking a Marketing class but someone who has a lot of experience in developing and managing the voice of a brand.

Is an outside consultant going to be more expensive than an intern? Yes. But all we’re talking about here is the perception of your brand to the outside world.

Is that really something you want to cut corners on?