What Drives Ad-Agency CEOs Crazy

CEO Pet Peeves Reveal How We Perceive Our Agency

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We all know the stereotype. Agency leaders focus on the big-picture stuff: strategy, financial planning, negotiations, salesmanship, creative decisions and really important lunches. Who can fault them if they're not on top of all the day-to-day details?

While the myth may be that presidents and CEOs operate at the highest level, that's not what I've observed. Good leaders still get immersed in the details, the nitty-gritty of running the business. They may not all pay attention to the same details, and to the same degree, but they have got their hands in the dirt with everyone else.

That also means, that just like the rest of us, they have got their own obsessions and pet peeves. It can't be helped. For some it may be office decor, down to what's on the walls and floor. Others may obsess about meeting etiquette, or hospitality, or exactly how the phone is answered.

It's not that they're obsessed that's most revealing. It's what they decide to obsess about that tells us a lot about how they see their agencies.

For a sanity check, as well as a reality check, I asked six agency CEOs about their particular obsessions and pet peeves. They're all agencies that I admire, so my sampling may not be entirely objective.

Jeff Freedman, CEO of Small Army in Boston, and founder of the charity Be Bold, Be Bald, can't stand it when people say "I" instead of "We."

"The large majority of work created at the agency is from the combined efforts of many. So, even though 'I' may be presenting the work, please be sure to acknowledge that 'we' created it together."

His second pet peeve is people having to carry out instructions without knowing why.

"Whether it is a client giving feedback to an agency or an account manager giving direction to creative, just saying what needs to be done is never enough. People need to understand why as well."

Phil Waggoner, is a partner at Hook in Charleston, S.C., an Ad Age Small Agency of the Year. What makes him crazy:

"It makes me nuts that it makes no difference how early we start working on a new-business RFP. We always, always, deliver it at the very last minute and sometimes even after the last minute. And nine times out of 10 we are adjusting the presentation deck on the way to the presentation."

Tom Simons, chairman of Partners Simons in Boston, cuts to the chase with two frustrations:

"The persistent industry belief that agency folks are smarter than their clients. [And] The notion that good ideas are only born to creative department parents."

Richard Willingham, CEO of Motum B2B, in Toronto, specializes in sustainability marketing. "I believe in free samples. It can be as effective in B2B marketing as it is in consumer retail. But I'd really like freebies to be my own choice -- not something my future customers demand before they do business with me.

Andrew Graff, CEO of Boston-based Allen & Gerritsen, an agency that won the top spot on Ad Age's Best Places to Work twice in a row, has two dislikes:

"Answering a question with another question, and being quick to dismiss an idea. It's so important to respect the effort it takes to innovate and create."

Tom Stein, CEO of Stein & Partners in New York, and a 2012 BtoB Agency of the Year, offers a complete litany of pet peeves:

Seeking safety vs. striving for greatness.
Not following process.
Mindlessly following process.
Briefs that aren't brief.
People who can't find the time, heart or humanity to say "nice work."
Lack of humor and perspective. Does the world really care if there is one less ad agency?

And I've got my own list of irritants:

It drives me crazy to see anyone waiting in the lobby for more than two or three minutes. Of course, that seldom happens to clients, but I don't like to see it happen to partners, salespeople or job applicants. In my world, we're all VIPs.

The lowest form of agency behavior is when someone puts on his best performance for the boss and treats everyone else like crap. It's called managing up, and it shouldn't be tolerated.

We're all idiosyncratic creatures, with our peculiar obsessions. As varied as these responses may be, one fact is clear: Details matter, whether they have to do with style or with substance, or more likely a combination of both. Whether you relate to these opinions, or think they border on the neurotic, you've got to concede that these CEOs care passionately about their organizations.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Phil Johnson is CEO of PJA Advertising & Marketing with offices in Cambridge and San Francisco. Follow Phil on Twitter: @philjohnson.
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