Opinion: Let's kill advertising's culture of titles (and entitlement)

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On any given day in our business, I see too many examples of how we are all show, no go.

At the ANA Media Conference in Orlando earlier this year, P&G's Mark Pritchard "doubled-down on his vow to eradicate the layers" in ad agencies. Recently, AdAge quoted a partner at crisis communications firm KGlobal who said that in order to survive today, agencies need to "cut out a lot of the fat that clients don't want to pay for."

No argument there. We are regularly guilty of too much filler and not enough substance, and when you look closely, the problem essentially comes down to titles and entitlement.

Many agencies mirror their clients' structures. If clients have an abundance of titles and layers, agencies will follow suit, with the best intentions. But too many titles will slow you down, cause confusion and make agencies overly expensive because they have to charge for the time of everyone involved. A client walks into the room and they are introduced to the CCO, ECD, GAD, GCD, ACD, a couple of CDs, maybe a VP CD and then planners, strategists and account people. The client looks around the room and wonders, "Why do I need all of these people?"

Titles have become increasingly convoluted. JWT recently went through a restructuring: there are now four plus CEOs in North America alone. Underneath the CEOs are various EVPs, SVPs and VPs. Not to mention the titles in their other territories. What's going on?

We know that a bigger title comes with more prestige, more power to control your destiny and maybe a bit more authority. In an age where our self-worth is closely linked to our careers and seniority (especially in advertising), any acknowledgement of our hard work and talent is a big deal. But, does it come with more money, more responsibility and true accountability? And, if everyone around you is getting a bigger and better title, don't titles ultimately get diluted?

Giving out more titles takes our eye off the focus on clients
Titles put up barriers to great work and are a significant headwind in our promise to provide faster, more agile, more effectively integrated ideas.

The (not so secret) dirty secret is that titles have largely become a way to placate talent in lieu of money and makes us slower as valuable agency partners.

This is not about getting nostalgic about the good old days. But what I've noticed is that what used to be fairly straightforward process of getting ideas in front of clients has become the Thunderdome and has resulted in every CCO, ECD, GAD, ACD, AD, AS, AAS, AD, CW, Planner, Associate planner for her or himself.

While it's the job of everyone at an agency to be aware of what's going on, if you can't hand off a piece of business to one of your colleagues, then you have a problem. We tend to go through four or five levels of internal approvals before a piece of work reaches the client. When we finally get there, they then go through their own six or seven approval levels, until inevitably you've produced a piece of mediocre and expensive work, due in large part to the forty-five plus people who had their hands on it.

This is why ad agencies are collectively wondering why the Deloittes and McKinseys of the world have been moving into our world. Someone with an MBA working at a consultancy with three years of experience commands respect, while a person with the same credentials at an ad agency receives none. Quite simply, the person at a consultancy firm is given a basic title and thrown into the trenches with very little optical oversight, and in so doing is effectively able to get things done. The opposite is true in an ad agency. A junior or intermediate account person or creative left alone with a client, without layers of oversight and safety measures, which of course creates the opposite effect.

Titles beget obedience, not respect
Consider a flat structure, the sort of flat structure that many small agencies are adopting to mirror a new generation of clients (like Amazon, Facebook and Google who are all competing for talent, client attention and seeking more direct relationships with brands). Everyone is on the same level and tends to respect one another and focus their time and energy on the outcome. In fact, a flat structure not only promotes respect but it also forces senior agency team members to become more involved in actually creating the work.

Fortunately, on the brand side, many new companies have trimmed the hierarchy down to marketing manager, marketing director, senior marketing director and head of marketing. From 12 levels to four. Each of these positions has the authority to approve projects without the CMO getting involved.

How can we all get behind this? What is the incentive for an agency to adapt this new brand model?

Financial compensation
Let's flip the script on the current modus operandi. Remove the title goals and focus on the financial rewards. Leaner and sharper organizations will be the ones who allow our clients easier access to our talent, creative and capabilities – and help them win. I'm excited to see a future where winning together is the goal as well as the metric: culturally-relevant, high quality content that is quickly distributed in market.

Philip Khosid is CCO and co-founder, Battery

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