Agency Viewpoint

There's a Right and a Wrong Way to Leave Your Agency

Is Employee Courtesy at an All-Time Low?

By Published on .

In an advertising agency, employee turnover is common and expected. Most agencies recognize that there are really two ways to keep talent: pay more or incubate personal growth.

Paying more is not something we can always always compete with at my agency, so typically we must incubate the talent within our unique culture and quality of life offerings (see: Why Small Agencies are Great at Incubating Talent). The churn of talent is just a fact of agency life, and although we hate to see people go, we take pride in the mutually beneficial relationships we fostered.

However, when employees leave their agency, they need to consider more than just themselves. They need to consider that there is the right way to transition from a company and there is the wrong way.

Miraculously, the notion of burning bridges doesn't enter into the minds of all employees. It would seem obvious that they should realize our industry is made up of people whose value is based on experience. After all, in advertising circles there may not be six degrees of separation but as little as two, which makes for a very intimate bubble we all work in. And, it's important to note, employees don't just change agencies, but often also flip-flop sides (client and vendor) throughout their careers. Therefore, change is constant but the manner in which it happens is inconsistent.

I'm finding, and maybe you are too, that over the last few years the level of employee courtesy is at an all-time low.

In my 20+ years in this business as an employee and an employer, I haven't witnessed the levels of individual self-interest and ambivalence that I do today. It's as if people don't know what business etiquette is anymore (aka "the right way").

Two examples at my agency have played out in the past year that illustrate my point. I've masked the people's names to protect their identities -- we'll call them Jack and Jill -- but the stories are real.

The Right Way
Less than a year ago, my marketing director decided he wanted to expand his horizons and move away from New York City to seek out new opportunities. Jack approached me and told me of his decision to leave Squeaky. We talked it over for quite some time and he agreed to stay on for another month so that he could transfer as much knowledge as he could to the person taking over his responsibilities. Jack was instrumental in positing my agency for growth, new offerings and many awards. In short, he came in somewhat green but left having far exceeded both parties' expectations. I remember that in his interview with Squeaky I told him, "Give me two years and I'll give you a career." He put in his time, grinded and proved me right.

Not long after Jack decided to move on, he invited me to a gentleman's lunch to thank me for being a good steward of his career. During lunch I received a call -- a reference check -- from one of the companies he was applying to (a major retail brand). I took the call and spent the better part of an hour on the phone and closed with my pitch that they'd be idiots if they didn't hire Jack . I believe he would have gotten the position anyway, but I like to think I might have made their decision easier.

I was willing to go to bat for Jack because he did the same so many times for my agency -- and right is right. Long story short, they hired him immediately and he's been kicking ass for them ever since.

The Wrong Way
This year, one of our project managers, Jill, decided that she, too, wanted to move on -- this time to a larger agency. We consider everyone here to play an important role but project managers are especially imperative because they are constantly client-facing. This role also typically has the most intimate knowledge of the clients' business and manage the agency's resources for the engagement.

Jill, very much like Jack , was a significant contributor to Squeaky and its ability to grow during her tenure. She was dedicated, intelligent and extremely hardworking. I truly like Jill and wish I still had her onboard.

However, Jill differs from John in a big way. Jill cared more about herself than she did for doing right by my agency or her fellow employees. Jill approached her manager on a Wednesday to inform us that her last day would be that Friday. In effect, she was providing us two days notice on our biggest account during a significant project. We asked Jill to leave that day and all pitched in to ensure the client didn't suffer from this situation. What was an extremely difficult scenario that played out after her departure could have been made much easier if we had a few weeks to prepare.

Up to that point I've never had an employee give me less than two weeks' notice, as I wouldn't hire a candidate who was providing less notice than that to their former employer.

Jill, like so many other employees out there, somehow missed sight of the fact that her career is forever linked to our agency. In a world of hyperlinked networks that bridge the worlds of personal and business, it doesn't make sense to burn a bridge. A few clicks of the mouse create for an omnipresent resume of sorts that cannot be altered after the fact.

Today I am certain that both Jack and Jill are both doing great at their new jobs. I wish them both success. Jack however, will always have a bridge intact -- one that may need to be crossed in the future.

Anthony DelMonte is founder and president of Squeaky Wheel Media, New York.

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