What Advertising Agencies Can Teach the Rest of the World

We Work With Intangibles, Thrive in Chaos

By Published on .

Phil Johnson
Phil Johnson
I once met a piano player in a bar, and he told me that he really wanted to work in a restaurant. I scratched my head because I thought everyone in the restaurant business wanted to be a musician or an actor. Sometimes I feel that way about the advertising industry. We want to be software companies, or morph into entertainment conglomerates, or create our own line of shoes. That's OK. It's also great to be an advertising agency.

Maybe it's because we're naturally inquisitive, or because our success comes from mining insights about other people, but we often look outside our industry for business inspiration. What can the Tea Party, Justin Bieber, the NFL -- you fill in the blank -- teach us about advertising? No doubt, good lessons abound, but I'd like to turn the tables and explore what the rest of the world can learn from advertising agencies. Sure, they may be quirky organizations, full of eccentrics, but agencies offer management lessons that should serve as an inspiration to other businesses.

To start, we know how to manage chaos. While most businesses aspire to weed it out, and homogenize the work environment, agencies learn to celebrate chaos that contributes to the creative process. We know that when things look like they're spinning out of control, that may just be the moment that precedes ground-breaking thinking. Really, chaos theory is good for you.

We thrive on social responsibility and we know how to exert influence. I've never met an agency that didn't feel obligated to use its creativity and resources to support important causes. Think about the fact that your awareness of virtually every social and health-care issue comes from the pro bono, or heavily discounted, efforts of an ad agency. (A personal apology for the industry's contributions to the sale of tobacco and other life-threatening products.)

No industry has done a better job of creating homes for talented misfits. Advertising has always looked beyond credentials and pedigree to find pure talent. Many an agency has, both wittingly and unwittingly, created a professional home for disenfranchised writers, artists, academics, researchers, musicians -- and the list goes on. We're not afraid to look beyond traditional job categories. As a society if we want to put people back to work, we would be well served to adopt this attitude.

We understand how to work with intangibles. We operate in the arena of dreams, vision, and emotion and understand how they all influence the bottom line. We get that those qualities provide the fuel that ultimately drives all of business, regardless of the sale at the end of the process. I would guess that more businesses fail for lack of imagination than for bad products.

At our best, we're fearless. No agency succeeds by protecting the status quo, or refusing to give up the old ways, or following the pack. Every day we attach our fate to new ideas and products that the world has never seen. Some will be fantastic hits. Others will go down in flames. All innovations come from a willingness to take those risks and to try what has never been tried before.

To go out on a limb, agencies provide living proof that groups of people who trust and collaborate openly will always have the competitive edge. Their insights will be richer. The work will be more inspiring. They will be more in tune with their clients. Some agencies manage to succeed without this knowledge, but I would make a bet that their work sucks.

OK, I'll confess, I really want to write country songs for Merle Haggard. Fortunately for music fans everywhere, I still have my agency job.

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