Office Politics: The Dark Side of Agency Life

This New Year, May Your Agency Be Full of Creatives Who Would Rather Eat Dog Food Than Advance Themselves at Others' Expense

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Phil Johnson
Phil Johnson
It's an almost unspeakable topic, but if Derek Walker can write about his wish list for Santa Claus, I can write about office politics. It's ugly. It exists. I hate it.

I've spent a lot of my career as an agency owner trying to make sure that we contain politics and keep the asshole quotient to a minimum. It's self-serving to say so, but we've done a half-decent job. I'd be a fool if I pretended that we've stamped it out completely. It rears its head on occasion. I've seen competing factions arise. I'm dismayed when I discover some people don't like each other. Schisms form between departments and offices. People like to place blame. I don't need to tell you that this crap is insidious.

It always arrives in the form of an innuendo, a seemingly innocent comment that makes you doubt what you know and question people and situations that previously didn't warrant a second thought. You wrinkle your brow, wondering who to believe and where the truth lies. Likewise, beware of secondhand information. The phrase, "just thought you'd want to know," should set off warning bells. A friend once told me that a good gossip can make you hate a person you never met. Or, in the office, he can shape your opinions and lead you to misleading conclusions.

Wait a second. I see a contradiction. We're also supposed to listen to people and gather information. It would be fatal to any business to ignore negative input, even if it's unpleasant information about colleagues. Maybe the person bringing that news is saving us from a disaster.

Here's a true story. A manager told me, in so many words, that she thought a couple of people in the office were producing consistently bad work. I asked a bunch of questions and tried to sort out why she cared and what she wanted to accomplish. Was this a personal vendetta, or an altruistic gesture on behalf of the agency? She seemed embarrassed and apologized a couple of times for overstepping her bounds. In the end -- after looking around and talking to some other people -- it became pretty clear to me that her agenda was honorable. She genuinely was worried about the relationship with the client and the agency reputation. I appreciated her honesty. It doesn't always go that way.

I once heard from a job candidate -- who we didn't hire -- that he had been treated shabbily by one of our most senior and respected managers. I wanted to dismiss the complaint as sour grapes, but the details were so specific that I looked deeper. I discovered a person who showed respect to everyone above him but no regard for anyone else. Poor form.

I'm pretty sure I've been duped, manipulated and led to false conclusions over the years. To improve my batting average, I've been trying to find some predictable ways to tell the difference between healthy disagreement and the destructive seeds of politics.

A lot of times things happen so subtly that you don't spot them until the damage has been done. But I think I've identified a couple of filters to apply as I listen to the swirl of conversation that takes place around the agency. To me, the following are all bad signs and expose the agency needlessly to the catfight of interoffice turmoil.

  • Any information about people that does not come with concrete, specific facts should be ignored. I'm wary of vagueness in any form but especially when it's used to disparage others.
  • Beware of people who cast themselves in a positive light in comparison to the failings of others.
  • I can live with finger pointing, but when the problem always rests with someone else, you've got a situation on your hands.
  • Negative feedback that does not bring fresh insight, or help to improve the agency, usually includes a personal agenda. Criticize away if you can help make us better.
  • If a pattern of behavior increases a person's authority or influence at the expense of others, I don't trust it.
  • Storytelling that always casts the storyteller in the best possible light. I go on the assumption that all of us do dumb things on a daily basis. I want to hear it all.
  • Anything mean or spiteful, about anybody, ever. Every time you break this rule, you put another crack in the agency wall.
These are easy guidelines to follow -- until you discover that the problem is with a creative superstar or with a person who manages an important client. Then you stand at a crossroads that every agency has to face at one time or another, whether or not to give someone a pass because they contribute so much to the business. I've tried it both ways. I think I'd rather flip burgers than hand the keys over to the dark forces, no matter how much glittering gold they bring to the table.

May your agency be full of hardworking and honest creative people who would rather eat dog food than advance themselves at the expense of others. Happy New Years!

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