Want to Put the Meat Back in Meetings?

Then Quit Having So Many of Them

By Published on .

Eric Webber Eric Webber
When I was at a big agency, I had a recurring nightmare. I'd died and gone to hell, which turned out to be a windowless room with a big table in the middle. I was seated at the table, bound to a chair.

There were other people around the table too. There was a presenter who I'm pretty sure was speaking English, but I couldn't comprehend anything being said. Images flashed on a screen -- the exact words that were coming out of the speaker's mouth -- accompanied by the occasional pie chart, clip art and, I think, sometimes a Ziggy cartoon.

I tried to cry out, "Get me out of this place." Instead, what came out was, "Can you go over the whole Power Point presentation one more time please?" And they would.

You know where I'm headed with this. It wasn't a nightmare at all, but an all too frequent real-life experience. OK, maybe I put a little hair on that story, but I do believe that when it comes to productivity, the sheer volume of meetings at a big agency is more hindrance than help.

Inspired by Doug Zanger's funny first-person account of a particularly bad interview, I decided that my second installment of a big vs. small thread would expand on the topic of meetings, particularly their excessive reach and frequency at big companies.

I don't mean to pick on my last agency. I don't know that they were any better or worse about over-meeting than any other big shop. I polled a number of friends who work or worked at large agencies and the consensus was that the problem exists everywhere.

I think it's just an unfortunate consequence of growing large. You add more layers, more bureaucracy, communication gets more complicated and the easy answer is to have more meetings as a way of communicating.

I'm not an anti-meetingist. Meetings have their place and value. I go to an all-agency status meeting every Monday morning. It's a great way to start the week by hearing what's on the collective agency plate. Only five or six out of 50 people speak and they keep it succinct. No agendas. No written reports. No Power Points.

On Fridays, group heads meet to talk about anything important going on. Sometimes it's 15 minutes, and other times much longer. As much or as little time as needed.

In between there are the typical meetings -- account teams, planners meeting with creatives, that sort of thing. Most often, "meetings" are just that -- casual. You want to meet with someone? Walk over and talk to them. It seems to be a good way to work.

More important, it encourages more effective personal interaction. Face it, big, formally structured meetings don't really do that.

I think the problem arises when people aren't sure what to do, so they call a meeting, ostensibly to get input or maybe validation on an idea. But that's a crutch at best, and contrary to real problem solving. It's confusing activity with productivity. You're meeting instead of doing.

Herbert Hoover wasn't our most quotable president, but he got it right when he said, "When the outcome of a meeting is to have another meeting, it's been a lousy meeting."

I haven't only attended many such meetings, I'm guilty of having organized my share as well.

A greater danger in having a meeting-heavy culture isn't just that it wastes time; it can also create an atmosphere of meeting-apathy.

We've all seen it. You look around even important confabs and three-quarters of the room is cranking on e-mail or text messaging. And don't get me started on the people who bring laptops. Pssst, no one believes you're taking notes.

I'm guilty there too. My vice was playing poker on my Blackberry, which I continued even after an embarrassing incident where everyone thought I was very enthusiastic about a media plan when in reality I'd just drawn a full house.

It's ironic, but by running leaner and having fewer manpower resources, small agencies have an advantage over the Goliath's. We simply don't have room for fluff.

I still call meetings, but my new colleagues have taught me to be respectful of their time. And when I'm invited to one I know it's important to be there and to contribute, even if it means my poker skills will suffer for it.
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