The Questions I Really Want to Ask My Competitors

Too Bad We're Always Putting On a Brave Face

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Phil Johnson Phil Johnson
Each of us has a professional persona to maintain, and that often includes projecting an image of upbeat confidence and success, regardless of the circumstances. It's actually a useful skill, except when you're writing a blog for an audience of peers. Then, unless you want to bore people to tears, you've got a responsibility to open up and explore the more personal and revealing side of business. That's what I aspire to achieve here, even if I have to drop my persona and share some of my more humbling experiences.

Today, my inspiration comes from my friend Tom Simons, president of Partners + Simons, and as good a guy as you'll meet in the business, except when we're competing. (Then he's a calculating, sharp-elbowed stranger intent on making mischief and causing me great grief.) A number of years ago, Tom invited 10 agency presidents to an intimate dinner at Brasserie Jo in Boston. Sitting at a big round table with a fine selection of wines, Tom proposed that we "open our kimonos" and discuss the business in a way that we could probably only do with a group of our peers.

Dinner got off to a good start but soon some of us started to posture and play a game of one-upsmanship. Life was all sunny skies. New business was falling like manna from heaven, everyone had profit margins in the suspiciously high double digits, and we had all built utopian communities for our employees. I foolishly proposed a plan where we would share resumes of employees whom we thought might be more successful somewhere else. Someone quickly quipped, "I think our employees are doing a good job of sharing resumes on their own."

All in all a good evening, and I still hold Tom in high regard for picking up the check. If memory serves me well, we met one more time but with a much smaller group. A few rounds of e-mails circulated, but the agency roundtable fell to the wayside. In fact, most of those agencies fell to the wayside.

I wish we could have kept it going because I had a number of questions for my fellow agency leaders. At some level, all of us had shared a set of emotional and business experiences, and we could have learned a lot from each other. If nothing else, we could have satisfied our curiosity about how someone else navigated the same rocky shores as we had. Rather than maintaining my professional persona, I wish I had asked the following questions that night at dinner.

How much money do you make? No joke. I spend a lot of time figuring out where to make investments and balancing my needs against the needs of the agency. I'd sure love to know how other people approach those issues.

What's the true structure of your management team? Where does decision-making really lie within your organization? I know what the titles say, but who holds the real power? Who would run the agency if you got hit by the proverbial bus?

How do you deal with those moments when you feel like you've been kicked in the stomach? There are a lot of handbooks for building businesses. I haven't found one for managing the worries that wake you up at two in the morning. It could be a client loss, a staff departure, or a financial blow. What interests me is how people deal with the tough stuff.

What's your job description? At least once a year, I wrestle with my role in the agency and how I spend my time. What's the most valuable work that I can do for our clients, for our staff, and for PJA Advertising? How important is my Facebook page to the future of the agency?

What did you really want to do before you wound up in advertising? I don't think I ever met an agency owner without a couple of other dreams up her sleeve. Me, I wanted to be a psychoanalyst. Funny thing, that's pretty much what I do half the time.

Would you mind sharing your client list? Hey, it couldn't hurt to ask.

I'll confess that these questions might not make the most congenial dinner conversation. But I bet you that every agency owner wrestles with them and would sure as hell like to know what their competitors would answer.
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