Small Agency Awards

If I knew then what I know now ... Confessions of a self-diagnosed perfectionist

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Credit: istock

If I knew then what I know now is a series of bylines from small agency executives about the lessons they learned in building their shops.

I have high standards. So does my partner. This has served us well over the last 15 years of running our own agency and another 10 years as employees at other companies. We live by the credo "Never Settle." We push until we either run out of time or money.

This isn't a particularly unique belief system within the creative industry. We all grew up with the understanding that creating great work would lead to bigger and better things. A promotion. Bigger budgets. Sexier clients and opportunities. Generally speaking, I still believe this is true. But what I have come to learn more recently is this approach to the products and services you provide needs to be de-coupled from your approach to running the business itself.

A company and the culture nurtured within is a living, breathing organism. It can never be perfect because it is always changing. I used to think of our business as a giant puzzle, and my most important function within the company was to solve it. At the best of times I thought if I could just find those few remaining pieces -- human resources, typically -- I'd crack the code and we'd finally be as wildly successful as we hoped. The problem was that as soon as I found those missing pieces (no easy task when you have perfectionist tendencies) a few other pieces that were once in place had now mysteriously gone missing.

David Herbruck
David Herbruck

People quit or lose motivation; once-stable and reliable processes or systems finally succumb to the inevitable and fail; markets change and the shifting sands require new capabilities and approaches. These things could all be happening at the same time to varying degrees. It often feels like you are pushing a boulder up a hill, and this can be quite stressful. And herein lies the problem.

When anxiety takes hold and you are constantly living in a state of feeling incomplete or inadequate, it can become a self-perpetuating cycle. The agency leaders might have a tendency to overlook the accomplishments of staff -- of which there are always many -- and be less effusive with praise and positive reinforcement than appropriate or necessary. This, in turn, might demotivate the staff and leave them feeling the same way as leadership… that nothing is good enough, so why try any harder than necessary? They, in turn, become less encouraging down the line.

And when creative people stop using encouragement to motivate, they generally feel less entitled to give critiques or hold people accountable. We all learned early on to find something nice to say about someone's work before picking it apart. The dangerous cycle of anxiety-fueled negativity can be a company killer. So, what's the solution?

I believe that it starts with reframing the belief that things can always be better. Perfect doesn't exist. That doesn't mean you can't strive to be better, or that you must lower your expectations. Instead, accept that you are motivated to be the best you can be, and that no matter what, that is good enough. Always. There are external pressures and factors that can prevent you from achieving this goal, but you are not responsible for things out of your control, so don't internalize it by blaming yourself.

It's taken 25 years to learn this, and I am still learning to put it into practice. I need to get much better at giving people the accolades they deserve. And much better at giving myself that same positive reinforcement. After all, although I'm far from perfect (as is our company by extension), we're pretty damn good most of the time, and have accomplished a lot to be proud of, with no end in sight.

David Herbruck is the principal and president of loyalkaspar

Are you a small agency leader with a tale to tell in hindsight about your founding? Contact Judy Pollack at [email protected] To sign up for the Ad Age tenth annual Small Agency Conference & Awards, to be held in July in New Orleans, go here.

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