The Talented Jerk vs. the Sweetheart Hack (Part I)

Which Kind of Boss Would You Rather Work For?

By Published on .

Sally Hogshead
Sally Hogshead
"I believe you do not have to be an asshole, or work for one, in order to do great work."

I posted this on Facebook last Saturday night at 8:27 p.m. Apparently, I'm not the only one who dislikes assholes. Almost immediately, folks ranging from CEOs and professors to newbies and retired stars were joining in to criticize obnoxious leaders. No one, it seems, enjoys working for nasty people.

This includes Donna Lee Jahn Merz, the soft-spoken reverend who baptized my children as newborns, who posted, "I am so totally over working for or with assholes. ... What ever happened to 'do unto others?'" (Hey, if she can drop the A-bomb on Facebook, so can I.) Comments about mean or egomaniacal bosses, both past and present, ranted on.

So it's unanimous: No one wants to work for a jerk, under any circumstances. Nastiness is never tolerable. That's settled. Right? Well, hold on. Not so fast. After getting such emphatic responses, I asked a question on Facebook:

"Would you rather work for a talented asshole, or a sweetheart hack?" And this, my friends, is where it started getting interesting. Of the dozens of ensuing comments, the response was startlingly clear: When forced to choose, the talented asshole wins. Nothing, it seems, is worse than working for a hack -- even a sweet one.

Why? Comments ranged from "respect" and "better opportunity to grow," "higher quality of work," but the main sentiment was the one expressed by freelancer Robert Manley: "Talent trumps nice."

Helayne Spivak, exec VP-chief creative officer of Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness, pointed out, "Sweetheart hacks? I don't want to sound heartless, but ... can we afford nice people who aren't good at their jobs? How's this: We pair every talented asshole with a sweetheart hack who just walks around all day apologizing for the asshole's behavior. Problem solved."

What's so bad about being a sweetheart hack? Most cited either weak leadership, or inability to create and support great ideas. Sam Harrison, speaker and author of "IdeaSelling," remarked, "Looking back on my career, I've loved the pats on the back. But I've grown most from the people who were willing to look me in the eye and say, 'You're a good person, but your work needs work.'" Bart Cleveland, creative director of McKee Wallwork Cleveland, weighed in: "Both are equally dangerous and helpful to one's career. ... You may learn something from the jerk. A sweetheart always erodes potential."

This need to learn from genuine talent became a recurring theme, especially when I asked the question on Twitter. Copywriter Jenn Totten tweeted, "As a young person in the biz I'd rather work for a talented asshole than a hack ... but if you're a talented sweetheart, I'll work even harder." Anthony Kalamut, professor and program chair of creative advertising at Seneca College in Toronto, asserted that the "biggest killer of young fresh talent is 'the sweetheart hack.'" Deborah Morrison, a professor of advertising at University of Oregon, wrote, "Transparency is a beautiful thing. ... There's probably a blog and Twitter feed on 'here's an asshole' updates." Hacks, the group surmised, are not only untalented, but also insecure.

The most dreaded combination, it seems, are the leaders who are both hacks and assholes. Nasty behavior can become part of the culture in some marketing departments and ad agencies, as mercurial behavior seems to get confused with genius.

If we can all agree that nasty leaders are bad, then why do they so frequently seem to rise into management positions? In this environment, a less forceful personality can unfortunately be perceived as less charismatic, or even weak. Kathy Hepinstall, former creative director at TBWA Chiat Day, wrote, "The sad fact is, assholes break through. They're colorful. They are spoken of. Like sound over water, assholism travels far."

Do some bosses unfairly earn this reputation? Talented leaders must make tough choices, fight for innovative ideas, advocate for their team, and refuse to settle for average. They're unafraid to ask questions, and don't pander to the committee. They push everyone around them to work harder and go outside the comfort zone, and along the way, they'll occasionally step on toes. (Do you think Apple's Steve Jobs is a sweetheart?)

In my book, "Fascinate," I delve into research on how influence develops and expands. Persuasive leaders, like persuasive brands, tap into specific "fascination triggers." Intentionally or not, they elicit certain patterns of response every time they communicate.

The most dominant or polarizing brands -- a.k.a. the talented assholes -- tend to overuse certain traits. They gorge on the power, alarm and vice triggers, taking these traits to an extreme. Sweetheart hacks, on the other hand, become so hyper-reliant on the consistency of the trust trigger that their creativity and passion takes a back seat.

As a result, the asshole/hack debate is highly subjective. What appears to be brilliant leadership to some people might feel like power-mongering or ego-run-amok to others.

True talents can do great work and support others. Cathy Austin, president at Loop9 Marketing, advised, "The talent lies in being able to tell someone (honestly) their work sucks and it serving as inspiration, not condemnation." The best leaders keep their focus on the organization, rather than making it personal. Mark Trueblood, copywriter at Turkel, says, "Being a leader means serving something greater than yourself. This requires a firm hand and an open heart."

In a tough economy, pressures run higher, tempers are shorter, budgets are smaller and deadlines more unreasonable. Stress and insecurity run high, and intolerance for jerks runs low. Larry Tolpin, chief creative officer of Y and former chief creative officer at BBDO and JWT Worldwide, adds, "The same goes for hiring people ... don't settle."

Bob Kuperman, former president-CEO DDB Worldwide, New York, quoted the ultimate source, Bill Bernbach: "We have two requisites for people working at Doyle Dane Bernbach. Number one, they have to be nice people. And number two, they have to have a lot of talent. I'm sorry for the nice guy who doesn't have talent, but that's bad for my business. And I don't give a damn how much talent the son-of-a-bitch has. I don't want him. Life is too short."

Next week, we'll continue on the debate with a closer look at asshole brands, hack brands and the pursuit of the talented sweethearts. In the meantime, if you're curious to know which triggers you're using to persuade others, check out the F Score personality test in my book.

One last thing. To everyone who shares his insight and experiences with me online, thank you! You make conversations like this fascinating. If you'd like to share your thoughts on this topic, please do, at, or at

Sally Hogshead is the author if the newly released marketing book "Fascinate: Your 7 Triggers to Persuasion and Captivation." Her website is
Most Popular
In this article: