I wrote this way back last year, but the person to whom I sent it for review said it was too harsh at the time. Perhaps he was right, but times have changed, I have moved on and at the end of the day, it’s my truth and I suspect it’s shared by many others.
I’m good at what I do. Even people who loathe me will – I think – begrudgingly admit that I know my stuff, and even in some aspects, extremely well. But unfortunately, this isn’t enough, being exceptional at what you do. It’s also the one thing that good, decent, honest, hard-working parents never think or know to teach their children: sometimes skills don’t matter and you just have to shut up and play the game.
Neither of my parents was university educated and in fact, both of them came from below average economic situations. What they did have, though, were incredibly strong families with bible hewn morals and unwavering ethical standards. They also had examples of work ethics that almost no longer exist today, at least not in the main and not for anything today’s society would perceive as being “worth the effort.” They taught us as literally as one can possibly imagine that all we had to do was work hard every day, strive to be the best at what we do and that everything else would fall into place.
What a load of hooey. At least in today’s world where honesty, skills, and hard work have largely – at least in certain sectors and at certain levels – been replaced entirely by the ability to smile, nod your head in accordance, speak when spoken to, have the same opinion as your boss, jump up and down and clap at all company functions, wear your company Christmas gift branded sweatshirt every time the sun isn’t shining and rat out anyone who says anything remotely negative (or true) about the shortcomings of the organization for which you work. We now are expected to live, work and – perhaps my biggest irritant – play in the office equivalent of Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
A few agencies ago I worked under a man who had and still has absolutely zero idea about digital. Which would be fine were his title not SVP of Digital. He was and is the most full of crap individual that whatever god you believe in ever wasted time creating. If he was, in fact, a vessel of any god. But my heavens can he talk: about golf, about women (too much, in fact, openly and about really young ones for a “happily married” executive of 50); about himself when he used to be a serial drunk. He ran up the company Amex to as high as $23K a month doodling all over the country and then made up reasons for the trips after the fact when the expense reports and receipts were due. He also had the card “compromised” on more than one occasion. On porn sites. I know that’s exactly where I use my personal Amex, nevermind the company one. Several serious, large clients absolutely despised him and asked that he never be invited to another meeting; others – usually clients led by women who didn’t know enough to challenge him and who lapped up the attention – welcomed and cooed at the very sight of him. But they were small money; little potatoes.
Yet since I left he has been made not only a partner but an equity partner. Why? Because he was on the “inside,” one of the boys. But more importantly, he’s non-threatening to the extremely insecure CEO who knows even less about digital and almost nothing about advertising. He tells him exactly what he wants to hear, hangs on his every word, tells him his horrible ideas are platinum, and never, ever says anything negative in his presence. He is to this CEO what Dr. Conrad Murray was to Michael Jackson. But perhaps my favorite part of this tale is that if this agency had done background checks (and I’m sorry, but who doesn’t since like 2004) when he was hired they would have found a criminal history of DUI, reckless driving and other various and sundry items strewn across three states, and if they had really checked his references, would’ve found out what he did to the company finances at the employer immediately preceding this one. But they didn’t and they won’t because they don’t want to know. They are all “happy,” and that is all that matters. For now, at least.
I resigned from that agency to take a better job with a real digital agency. But my resignation – or the fact that I had largely helped grow their largest client by 210% over 2 years – wasn’t enough for this man. Because you see, there is nothing that blown-up fluff fears and detests more than substance. On my last day there he had to get the knife in one last time, making up the most absurd of reasons for why I was actually leaving. Surely it was nothing to do with him. Actually, it wasn’t; it was because of the toxic petri dish of an atmosphere that existed there which allowed someone like him to exist. And he hated me. Because I have skills. I am smart. I can still make a living. I don’t have to blow sunshine up someone’s backside and sell every millimeter of my soul to land one, final job onto which I will hang with every breath because I know I’ve finally found my most gullible of marks.
Of course, I’ve come across some variant of unacceptability at each agency in which I have worked because – let’s be honest – agencies are where the misfits go to fit. So knowing that it’s not “if,” but “when” you will come across these interesting road bumps, the important thing to discern with each one as quickly as possible is wherein lies their particular motivation. For this guy, it was pure, 100% self-preservation; no one was taking the new life he’d carved out for himself and I’m pretty sure he would have (and still would) do pretty much anything to keep it.
At yet another agency, it was money and a lot of it. The highly volatile if not nuclear person there was unanimously voted as such and could be verbally abusive, highly intrusive and almost always demeaning. Except to me because I increased business, and by quite a bit. So whereas I watched him daily dismantle others, he never interrupted me, never questioned me and was actually – albeit uncomfortably at times – quite a supporter. But it still bothered me that his otherwise almost entirely destructive nature was allowed to pervade and persist as it did and does. The answer to why, though, is quite simple: he brought in and still has strong ties to the single largest client in the agency. So even though the moral simpleton in me despaired over his treatment and generally disruptive behavior, I could at least understand – if I put myself in the position of the CEO – why he was allowed to hang around. If given the chance I would’ve voted him off the proverbial island 100 times over. But if I put myself into the CEO’s position and considered the bank lines, the guarantees, the need to keep people employed, I am certain I would have made the same decision as he. The man is and can be dreadful, but at least the reason for his existence goes well beyond, “I need someone to lick my boots and tell me I’m cool because I never had a single friend in my life until I got a title that starts with a big C and is only three letters.” It was to live up to obligations; real ones, the type that keep people insured and keep their bills paid. It’s more than just because he’s one of the boys (he isn’t) or he knows where the bodies are buried.
In a more recent role, I was hired by one of the largest agencies in the world to run one of the largest spending digital accounts in the world. I was thrilled and of course, and wanted to put in the time there knowing (or hoping) it would pay dividends further down the road in helping me to land what might be my ultimate role. But after only a few weeks, I realized that no one there had a clue about digital. They were stuck in 1997 and I felt fortunate not to have been working via dial-up. So why did they want someone like me? Because someone like me could talk the talk – they had zero interest in whether or not I could also walk the walk – and they needed me to go to meetings, do the pitches and convince the big-spending bigwigs in NYC that I could be trusted with their $200M + budget. The problem was, I actually wanted to achieve things; I actually wanted to bring material change. Meanwhile what they wanted was for me to sign off on charging $48,000 USD to change one logo on a website, a job that showed exactly 16 minutes of work in the billing system. It was the ultimate lesson in facade vs. structure; s** vs. substance. I resigned on day 89.
I am conscious of the fact that each of my examples so far has been a man, but that’s only because I am perhaps saving one of the best for last. Most recently, I was hired and employed to build a proper digital team. The woman from whom I was taking over said role had, as best I could tell, acquired her particular set of “digital skills” somewhere between the development of the abacus and the rotary dial telephone. For a long time, her presence in the company at all was a mystery to me as she likewise had no other obvious abilities and had what can only be described as an IQ lower than that of a recently clipped toenail. She went out of her way to avoid me from day one and even made up a transparently false excuse for why she could not attend an all-day digital transition planning session with leadership. The person from whom I was meant to be taking over this discipline had been allowed to exclude herself from the conversation entirely. In all the months I was at this agency, I spent perhaps an aggregate total of 45 minutes in this woman’s presence, so afraid was she of revealing to me what I already knew: she was a fake, in every aspect of the word. So when she came to my office door one day and over-anxiously invited me to join her in a meeting with two high-level personnel from our parent company, I was baffled.
She seemed at a loss herself as to what I was meant to say or do in this meeting, so loose was her grasp on the digital landscape and on the respective roles of the others within the said entity. She had done everything in her power, heretofore, to talk me down and degrade me to others, so why she would want me in this particular meeting with people whose opinion of her mattered so much to her was beyond me. So when the day arrived and the four of us were in the large conference room and only three of us participated in the conversation, I was not remotely surprised. I talked in-depth about data management and uses, the various platforms we were bringing on-board and the ways I felt they could benefit them. She nodded and smiled and literally never uttered a single syllable.
Some weeks went by before an announcement was made that this woman had been hired by our parent company to go and lead the digital marketing efforts of one of their largest subsidiaries. The meeting I had been in was, in fact, part of her interview. She had told the others present that day that I reported to her; that I could explain where we were, how far we’d gotten under her leadership. When I asked my boss at the time how he could let this happen, he said – I will never forget this – “Oh, I need her there. She may not know what she’s doing, but she’s a political animal. She’ll spy for me and lie for me and do whatever I need.” And oh how she has proven that since.
Why am I saying all of this? Because merit is no longer the basis of success. It has become a game with rules that are visible and known only to those who possess no other discernible skills. And because I can, and because these stories and I embody both the risk and the dream.
The dream is what you will inevitably have at least once a day, every day when you are faced with a letch/loser/idiot/liar/former felon/drug-addled boss who should be in a prison/homeless shelter/AA meeting/anger-management class instead of in your office. You will wander to places of revenge in your mind that will lead you to write something like this and fantasize about sending it as an all-company email. Or at least to the C-level types. Or maybe to the cheating boss’s wife or husband. You’ll want to, but you can’t. And that’s the risk. Because if you do, you’ll destroy your job and perhaps even the path of your career thereafter.
So why am I doing it now (aside from the obvious altruistic purpose of coaching young new workforce entrants)? My second boss ever – who is wildly more successful than anyone mentioned heretofore and is also still a friend (that’s how you suck up, I think, which could be my next post did I not so clearly suck at sucking up) – said something to me in 2001 that I never forgot. “You’re articulate, and when you speak people listen. You can command a room. So your mood is contagious; your words and deeds resonate and stick.” Or some such crap. But he was right and better yet, I can write. And I’m now at the age where I have long since established my tribe of people who know I’m good at what I do, who share my standards and who are as disgusted by the sub-standards we’ve encountered along the way as I am. I earned this right. I put in the time. I did fantasize, of course, of standing up and walking out in protest with some prophetic and articulate sayonara speech a la Jerry Maguire during all of the aforementioned events and more, but I never did it. Instead, I found another job, resigned and moved on. And all these years later because I paid the price many times over, I get the luxury of saying my piece and warning the newbies.
To get to this place of not caring, saying what you think and not tolerating the BS, you will – for quite a number of years – be expected to shut up and play, or speak your mind and pay. Squelch your skills, knowledge and outrage and don the plastic smile and itchy logoed sweater and tell your less than capable crusty boss that their ideas are both original and worth more than a universal cure to all cancers. It is yet one more symptom of the diseased culture and state of business in America. All I can hope is that someday the sayers will outnumber the players and I can once again call advertising my career, because as those who know me will attest, I will never shut up and play.
Update: As of yesterday, we had received two separate letters from the attorneys retained by Land O’Lakes, Inc., threatening legal action for me exercising my First Amendment rights. If you would like to read more or keep up with my fight against Land O’Lakes, you can visit this page.