5 Warning Signs that You’re Working at a Dysfunctional Marketing Agency

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Crazy day at the officeThe average marketing agency is anything but average. The combination of creativity, ego, and intense pressure can often result in some bizarre situations that are as far from ordinary as you can get. In my experience, the only time you’re likely to get a zanier group of people together is when you’re working on a play. (Theatre folk are even more outlandishly dramatic than agencies – go figure!) But marketers come in a close second.

That said, you should know how to recognize the signs of true dysfunction before going in to the job, whether it’s as a writer, designer, developer, project manager, traffic coordinator, or any other role. There’s a fine line between “adorably wacky” and “hazardous to your health.” As someone who has been there, I’m here to help you recognize the signs – and to encourage you get professional help (whether it be a therapist or a career counselor) if you’re already working at a dysfunctional marketing agency.

Warning Sign #1: There are Fire Drills – Even During the Job Interview

Fire AlarmDid your the stress levels start to go up before you had even landed the job? Was the break-neck pace of business visible from the moment you first walked in the door? It’s a sure sign you should run the other way. (Unless you love feeling like your hair is on fire, all the time. Hey, some people do. But I don’t.)

Years ago, I heard that a local agency was looking for a copywriter. I applied for the job and got an interview with the head of the company, whom I’ll call Harried T. Boss. I arrived (like I do) at least 10 minutes early. There was no one in the lobby, and no answer to the phone. So I waited. And waited. Finally, a half hour later, Harried T. Boss came bustling through the door without apologizing for his tardiness, and we adjourned to his office. He offered me a whiskey, and when I demurred, he poured himself a double.

We sat down, talked for a minute, and I started showing him my portfolio. Just then, there was a phone call that he had to take. He yelled at someone for a few moments, hung up, and we started again. Then there was a knock on the door – someone needed his signature. After a few minutes, another knock – there was an urgent request. Harried T. Boss needed to review a proof before it was sent out to the client. He got up and left, and he was gone for 20 minutes while I sat there, wondering if I could manage to continue to live on my freelance earnings. Perhaps I could buy Top Ramen in bulk.  Finally, when he returned, I asked if it was always liked this. “Like what?” he asked. Never mind, I told him. We finished up with a few pleasantries and shook hands. As I collected my things to leave, I noticed that he washed down four Advil with a slug of booze.

Needless to say, I declined their offer for employment when it arrived two months later.

Warning Sign #2: Their Clients are Angry Tyrants

A Tyrannosaurus Rex Dinosaur with Gaping JawsClient-agency relationships should be partnerships. Yes, one party is paying the other. That doesn’t mean clients own the agency. And yet, some agencies think that if they anger their clients, that’s the end of the deal. It leads to managers who never say no, who agree to executions that won’t meet objectives, and who bend over backwards to accommodate them, even for the most unreasonable requests and deadlines. Some clients treat agencies this way because they can. But there are two sides to every dysfunctional relationship. It’s the agency’s job to do everything they can to demonstrate their value as a strategic partner. They need to proactively offer solutions to client problems, rather than becoming order-takers.

I once worked at an agency where the client rewrote every email I ever composed. She made the copy longer. She added bullet points with features rather than benefits. She used the passive voice. Every change she made was for the worse. (She also introduced spelling errors, but let’s leave that alone for now.) Rather than challenging the client, the project manager simply accepted the changes and sent the copy to the designer. “The client is happy with it,” he said, when I asked him what happened.

Well, I wasn’t happy with it, and not just because I wouldn’t be able to put it in my portfolio.  The best client-agency relationships are all about communication. Sometimes that give-and-take means coming right out and saying, “You’re wrong, and this is why.” It’s possible to do this in a respectful way. Because here’s the thing – the client wasn’t happy, at least, not after she looked at the results of the email campaigns we’d sent. If we had pushed back – or better yet, offered to run an A/B test comparing her version of the content against mine – we would have had a client who respected our judgment. And that’s a wonderful thing.

Warning Sign #3: They’re Woefully Behind the Times

Floppy DiscTo continue delivering the kind of creativity and vision that gets results for clients, it’s critical to keep up with current marketing trends, technologies, and innovations. As an agency, it’s also up to you to share your knowledge with your clients, and lead by example. If you do it right, they’ll look to you to help them understand the latest shiny new thing in social media, or to help them untangle the ongoing changes to Google algorithms. If you don’t do it right, your clients will be left behind – and so will you.

One time, at another job interview, I walked into the office and felt like I had wandered through the portal of a time machine. There was a fax in one corner spilling an endless scroll of pages onto the floor. I saw several 3½ inch floppy discs on a desk, and a SyQuest drive on another. It was like a museum. I considered whether I was willing to go back to using Aldus Pagemaker on a Mac SE 30 (that didn’t take long). I declined the job offer.

This agency wasn’t trapped in an actual time warp. But they’d decided long ago that if it wasn’t broke, it wasn’t getting fixed. (And yes, they went out of business not long after.)

Warning Sign #4: Their Leader “Isn’t a Numbers Person”

Funny pumpkin with face and hatMarketing is a combination of art and science. It always has been, but now the science part is getting more attention because of the rise of measurable online advertising and data-driven targeting strategies. These days, it’s not enough to have a strong sense of cool color combinations along with the occasional brilliant flashes of insight. You also need the ability to understand how everything you do contributes to the client’s objectives. You need to measure and optimize campaigns and streamline your processes.

That’s not to say there’s no room on the team for an idea guru who can instantly come up with a snappy headline or a brilliant logo. There’s lots of room. But the team needs a leader who can drive the work in the right direction. And to do that, you need someone who can understand what your client’s key performance indicators are, and how every creative strategy and execution will meet them.

I once worked at a company with a creative director who was brilliant (at least, that’s what he told us.) He wore crazy hats. He had a handlebar mustache. He loved brainstorms, because then he could restate, in a louder voice, what someone next to him had just mumbled, and take all the credit for it. He hated dealing with the budget, so he asked one of the writers to do it.

As a result, the office manager discovered that our team had run out of cash after three months into the fiscal year. (The creative director had spent most of the money on an ergonomic desk for himself.) It meant that we had to cancel our coffee service. If no one brought in good coffee, we were reduced to the Folger’s Instant that had been sitting in the kitchen since the Clinton administration.

In short, numbers are important, and your leaders need to understand how they work.

Warning Sign #5: The Coffee is Bad

Instant coffee? Enough said.

If you’ve recognized your agency in any of these warning signs, don’t despair! Marketing automation can help creative agencies prevent or cure many of these symptoms of dysfunction. Check out this eBook to discover the nine essential strategies that can help agencies of any size prove the value of the work they do for clients and create lasting – and profitable – relationships.