"Ignorance More Frequently Begets Confidence Than Does Knowledge"

No, this isn't a "when life gives you lemons" moment.

No, this isn't a "when life gives you lemons" moment.

~Charles Darwin

Dunning and Kruger proposed that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:

  1. Tend to overestimate their own level of skill
  2. Fail to recognize genuine skill in others
  3. Fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy
  4. Do recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they are exposed to training for that skill

Therein lies the problem. We have leaders – managers, directors, Veeps, C-level folks, owners – in our agencies and marketing departments who have experience, serious credentials and perhaps an impressive education behind them who know more than we do. But ignorant on how anything gets done in the office - and incompetent because they may have never had to do what you do.

So, can they do your job?

Probably not.

Why? Because a) they don’t know what your job is, b) they actually don’t know how to do your job, and c) they didn’t care until today (á la Ken Lay)…

Then there’s some huge, expensive mistake; profits have gone down the tubes; or there’s a whole lotta bitching going on. No matter how much you rearrange the office (Titanic anyone?) to create serendipity for that kumbaya moment, no one is happy and things just aren’t working.

Then management starts messing with the flow. [Tend to overestimate their own level of skill]

They confidently ride in on their trusty steed and sabre drawn – ready to apply rash decisions and big old Band-Aids to the mistakes; cuts in perks/benefits/staff to ameliorate mounting Red Ink; and my personal favorite, new process, tools – or worse – an organizational behavior consultant to assuage the bloodshed.

And everything turns to crap.


What did management fail to do?

Take the pulse of the staff. Ask the simple, obvious questions: what’s working and not working? [Fail to recognize genuine skill in others]

You don’t set sail without a map, compass and these days, GPS. And certainly not without a skilled crew.

So why on this Earth would management make all these decisions without a simple query and just a little bit of background? Because they are smarter than everyone else. They’ve read all the articles about the latest management trends – from Kaizen to Holacracy – and they are knowledgeable because, since it's in the pages of Forbes or Wired:  It. Will. Fix. Everything. [Fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy]

Yes, knowledge is power. No, I’m not saying management is stupid – or incompetent. (Some individuals are though, and they should go, post-haste.)

But management very often is ignorant of what it takes to get that stuff that you do – done. And they’re very likely incompetent when it comes to something like developing a serious spreadsheet – with all those fancy formulas, Photoshop miracles on their corporate mug shot, or writing code for a new app. They have you to do that.

People, you are stuck with your managers, so offer-up some help.

When things aren’t going well, errors made, general animosity in the office – I’ll bet you recognize it well before management acknowledges it.

You have skin in this game. If management doesn’t know what’s going on and you see problems, make them aware. And more than that, come up with a couple ideas for solutions. At least you are making an effort to fix the problems. Management just might thank you. [Do recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they are exposed to training for that skill]

If management chooses to blissfully go on their way and ditch your ideas, you have a couple options: either sit back and watch the implosion or get your resume tuned-up and out to prospective employers.

Now excuse me while I put on my invisibility cloak of lemon juice.

Confusing Technology and Behavior

Once again Adcontrarian hit the nail on the head.

Confusing Gadgetry With Behavior.

It rings true to just about anything that is technology-related. I’m watching TV. I’m on the phone. Doesn’t matter the method, the action is the same.

On my side of the ad agency fence – squarely in the middle of the making sure things get done department – technology is frequently confused with behavior.

When things go wrong in an agency, as they all too often do, the first inclination is to turn to technology. We need a[nother] new software program. What we have doesn’t work, is too hard to use, the UX looks funky, blah, blah, blah.

New software will Fix Everything.

I have seen agencies and in-house marketing departments spend tons of money – the cash kind and hours (that could be billable) kind – in project management and workflow solutions hoping to achieve workflow nirvana.

Sometimes the tools (not the people – the technology) that are in place were selected by accounting, IT, or God forbid, a committee comprised of management who know nothing about what it takes to juggle a boatload of work, and resources that are hiding at Starbucks.

Often, the tools were not setup or implemented properly, training was done as more of a features overview, or worse, via five- or ten-minute videos on YouTube.


I don’t care if you’re using the biggest, baddest enterprise solution, or an easy-entry freeware, cloud-based app. You have to set parameters for use, or else everyone will do whatever they want, however they want.

Technology does not change behavior.

If you’re not getting much in the way of consistency or compliance in what you’re using now, it won’t happen with something shiny and new.

That’s why I have a job. (I can help you)

There’s more to keeping your agency humming along, and preventing people from hatin’-on one another. Tools (technology) are one thing. Process is another (I can hear The Adcontrarian now), but yes, you need a process – just basic, clearly defined steps to get things done works fine.

Then there are people.

People. They’re the ones using the tools. They often don’t know why they’re required to use them. They’re getting their work done. Thank-you-very-much. So back off. And please don’t say Process again.

Bottom line; involve users (especially creative folk) in evaluation and decision-making of technology. If they understand why you decided to do this to them, they’re just a little more inclined to use it – and use it the way you intended it to be used.

Ask for their recommendation. Don’t make it an ordeal. Involvement takes 10 minutes. Any more than that and you’ll lose all of the creative folks. You take care of the rest, and then give a 5-minutes or less dog-and-pony of the awesome solution you found.

There will always be a few who refuse to comply. If the culture allows it, then that’s part of your job: find out how important it is for management, then they have to do their part. Compliance can require tough love. You don’t have to be a jerk – help them get over the resistance.

Last, if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times – customize your solution to fit your agency.

Out of the box, plug ‘n play, is a complete lie. Trust me on this.

Technology doesn’t change behavior. We still do what we have to do. These days, we don’t have keep timesheets on a three-part form, we click a button.

The inclination (or lack thereof) to do so will never change.

And in case I didn’t make it clear: I love the creative guys. I really do.

Your work pays the bills.

Choose Agency Management Software Wisely

Once you invest in an agency management system, you spend a lot more than money – there can be hours of evaluation, process mapping and then there’s the implementation process, training and learning curve.

You are solidly on your way to committing valuable resources to making the best use of the system, entering all your important data and assets, and voila! you’re fully committed.

It’s hard to end a committed relationship. But like a personal relationship, if it was established on the first blush of awesomeness, it’s hard to let go.

You were so thrilled! This was going to solve all your problems! It would Fix. Everything.

In the effort to hang on to that dreamy plan, you usually put up with some pretty crummy stuff. The passion to do everything just right slowly deteriorates. Then you find yourself just walking through all those process steps. The critical path that doesn’t seem all that critical.

Then you avoid it altogether and end up doing all your work in Excel and email.  Sleeping on the couch.

Other solutions start looking more appealing. You’re thinking about steppin’ out.

I believe in process and I believe is solid agency management systems. But unlike what your sales gal or all those corporate logos and too-cool agency names on their website say, one size does not fit all.

You can choose a solution where you simply login, create a user, and you’re off. Or you can choose something complex that does everything. And by the way, complex doesn't mean complicated.

But either choice can and will trip you up.

Diving-in with marginal planning can lead you down the path where you to once again depend on that old, reliable mainstay of email and Excel. Complex systems work great if you have a team to customize, implement and shepherd through (and past) the infatuation stage of the relationship.

And by the way, the simple systems work better if you actually take the time to do the customization they offer – like build templates.

The complex systems work better if you pare-down the features you use. There are more bells and whistles available that any individual can fully appreciate, especially in the course of a busy day. Implement in phases.

Pace your implementation, train, and require [some level of] compliance. A group of individuals playing with the same set of rules is, er, um, a team. (cliché I know, but true).

So do your homework, ask your sales gal how her company will help you get the most out of their software. Oops, solution. Then use those resources. Get input from your colleagues, address what they hate (and there are lots of haters), take recommendations for improvements to your software rep, and continually improve. The goal is to make this second nature – not a long, involved process.

The net result is a system that makes process easy. They’re just steps you walk through to get a job done. The same as when you sent an email to the guy next to you to write a line of code. Same actions, but now it has structure, it’s reliable.

You may not stay in love with the software, but you’ll have a partner that you can count on, and you won’t spend hours searching through email, or Google docs, or SharePoint for all that crap that should be in one place.

I’ll go for a stable relationship any day.

Whistleblowers, Responsibility And My Life Before Advertising

Hard to believe it, but I actually had a job or two before advertising. (By the way, this story relates to any workplace).  I worked in the Auto Industry – for a division of Ford Motor Company, and later, for a division of Toyota of America.

I have seen a lot of shoddy work roll off the line that really doesn’t have to be. It’s frustrating, and bottom line, it’s all about responsibility, caring and culture.

Last week I wrote about management putting process (or tools, or just have a real culture, for crying out loud) in place so they know what’s going on – and can act on issues that affect anything from their bottom line to their customers.

I noted a few instances of where leaders [claimed they] “didn’t know” and I called B.S. on that.

One of those instances was faulty ignition switches – which is the latest big issue that GM is addressing.

An article on Bloomberg Businessweek about whistleblower Courtland Kelley talks about his efforts to alert GM management of issues which were met with, well, they didn’t want to hear about it. Mr. Kelley’s predecessor was demoted for making an issue of defects and was removed from his position; and Kelley who continued to make management aware of problems (more than the ignition switch), finally sued GM. GM denied there were problems, the judge sided with GM (that judge should be removed), and Kelley was demoted. He was a lifetime GM employee reduced to doing stuff that doesn’t upset anyone.

It is a really lonely place to be when you decide to take serious issues to management. In Kelley’s case, these were life-and-death issues. And the really heinous part was (and still is) an issue of cost – it was “too expensive” for GM to recall and repair the vehicles.

I can’t even imagine what Mr. Kelley felt when he read about the fatalities that he knew were a result of GM’s inaction – issues he warned them about. In writing. Multiple times.

Is it really cheaper to pay restitution to the victims’ families than to recall and fix those defects out on the road?


So, way back when, I worked at Ford. Actually, it was a Predelivery Service plant where we did a few tweaks, like alignments; installed a few accessories; fixed any minor damage done during transit (via rail car); and basically made the car clean and pretty for the dealer. The shop had everything from mechanics, to body and paint, to detailers.

It was the early- mid-seventies and the gas crisis hit. I was laid off three times during those glorious times, but while I was working, I first did claims – both damage claims during transit that the rail carrier paid, and warranty claims that were paid by Ford; then I became an inspector. As an inspector, there were things I could see – the hold-down broke during transit (from the Midwest to Oregon), and along the way the car bounced around and got pretty beat up; and things I couldn’t see – usually the warranty stuff . . . like missing piston rings or brake pads.

We documented everything we found to be a problem and fixed every car. Those warranty claims always went to Ford corporate. I have to wonder if they ever tracked trends.

We jokingly called ourselves Final Assembly.

I worked there when the Pinto was rolling off the line like mad because it was Ford’s only fuel-efficient car. We had no idea it was so faulty that it would eventually be pulled from production due to dangerous design.

Segue to keeping management informed  . . .

The point is, telling the truth is really important. That’s where culture comes in. There have to be channels for employees to advance issues to management. Employees have to not only feel safe raising the red flag, but able to do so without fear of retaliation.

At least at Ford, I had the warranty claims process to inform management. What they did with that data is a mystery.

But as for Mr. Kelley, he told the truth – and then, due to stonewalling by his bosses, even sued the company for not taking action. They rewarded him with demotion, humiliation and an end to his career that was far from what he ever planned.

But we all have to go with our conscience. GM’s management went with their pocketbook.

I have raised issues many times and have been shot down more often than been a witness to change. If they don’t know about it, they can’t fix it – right? I can never shake the feeling that if it seems wrong, it is usually wrong. I have to speak up.

As much as we hate to bring something that went horribly wrong to our boss, it really is much cheaper to fix it now than later. Damage control is hard, expensive and hangs on forever.

Do what’s right. Use all your channels, and as I said before, do it diplomatically.

Management, at any level, can be a bunch of jerks. Be prepared for whatever happens. Save your email – send them to yourself. You just never know when your hard drive at work will crash, or IT won’t be able to recover your saved emails.

Oh, and my stint at Toyota? In thousands of cars that were processed while I was there (they came by ship from Japan back then), I only saw one – really one – with a defect: a broken tie-rod. Of course that was a long time ago, before they too became greedy and started ignoring issues.

We’re learning a lot about culture here, so pay attention.

How does your agency or company work with employees who ask questions or enlighten management about issues with regard to product, workplace or improvements?

You can develop great ideas, turn out great work, enjoy your job – and management is there to support and promote you all along the way.

That’s why we do what we do. That’s when we have jobs we love. That is great culture.

When Management Knows What’s Going On

Earlier this week I wrote about management taking responsibility and having the tools (and even more so culture) in place to know what’s going on.

And that includes responding to issues – hopefully having the wherewithal to respond.

Part 1: Know what’s going on

Part 2: Responding in an intelligent, thoughtful way

Therefore, when issues arise – and they always will – how management responds is a highly reliable barometer of how engaged they actually are. Are they attending to their own agendas or are they looking out for the firm?

A great culture is evident when the bosses put all the personal stuff and political crap aside and do what’s best for the firm – that means the product they produce and the people who create it have priority. But . . . there has to be great culture in order for that to happen.

Kind of a chicken-or-egg thing.

Now, I have worked for awesome companies and agencies that truly care about employees, the product and profit – only to have one employee (in a key position) completely f*ck things up. That person is usually in HR, but I digress. . .(why is HR such a pain?).

So I find it a complete mystery - and really sad - when an agency or a company has to have an anonymous suggestion box, or worse, do a survey to take the pulse of the employees to reveal any issues that are causing grief.

Surveys are usually anonymous, but these days, no one truly believes that.

I can go one step further. One step that's worse:

Holding formal queries of staff to get their un-censored take on the firm, their department, their boss and their colleagues.

Total transparency some say, and complete vulnerability I say.

I have worked in and with several places that have done just that.

I was always candid.

I thought my employer [finally] cared enough to really know what was happening – and how I thought we could make it better. They wanted my input!

What happened next? Absolutely nothing came of those gut-wrenching episodes.

So you’ve poured your heart out – both about issues that need resolution in a serious way, and heartfelt, intelligent ways to make it better – and now management knows more about you and your great ideas that you know about them.

Would I take another survey? Yes. I̶’̶m̶ ̶a̶n̶ ̶e̶t̶e̶r̶n̶a̶l̶ ̶o̶p̶t̶i̶m̶i̶s̶t̶.̶  I’m a pragmatist, so I’ll be honest within reason.

When I’m asked for my unfettered opinion on issues and recommendations for improvements I will always give them. Diplomatically. It can’t be personal. It has to be about getting the work done, identifying the roadblocks and gaps, and finding solutions.

That is what I do every day for every client.

That is what you should do if you’re ever asked open-ended questions on a survey.

Be realistic. If management is asking you to tell them something they should already know, do so with focus and clarity on problem/solution.

Maybe they do care enough to query staff and make improvements and things will get better. However, if it all remains the same, prepare your resume or settle to keep doing the same things in the same way with the same frustrations. It can be “just a job.”

For me, as a consultant, I talk to every single employee and get their take on issues and improvements. I never reveal sources and I’m always totally honest with management on what needs fixing and ways to implement change.

That’s my job. Whether management chooses to adopt it is a different issue.

Therein lies the culture of a firm.

We Start Out Hopeful Then Everything Turns To Sh*t. Or The Endurance Of The Human Spirit.

It never ceases to amaze me how people endure the most difficult, nebulous or desperate situations – and just go on. They get up. Go to work. Eat a meal. Do laundry.


My neighbor moved out yesterday. Just a guy, a small U-Haul and a day of schlepping back-and-forth. Out of a 2600-square-foot house with a pool, dying yard and eerie quiet.

When he moved there, about four years ago, it was him, his wife, his teenage sons every-other week, and eventually – his new baby. Then grandma was there every day to take care of the baby while everyone was a work and school.

Then the guy lost his job. He was out of work for more than a year. This is Las Vegas.

He quit paying the mortgage because the house was now worth less than he owed. He and his wife split – she moved out months ago. Then the house was sold on a short-sale.

Glad he was able to sell. A small victory when banks still work to make the process impossible.

That’s all behind him and he can move on.

That’s reality.

Working in an ad agency is just working in an ad agency. We act – and feel – like it’s our life. And actually, it is for most of us who love advertising. The agency becomes our family. We spend a lot of time with them, and they’re the ones who are there with you when you turn 30, 50 or 65; or when you get the call from school that your kid was spotted leaving with the red-headed-kid at 10am and you have to leave to track him down only to find they’re smoking pot in the basement; or when you find out you dad died.

Then we go on.

It’s the camaraderie, or perhaps the simple need to survive, that we stick together and show up for work every day.

We show up even when the boss does insanely stupid shit and requires endless re-works because he’s just not seeing it, only to revert back to original the work. Or doesn’t show up for days, weeks or months on end – only to finally make an appearance to tell you that now Everything is gonna change. Or despite everything you know to be true, tells you to do things in his new and improved way – because he’s just come from either an inspirational Management Summit full of gurus who bloviate on the merits of Failure, or he just got ripped a new-one because he’s just-not-doing-his-job-and-he-better-get-with-the-program-or-he-is . . . gone.

We show up and do our jobs, turn out great work – or as great as we can given the circumstances – and eventually, we short-sell, get the hell out, and start a new life.

The ability of individuals to endure, work like dogs, and still find enjoyment in a few things here and there, is truly remarkable.

You have each-other. And trust me on this: nothing lasts forever, so just carve-out what you can now and move on as soon as a good opportunity presents itself.

You are the ones making the business run. Think about it. You are remarkable. 

Working Miracles In Agencies

It’s time to call in Anne Sullivan. You must sit at the table and mind your manners.

After the scene below is one of my favorite movie lines. It’s from The Miracle Worker, Anne Sullivan (Anne Bancroft) just finished breakfast with Helen Keller (Patty Duke). By the way both won an Oscar® for their awesome performances.

“She ate from her own plate. She ate with a spoon. Herself. And she folded her napkin.”

I used to think it was just an anomaly attributed to ad agencies – creatives and account – arguing, fighting, avoiding, circumventing the system. Unfortunately, this can, and does, happen anywhere – even in your local holistic peace-loving organic market. Or bank.

But this is about advertising, marketing, interactive, branding agencies. Where creative and the business of creative intersect. Or clash.

What are they doing? Basically making everything much harder than it should be.

Why? Because everyone has a valid point of their own. The rules don’t apply . . . to them. They don’t “have time”. It isn't their job. And they don't care. Or they know better.

We’ve all heard it over and over.

I have worked with a lot of agencies that call in a peacekeeper. A peacekeeper in the form of a Process, or Tools such as software (oh, yes, it’s technology now), to better track what’s going on – and each other. Sadly, often used as punitive measure just to prove one’s point.

Having worked in and with many agencies, I’ve witnessed it.

First, software doesn’t fix lousy attitudes. It provides structure. You need structure in your rainbow-hued creative world.

Process is discussed ad nauseam – and is never really clear, much less followed – and is always the object thrown in the road like a tack strip to catch a felon.

You didn’t follow process.

So sophisticated ad folks resort to what they know best. They fight. Like kids.

Sometimes, fixing an agency isn’t changing your clients, submitting your magnificent creative to Cannes, or adding to your stable of most sought-after ad men (or women).

Sometimes it’s just looking at how people [don’t] work together.

It should never be that hard to do a day’s work.

Sometimes it takes a little tough love. Everyone needs to know their place, work together (it is, after all a collaboration), and have just a little empathy.

When everyone is at each-other’s throats; at Coffee Bean complaining; working from home (way too much); getting into your stuff and messing with it – it’s time to take a step back and look at what’s really going on.

It’s time for management to put on their big boy Fire Hose Work Pants™ and bring everyone back to Earth. 

Yes, you need a clearly defined process - documented. And yes, you HAVE to have a good, comprehensive (and user-friendly) agency management tool to track work. But not dealing with the people factor will kill every great attempt at implementing process and software.

And sometimes, you just have to be an adult and fold your napkin.

I leave you with this. And yes, you do look like that.