Four Essentials for Better Agency Management

We’ve written a lot about finding the right people to fuel creativity in your agency, and working with those people to ensure they have all of the skills, tools and support to succeed. We’ve covered how to work with challenging employees, and how to deal with demanding clients. But there’s another critical key to agency success, boosting creativity, client relationships, and employee morale and longevity: making sure your agency managers are good managers.

I was reading an article by Sam Manna (How to Spot a Bad Boss Before You Start a New Job), when the light bulb went on. Yes, I thought, it is difficult to know what kind of a situation you are walking into when you take a new job. But sometimes it’s just as hard for agency owners and principals to root out bad bosses, or bad boss behaviors, even when they’re right under your nose. Agency managers and supervisors may behave very differently toward the principal than they do to those under their supervision… and that’s your first red flag. My thanks to Mr. Manna for the following ideas:

Make sure your managers know the line between maintaining order and overly controlling behavior. Creative people generally react very poorly to too much control. A controlling boss might be ok on a factory line, or even in an accounting firm, but not in an agency. What do I mean by overly controlling? Anything that places irritating pressure on your people: from clock-watching, to unnecessary criticism, to unreasonable or arbitrary demands and expectations. Managers need to understand the difference between providing supervision and acting like a watchdog. The tension created by watchdogs masquerading as managers is palpable. Red flag moment: If you sense a continuing undercurrent of unease among staffers, first look for high control behaviors among your managers. It may not be overt; in fact, over-controllers may be very good at hiding their behaviors from upper management. But where there’s smoke (in terms of dysfunctional employee behaviors), there’s often fire... keep looking.

Good managers hold themselves accountable for departmental problems and errors.  Be alert for problems when you have a manager who passes the buck and plays the blame game. In a classic scenario, a client calls to discuss an error on a recent ad. It’s a digital campaign, and the problem is easily corrected, but the initial damage is done. Red flag moment: When you discuss the problem with the department manager, that manager immediate blames the new production artist who put the ad together. Of course, the department manager may feel embarrassed and pressured at this point, but they should be taking ownership, not be playing the blame game and pointing fingers.

Along the same line, good managers are supportive of, if not enthusiastic about, their people. Years ago, as a bright-eyed 20-something (read, a little naïve), I took a job in a mid-sized corporation. The HR manager and my immediate manager informed me that “as a supervisor, we know you will be able to help improve morale problems among your hourly people.” One day later, while meeting with other department supervisors, I listened (in horror) as (red flag moment) they discussed their subordinates in very derogative terms. Had I a) known—or sensed—this was the overall tone of middle management, or b) had an opportunity to meet with people on this level, I would probably not have taken the job. Of course, the hourly staff people in this company were suffering from what I call “office PTSD:” they were defensive, demoralized and distrustful of anyone in a supervisory role. It was a very tough year or two.

Good managers are on a constant quest to foster a positive, creative culture. Work with your next-level-down managers to ensure that this is the case. In fact, avoid hiring anyone who doesn’t actively embrace your positive, creative philosophies. Stay involved to insure your managers are not just talking the talk. Red flag moment: if your creative product seems to be stale, and people who were once “on fire” with fabulous ideas are just not hitting the mark, dig a little bit and find out why, and work to turn this around, quickly.

Agency creative people need a relaxed, accepting environment in order to flourish. In this case, relaxed does not imply a slow pace of work, but a workplace that is supportive, devoid of negative vibes, and free from authoritarian and arbitrary controlling behaviors. Following these simple management tips can go a long way toward promoting a more creative workplace, and keeping your creative people happy and working… for you, not that other up-and-coming agency across town.