18 ways to build morale at a marketing agency (not)

Ian Lurie

Most marketing agencies are filled with the stench of fear. I’m not talking about that energized we-have-a-lot-to-do-get-moving feeling. I’m talking about “Oh, crap, what if I work here for the rest of my life?” fear, compounded by the “Oh, crap, what if the CEO decides he wants a bigger bonus this year?” fear.
I’ve worked at companies like that. It stinks.

So, based on my own personal experience at past jobs, here’s how you too can run your very own Pit of Despair:

  1. Scream a lot. I freely admit that, as someone who grew up in New Jersey, I can raise my voice with the best of ’em. But until you’ve been called a f#$cking moron by your boss (personal experience) or had a stapler thrown at you (anecdote from a colleague) you haven’t lived. Don’t deny your employees the experience. Let ’em have it.
  2. Assume the client is always, 100%, every second, right. There’s no way all of the experts you spent tons of time evaluating, interviewing and hiring could possibly know more than the person who pays you for their expertise. Noooooo. So next time the client demands animated naked mole rats on the home page, slap your account manager and say “Of course, Mr. Client, no problem.” Everyone will feel better.
  3. Make it clear: You are not on your staff’s side. Just in case 1-2 didn’t cover it, make sure the team understands that you are the Enemy. Dirty looks, snooping over shoulders, denying flex time and using the crappiest, carpal-tunnel-inducing furniture will all work wonders.
  4. Deny training. Hey, if you treat your staff like crap and then let them learn, they’re going to leave. Make sure they learn nothing. Bury them with menial crap work and deny all travel requests. Don’t even buy them a book.
  5. Be opaque. Never, ever let your worker bees know why you’re doing things. If they expect you to zig, zag. If they expect raises, cut their pay. Constantly imply impending financial ruin.
  6. Provide terrible instructions. When sending a task to an underling, make the subject line something like ‘stuff’. In the e-mail body, write “please do this” and then attach a completely ambiguous letter from a client. Even better: Just print the letter, put a large exclamation point on it and pin it to some poor sucker’s chair. They’ll find it in the morning and panic. Have a video camera ready.
  7. Turn the dogs on each other. Mwahahahah. Find an employee you really don’t like. Tell 3 others on her team that she’s really hurting everyone’s performance right before bonus time. Step back and watch them eat each other alive.
  8. Criticize in public. If someone does something wrong, declare it in the middle of the office, at peak volume (see #1). It’s a great learning experience.
  9. Punch the clock. Make sure everyone is in by 8 AM. At 8:01, make a list. Then personally chastise every employee who was late. Don’t forget to track lunches, too. Asking someone why they spent 47 minutes at lunch right before Christmas is a source of endless fun.
  10. Squelch innovation. If anyone takes on a personal project – a cool blog, or a design, or an SEO project for the company on their own time – crush them. That kind of go-getter makes everyone else feel inferior. See The Adventures of Baron Munchausen for more info. Any drive to excel must be stifled before it leads to demands for raises, smiles and high-fives.
  11. Be a hack and slash editor. If someone sends you something to edit, delete 3 random paragraphs, write “AWFUL” in the margins and send it back with no explanation. It’ll put a smile on your face every time.
  12. Outlaw weekends. Ensure that Saturday and Sunday are, at best, a time for employees to sit at home, fretting about the work piling up.
  13. Leer at employees of the opposite or same gender, depending on your preference. The age of Mad Men is alive and well, trust me. You won’t be alone. Again, personal experience. Well, not personal, unless someone has a strong desire for overweight, pale, somewhat damp smart asses. But witnessed, certainly.
  14. Keep no promises. Told everyone they’d get Christmas bonuses? Cancel ’em! Best if combined with #5.
  15. Discourage input. It’s your way or the highway. Never let ’em forget it.
  16. Encourage time sucks. On the other hand, if one person wants to take a meeting 400 miles off course and leave everyone dying on a desert island, encourage them!
  17. Hold lots of meetings. While I’m on the subject, be sure to have at least one grueling, 90-minute meeting per day. Be sure it involves a small, stuffy room, bad seating and chairs that squeak a lot.
  18. Point the finger. If a client catches on to the fact that you’re an idiot, blame your staff! Make sure you tell the client that the ‘person in question has been dealt with’. Then tell the employee you went to bat for them. This sets up a client versus employee mentality that’s a joy to watch.

Where this post came from

I was watching the Portent Horde bowl and basically have fun at our Christmas party last week, and am pretty sure that, when I die, I can be proud of one thing: I’ve built a great team.
It’s not all me, of course. And the number of great teams I split asunder in a perfect storm of stupidity boggles the mind. But finally, I’ve got a bunch of people who like working together, like what they work on, and who I like to work with.
So, instead of frustration with SEO silliness, ripoff artists, plagiarism and the like, I end this post on a positive note: Portent has a great team.
Toodles, till tomorrow.

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Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team- training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at www.ianlurie.com

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  1. As a business owner, I’ve been fortunate to have been where you stand right now. you look at your team and think – I could not every have possibly built this of my own volition. It is TOO right.
    It is at times like this that my belief in God was at it’s all time high.
    Congratulations on having a great company and for your team on having a great leader. Best wishes to you in 2011.

  2. Umm, ‘ Scuse me!!!
    Why call this for ‘Agency’s’ ??
    Most of the business I have either worked for, or know people who worked for experience this daily.
    No matter how we think business life has improved – ha.
    Daily occurrence IMHO
    Heck, I remember when supervisors were chosen by who won all the fist fights.
    Save this fancy-pancy whiny bull and G-D well get back to work.

  3. @sean I have to give a lot of credit to my COO, Tracy, and my Director of Search, Elizabeth. They’ve taken huge responsibility for team fit and human resources, so I can focus on teaching.

  4. Number 6 is hilarious. From now on, instead of celoxis print outs, Elizabeth should hand out pieces of paper with exclamation points on them.

  5. I laughed my head off reading this. It would be wonderful to work with a nice tight team. A rare beast. And I agree with Elliott, I don’t think these issues are just limited to marketing. I suspect most of them go unchecked throughout childhood and blossom in some people’s thirties.

  6. ROTFL! Yea, the advert agency I work in looks exactly like what you’ve described. Every single point. Epic. Looks like shit like that is all over the world.

  7. Ian,
    I think you followed me around while I worked at my last ad agency. Only instead of throwing staplers he threw chairs, called me a useless idiot and threatened to hit me in front of my team. I can relate to every single line item and I think I am going to send this on to my former boss. Thanks for the laugh!

  8. Great post!! I have worked at a couple of agencies and unfortunately this is consistent. Training is a bad word and the desire to stick to old ideas and marketing methods primarily because the leadership is not staying knowledgeable is overwhelming. Every bullet point in your post is spot on!

  9. As someone who has worked with your team I agree. You have a great team.
    Fwiw -Your agency list is not too far from the truth based on some of my experiences.

  10. Wow… you hit some good ones.
    I had a boss once (the wife of the owner and she felt a bit stifled) who loved to scream at me… loud enough that people throughout the office building could hear her. Friends would come up to me asking if I were OK – heck, I just considered the source, knew that she had no knowledge about the area she was screaming about (marketing), and then left after about a year.
    The company finally had to sell out to a larger company to get back the investment the boss put in over the years.
    Remembering how she treated me doesn’t put me back there in my mind: it helps to keep me focused on those who work with me so that I keep them #1 and treat them not even how I want to be treated (the Golden Rule) but how THEY want to be treated (the Platinum Rule). Things work MUCH better that way – the way that has all of us working as a team.
    Charlie Seymour Jr

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