When should we leave our agency?

Since yesterday, the Internet has been busy talking about “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sach”, a public resignation letter from of its (now former) employee published in the New York Times. Immediately right after, “Why I Left Google” that was posted a day earlier resurfaced.

Of course this chain of event has turned into a meme, like “Why I Am Leaving the Empire, by Darth Vader”.

Both articles share the same theme: a long-time employee finally realizes his company has gone astray from its original vision, and turned into something he no longer believes.

I’m not arguing whether the writers’ opinions are justified. Neither I’m discussing the ethics of making your resignation public. I’m not even sure if it’s pragmatically a smart idea –unless of course you are pretty damn sure your ex-employers won’t sue you for defamations.

My point here is that we have to know when we should leave our agency. This doesn’t mean quitting our profession and leaving advertising industry entirely. It’s about knowing the right time when we should find a new place to exchange our labor with salary.

Are there right reasons to leave an agency?

People we work with

I guess many people leave their agencies because of people they work with. I truly empathize with them. In every agency we’ll meet shitty clients or loser brands. I posit that what differentiates purgatory from paradise in the workplace is the people we work with –not the size of our paychecks.

Bad clients

Some people leave because they can no longer stand appalling clients who destroy their sanity or treat them with gross disrespects. I usually concur with them: no salary in the advertising world will worth your mental health.

One tricky thing about leaving an agency due to insufferable clients is that there’s no guarantee that we’ll be free from this kind of ‘evil’ in the new place. I have worked in few different countries facing clients from many nationalities, and I can testify that good clients are all alike; yet every bad client is bad in his or her own way.

Better offer out there

Better offer can come in many different shapes. For some it may be bigger opportunities to keep our intellects stimulated and our skills challenged. I salute people who are oriented towards growth, and I respect this kind of decision.

Often better offer equals higher salary. If you need more money because your responsibility to other people grows, then by all means go.

If your self-esteem or self-respect can be improved by a more important-sounding job title, then you probably should consider. Don’t forget to ask what makes your self-esteem need mending on the first place. Is it because you have ceased to produce work you can be proud of, or at least not be ashamed of? If it’s that the case, is what you really need a sexier job title?

Integrity

I define integrity as the quality of staying true to what we believe as the right thing to do.

Even in advertising –the so-called deceitful industry that capitalizes on people’s insecurity or greed to make them want things they don’t need– we should form our own principles on the right things to do. These principles help the industry maintain what’s left of its respectability, if not in public’s eye at least amongst marketers and our peer. So far these principles help me to still be able to look myself in the mirror without shame.

When I left my agency in 2008 as I took on an overseas job, I wrote a little note titled “When to disband the planning department in this agency” (yes, I stole Leo Burnett’s “’When to take my name off the door”).

Yesterday I revisited it and I’m paraphrasing it to make it more personal.

Here it is:

I pledge that I will leave this agency, or any agency:

When the main reason of my employment is no longer to solve business problems.
When it becomes apparent that what I mostly do is justifying ego trips, subservience out of fear, creative indulgence, or phobia of the new.

When I give up our fight against both simplistic and overcomplicated thinking.
When I readily use jargons as a handy device to disguise muddled logic.

When I succumb to the habit of coming up with solutions without spending enough rigor to deeply understand the problems.

When I regard that creativity and effectiveness are mutually exclusive in marketing communication.
When I deploy different practices for developing “creative” and “effective” advertising.

When I fail to demonstrate that in any good campaign there is no clear boundary on where strategy ends and creativity begins.

When I lose fascination and curiosity about human behaviour.
When the only thing left that I am interested in is advertising.

When I lose my faith that brand communication can make positive contributions to humanity, not just to the bottom line.

When I get hung up in the irrelevant debate whether planning department should be a cost- or profit-centre.
When I forget that if planning discipline is be a centre within an agency at all, it should always be the centre of accountability.

Bill Bernbach said, “A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money.” He was right, I think. What he said keeps me humble. I don’t know if I’m lucky enough, or unfortunate enough, to have never tested whether those sentences I wrote above are really my principles that cost me money.

Dear readers, do you know when it’s time to leave the place where you earn your living now?

Can one live a meaningful life working in advertising? (Part 2)

Yesterday I left with an unanswered question, “By working in advertising, am I serving a purpose bigger than me?”

Some friends are kind enough to volunteer with answers. There are different kinds of answers, and they remind me of this story.

A gentleman saw three men laying bricks.

He approached the first and asked, “What are you doing?“ Annoyed, the first man answered, “What does it look like I’m doing? I’m laying bricks!“

He walked over to the second bricklayer and asked the same question. The second man responded, “Oh, I’m feeding my family.“

He asked the third bricklayer the same question, “What are you doing?“ The third looked up, smiled and said, “I’m building a cathedral.“

I suppose we are free to think we’re building a cathedral (or mosque or synagogue or temple, whatever floats your boat) by working in advertising. I also believe it is up to us to define our own version of cathedral.

This is a little story about my cathedral. You can say that I got the glimpse of my cathedral even before I knew what I could do to help build it.

***

Marilyn and Mother got me into advertising.

Both of them are two versions of print ads for Nike Women in 1989, written by Janet Champ and Charlotte Moore when they were still at Wieden + Kennedy. I was still in high school back then (yes, I’m old). My mother worked in the magazine business, so she often brought home imported magazines for her reference and our entertainment. From her I borrowed a copy of a women’s magazine, and this print ad stopped me. I read it several times; each time I got goose bump.

"Mother" print ad for Nike Women

"Mother" for Nike Women, 1989. From the photo-stream of The National Museum of American History

Let me rewrite the body copy:

You do not have to be your mother unless she is who you want to be. You do not have to be your mother’s mother, or your mother’s mother’s mother, or even your grandmother’s mother on your father’s side. You may inherit their chins or their hips or their eyes, but you are not destined to become the women who came before you, you are not destined to live their lives. So if you inherit something, inherit their strength. If you inherit something, inherit their resilience. Because the only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.

Few days afterwards, I borrowed another women’s magazine from her. Lo and behold, I couldn’t get my eyes off Marilyn.

"Marylin" for Nike Women

"Marylin" for Nike Women, 1989. From the photo-stream of The National Museum of American History

The body copy:

A woman is often measured by the things she cannot control. She is measured by the way her body curves or doesn’t curve, by where she is flat or straight or round. She is measured by 36-24-26 and inches and ages and numbers, by all the outside things that don’t ever add up to who she is on the inside. And so if a woman is to be measured, let her be measured by the things she can control, by who she is and who she is trying to become. Because every woman know, measurements are only statistics and statistics lie.

I’m not being dramatic by saying that those ads helped me to become what I am today.

The ads moved me, beyond making me feel that Nike was an “it” brand for women. They made me believe I didn’t have to accept being measured by what society considered normal. That I was not destined to be someone who came before me. That I should choose how I measure myself.

Also at that moment, I realized that I was fascinated by the power of advertising.

Those Nike women ads got me into advertising. I saved them in my computer’s desktop, to remind me that I should not give up working in advertising until I can produce something that’s comparable to Marilyn and Mother.

***

I guess that was my cathedral. It is not about working for a brand like Nike Women (although I will never say no to that) or places like Wieden + Kennedy (yes, please!).

Yes, of course advertising supports the free-market economy, something I truly value and am ready to defend. But in my version of building the cathedral, it’s about making advertising that does much more than that.

It’s about making advertising that opens up to people –heck, maybe just a young girl or a young boy– that there’s a different way to live your life. That’s there’s a different way to see the world. Yes, it’s about making advertising that expands, not shrinks, possibilities for people.

It’s about making advertising that proposes something beyond bigger, faster, or shinier objects: a different perspective.

It’s about making advertising that propagates different narratives about who we are and what life is.

I think this is important. I believe everybody flourishes and has a bigger chance to prosper in a society that allows and nurtures plethora of narratives. A society that knows how to agree to disagree without having to resort to conflicts.

I want Indonesia to be a place for societies like this. Very much so.

I believe we Indonesians, having been under faux-democracy for so long, still need to develop these important skills: to think critically, to live with different opinions and narratives, to agree to disagree. And advertising provides us a safe training ground to train them.

***

Of course you can disagree with me, pointing that it’s just a feeble attempt to justify my “evil” day job and my decent paycheck.

Nevertheless, I will still keep Marilyn and Mother on my computer’s desktop. I need them to remind me to continue trying and be humble.

Are you building a cathedral, dear readers? What is it?