13 Mar, 2014 – 9 comments
why i left advertising
Three months ago, I quit the ad industry.
I withdrew from a talented tribe of makers and thinkers at my agency. I left a team of my own creation that stood out in the industry. I turned my back on a handful of accolades and recognition. After years spent banging the drum of invention in the ad world, I put my mallets down and walked away.
I was hired to champion and produce a new kind of creative output, but ultimately, my biggest challenge wasn’t better briefs, better talent, or even better ideas. With a team effort, the work got better. We hired some amazing people. The not-so-amazing people eventually left. My group, and our work, wasn’t always accepted – that’s true. Like a transplanted kidney, the organization struggled to not reject us. But still, this wasn’t really the problem that drove me out.
It was the clients. They were awful.
But it wasn’t their fault. Most of my clients were kind, curious, and generally optimistic people. Their organizations, though, were not kind, curious, or at all optimistic, especially about innovation or change. Processes and structures which valued consistency and control, even over adaptation and agility, killed good ideas before they could be tested. And with those ideas, the joy and excitement of invention perished with it.
There was the CMO who told us he couldn’t touch the physical store. The entire marketing department saddled with lackluster products, unrealistic sales goals, and no innovation budget. The operations staff who were told to do anything to save a company from going bankrupt, so long as ‘anything’ had nothing to do with changing their products. The brand team that was told they could only invest in ‘working media,’ even after earlier experiments actually grew their business. The legion of marketing managers given less budget and higher expectations year after year. Only on very few occasions, after months of sustained effort, did we ever carry an idea to term. Our clients simply gave up trying to win their own political battles. We were fresh inmates trying to convince resigned convicts to attempt escape.
Fortune 500 companies have such incredible power to reach the masses, do good on their behalf, and generally improve their lives. I’m still attracted to that scale. But if we want to do more with that influence than just fill a media space, if we want to reward more than consistency, if we actually want to be partners with our clients in the creation of something new and amazing that only continues to grow and improve, we must redesign our client’s organizations along with our own. And I couldn’t do that within the walls of an ad agency.
So, after a few weeks of poor sleep, stress, and guilt, I embarked on this new mission and opened Undercurrent, Los Angeles (returning to a company I loved and left). In just a couple of months, my hunch that bad orgs are a widespread problem has been wholly validated. Companies today are using an operating model that emerged alongside the national railroad system. Imagine if you could only send emails to your colleagues via Pony Express – that’s the level of mismatch of tool to environment that most companies are stuck with. The web has created a hot, flat, noisy, and connected world, a world of exponential change, and most organizations are stuck in the dried amber of a bygone era. Undercurrent has spent the last seven years studying the inner workings of a set of fringe organizations that have become mainstream (Zappos, Tesla, Twitter, Medium, Netflix, Valve, Google, and others), and have identified a series of practices and core values that make an organization responsive – able to do more and change faster in the face of overwhelming complexity.
These companies are lean, mean, learning machines. They have an intense bias to action and a tolerance for risk, expressed through frequent experimentation and relentless product iteration. They hack together products and services, test them, and improve them, while their legacy competition edits PowerPoint. They are obsessed with company culture and top tier talent, with an emphasis on employees that can imagine, build, and test their own ideas. They are maniacally focused on customers. They are hypersensitive to friction – in their daily operations and their user experience. They are open, connected, and build with and for their community of users and co-conspirators. They are comfortable with the unknown – business models and customer value are revealed over time. They are driven by a purpose greater than profit.
Our mission is to help every influential organization on the planet become a responsive organization. This will require new tools, new internal champions, new shared ideas, and new reserves of persistence and patience to be accomplished. First, we need to be able to measure this shift in order to affect it (you need a yardstick to know how far away from something you are). To that end, we’ve just published our first Responsive OS Audit using a company’s public data. Read (and please share) our open letter to Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer. We’re also testing and refining an internal survey tool to pair with this public assessment.
Soon, I’m going to retire this blog to focus my writing solely on the topic of Responsive Organizations. While I’ve fostered a small but incredibly supportive community of readers here, I’m now specifically searching for clients hungry for change, and change-makers eager to get their hands dirty. If you’re reading this and thinking, “THAT’S ME!” then please sign-up to join our mission at our interim site. If you sign up, I’ll let you know when the new site is live and how you can participate (potentially even working with us on projects).
Every new beginning comes with its own excitement, stress, and uncertainty. I could use all the help I can get toward our mission, and for all of our sakes, I’m not above asking for that help.