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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.

Why?

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.


Undercurrent, Los Angeles’ Chief Transformation Officer

what’s next

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.



9 Comments

  1. Heather White-Laird
    Heather White-Laird March 14, 2014 at 1:20 am .

    excellent manifesto, though there is an undoubtedly strong chorus of management types who believe “same as it ever was” or “show me the numbers NOW’ , it’s really more important than ever to become change agents. good luck with the new endeavor.

  2. sntaln
    sntaln March 14, 2014 at 11:17 am .

    Congrats. Your skills will be more useful outside the AD world. FYI Undercurrent link is not working correctly.

  3. Peter Kim
    Peter Kim March 14, 2014 at 11:31 am .

    I have felt your pain. I believe thousands of agency folk still feel this every day. To some extent, the clients feel it as well. Best wishes on your new endeavor.

  4. thealexa
    thealexa March 14, 2014 at 2:22 pm .

    first of all, kudos to you. control the things you can.

    i am 100% affirmed by your message of frustration with agency + client challenges. its sad but we face this disconnect between expectation, desire, and action year over year. no matter how hard we try. it helps to know we aren’t the only one’s going through it.

    thank you for sharing & for your mind in general.

    best.

  5. Emre
    Emre March 15, 2014 at 7:15 pm .

    Most honest person I have ever encountered in the AD world …

  6. Brave New Cloud
    Brave New Cloud March 15, 2014 at 7:27 pm .

    The great news is that the thought leaders in this field of study understood in the 1950′s that organizations would have to be reorganized to be successful – many also had great ideas about how to reorganized them. We are only recently seeing companies experiment with new techniques and models. However, this is often undertaken without necessarily understanding the underlying science, nor the history of research that could better help them design future-oriented organizational architecture.

    The unfortunate news is that almost 60yrs later most leaders remain very far away from knowing how to design better organizations.

    We’ve started a boutique technology incubator (www.bravenewcloud.com) in Silicon Valley to steward new entrepreneurs into this type of world view, based upon a long history of scientific research. One of our founders has provided a few tidbits on the subject in this guest blogging series, “Knowledge Networks as a Common-Pool Resource …”, which you can find at http://www.knowledgemobilization.net/archives/3740

  7. edward boches
    edward boches March 16, 2014 at 10:06 am .
  8. edward boches
    edward boches March 16, 2014 at 10:10 am .

    The real issue here is not that there aren’t good clients or that agencies aren’t as smart as Undercurrent, even strategically. It’s that right now the two don’t align. It’s self perpetuating challenge. Agencies can, in fact, fix it IF they are willing to be way more selective about the clients they take on. And if they understand the upper right box on the quadrant of transformation/innovation. LL Current clients/current services. UL Current clients/new services. LR Current services/new clients. UR New clients/new services. Calls for a commitment to innovation, a plan for allocating a percentage of resources to it, and a willingness to say no to too many clients that only belong in the lower left. Not saying that’s the best option for folks like you, but for those who want to bang their heads against the wall and change from within it works. Of course, it’s much more motivating if you are the owner/partner as opposed to a hired gun.

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