Three things…

How’s it going with all those resolutions you made? You know, the ones where you were going to get to the gym four times a week, eat seven portions of fruit or vegetables a day, give up alcohol and sugar, and be nice to everyone you meet? Those ones. Chances are that whilst you’re probably still doing okay(ish) now, barely a week into January, by the end of the month most people are falling by the wayside, and by the time you’re halfway through February those promises will feel like distant memories.

The thing about New Year’s resolutions is that they’re often about deprivation, and there are usually far too many of them for any normal human being to stick to. Making new habits is hard, no matter which self-help books you’ve read that promise to make it easy to keep going with radical changes, so maybe there’s another way to look at it.

After years of well-intentioned but ultimately pointless resolution-making, this year I’m taking a different approach, streamlining the whole process into three key commitments – and guess what, they’re not all about me and the changes I want to make, they’re about promises I’m making to myself, to the teams I work with and the companies I engage with.

Let’s take them in turn. My personal promise is to be kinder to myself. In practice that’s going to mean making sure I’ve got a good balance between commitments to work, writing my novel (draft 3, since you ask) and juggling family demands, along with remembering to relax and have a bit of fun. Could be any of us, right?

For the people I work with, as individuals and teams, whether it’s as a consultant, a mentor or a leader, I’m going to ask them to be brave. 2018 is the year to step out of your comfort zone and do something different, maybe it’s something that scares you or means learning a new skill, or perhaps it’s about asking yourself the ‘so what’ questions. It might even be about being brave enough to say  ‘this isn’t for me’.

Being brave is just as important for companies and organisations as it is for individuals, but it seems to me that sometimes what companies need more than courage is someone to challenge their thinking in a constructive way, so that’s my company promise this year. It’s going to be about broadening business horizons, thinking about what the future holds and how organisations might need to adapt to best exploit what opportunities lie ahead.

I’m going to come back to these themes of kindness, bravery and constructive challenge throughout the year, and I’d love to know what your three words would be, if you could sum up what you want to happen in 2018 for you, the people you work with and the company that you’re part of.

Photo by Steve Harvey on Unsplash

 

Marcel and AI – the future of agencies?

First up, a couple of disclaimers. I used to work at Publicis some years ago, and still have some extremely fond memories of the place and the people. And secondly, what I know about Marcel so far, the AI system Publicis has just announced it’ll be spending all its award entry and sponsorship money on for the next year, is what’s publicly available.

Still, from what I can see, the majority of the reaction to Marcel has centred on the likely impact that missing out on awards might have on the motivation of creatives across the business. If they aren’t going to be recognised by winning awards, how can they judge their success, so the argument goes. Marcel is described by Publicis as a ‘professional assistant system’, which will incorporate detailed profiles of every member of staff in order to pull together teams to address specific client needs, the idea being that staff can ‘bid’ to be involved in client briefs.

Hmm. Let’s just take another look at that, shall we? Whilst it’s heralded as a natural next step in delivering the “Power Of One” approach that has supposedly done away with individual P&Ls to facilitate cross-company working (tell that to the poor souls presenting quarterly numbers for which they are being held accountable by the way), in my opinion the real promise that Marcel makes is to remove the need for managing directors and business unit leaders altogether. Well, if you have the technology to match people to opportunities across geographies, time zones and markets, what’s the point of having managing directors to manage those people? If the promise of the work itself is strong enough, one presumes, there will be no need for traditional leadership of any kind.

It kind of fits, though, with what’s happening across the communications business as a whole. The exodus of mid-level and more experienced account handlers from the PR and medcomms business continues as people walk away from the always-on demands of agency roles to freelance. They don’t seem too bothered about any lack of personal development or growth opportunities, in fact some see not having to participate in company-led initiatives as an advantage. Loose collectives or groupings of freelancers happy to work together on projects directly with clients are springing up all over the place, as our work becomes increasingly commoditised.  It becomes about the ‘stuff’ we deliver rather than the value of the thought behind it.  To be fair though, talented creatives and planners have long been able to name their price in the freelance market, picking and choosing the work they want to do and the hours they want to work.

The days when clients relied on agencies as their institutional memories are rapidly disappearing, as the value of long-term relationships is continually degraded. In the race to cut costs, most agencies now have to repitch regularly even when the client is happy, because that’s what procurement requires. The influence of procurement on agency selection increasingly forces marketers to view all creative agencies as much the same, and the only way to differentiate between services becomes about chemistry and teams rather than the ability to do the work to a higher standard or think differently.

What Marcel offers, in my view, is the opportunity to remove even that differentiation. It promises to use predictive technology to match talent with client briefs, wherever it’s located. The problem for me is about seeing ‘talent’ (or as I like to call them, people) simply as a series of building blocks, albeit with varying characteristics, rather than in all their rich diversity. Amongst other things, this limited view provides procurement with the opportunity to more clearly specify which blocks it wants to buy, at what price. So, I foresee a future where procurement will specify the use of x hours of y shaped talent at z price (not that different from what happens now), and the beauty of individual creativity will be lost in translation. If you’re a freelancer, you’ll be forced to fit into that mould too, whether you’re under the radar or not.

And if you don’t fit those specifications, if your creativity isn’t quite the right ‘shape’, or if you need a different kind of opportunity to grow your skillset, well that’s tough because there won’t be a manager or a leader in place who gets you and is willing to fight your corner.  In the race for flexibility, we are at grave risk of losing our individuality, the ability to engage with and support real creativity that’s different and chafes at being put in boxes.  Winning awards is often the result of creating environments that nurture difference, that encourage creativity and enable people to be themselves.  You can’t wish winning teams into existence just by picking people from all over the world and shoving them together to answer a brief, they need leadership and support, and technology alone won’t deliver that.

Maybe I’m wrong, hopefully I am, but my worry is that Marcel heralds a future where the importance of the individual contributor within agencies becomes meaningless, certainly from an account handling and management perspective. And once this AI system has got enough data on board about what makes a successful campaign, how long will the individual creative be safe? Whatever happens we can’t get this particular genie back in the bottle, because where Publicis leads, others will almost certainly follow.  In ten years time, perhaps the hottest shops on the block will be agencies that offer a return to ‘old school’ working, with teams all together in one place rather than scattered to the winds.   What do you think?

Fake It Until You Make It

I’ve read quite a few articles recently about Imposter Syndrome, something that apparently many women in particular suffer from. The theory is that regardless of how successful you are, on the inside you regard yourself as something of a fraud – even though to the outside world you seem to be a high-flyer.  It is rooted in low self-esteem, and it can get worse the more successful you become, and the more you mix with other talented individuals.

It’s all about comparing yourself with others and finding yourself wanting – not a pleasant place to be.  Instead of being able to accept that you might, just possibly, be good at what you do, Imposter Syndrome means that you tell yourself that no matter what you achieve, those achievements are somehow fraudulent compared to those of others.

Well, I’d like to propose a different approach. How about, instead of deciding you’re successful despite your shortcomings, why not just decide to be successful and then worry about whether or not you deserve to be afterwards. In short, I’m recommending the “Fake it until you Make it” approach. Act as if you are already a winner, already on the path to success and soon enough you probably will be.

Last year I went to a masterclass on how to write a bestseller, run by The Guardian. One of the speakers was Clare Mackintosh, whose first novel “I Let You Go” hit the bestseller lists right off the bat. I’m over simplifying this, obviously, but she talked about how she’d essentially just “decided” that she was going to be a writer, quit her job and then got herself work as a freelance journalist by telling editors that she was already working as a freelance.  What Clare did was to become a writer through the power of living a writer’s life, rather than wait for someone else to tell her that she was one.  I found her really inspiring because of the clarity of her vision and the decisiveness of the actions she took. Also, her books are incredibly well written and definitely worth reading.

When my business partner and I set up our own communications agency, we didn’t agonise for months about whether or not we would be successful, we got stuck in and acted as though we were already there. That confidence meant that clients were able to trust that we’d deliver, right from the off and I am sure was a huge part of our ultimate success. We used to talk about it being our “field of dreams” strategy – you know, if you build it, they will come (and they did…).

I know this sounds obvious, but if you’re feeling like an imposter, try not to give in to the self-doubt. When you’re not feeling confident, try acting as though you are until you’ve developed the skills and tools you need for that confidence to be real.  You’d be surprised how quickly that can happen.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that we are all of us to one extent or another playing roles that we feel are expected of us, so spend your energy making sure you’re performing with confidence instead of agonising about what others might think.  It’s like wearing a dress that you secretly think is a bit too short. Style it out and nobody will know that you’re worried it’s too short, they’ll just be wowed by how fabulous you look.

Change or chaos?

Originally, I had planned to write a post today about change and how to cope with it both as a leader and as someone on the receiving end of change for which they feel unprepared. I had intended to reference the excellent course on change management that I attended some years ago and to discuss the merits of the SCARF model1. If you don’t know what that is, the acronym refers to a framework by which it’s possible to understand people’s responses to change – and therefore how to make the process of change easier and more positive.

SCARF stands for Status (because we feel threatened if we perceive our status to be reduced), Certainty (because uncertainty about the future leads us to make mistakes), Autonomy (because if we don’t feel as if we have a choice, that puts us under increased stress), Relatedness (because if we don’t feel we belong, then we don’t trust people and situations) and Fairness (because we feel threatened if we believe we are not being treated fairly).

One of the reasons I wanted to write about change was because I met someone last week who is about to start a new role and it got me thinking about my own experiences of being a ‘new starter’ in a role or organisation. I had intended to share some words of wisdom about how to get through those first days and weeks and end on a generally encouraging note.

But over the past few days we’ve been exposed to change of a most radical kind and when you look at it through the lens of the SCARF framework, doesn’t it feel as though the new President of the US has got just about everything the wrong way round?  Whatever your views* on the rights and wrongs of the executive order he signed banning entry to the US for refugees for 120 days (and an indefinite ban on refugees from Syria) as well as all immigrants and visa holders from Somalia, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Yemen and Syria for 90 days, don’t you feel that the way it was done is also a huge part of the issue?

In leadership terms, the first 100 days of any new CEO are vitally important, a time when the leader sets the direction for his or her tenure and it’s clear that the intention here is to signal strong leadership. Yet, quite aside from the moral and ethical questions associated with his current approach, what we’re actually seeing here is an example of how not to lead any organisation. Directives are unclear and poorly thought through, executives who are supposed to implement them don’t appear to have a clear understanding of their instructions, and huge damage is being inflicted upon the reputation of the organisation itself. This is not how to manage change. This is how to create chaos. Then again, perhaps that was the intention.

 

 

Note:

  1. The original SCARF paper was published in 2008 by Dr David Rock in NeuroLeadership Journal issue one.

*For the record, I’m one of the more than 1,646,055 people who have to date signed the petition calling for the proposed Trump state visit to be downgraded. And I’ve revised that number upwards four times in the last few minutes.

Turning points

The last couple of weeks before the Christmas break are often a time of contemplation (in the midst of an insane workload centred around the need to a) work the budget that the client found behind the sofa cushions and needs to spend before year end and b) field endless new business pitches so that the client can come back in the New Year to a new agency).  My particular favourites were always the clients who, when told that a pitch on December 23rd wouldn’t be possible, requested that you came in with a sheaf of fabulous ideas on January 3rd instead. Because of course agency people don’t need time off with their families…

But I digress. The point is that for some people, the break between Christmas and New Year is time that they spend considering whether to look for a new job at the start of the year. They will have found themselves in the dog days of December, wondering whether they are really in the right place – whether it’s the role, the agency or even the office location.  They’ve hoped that December would be quiet because they’re exhausted after a busy year, but inevitably it’s been busier than ever. They’ve waited for their Christmas bonus (if their agency is offering one), they’ve finished off the project or programme that they really felt passionate about, and now it’s time to stop and think about what to do next.

If you’re one of those people, the question you need to be asking yourself is whether your feet are itchy because of the time of year, or if you’ve come to a turning point. When you’re at a turning point, there’s no going back – there’s an inevitability about how you feel and you’re in a space where whatever your employer offered, you know it’s time to go.  And, it’s important not to get confused between the usual end of year malaise and the knowledge that you and your career are better served elsewhere. How do you know whether it’s itchy feet or the real deal, then?

In my experience, if it’s itchy feet you can usually sit down, pen and paper in hand, and work out the pros and cons for change in a highly rational manner.  You can envisage staying put if certain aspects of the role change, or perhaps if you can have a bit more flexibility in your working pattern. It’s something you could talk to your employer about – which is great, so go ahead and plan that conversation.

But if you’re at a turning point, you can sit and stare at your completely reasonable arguments and just – feel – that something’s pulling you in a different direction. Perhaps you can’t even articulate it, you just know that it goes beyond a feeling that the grass is greener elsewhere. Turning points are critical moments in your career, and I’ve often found that they come at times when you could, with a little effort, make your current situation work for you, or even go back to it if your new path doesn’t work, but the opportunity that faces you is singular. It’s the Carpe Diem moment.

Mine came when I had the opportunity to go into partnership with a former colleague and set up my own business. I could perfectly well have found a role within an agency and been successful there, but the chance to be my own boss was one that I couldn’t walk away from – it was my turning point and I’ve never regretted it. We all have those moments throughout our career, where the choice you make will predict the course of our future. Be brave, choose wisely, and whatever path you take, make sure you put your back into it.  I wish you all a very happy Christmas and a successful 2017.

Under pressure?

Our industry is populated by bright, driven individuals who often work stupidly long hours to meet client demands and who take their work incredibly seriously. The pressures can sometimes feel overwhelming and I know I am not alone in having worked with colleagues who’ve come close to burning out simply because they have worked themselves to a standstill.

It’s not just about the client who calls at 4pm on a Friday afternoon with a crisis that simply MUST be worked on late into the evening or over the weekend though. Sometimes it’s about an individual who finds it hard to delegate because they are so anxious that their work is perfect that they have to do everything (yes, I’ve been there in my earlier years), or who has to check and double check the work of others (also been there) to make sure that they don’t fall foul of a client who’s similarly driven (oh yeah, I’ve definitely been there too).

This week there has been much discussion about mental health in the workplace to coincide with World Mental Health Day on Monday, and I do believe that as an industry we are much more sensitised to this issue than we were in the past. As leaders and managers, we’re more able to spot the individual most at risk of burning out because they’re often our best performers, the ones whose clients depend on them utterly and whose teams love them because they’re always picking up the pieces.

The bigger question for me is how we, as practitioners, can help ourselves. Not just in terms of managing our mental health but also our physical health, because people who work too many hours for too long struggle physically too. Not enough time for exercise, not eating properly, and most important of all, not taking care of ourselves when we are sick. I know I’m not alone in repeatedly struggling into the office when really I should have been at home under the duvet, and I can think of many high performers who push themselves far too hard physically as well as mentally.

The nature of our business is that it is not a 9-5 environment, and we need to encourage each other to look after ourselves, to give ourselves permission to recover properly from physical illness by taking appropriate rest and pacing ourselves.  Too often physical illness is the harbinger of mental health problems, with the body breaking down because the mind won’t allow sufficient rest or relaxation.

So this year, as the evenings draw in, and coughs, colds and flu start to spread (not to mention norovirus), give yourself permission to take a couple of days off to properly rest, to consider what your body needs rather than what your team or your client needs. We are none of us superhuman – and you can’t lead a team from a hospital bed. Too extreme? Maybe, but as leaders, one of the examples we need to set is that of how to build a career with longevity – one where you can still get to the top but in a way that’s more sustainable. Don’t just think about the wellbeing of your teams, make your own wellbeing another one of the touchpoints you review when you’re thinking about the health of your business.

The story of our youth…

In the UK, the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain has become a bit of an institution over the 60 years since it was founded by the legendary Michael Croft. For me as a teenager some 30 years ago (gulp) it was somewhat of a lifeline when, at the third time of auditioning, I was accepted onto one of their summer courses.  It opened my eyes to a world beyond London and the suburbs, and brought me into contact with people I would otherwise never have met.

On Sunday I attended the NYT’s 60th Anniversary Diamond Gala at the Shaftesbury Theatre, and “Story of Our Youth” was mesmerising – not because of the many starry alumni present – but because of the sheer energy of the 90-strong young cast.  Many of those young people had not been on a stage before that night, but the level of professionalism was daunting and would put many seasoned performers to shame. As I sat there I recalled the things that I learned during my time at the NYT and how they have served me during a career that did not include treading the boards after all, but focused on the effective communication of information about health and wellbeing  – something that unites all of us at one time or another.

Paul Roseby, the current Director of the NYT summed it up very succinctly when he declared that the performances we’d just seen and indeed the work of the National Youth Theatre itself epitomised a currently unfashionable word: ensemble. I don’t think he just meant an ensemble cast though, I think what he really meant is what we achieve when teams work seamlessly together, when by acting together we are more powerful than we might be as individuals, and where each person has an opportunity to shine (and nobody feels threatened by that because we’re all too busy playing to our strengths).

Of course, to do that you have to feel confident about your worth in the first place. Channel 4 News Anchor and NYT alumni Krishnan Guru-Murthy had it right when he said that for those of us who didn’t end up ‘following the dream’ what the National Youth Theatre had given him was self-confidence and self-belief. I think that’s as true now as it was then. For every James Bond (and the NYT has two – Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig, both of whom made a point of thanking the organisation for giving them opportunities they would never otherwise have had) there are many people not in that world whose achievements started when somebody saw something in them and gave them a chance.

Lastly, and perhaps most powerfully, what the NYT gave me was an acceptance and celebration of difference. In a time when the debate about diversity and opportunity (or the lack of it) is raging, the NYT stands as an organisation which has been consistently supportive of people across the spectrum – the only discriminator is talent in their eyes. Their bursaries support young people in financial hardship who can’t afford to attend their excellent courses, and they have championed new writers and backstage talent with as much gusto as those standing in the spotlight.

Like I say, I learned a lot in a few short weeks and imbibed some lessons that have stood me in good stead throughout my career – and that are as important today as they were then. Who doesn’t want to be part of an ensemble, to feel confident in themselves, and to support diversity of opportunity for all? Thanks, NYT.