Be Kind To Thine Advertising Brethren

 

mad menCommandment #3—Ron Elgin’s Golden Rule

By the time the dessert menu arrived I’d lost count of the number of people who went out of their way to greet us at our table at the Capital Grille. Among them were CEOs, venture capitalists, a serial entrepreneur, a philanthropist and a politician. I knew none of them. Ron knew them all. What baffled me was how he remembered everyone’s name. I guess it’s no big deal when part of your DNA is hardwired as a consummate networker. I could see why he named his company “re:Connects.us.”

In The Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell refers to people who start social epidemics—trends, if you will—as Connectors. The way Gladwell describes them fits parts of Ron’s MO to a tee:

“The first—and most obvious—criterion is that Connectors know lots of people. They are the kinds of people who know everyone. All of us know someone like this. But I don’t think we spend a lot of time thinking about the importance of these kinds of people. I’m not even sure most of us really believe that the kind of person who knows everyone really knows everyone. But they do.”

Amidst the parade of greeters and idle chatter I marched on with a few deeper, more sensitive questions as we wrapped up our lunch.

(Me) What’s been the financial impact on the agency business in recent years, and how do you think it’s affected the average agency person’s income?

(Ron) First and foremost, one must understand and appreciate the basics of our economy. Clients don’t grind on their agency partners because they’re assholes or trying to be mean. They’re pushing to get more for less because their companies and stockholders demand it. That mentality is not going away. In order for an agency to provide more for less, several actions must take place.

Agency leaders must ensure they have the best and most productive employees. This invariably means for those employees, they need to pay above market rates. In order to make that financially viable, the agency needs to be right-sized. Given the option, an employee will almost always admit they’d rather be well paid than to be given an extra pair of hands. Specific to your question, Phil, I think the “average” agency person will be lucky to even keep their job in this economy. The extraordinary employee will, however, always make good money in the agency business.

(Me) In retrospect, it seems that selling ElginSyferd to a multi-billion dollar communications conglomerate was the most strategic decision of your career. Would you agree? Were there stakeholders in the company who may have felt otherwise?

(Ron) First of all, my partner Dave Syferd and I owned virtually 100% of our company. With the help of our extraordinary employees, in eight years the agency grew to be the third largest in the market. It became a very large fish swimming in a pretty small pond. That very fact made us attractive to several of the multi-nations that didn’t already have a local presence. We began paying attention to their overtures after realizing that many of our national accounts such as Holland America Line and Nordstrom could benefit from their billions of dollars of clout. We also felt our employees could benefit from the depth and breadth of experience from the big shops. Plus on a personal note, Dave and I would make a lot of money by selling! So yes, Phil, I agree it was a good decision. As to your other question, we considered each of our employees to be an important stakeholder and wanted all to be comfortable with our decision to sell. I asked DDB Global’s CEO, Keith Reinhard, for assurances that after the sale no one from NY would waltz in and start replacing our people. He laughed and said “Do you think we have a big warehouse in Manhattan filled with talented people in search of a place to roost? We’re buying your company because of your talented people and their brilliant work. I promise as long as you continue doing great work and making decent money, you’ll only hear our voice when you call us.” Keith kept his word to the end.

(Me) Let’s face it, your agency career has been pretty charmed, but nobody bats a thousand in this or any other business. What do you think was your biggest mistake?

(Ron) Let me think about that for a minute while I finish this delicious salmon. Phil, I honestly believe I never made a BIG mistake running our company; lots of small ones to be sure, but nothing major. For example, I wish we had never made a handshake agreement to sell our shares in Hornall Anderson ten years after co-founding it because I’d love to still be a part of their great company.

I’ve often wished we had actively pursued a merger with another small agency about our size in Portland that was (and still is) handling Nike. I wished every day that we would win more business. But even with those and many other little things like them, we were able to claw our way to the top of the rankings faster than any agency in the history of this market. Staying on top as long as we did says a lot about our people, our culture and our work. So you’re right Phil, we didn’t bat a thousand but because of what we accomplished over the last 30 years, I think we batted close to 950.

(Me) Throughout our conversation today you’ve referred over and over to your people. I know that part of being a good leader requires delegating to those people. Can you tell me a little about your approach to continually opening your hands, hoping for the best outcome, taking risks?

(Ron) I learned the value of delegation as a young Army officer. The first “report card” from my commanding officer basically gave me 39 A’s and 1 E. I was pretty happy until he told me he wasn’t recommending me for a promotion. He explained that I probably earned the 39 A’s because I micromanaged everyone’s work. The E I earned was in Delegation. He said if he promoted me, I’d have more people under my command.

At some point I wouldn’t be able to do everyone’s work myself. At that point, I’d start an inevitable slide into mediocrity and probably failure. I vowed at that moment to make it a life-long passion to bring my E grade up to an A. The ability to successfully delegate is the most valuable skill a manager can possess. One of our agency’s founding philosophies was to allow our people the opportunity to fail. We made them aware that we were delegating not abrogating. We’d always be there for advice and counsel to keep them from sinking but we wouldn’t be holding on to the bike while they learned how to ride it. A word of caution: good managers must also know when a person is not capable of successfully handling the responsibility delegated to them and what needs to be done about it.

(Me) If you could make one rule every ad person had to live by, what would it be?

(Ron) That’s a great question, Phil, and one I’ve never considered. Since we’re nearly out of time let me end with this cornball but heartfelt rule: Every person should treat every other person with the same integrity and respect that they would hope for themselves. When that person happens to be in the advertising business, that integrity and respect should also be applied to every message created for their client’s customers.

Perhaps the most poignant part of our meeting came at the end. After lunch Ron and I walked out the restaurant to the curb and chatted next to he electric bike I’d ridden off the Bainbridge ferry up Madison and Fourth Street. While frisking my coat in search of the key to unlock the bike a distinguished looking young man approached us and introduced himself to Ron.

I overheard only parts of the conversation, but what I gathered was that he’d followed us out the restaurant door and stood patiently for our visit to end so he could connect with Ron. He was a marketing buy who’d crossed paths with Ron through some previous agency work. Out of the corner of my eye I watched the exchange.

Ron, once again, stepped into his Connector mode, gave his undivided time and attention to a fellow colleague aspiring to climb the agency ladder. Once again, I watched him practice what he’d consistently preached for thirty years—Follow the golden rule.

Phil Herzog is CEO of SmoothStone Partners. He’s served as new business director for Seattle’s top marketing agencies. He is currently building a sports and entertainment marketing practice to promote entertainers, recording artists and sports personalities. Reach him at Phil.Herzog@smoothstonepartners.com.

Make Your Passion Your Life’s Mission

business lunchRon Elgin’s 2nd Commandment—passed down at Seattle’s Capital Grille

Frankly, during our meeting it was a challenge to pay attention to anything beyond the reach of my plate—Capital Grille’s signature lobster and crab stuffed shrimp. But midway through lunch, reaching for an unusually large prawn, my mother’s wise voice sounded in my head. “Don’t pay attention to the food you eat when you’re with important people. Pay attention to them.”

Pushing my plate of prawns aside, I resumed the task of mining for gold with Mr. Elgin.

(Me) What do you like best about this business?

(Ron) I got into this business initially because I found out I could make decent money doing something I thought might be fun. I thought I’d play around in the ad industry until something better came along. Now, 45 years later, I think I’m ready to admit there isn’t anything better. For me, at least.

I’ve loved the challenge, the opportunity and variety of sitting at a breakfast meeting with the CEO of one of the world’s largest cruise ship companies devising strategies to sell more world cruise cabins at $64,000 a pop. Then an afternoon meeting with a one-store McDonald’s owner helping with his local store marketing plan pushing dollar coffee. Then spending the evening hours with a charitable group developing a pro bono campaign to help the impoverished in Africa. In this fast paced, ever-changing business if you find yourself doing something the same way as before, you can be pretty sure it’s yesterday’s news.

It’s been said that advertising is a young person’s game. In a sense, that’s true. But I think when a person is constantly in search of the next fresh idea or new trend, the very act has a way of keeping a person young irrespective of their age. To be successful in this industry you must always be one step ahead of the present. I don’t think the readers of your blog have time to read the thousands of little things I like best about this business but if anyone ever wants to hear more I’m always happy to share.

(Me) I get the notion of being as ‘young as you feel.’ But tell that to a 40 or 50 something Account Executive in a tech start-up, where most of their co-workers are in their mid-20s riding skateboards to work with boa constrictors in their messenger bags. Then add to the quirky culture the cold reality that many of these younger people have cut their marketing teeth on social media and ROI-driven analytics, where breakthrough creative may be treated as an afterthought. How do you stay passionate in that scenario?

(Ron) It’s been a while since I was on a skateboard and I’ve never liked snakes, but I think you’re missing the point. Understanding why people in their mid-20s are riding skateboards with boa constrictors in their messenger bags is crucial to those of us who may need to deliver a relevant message to that audience.

As to your cold reality comment, when I first got in the business TV was still considered so new and different that creative had to be done by specialists. A few years ago, creatives working in the ‘new media’ space tried to shut out their traditional counterparts with the same ‘they just don’t get it’ attitude. Today’s most successful agencies have once again overcome that provincial thinking and you know how, Phil? With the Big Idea. It always has been and always will be about breakthrough creative—not about the tools used to implement the idea.

(Me) From a financial standpoint how does an agency executive thrive in the current environment?

(Ron) Today’s agency executive must keep in mind the words of the World’s Most Interesting Man. “Stay thirsty, my friend.” A former boss used to say that in this business if you’re not growing you’re dying. However, the growth must be appropriate to the vision and mission of your company. If you stray from that, surely you will become lost. Of course the growth must either be profitable or provide a clear path to profitability.

I realize in the current environment it can be difficult if not impossible to grow the business under any circumstance. When that’s the case, the alternative becomes mandatory. Yes, I’m talking about layoffs. They are the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in business. But the fact is no one can stay in business very long when they’re bleeding. I’ve seen too many agencies go down the tube because the executive in charge was either too optimistic, too good-hearted or too timid to take appropriate action in a timely manner. In those cases, everyone was a loser.

(Me) Tell me about the dark side of this business. And please don’t say there isn’t one because I don’t know of a single agency person who isn’t sporting at least a few bruises, some with permanent disabilities.

(Ron) To me, nothing was ever darker than having to tell one of my employees, one of our family members, that I could no longer afford to help them feed their family, keep a roof over their heads, provide the many necessities of life. I always took that very personal. After all, if I hadn’t failed at growing the company fast enough or wasn’t smart enough to make a better profit I wouldn’t have had to say “I’m sorry…”

Next week, Commandment #3—Be kind To Thine Advertising Brethren, featuring Ron’s biggest career mistake, close encounters with VIPs, the mark of true character and more.

The Power Table At Capital Grille

confident-man-in-meeting-1copy_28282

Ron Elgin’s Three Commandments of Advertising

IF YOU’VE SPENT ANY TIME AROUND SEATTLE’S HIGH-FLYING AD AGENCY SCENE you’ve heard the name Ron Elgin. Power broker, philanthropist, husband to the divine Miss Bonnie—whatever you call him, he’s earned a fitting reputation as Seattle’s patriarch of advertising.

Over three decades, mostly in the role of Chairman and CEO of DDB Worldwide-Seattle, he’s assembled legions of account teams that have helped build some of Seattle’s and North America’s most respected brands—Microsoft, Holland America, Jansport, McDonald’s and many others.

Two weeks ago I caught up with Ron at the venerable Capital Grille to learn about re:Connects, his new marketing talent consortium and, well, to reconnect. As his company name implies, no one does it better than Ron Elgin.

What he shared with me on a deeply personal level during our whirlwind visit still has me dizzy.

Ron’s insights and personal disclosures were so engaging they must be shared with a broader audience. He consented to this blog post about our lunch and generously added a few color details in an email the next day.

Ron’s wisdom could and will fill a book (which is at about page 160 in its current draft stage). His career take-aways are a primer on “How to thrive anywhere in the agency world—Seattle, San Francisco or Singapore.”

Here’s the first installment, Part 1…

COMMANDMENT 1—Foster Thy Dream Team

Me: While waiting for our salads at the infamous power table (explained in my Commandment 2 post next week) I leaned forward in my chair and asked: “Ron, if you remember back in the summer of 2000 I flew up to Seattle from East Texas to job hunt. Among the dozens of agency presidents I reached out to you were one of the first to give me an interview. Why?”

Ron: The day we opened our agency 30 years ago I made it my business to seek out the most talented people I could find. You may have come from obscure East Texas with precious little “big” agency experience (by your own admission), but I saw someone with potential. I’ve learned that great talent and potential can come from out of nowhere, and I’ve seen some of the best agency people take long and arduous routes to get here.

Me: Up until your recent retirement DDB experienced over three decades of brisk, steady growth. How did that happen?

Ron: I’m going to give you several answers, not because I can’t decide but because good, sustained growth is hardly ever the result of one factor. The first strategic decision was to always try to hire people better than ourselves. We didn’t need to make heroes of ourselves when other people could do it for us. The second was to vow to never to work with or for assholes. Irrespective of how much better than us they were, if the person could not fit within our culture they could not be part of our family.

As far as clients go, it didn’t really matter the size of their budgets. If they were not good people they couldn’t become part of our family. The third decision was to give equal respect and consideration to all marketing and communication disciplines.

A marketing challenge is rarely met with a single discipline. But when a single discipline overpowers the process, the results are often disappointing. So embracing and integrating every relevant discipline in this new era of advertising is critical.

Next week, Commandment 2—Make Your Passion Your Life’s Passion

Written by Phil Herzog, SmoothStone Partners