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Dealing with Ad Agency Management

I know a lot of people like myself who work freelance for advertising agencies, or they work at agencies as employees. Over the years I’ve worked with many agencies, and after witnessing their management practices, I think it’s about time someone talked about them. For some reason, the inner workings of ad agencies is kept secret, and it really needs to stop. That industry is very good at seeming mysterious to outsiders, and they like to keep it that way. I think that we, as freelancers, need to change how we look at them and approach them like they’re any other entity we work with. Ad agencies are a great source for jobs in the creative space, and hopefully this blog will let you know what you should expect when working with them.

An advertising agency is a business. They try to push their creative sides to the public, and really hit that point hard with their sales teams, but creativity almost always takes a backseat to business once you get in there. I’m not at all saying this is a bad thing, but beware of any delusions you have about this. Since any ad agency is a business, they eventually get flooded with management positions that take over, and they begin to operate like any other company. Once this happens, photographers, filmmakers, designers, and all creative positions that require someone to actually create something, become outsourced. The agency is then left with a building full of managers who are incapable of creating anything on their own. 

Any and all businesses need a manager in some way, and they are very necessary. The bigger the business, the more red tape and managers they accumulate. Management comes with all kinds of different job titles like project managers, account managers, sales managers, etc, but all of them are responsible for facilitating in some way.  A good manager, one who actually understands what his/her job is, is a crucial component to any business. That being said, good managers are few and far between. For every good manager at an ad agency, there’s about 3-4 terrible ones that bring the entire system down to their crappy level. A manager is just that: a manager. They’re responsible for streamlining communication, filling out and filing paperwork, scheduling, making sure that a professional environment is being maintained, and being a buffer between anti-social/strange creatives and the business world. This general job description is quickly forgotten by most managers at ad agencies. After awhile, they make their job description include creative duties, especially when it comes to critiquing and having the final word on creative assets. Once that happens, an agency will end up with a foundation of managers masquerading as creatives. 

The following is a list of ad agency job titles I’ve found to hold the majority of positions at advertising agencies, how they behave, and how to work with them as a freelancer.

1. Project Managers

Any project needs a project manager. They’re a crucial part of the system. They’re responsible for scheduling, timelines, outsourcing, and facilitating communications between everyone involved. I’ve worked with all kinds of project managers at agencies from the amazing to the God-awful. A good project manager speaks for himself/herself, and you’ll know right away if they’re good at what they do. The rest of this section is going to cover the not-so-great project manager, and will hopefully give you enough info to spot them and deal with them accordingly. 

Project managers can quickly become passive aggressive, self-important bullies who try to insert themselves into the creative process.  If you work at/with an agency and have heard a project manager say, “What are you working on?” in an authoritative tone, they’re the biggest problem an agency has. That phrase, along with a slew of other tonal insults that can’t be directly pinned on them, insinuates they don’t think you’re on task, what you’re doing should be done later, or whatever they think you should be working on is priority just because they want it done. Running around an office worrying about everyone else but themselves will actually take up the majority of their day instead of the real work they should be doing. That type of project manager will also micromanage co-workers to a fault, critique any creatives work to the point of telling them to do it again and again, and will talk extreme amounts of crap about you behind your back if you challenge them in any way. If you do have the misfortune to stand up to one of these project managers, it’ll be one of the most ridiculous experiences of your professional career. They’ll immediately transform into an overly defensive, swearing, and unprofessional monster. For about one minute. Then they’ll just storm out of whatever room they’re in to go tattle on you to whomever will listen. They do this because they see any challenge to their ego as a trap they have to escape. Since their management style is awful and flat-out wrong, they can’t defend themselves in any logical argument so they just disengage entirely. Haha as I write this I know it seems like I have some sort of vendetta against a specific project manager in my life, but I don’t. I’m telling you, ALL agencies have at least one of these people, and navigating through their twisted ego mazes is something you’ll have to live with. And the strange thing? No one will do anything about it. Any employee that a crappy project manager has pee’d on and dominated will just hide behind their computer, and the boss and peers of that manager will say things like “Well, we know they’re hard to deal with, but he/she’s been in this industry for a long time.” or “They’re not THAT bad, he/she can just be a little much at times.”. Then they’ll tell you they’ll talk to the terrible manager, which they won’t. If they do, it’ll be worse for everyone. The manager will then refuse to make eye contact with you, and the working environment for you and everyone else around you will now be officially awful.  

These terrible project managers have been talking down to me, my coworkers, and industry professionals for all the years I’ve been in the photography/video world. By default, they don’t like freelancers because they have very limited power over them, but they’ll be very cordial to us at first because outsourcing is big at ad agencies, and they see us as a necessary evil. But mark my words, the moment a bad project manager sees an opportunity to make you look bad, they’ll take advantage of it. By opportunity, I mean any mistakes or problems that arise during a project that will reflect badly upon them or their agency, regardless of your involvement. If any problems surface, the freelancer is the obvious scapegoat to a bad project manager. To them, and I’ve seen this happen, it can also be an opportunity to try to publicly humiliate a freelancer to show the employees at their agency what will happen to them if they step out of line.

So, what do you do as a freelancer? Mostly, you’ll just have to grin and bear it. The project managers are highly involved in picking freelancers and companies their agencies work with, so if you tell a project manager to f@%k off as soon as they get out of line, that’ll probably be the last time you’ll be working for their agency. This being said, I give all project managers three strikes. The third time they become unprofessional, I let them have it. No matter what. I once walked away from an agency project that I was being paid $18,000 to work on because the project manager wouldn’t stop trying to belittle me, talk down to me, and treat me like a baby newly born into the agency process. To them, your experience doesn’t count for anything because you’re not on an agency payroll, and by default they think they know more than you. The third time that project manager insulted me I told them what I thought of them, and then I let every member of their upper management know why I was wiping my hands of their agency and any projects that came with it. As a freelancer, this is very important.  You have to let everyone know, on the record, why you have a problem. If you just leave, other freelancers and employees at that agency will continue to suffer in the same ways you did, and the project manager will never be held accountable.  The goal is to establish a pattern of bad behavior that will be identified to a bad project manager. It’s always the best when that pattern has already been established by others before you, and you get front row seats to that person being dismissed from the project or agency.

This being said, there are many amazing project managers that I’ve worked with. Every agency has a bad egg, but if you know who they are you can sometimes avoid them. If you work with an agency and you’ve had to work with one of their bad project managers, you should request to work with someone else on the next project. If you tell a creative director that you think a certain project manager will be good for your assigned project, usually they’ll agree and make it happen. This is a good way to avoid confrontation and get the project out the door.

2. Account Managers

Account managers handle communication between clients and agency creative. These guys and gals set the tone for any agency, seeing as how they determine the perceived strength of an agency. A good account manager isn’t afraid of anyone. They tell the client “No.” on a regular basis. They tell their bosses when client deadlines aren’t being met and hold them accountable. An account manager knows their main responsibilities are obtaining as much info from the client as possible, and creating and enforcing timelines for agency creative. A bad account manager is born the moment they become afraid. Fear of the client, fear of their boss, fear of creative; any fear makes them entirely useless. If they become afraid of losing a client, they’ll do everything they can to pander to them, all at the expense of their agency. For example: Lets say a high dollar client asks a scared account manager for a print ad. First, the account manager will send the spec’s to creative. Once creative makes the ad, they’ll critique it and come up with every reason why the ad isn’t good enough before they even show it to the client. At that point, the account manager has wrongfully inserted themselves into the creative process. After all, what’s the point of having a creative director and creative teams if a non-creative is the one determining the artistic quality of creative assets? They’ll then try and make creative pump out another ad for no reason, and end up with multiple ads to “give the client options.”. Creative will then work around the clock creating ads for a client who didn’t even kick back the original ad. A scared Account manager will demand multiple options for their clients, which ultimately leads to their clients being torn in different directions, and creative will end up mashing designs together and delivering assets that are ugly due to this “design by committee” approach.

As a freelancer, a bad account manager can end you, or see to it that your work never sees the light of day. If you filmed a commercial for an agency, and the account manager takes it upon themselves to turn it down, it will automatically put you on the defensive. You could make exactly what a client wanted, but a fearful account manager will be the beginning of you being replaced before the client even sees it. The most you can do to combat this is clear communication. If you’re filming, have creative officially approve every storyboard and line of script. Whenever you work with an agency, or for one, you should always build yourself a foundation of justification. If you do this correctly, it’s hard for account managers to shelve your material without looking like an idiot.

3. Creative Directors

I’ve never had a problem with a creative director. I don’t know what that means, but they’re usually the saving grace of all the agencies I’ve worked with. All the creative directors I’ve worked with have an understanding of what it takes to make a project happen. They’re your friends. Every once in awhile they get a little too creative and want more control over a project then they can possibly handle, but if that happens just let them know. If you say, “I’m handling that part of this project, it’s why you hired me. Here’s what I’ve done so far, and here’s what I’m doing next.” he/she will back off and let you do your thing. 

4. Creatives

These are the designers. At most agencies, they’re all that’s left. Photographers, illustrators, filmmakers, artists; all of those positions are the first to go once money gets tight since the managers are the ones in charge of hiring and firing. Once the managers have done away with those positions and acquire a taste for outsourcing, they don’t look back. If you hire an agency they won’t tell you that, they’ll even go so far as to make whomever they outsourced tell the client they are an employee of said agency. It’s a shady practice that’s common at ad agencies, and it’s only getting worse.

The remaining creatives are worked like dogs, and sit at the bottom of the agency food chain. Managers see designers as easily replaceable, and treat them as such. Designers work long hours, answer to multiple managers, and are the first to take the blame for any project rejected by a client. Agencies like their designers to be silent, pump out massive amounts of content, and be amongst the lowest paid employees. If you’ve hired an ad agency and they gave you materials that you love, chances are the designer and the creative director are the ones who truly made it what it is, and you should know that. If you’re hired as a freelance designer, you’re seen as , like, the most replaceable person on the planet. If the project you’re working on goes sideways, prepare for immediate termination. I wish I had a fix for this, but the current system doesn’t have one. Here’s to hoping things run smooth!

5. Upper Management

I lump upper management together because overall they each hold the same constructive or destructive power. This includes, but isn’t limited to, owners, CEO’s, VP’s, and senior whatever’s. I’m going to use a CEO in all of the examples that follow, but just know that they can all apply to upper management. You know you have a good CEO when they’re cool and collected, and actually listen to those around them. A good CEO will do everything they can to make sure his/her employees are happy and healthy, and will let them do their jobs. They should rarely be highly involved in any one project, and they need to have the ability to look beyond the day-to-day. You know you have a bad CEO when they take it upon themselves to keep track of who’s at work and who isn’t, makes passive aggressive comments to employees, jumps right into the middle of a project to make decisions even though he/she doesn’t know the details, and/or if they think being a figurehead at an “Agency” makes them special. Agency arrogance is rampant in this industry. If the CEO is constantly saying,”Welcome to the agency life!” when something is obviously wrong, his managers start saying it as well. Before you know it, all kinds of horrible micromanagement practices are happening, and everyone is saying, “Welcome to the agency life!” to defend them. Once you work for an agency, do yourself a favor and ask why something is being done a certain way when it’s obviously wrong. Employees will start vomiting that phrase right into your lap, and it’s hilarious. 

A bad CEO will also live and die by time. The correct way to manage creatives is to give them a project, and then give them a deadline. If the deadline is made, great! If it isn’t, they need to find out why and act accordingly. Plain and simple. The time-obsessed CEO will require you to clock in, describe each and every hour in a day, allow their managers to question your each and every move, encourage people to eat lunch while they work, etc. That CEO is the worst. Micromanaging employee time is destructive in so many ways. It empowers ego-driven managers to be up in everyones business, forces employees to feel like they’re working in a sweat shop, makes the CEO unlikeable, and moral will be lowered. CEO’s obsessed with time are usually at the head of an agency with high turnover rates, especially when it comes to entry level employees. 

Unfortunately, there’s not much that can be done if you’re working with an agency run by bad upper management. As a freelancer, you’ll just need to be accommodate them as much as possible, and do your best to get the job done. If you’re an employee working at an agency with bad upper management, you should start looking for a new job. It won’t get better. They’ll say, year after year, that change is on the horizon. But it isn’t. If you stay where you are your only hope is if bad upper management quits, or gets replaced with someone competent. Seriously, start freshening up that Linkedin profile.

Working with agencies is great for any freelancer or creative business. I almost always have a great experience working with them, and they’ve landed me some of the biggest projects of my career. This article simply outlines the most damaging pitfalls my peers and I have experienced, and my goal is to simply give you a heads up for what may be in store for you if you work with an agency. I hope it helps, and any feedback would be appreciated!