What We Can Learn from the Mistakes Made in 2020

By | January 16, 2021

Like all industries, the agency world was not left unscathed by the catastrophic year 2020.  Agencies big and small had to learn how to serve their clients, pitch new business and create engaging new work, all from the comfort of their homes.  Not an easy task, to be sure, but most of them figured it out, and in the process learned much about themselves and their clients.

But as I look back on 2020, perhaps the most valuable lessons learned stemmed from agencies that found themselves in hot water when their leaders got into serious trouble. The list was distressingly long:  JWT, Droga5, The Martin Agency, Mindshare, Ogilvy, BBDO and The Richards Group.

What can be learned from the mistakes these agency executives made? What explains how such otherwise smart, successful leaders could exhibit such abuse of power, poor judgement, and what-were-you-thinking disregard for colleagues? 

The answer, in part, lies in an oversupply of arrogance, entitlement, and narcissism from people who feel they are impervious to criticism and indispensable to the marketplace. Ultimately, a short supply of basic values like humility, empathy, integrity and a moral compass has brought the industry to this moment of reckoning. 

Yes, leadership can be a challenging, frustrating, and stressful undertaking.  But it can also be highly rewarding both personally and financially. It’s an honor and privilege that should never be taken for granted. Yet, too often, it is.

Over the course of my advertising career, I’ve been lucky to work for some great leaders. Men and women. I’ve also been fortunate to work for some not-so-great leaders. Men and women. I say fortunate because they taught me how not to behave.

Here are some observations, thoughts, and lessons learned from being in positions of agency leadership for over 25 years. Some are obvious. Others paradoxical. But that’s life. All of them can help us avoid the mistakes made in 2020 and help us do better in 2021.

  1. The essential qualities of good leaders can’t be taught. They don’t need sensitivity training in order to accept and believe in the values of  inclusion, equality and diversity. Genuine caring, generosity, and honesty are basic, inherent, and authentic qualities of good leaders who, in turn, create inclusive and diverse cultures.
  1. Good leaders appreciate and enjoy the complexities of human nature. People are emotional, unpredictable, irrational, complex, and contradictory. We behave in ways that are counterintuitive and paradoxical. That’s because we’re human. Making it all work isn’t part of the job. It is the job.
  1. As the great philosopher Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot by just watching.” Good leaders hear a lot by just listening. They’re confident enough to know they don’t have all the answers. They listen to the smart people and grok the difference between making decisions and choosing them. They believe in leadership expert Ken Blanchard’s principle that “None of us is as smart as all of us.”
  1. Leaders value complainers, critics and gadflies who want to make things better. Richard Farson writes in his enlightening book Management of the Absurd: Paradoxes in Leadership, “Often the people who complain the loudest have the best insights into how to fix problems.” So, let them. 
  1. Leadership may start at the top but too often it stops there. Good leaders empower, encourage, and enable others to take the lead. They find talent who are self-motivated passionate, innovative, and collaborative. Too often, we celebrate the myth of the lone hero; the star who single-handedly achieves greatness. But advertising is a team sport. Warren Bennis writes in Organizing Genius, “Great groups and great leaders create each other.” 

Steve Landsberg is Co-Founder, Creative, of ad agency Human Intelligence