If there is one thing that agency execs all nod their heads to, it is our assertion that there is little or no real professionalization of agency management practices.  We believe that the industry chronically under-invests in this training — probably for a myriad of reasons that include just being too busy — and is blithely ignorant of the true costs of the resultant poor management practices.

An agency’s success is more affected by this failure than would be the case for other businesses, because they rely so heavily upon talented young people who, frankly, are more willing to walk, and less willing to tolerate abuse than prior generations.

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3:00 PM — “Sheesh,” Josh mutters as he plops into his desk chair and opens the Illustrator file that was on his morning list of things to do. “I guess I’ll be setting the alarm and locking the doors again tonight.” 

This wasn’t the dream job the talented 25-year-old designer thought he had stepped into at Red Sidecar agency six months ago. So far, his day has been a series of meetings — mostly unrelated to any of his projects on deadline — during which he learned very little and got even less done. The gaps between meetings, often 15 to 30 minutes, were too short to get started on anything. Now he was finally back at his desk to do the critical work the client was counting on but with far less energy and enthusiasm than when he arrived this morning.

He’s hardly alone. In our survey work with agencies, we find attendees typically get 5-10 minutes of value for every hour of meeting time. That’s negative personal ROI! I’ll even call it DOI (drain on investment). It mirrors more general business research on meetings, which shows that most attendees rate meetings as less than 50% effective. What’s more, cognitive scientists would confirm that each change in work context robs 15-30 minutes of productivity. Repeated context shifts are especially fatiguing.

4:00 PM — Josh is starting to bring the design together. He’s got his headphones on (without music) to signal that he’s busy. Ashley, one of five account and production people he works with, comes over, stands next to him, and waits. When Josh looks up, she mouths, “Got a sec?” with an apologetic expression that seems to say, “Sorry, but can you please help me?” Already interrupted, Josh pulls off his headphones, slides his chair back, and looks up at her.

Managers in agencies rarely have any formal management training, nor do they usually understand how critical “focus time” is to the people who actually do the work. More than half of the significant interruptions in a worker’s day come from managerial activity. And in an agency like Red Sidecar where team members are servicing multiple projects, campaigns, and clients at the same time, every Josh has multiple managers — each of whom has an idea what the #1 priority is that day.

Josh knows that this model doesn’t work. He knows that if he’s left alone, he can produce amazing work for clients. His despair is endemic among agency workers, as demonstrated by a recent Campaign survey of agency employees wherein more than a third described morale as “low” or “dangerously low” and more than half said that morale had dropped in the past year at their agency.

Ironically, what Josh wants is exactly what his agency’s chiefs want as well: Every “Josh” in their agency should be left to focus and produce awesomeness. Yet the management function is a failure. Most agencies rely on one of two different versions of an obsolete technique called “scientific management,” a management philosophy that has invaded our culture to the point of cliché (think The Office) yet was branded as “dehumanizing” by its creator more than 80 years ago.

4:02 PM — “This will only take a few minutes,” Ashley says. “I need to give you some feedback about the RamPower pieces that you did yesterday.” Josh nods and sighs, remembering it had been a last-minute request, and she hadn’t even told him why it was needed or what the goal was.

Knowledge-workers like Josh are largely self-managing, and they respond poorly to being directed or controlled. Like most agency managers, Ashley hasn’t been taught that the sheer impact of interruption — even for a second or two — can derail a knowledge worker for half an hour. Nor does she know that the combination of micromanaging and giving feedback can literally take the spirit out of talent.

8:15 PM — Ashley’s “few minutes” stretched to an hour and a half, but that’s now in the rearview. Josh is the last one at the office tonight, and he’s energized again. He’s working on the most important project of the day — his revised portfolio for Adobe’s Behance job seeker website. He takes a long look and hits “Publish.” Then a smile slowly overtakes his face. He gets up and strolls for the door.

Fully 70% of respondents to the Campaign survey said they were “actively job seeking.” I was recently told by an agency exec that more than 50% of his agency’s under-30 cohort said they planned to stay less than one year.

This flight is neither inevitable nor ingrained in “how young people are today” as many agency leaders are tempted to think. It’s simply the byproduct of uninformed management rooted in the centuries-old mistaken belief that the best way to manage is to tell people what to do. The good news is that it can be reversed. Knowing and defining the problem is the giant first leap toward solving it.