Friday, February 4, 2011

The D.A.F.T. principle.
(Or, how to take over an agency
without destroying it.)

The most vulnerable time for a company is when a new leader jumps on board – especially in the advertising world where so much can go wrong, so quickly.

We’ve all seen it. A new Creative Director starts and within one week he’s pissed off all the long-serving creative heads, the account service teams and, in the worst-case scenario, the clients.

Politics become rife. Emotions run high. And key people start leaving (and, if you’re really unlucky, they take their clients with them). Before you know it, the agency is half the size it was and is losing money hand over fist.

Then the sickening blow arrives. The Creative Director who caused the torrent decides to leave because he feels the agency isn’t moving forward in the direction he wants it to (that’s when you take out the shotgun and shoot a hole in his midriff).

This kind of occurrence in our world is a relatively common occurrence. So let’s step back and see how something like this could happen.

The agency may have needed fresh leadership to contemporize or re-energize the agency. Maybe the deadwood needed to be weeded out. New people brought in. Perhaps the agency needed a more aggressive approach to account management. Getting a forward thinking, and perhaps radical, creative leader may have been the right thing to do. But as we’ve discussed in an earlier chapter, many creative people aren’t managers – and would only know one approach to creating change – the bull in the china shop approach.

In other words, the highly ambitious creative director charges in and sets his agenda without any regard to the existing state of affairs, other people’s needs or historical context. He’s prepared to cut anyone down who gets in his way. And in a business that is ‘all’ about people, his actions can have a disastrous impact on the business.

Here’s the advice I’ve given ECD’s when they’ve taken on a new job. It’s based on the acronym DAFT.

This stands for:


Defer any judgments for at least the first month you’re in the job (and ideally, for the first two). That means don’t make any rash or quick judgments on the people, the work, the clients or even the ethos of the agency. Just watch and observe.


While you’re watching and observing, assimilate what’s going on (and write down the pros and the cons, if it helps). In other words, build up your knowledge of the people (suits as well as creative). Work out who has the key relationships with clients and who doesn’t. Who works hard and who slacks off. Who the smart people are and the ones that dumb down the agency. Who has talent, who has potential and who is a lost cause. Assimilate intelligence on the agency system of working. The strengths, the weaknesses and the areas for improvement.


Once you have a clear grasp of the agency and its issues, you can then formulate a plan to improve it. This may include working closely with your CEO and other stake holders in the organization. The approach we discussed in Chapter 4 (setting a vision that will inspire people) may be helpful here.


Once you know the plan, you can implement it. More importantly, you’ll know the ‘true’ weaknesses of the agency to focus on (versus the ‘perceived’ weaknesses), the ‘difficult’ issues you need to address longer term. And the people you want to keep and the ones you want to let go (knowing the impact on clients, morale and the culture of the agency).

The DAFT principle is a great way to for any new ECD to fuse with his or her agency without wreaking havoc on the place. The ECD can still be the agent for change, but in a way that brings people on board willingly rather than in a way that coerces people forcibly.

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