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Scott McKay is a Toronto strategist, writer, creative director, patient manager, half-baked photographer and forcibly retired playwright.

This little site is designed to introduce him and his thoughts to the world. (Whether the world appreciates the intro is another matter.) If you'd like to chat, then you can guess what the boxes below are for.



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    "They had their cynical code worked out. The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket."

          – George Orwell






    "Advertising – a judicious mix of flattery and threats."

          – Northrop Frye






    "Chess is as an elaborate a waste of time as has ever been devised outside an advertising agency."

          – Raymond Chandler


    Entries in leadership (9)


    a hockey debacle offers two lessons for agency leaders

    Leafland is all agog over today’s firing of Leafs General Manager Brian Burke, who looked all but inviolate until the announcement was made. Whatever the real story turns out to be, the discussion has been fascinating, especially because it’s uncovered some similarities between the hockey word and the marketing world.

    1) When you hire, don’t hire based on perception.

    As friend of the blog mf37 wrote well before Burke was hired, when you actually looked at his track record, it was nowhere near as great as most people (including me) believed. Look at the candidates without the rose-coloured glasses. Sure, their personality matters, but it’s no substitute for their decisions and their results. You’d think this was common sense, but the continuing popularity in Toronto of Burke’s “big personality” and “energy” shows that it’s not so common. Saviours rarely turn out to actually save you.

    The situation reminded me that marketing people, like hockey people, like to rely on deciding factors like perception and “cool” when hiring, especially creatives. They have a vague idea that a candidate comes from a hot shop (like Burke from Stanley Cup-winning Anaheim) and want to grab them. Few of us have the patience to try to discover the reality of the work. It never ends well.

    2) If you’re the boss and you have to fire someone, stand up and take the crap.

    At today’s presser, the board of MLSE, the ultimate decision makers in all this, were completely absent, preferring to hide behind their CEO and new GM – neither of whom were terribly convincing. (For instance, the CEO sighed continually during the radio interviews I heard.)

    Sports franchises feed on energy and hope – the energy of the players, as well as that of the fans and media. Unanswered questions about teams tend to fester, and lead to negativity. It’s completely foreseeable that media and fan negativity about the Leafs and their ownership will only grow during the season ahead – especially if the team loses a few games early on. The board’s lack of accountability will be an ongoing story.

    Agencies also feed on energy and hope. And when the decision maker doesn’t take responsibility, doesn’t stand up and say why a move has happened, people at an agency notice and remember. Yes, unanswered questions lead to speculation and rumour. But worse than that, you’re draining the reservoir of trust you have with staff. If you stand up and take the hostility toward your decision, you show people that you respect their feelings. That way, you’ve got a fighting chance of keeping some trust, or at least being able to restore it.

    MLSE reminds me of a senior agency person many years ago who didn’t stand up and tell his staff that a firing had happened. Instead, for whatever reason, he left it to the replacement person to make the announcement. The result was a permanent weakening of the senior person’s leadership, and how staff would work for him. When he himself left a year later, there was no mourning.

    Respect for your people is a sign of how much you respect yourself. 


    keep your fork, Duke, there's pie

    Recently I saw this short article in the Atlantic about a study (sadly, not actually from Duke University) proving that "humble" leaders are "better liked" by their employees. 

    Ahem. As you know being liked isn't exactly in anyone's list of useful characteristics of a good creative, or a good suit, or a good client. As much as I want to find value in such well meaning nonsense, I think the best thing you can call it is misleading.  

    The conclusion doesn't exactly help:

    Leaders who are open with their feelings and keen to learn and grow are better liked and perceived as more effective.

    Being perceived as being more effective sounds a little Machiavellian, doesn't it?

    A closer read reveals that the original study was based on only about 50 interviews with people of various levels of a wide range of organizations. Hardly scientific, not much more rigour than a high school social studies essay. Then, at the very end, the article mentions that a follow-up study being done with 900 employees and managers has validated the earlier results:

    They found that leader humility is associated with more learning-oriented teams, more engaged employees, and lower voluntary employee turnover

    Okay, that sounds like actual information. (Huzzah!) And that feels right, too, based on folks I've worked with and for. When you're working for someone who lets you have some of the answers, someone who lets you feel some sense of control over your work, you spend a lot less time trolling Linkedin for headhunters. And you spend less time buying coffee for similarly disenfranchised coworkers so, for once, they'll listen to you complain.

    Under the opposite, negativity becomes an atmosphere that you swim through all the time. It takes so much extra effort to get anything done. (Ever tried running in a swinning pool?) And I think significantly, that last point about lower turnover is the real value of "humble" leadership. More than the time and money expended on hiring, the real killer is the lost knowledge that walks out the door every time another employee leaves. Clients value people who know their business. Pushing green fodder into client meetings to replace losses reeks of that mild unpleasantness at the beginning of the last century.

    As I've said before (hell, it was my first post) being a manager or leader isn't and can't be about bossing people around – not for anyone in any industry, let alone creatives. It's about getting them to buy in; listening to their objections and issues, then dealing with them; it's about not denying the truth of their feelings and opinions, and accepting that you will not bully them into submission. To me this David Cooper quote means that, as a good leader, you won't even realize you're eating humble pie:

    "Perhaps the most central characteristic of authentic leadership is the relinquishing of the impulse to dominate others."


    managing badly to manage better

    I've been reflecting on the fact that my August post about bad management is still one of the most popular entries on this here little endeavour. And my very first post on the subject is also still getting hits. Funny how some topics are perennial favourites...

    And so, in the spirit of giving people what they want, let's go drop another bucket in the very deep well of managerial ineptitude.

    There was the senior manager who hovered by his door every day at about five to five, scoping anyone who dared to stop working and start chatting, let alone leave, before his or her full complement of hours was entered into the corporate ledger.

    Naturally, he was also a hawk around 8:30. His judgement was, "If you come late, you're stealing from the company." Now, I think he actually said those exact words out loud in front of people. I may be wrong, I may have contorted my memory based on my feelings about him, but there's also a reason we thought it.

    He got out of people exactly what he asked. A workforce that appeared at 8:30, and which vanished at 5:01. A workforce which stretched out work to fit whatever time was left in the day. A workforce which complained incessantly – about everything: lack of change, change, bosses, each other – but which enjoyed complaining, which literally had no other discourse about work.

    A workplace which was essentially Dickensian in its philosophy, its attitudes and its outputs.

    It's just so obvious that the more tightly you manage, the more the people working for you think, "What's the point?" and surrender mental responsibility to you. Okay, I do. The worst jobs I've had have been the ones with the least amount of responsibility; not necessarily the least interesting or manual, but which involved the least amount of trust.

    On the flip side there was the creative director who actually assumed that I would learn and grow by doing the work. She would give direction and feedback, sometimes loosely, sometimes very loosely, but she always worked under the assumption that I would do the work – that I would think about, push it, try new things, and get to the place where the work needed to be.

    The process was painful. Being intensely busy, she had limited time, meaning that you were always waiting for her, sometimes well into the evening. And I wrote and rewrote and rerewrote a lot. Sometimes I wished she'd just tell me what the answer was. Maddeningly, she never did, and I laboured for far more hours than I'd care to remember.

    There were times when I absolutely fucking hated it.

    But it was one of the best times of my life.

    The assumption that I could do the work, that I could make it better, that I myself could be better, gave me a bedrock of confidence upon which I've built a career.

    As a CD, I find myself pretty rarely giving people that much trust. I try, but inevitably there's a tight deadline or twitchy client, and I tend to become more prescriptive after a couple of rounds of feedback. Now, the folks who've worked for me are probably shaking their heads at this paragraph, or pounding their keyboards, or tweeting about what an ass I am, but I do grapple with this and I'm not always happy with my reactions.

    Somewhere in my notes from a Northrop Frye class on the Bible and literature I remember jotting down this pearl of wisdom from the great man: to answer a question is to consolidate the mental level on which the question is asked.

    Maybe I need to stop having answers.


    that explains Kissinger, but does that mean that Nixon started out as a nice guy?

    Via Dan Ariely's tweet, this WSJ article by Jonah Lehrer is interesting for two related, hopeful but ultimately depressing reasons.

    First, it suggests that Machiavelli had it wrong and that nice guys actually do finish first, in the sense that those who backstab and play politics tend to become isolated and ostracized fairly quickly in groups. Huzzah. Good news, right?

    Second, those who do rise to power become less like themselves and tend to become less sensitive and responsive to others, becoming more and more sure of themselves and their own opinions.


    Most people who become boss-types don't want to become insensitive asses. (Even these people didn't intend to be bad.) But the research suggests that this trend is a function of becoming isolated from day-to-day activities, which any senior manager has to be in order to allow their team to work. Distance is not good, but it is necessary.

    Which is a pretty damn delicate thing to be balanced, one that gets increasingly difficult the higher up you go.

    Just be careful about putting those feet on the desk, and who you point them at.


    great examples of bad management

    Managing people is hard.

    Hands-off management doesn't work. Neither does hands-on management. So what the hell do you do with your hands?

    Somehow you have to find a balance between letting people on your team do what they want to do, and you telling them what to do. And that balance must be difficult to find, because a lot of managers suck at finding it.

    I know you've worked for bad managers; we all have. When I was a junior I had one manager who may as well have had his office on the far side of Pluto, he was so remote. Except for a few long-time cronies, he had no relationships with anyone, and little communication. A few brusque words were all anyone got before he scurried off for a smoke break. He seemed to be nothing more than the façade of a manager. (Hmm, remind you of any recent presidents?)

    But he was in many ways better than another boss (not my direct report) who made his art directors redo layouts mercilessly, changing his mind on whims, and plenty free with his sarcasm. Now, you could *almost* justify his cruelty if he'd been creating fantastic work, but let's just say his preferred style was pretty, um, traditional.

    So, when I came to manage people, I at least knew what I didn't want to do.

    You have to find a combination of their freedom and your involvement. But even that can be tricky. I know of one agency leader who would let her people "run" with projects, only to "take a peek" hours before going to client (or even, sometimes after) and get very critical of the work, and the brief, and the process, and the people. A more punishing "freedom" I can't imagine.

    My preference is to be involved in the beginning. Instead of imposing my own ideas, I try to make sure the team's ideas are as good as they can be; that they play out to their own internal logic, and explore as much territory as possible. (Would you trust a creative director who had to have all the ideas? Um, no.) Then back off, and let them fight their own battles; if they need help, they'll ask for it. That's how trust is built across the entire team; that's how you get to the point where maybe you as a manager don't have to be so involved any more. Because you've demonstrated to your team that you're comfortable with them making decisions, and them having real responsibility. And you've seen how your team thinks, and are confident about their process. That doesn't mean they won't fail. But more often than not, they'll succeed.

    Now, I'm definitely not as consistent about this as I might make it sound. I'm sorry that sometimes my inner control freak emerges. But it's the way I want to work, the way we all should.


    would it be better to call it the "work-life tightrope"?

    The concept of work-life balance has become such a cliché in our culture that a reaction against the whole idea has started. The idea that it's a phase of life, partially driven by the fact that so many people are having children later in life, is an appealing one. And I suppose it's true that our addiction to technology fuels a lot of the imbalance.

    But that's still a few long years to wait out until things get "better" again. So I understand why some people try to establish boundaries with their employers.

    However, in practise in most organizations, the people who stake out work-life balance as a necessity have essentially said to the organization that they will go this far and no farther. And in most organizations, a senior manager's first choice is not going to be to give vital/important/urgent work to someone who has said that work is not their first priority. You become a solid but not outstanding contributor, and run the risk of marginalizing yourself from promotions and so on.

    I don't know about the value of being so cut and dried, but then I also can't imagine being brave enough to do it. I've worked at agencies that have been pretty good at giving me time whenever I needed it; the trade-off was that I've generally gotten the job done whatever it took. I've shown commitment, and gotten it back.

    It's important for companies and managers to cut people slack when it comes to personal stuff. Kids get sick at the drop of a hat, and no meeting is more important than that. Family emergencies, school concerts, funerals; things that you would regret not attending should be attended without guilt.

    Maybe the stress of work-life imbalance is one of those contemporary afflictions that comes with life in the twenty-first century. On the other hand, giving someone flexibility, and the ability to call on that flexibility without worry for their jobs or professional status, seems to me to be a key way to alleviate some of that stress. I suppose you'd call it treating people like grown-ups.



    Came upon this TED video from last year of Simon Sinek talking about great leaders, both individually and corporately. His angle is that most of us focus on the what and the how, and maybe we get around to the why of any action or campaign at some point.

    To Sinek, great leaders start with the why – they start by communicating a belief, which may include elements of how and what within it. This kind of authentic leadership starts with an emotional connection to galvanize action in others.

    Being able to share a purpose; being able to gather groups of people together to do something which holds meaning for them; this is leadership.

    Something to keep in mind.


    "I'm not ignoring you, I'm empowering you"

    This is one of the funniest things I've ever seen while working in an office, and maybe the most secretly wise piece of management advice ever written.

    I was wandering around the offices of the GM account team for some reason, and passed the closed door and empty office of a smart account guy named Jordan Schooley. On the glass of the door he had scrawled, in one of those dry erase markers, "I'm not ignoring you, I'm empowering you."

    It still makes me laugh. Today a sticky note with this quote on it claims a prized place on my wall.

    And over the past couple of years it's become increasingly, sneakily smart.


    Well, I'm a control freak. I admit that freely. If I could come up with all the ideas, write and art direct everything, and present it and then execute it, some dark part of me would. It's the secret voice that says to me, you know what's best so just do it. And the people who work on my team would probably not be surprised by that. (I'm sure I'll find out tomorrow.)

    But I know I can't. It's not only impractical, as there are only 24 hours in a day, but it's also plain crazy. To be a control freak is to be subject to a serious delusion. In advertising, and especially in digital and direct, you have to work with a team; there's too much knowledge, experience and creativity required, and it's hard enough to find scrape up the little bits we all possess. How many lives would you have to live to become a kickass combo account supervisor/creative director/art director/writer/production person? And as much as experience, you need other people's perspectives. In brainstorming, in presenting, in executing. It's essential; it's what gives ideas life.

    So we rely on teams. Our clients do, too, even though they don't always realize it. I've been finding that it's tempting for them to respond solely to the creative director, and not take what the writer or art director say as seriously as they should. That disempowers them; and a disempowered creative team can soon turn into a bad creative team.

    So, I've been selectively ignoring people. Okay, not people – meeting invitations. I've been saying no or "forgetting" about meetings when I think I'm becoming an impediment to a strong team communicating with client. And if the meeting doesn't go as smoothly as I might like, fine. The team learns from it. And I've definitely learned from it.

    I can't control everything. In fact, it's made me see that I actually don't want to control anything; I see my job as guiding the process and inspiring people to make their own work better. (I'm picturing the smirks on some people's faces right now. And yes, this means you.) That's the only way that good creatives grow. And if it takes me doing a little ignoring to make that happen, so be it.


    a tentative thought about leadership

    First off, I think it's important that I tell you I hate the word "leadership." It makes me think of MBAs and motivational speakers. It strikes me as being the kind of word that's seemingly only bothered with in its absence.

    That said, one way or the other we working stiffs all deal with leadership. Not the word or concept, but the reality of it. You can't work with or for other humans for any length of time and not have a strong gut feeling about being told what to do, bossed around, shepherded, managed, controlled, guided, mentored or led. 

    Especially when you're a creative.

    You can't really boss a creative around. (Well, you can, but if they're any good, they won't stick around.) Creatives don't take orders. They question. They argue. They complain. They disagree. They have opinions. They tell you how things should be. Because that ornery, anti-authoritarian mindset might just be the reason good creatives can see and fight for what's right. (In other words, it's a feature, not a bug.)

    So you in order to get a creative to do what you want, you have to persuade them. You have to help them believe in it.

    You can't persuade people from a pedestal. You can't email persuasion, or memo it, or decree it from a boardroom table. You have to do it face to face. You have to hear their disagreement, and not only do you have to persuade them through their disagreement but you must also accept that any contrary feelings they have are totally valid. You can't be insulted by their disagreement, or feel that your so-called leadership is being undermined. At a very basic level, you have to respect the people who work for you as equals.

    Even better, put quotes around the word "for," or just replace it with the word "with."   

    And if my leadership can't take your differing opinion, then I'm not a leader – I'm a bully.

    Now, I've worked for a few bullies in my time. It's very educational, in a Dickensian kind of way. It gave me a real appreciation of that Peter Ustinov quote I'm so fond of.

    Psychiatrist (and anti-psychiatrist) David Cooper once wrote, "Perhaps the most central characteristic of authentic leadership is the relinquishing of the impulse to dominate others."

    That strikes me as being about the most true statement about leadership I've ever seen, creative or otherwise.