How to respond to an email from your boss asking you to back off a bit?
May 25, 2007 4:20 PM   Subscribe

I've been working six months now at a small ad agency in a medium sized city (70,000). I come from big agency experience. I'm an art director. We have 8 people total, all great people to work with. I like the change from big city to smaller city. There are a lot of plus-es to it. Just recently, we landed a big account. They're looking for a redesign of their brand and ad campaign with internet, non-traditional, advanced website... the works. Whereas most of our job lists for clients number in the few, this one starts with well more than a dozen with several of them as very big projects and with very tight deadlines (in the next six weeks). Skipping to the question, I've been asked by the creative director to step back and stop treading on toes via email. More inside...

When the job list came in, the client was first looking for organization and order for their product. It is a massive plan with lots of details, and apologies, but i can't mention names or specifics. I mentioned that they would need the organizational level of a major destination, like an airport or theme park. The client said Yes.

The work process here at the agency is different. It's a lot of individual work, sometimes with almost no group communication. Some people are in by 7 and out by 4. Some in by 8:30 out by 3, depending on the work. Almost no one, other than myself and maybe the creative director, will stay past 6. I love this schedule! There is a lot of freedom and no one counts your hours. But I was very concerned that it wouldn't work for this new client.

I started mentioning a bunch of things I thought we needed to do. Looking back, it probably seemed too forward. I have never before made any recommendations like this, but I was suggesting big agency methods which really are not familiar here. On the presentations I worked on before (at other jobs), we were given an outline of how and what we needed to develop for a presentation. Then, its reviewed constantly til the 11th hour. Nothing like that exists here. We ask the same questions before a presentation. What will Bob do? What will Jane talk about? And then they ask me, Are you going to do a PowerPoint? We've had meetings where I'm the only one who will present a PowerPoint, while the rest present their stack of papers. Most of the time, each presentation is prepared individually so they don't look the same, ie., our logo in 4 different corners.

This system works for most clients here. A lot of the presentation is just talking with the client like to your neighbor. It can work very well. But I felt like it would not work with this new big client.

The creative director likes to work (as others have described it) in a cocoon. He'll come out after a couple days and hand you the work. Its hard to make any input. This time, I was asked by the CEO to make sure that there would be more transparency in the process (design, conceptual, creative).

And very quickly: the agency is made up of three partners (i believe, equal). Its the CEO (financial/marketing background), CFO (financial background) and Creative Director. The rest are employees. I don't know if there is any equity involved for us. I dont think i have any other than a generous bonus at xmas time.

So I started asking from the CD for a more back and forth style. In the design/branding phase, I asked that everything be printed out and we would each comment on the work, make changes, and so forth. He said Sure. I also started asking (via email to everybody) for specific timeline charts and project management lists in a central location, preferably a whiteboard, so that we could all discuss and make sure no one was confused about anything. I actually went ahead and constructed out of black presentation boards, a big board covered in paper. There I posted details of what I was working on, along with specific questions about how to sell this brand. The answers, I wrote, are to come from us by way of concept or the big idea. At the end of today, i went to the bathroom and came back to find the following email:

"While I (and others) appreciate your enthusiasm and willingness to take on tasks for the XXXXX account, I need you to understand and agree to a couple of things.

The responsibility for creating and maintaining the schedule, and for tracking all of the components that make it up -- suppliers, freelancers, etc. -- is XXXXX's. How it is handled (whiteboard, whatever) is up to him. You can certainly share your ideas with him, but you need to back away and let him do his job.

The responsibility for developing the brand is mine. Make no mistake; you are a key part of that process. But the guidance, assignments, collection, colation and recommendations will be at my direction.

Right now your main responsibility -- what I want you to focus on -- is the web/interactive component. That means locating a supply partner and putting together a saleable package. I put the emphasis on “saleable.” Like you, I want this to be a spectacular site, but unless and until they agree to build it, it’s all just wanking. Give us a spectacular site that we can sell.

All of us here are talented and capable people, and all of us will participate in the successful execution of XXXXX's marketing program. Please try to respect the contributions others are making in the same way they respect yours."

I'm actually supposed to be going to a concert with the CD tonight. While writing this Ask Mefi question, I thought i would just meet up with him and apologize for stepping on toes. And not really mention anything else. Enjoy the concert, go home, and come back next week to finish my jobs.

By the way, I've never ever had any kind of communication like this previously. Everything seemed rosy.

What does the hive think? I know there are some holes in this story. Please let me filll them in for you. Ask away.
posted by paulinsanjuan to Work & Money (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure what the question is. Are you asking what to do now? If so, you should probably take a step back and let the Creative Director handle things for a while. The note sounds polite enough, and repeatedly mentions your contributions in a positive manner. To me it reads like the CD is trying to set the agenda and delegate responsibilities. This is work stuff. If the CD is going to a concert with you later chances are that everything's cool. Mention it in passing, maybe apologize for stepping on toes. Don't dwell on it. If you want to discuss it in-depth, do it at work, but don't approch it as a rebuke.
posted by lekvar at 4:41 PM on May 25, 2007

Let the CEO do his own dirty work if he's not happy with the way the company's being run. The CD is clearly your superior even if he's not your direct boss, and he's laid out the groundrules. All you can say to the CD is 'sorry, didn't mean to step on your toes, just trying to help. Let me know what you need from me.' Then, the next time the CEO asks you to do something, make sure that the CD is on board. If you try to play tag with the buses, you will lose.
posted by Jakey at 4:44 PM on May 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think posting internal company correspondence, even redacted, on a public Web site is not a great career move. After that, I think that the people you are working for are giving you some direction about how they want things done, and you'd be wise to do what they ask, and trust them to bring home the deliverables to the client's satisfaction.

Clients tend to pick agencies that suit them. If the client wanted big city agency handling, they could well have bought that, and they didn't. Nothing wrong with offering your perspectives, but thinking your big agency experience is particularly valuable in this setting may just be hubris. If it's not, that will become apparent in the next few weeks, but until that point, take the direction you've been given as a positive, scope limited assignment to do a great Web presence, and go do that.

Blind 'em with brilliance, and no one need be buffaloed.
posted by paulsc at 4:44 PM on May 25, 2007

If I were in your position, I wouldnt respond - yet (and dont mention it whilst you're out)
Talk to the CEO and explain the situation. Tell him how you have interpretted his instruction and what actions you have taken towards that end and explain that the CD has basically told you just to get on with the website and leave everything else to other people.

If the CEO is telling you one thing and the CD is telling you the opposite then they only way to resolve the matter is to talk it out with all 3 of you.

Now it sounds to me like you've gone way over the line of what the CEO asked of you. From what you've said - which may not be a complete picture, I realise... the CEO has asked you to make sure the design process is more transparent and you've interpretted that as 'take control of the show'. You've gone all 'big business' when maybe he just wanted you to get the CD out of his coccoon once a day.

You need to get clarification from the CEO on what exactly he wants/expects from you in this regard and if he and the CD have equal heirarchy then they need to work it out between them, since you cant use their power to determine whose instruction to follow.

If you really feel you have to response straight away then just explain that you were acting under the instructions of the CEO (as you had interpretted them) and suggest that the 3 of you meet together to discuss the issues.
posted by missmagenta at 5:04 PM on May 25, 2007

Who sent the e-mail? I can't tell by your question.
posted by Monday at 6:24 PM on May 25, 2007

I would go to the concert, have a great time, and not say a damn thing. In the long run, make yourself more important than the job you're doing.

But for now... "You can certainly share your ideas with him, but you need to back away and let him do his job."
posted by matty at 6:39 PM on May 25, 2007

It sounds to me like you're just doing what you know best and using the experience you have from your previous work in a situation you feel could benefit from it.

If it were I who received that email my first feeling after reading it might be shock and perhaps upset or concerned that I may be nothing more than just another cog in the machine. However I'm sure that your creative directory did not mean it as such. If he likes to stay excluded for periods of time it's most likely that he has days planned out ahead of schedule and if work deviates from that schedule or "his" schedule then this may interrupt the way he works, particularly if he is known to cocoon himself.

I would follow Missmagenta's advice because I fear that mentioning while your out (regardless of how little a mention it is) may give the impression that it was unintentional a mistake on your part when in fact it may be something lost in translation and the responsibly may be shared between your CEO and CD.

It's also quite clear you enjoy working there, otherwise you wouldn't be so enthusiastic and I'm sure this is no major problem.

Having said that though I personally don't appreciate that your CD has revealed this to you in an email. I think had he/she spoken to you in person you may not be obliged to ask us for advice.

Best regards!
posted by Sevenupcan at 7:08 PM on May 25, 2007

Were you hired with the idea that the company wanted to move from little fish to big fish? There's a lot here that's not really explained, so I'll offer my experience:

I tried (and failed) to impart some "big firm" ideas at a small firm. It didn't work out. It turns out the c-level staff was happy with the way the firm was. I saw a lot of opportunities for us to make money, but the truth was that those in charge were making enough money and didn't need to make more. I got a very similar response. To put it bluntly: the c-level liked the hours, they like their pay and they didn't care if they disappointed big clients (to an extent). Their philosophy was that the big clients knew what their firm did, that they did it well and if they wanted the services of a big firm the client was more than welcome to seek the services of a big firm. It wasn't marketing, but I imagine the business philosophy is the same. I liked working in a competitive environment and doing insane hours with insane deadlines and impossible workloads. It is just something I prefer. The people at my firm wanted "social lives".

The point of my story is to not try turn this into a huge ad agency unless the people in charge want to make the leap into a huge agency. There's a lot of things that need to be done, it is not a matter of everyone making a power point presentation. The organic method you describe works well for a lot of organizations, but it is not very scalable. Sit back and enjoy things. It sounds like you are not high enough up to make strategic decisions, nor are they asking you to. I know it can be frustrating, but enjoy your position or find work at a more competitive, top firm.
posted by geoff. at 7:21 PM on May 25, 2007

whoa. no offence but you are a DIRECTOR with this kind of challenge? I may be shot down here, but it seems like you should be able to grab this by the scruff of the neck?
posted by Frasermoo at 8:39 PM on May 25, 2007

I also have the impression that everyone but you likes things just as they are without any kind of overall management.

So, yeah. Just stick to doing your own job and don't try to improve things where they don't want the improvements.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:53 PM on May 25, 2007

Regardless of how you handle working with your CD, you have to ask yourself if you're even in the right agency and if this is a good fit.

To me, it sounds like culturally this agency is not a good fit. They're more laid back and solitary than you who seems more organized and collaborative.
posted by lunarboy at 8:53 PM on May 25, 2007

It's been recommended previously, but The First 90 Days does an excellent job of outlining situations similiar to yours: you came to a 'sustainable success' environment, with a culture that values work-life balance versus intense competition. Instead of hanging back and learning, you have moved to action, and are trying to 'realign' the people/product/processes and win. That's not wrong, but it sounds like it's wrong for this particular culture.
posted by thinkpiece at 7:28 AM on May 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Seems you work at a pretty cool place - for and with people that are also pretty cool. He 'gets' you which is good. Your response should be to channel ALL that energy and MORE into cheerfully doing exactly as he's asked. A sheepish grin here and there wouldn't go astray either I'd imagine? :)

Have you ever seen that Dilbert episode? "The Competition."
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 1:31 PM on November 2, 2007

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