Culture of Neurosis

[April 2, 2011] 

On an average day at a digital agency you can barely count to 10 before someone announces, “The schedule’s really tight for this project…” If you’re new to the business, you might think this was an occasional complaint, the result of unforeseeable circumstances. In time, however, you can’t fail to notice the command performance this phrase, or one of its variants, makes at every kickoff meeting.

Whether accompanied by ritual eye-rolling, forehead slapping or knowing clicks of the tongue, talk of tight time lines is so much a part of agency culture, I have to wonder why this phenomenon is so little examined. Considering upper management—both client-side and agency-side—is still dominated by Generation Six Sigma, you might expect that process-control teams would have set things right long ago.

Since improbably short project schedules are in fact the rule, I suspect they can only be an outgrowth of the many addictive behaviors common to agency culture, including:

• Badge of Honor Bonding

When the camaraderie of working “under fire” becomes an addictive end in itself

• Adrenaline Stoking

The “flight or fight” panicky high that kicks in when a project seems lost. And what puts a project in greater jeopardy than impossible deadlines?

• Kiss Me I’m a Hero Syndrome
  When bored and dangerously insecure executives plan and precipitate
an artificial crisis so they can “save the day” and earn phony visionary  
 status (Trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen this in action).

Turning our strength against us. 
Adding to the ferocity of these addictive behaviors is the persistent American delusion that people deliver their best work under extreme pressure. Perhaps a hangover from the glory days of World War II, when our ancestors cranked up industrial production to unheard of levels, this belief colors every aspect of our corporate life.

“Get tough and get results,” growls this dehumanizing refrain, part of the rumbling thunder that sets the stage for a perfect storm of bad scheduling decisions.

Once addiction to these and similar delusional states takes hold in an agency, conditions for disaster build inexorably. Perhaps the most common storm seeder, procrastination, gains force from its fraternal twin, perfectionism.

“We can’t kickoff yet. The client, the client’s CEO and the partner agency haven’t weighed in. Besides, we still need the September numbers, the revised brand guidelines, the updated metrics…and I’m just not crazy about the sweater that focus group moderator is wearing.”

And when, blinded by anxiety, the project leader kicks off with a time-deficit of three weeks, you can already see the clouds gathering on the horizon—and feel the buzz of high-wire danger coursing through your veins. Thrilling, ain’t it?

Er…I mean, “What a shame, isn’t it always the way?”

The spectre of addiction.
So we stay up until 4:30 am, making edits to the edits of the edits in a desperate attempt to adopt another perfectionist tweak and another and another until, at last, at the precise moment a glimmer of light appears at the end of the tunnel….

The Shadow Stakeholder appears.

The Shadow Stakeholder is a classic shape-shifter, appearing now as a smug, overseas partner, now as the disgruntled COO of the client’s parent company, now as a hard-as-nails Account Director with “standards,” now as a wide-eyed Creative guru whose every concept revolves around b-roll…lots and lots of b-roll.

From then on, hold on to your hat, or your head, if it’s still nailed down. The schedule? The budget? The Shadow Stakeholder will hear none of it. With a dismissive wave of the hand, you land smack in the middle of Round 19, clutching tattered scraps of the Big Idea that was everybody’s baby only hours before.

And in that moment, the perfect storm hits with vein-quaking intensity, shattering life plans and grinding creative talent into a fine powder of sickening compromise.

“Yo, we can do this,” goes the stoic rallying cry, “if we pull together and work smarter.”

Now, with your colleagues in this altered state, you’d have to be a fool to suggest that working smarter is the very thing that would have made this frenzied moment unnecessary. And yes, it’s always unnecessary—starting from the moment we realize the toll our neuroses take on ourselves, our profits and the public perception of our industry.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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