• Elana Duffy

More Lessons From Advertising: Business Culture Laziness


- Paul Mooney

In my last post I covered one of the biggest impediments to creativity in advertising and business: fear. This time

I'll be addressing an even more universal hurdle to creative progress: laziness.

While it’s certainly not as daunting a word as fear, laziness is an equally pervasive problem. So how do you identify it, prevent it, and stop it?

Obviously, laziness is a pretty broad term widely used to describe personal faults. Lazy people or groups of people are, by definition, averse to putting effort into things, which includes your projects. But we must be careful to find the real problem, as laziness in business may not be entirely the fault of the employee. In fact, it may be a byproduct of the corporate culture. It is these cultural issues that managers can examine and correct.

For business purposes, these problems fall into two main categories: repetitive results and administrative shortcuts. In and of themselves these are problematic, but they also feed into each other to further compound their detrimental effects.

The cause of laziness from repetition may be from where you least expect it: success. We reward each win and thus a successful project can lull the creative team into complacency, a feeling of having “already contributed”. A study determined recently successful companies are less likely to change than weaker ones for this very reason. We sit on haunches after a large success, hesitant to innovate.

There is also a tendency to copy the successes of others. It's why, in advertising, you tend to see repetitive things like similar spokespersons or talking babies selling different products, sometimes for years at a time. How many times have you seen an ad that was entertaining the first time, but grew more irritating as it ran over and over again? A good idea, no matter how innovative, dilutes itself through overexposure. Creativity requires independent thinking beyond one success to many successes.

Yet even knowing this when hiring for non-entry level positions, companies nevertheless give too much weight to past success at the expense of other factors. In advertising we see this in selecting applicants based on longest career or a famous campaign. But hiring for creativity requires a deeper look. How long ago was that successful campaign? Why did he or she leave? What if a person is hired following lengthy experience working a single, big account, but actually lost his job because of repetitive work? Were they one of those people discussed above who spent twenty years trying to repeat the same idea over and over? Using lazy hiring methodologies, the agency hires somebody who is lazy creatively. The cycle perpetuates.

Thus you have the second category of cultural laziness: the impact of administrative laziness. Yes, there are the usual problems that one sees in a creative field where emphasis is not always placed on the little but necessary things that every office needs to function smoothly (lack of proper scheduling, for example), but it goes beyond these details. Advertising has some key examples of systemic administrative issues that can have a broad impact.

For example, whenever there is a need for budget cuts, agencies tend to start and end with layoffs. While losing employees is an unfortunate necessity in lean times, it is frequently the only step agencies take rather than, say, reducing overhead (in advertising, the stereotype of big agencies working out of absurdly large, ornate offices is as true as it is unnecessary). It may look nice to have a mahogany table in every conference room, but wouldn’t it be more useful to put that money into keeping experienced, creative people on staff? When cuts must be made, effort has to be taken to cut fat all around so you don’t look around the monthly employee spa day to realize you have no employees left.

Laziness is everywhere, but it can be stopped. Advertising is an example we can see: we’ve all been the victim of ads showing signs of lazy creative work. But the lessons are widely applicable. Here’s what to keep an eye out for and how to mitigate it:

  • Every idea, no matter how good, has an expiration date. Don't let success slow you down. Keep working for your next creation or innovation. Challenge employees through an appropriate reward system that acknowledges their accomplishments without giving them a free pass to idle. Constantly ask yourself “is this idea getting old?” and make even the best ideas earn their right to continue.

  • Beware competitive shortcuts. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it's not always the best method for doing business. Relying on a gimmick that someone else has used (and probably overused) comes off as uncreative at best. Come up with your own ideas, or at least understand why the successes of others worked in context instead of just copying and pasting a device.

  • Overhead first. In reducing spending, be cautious of cuts based solely on ease and cost. Really look at what you can afford to lose. The people at the highest levels may make more money, but losing the most experienced employees risks hamstringing everything from the creative department to client relations. What else saves on overhead? Better project management, changes in surroundings, even telecommuting might be better, long term answers. The details can save your creative staff.

  • Cuts second. After overhead has been addressed, use indicators instead of expense to cut further. Look first not at the most expensive employees, but instead at those who are showing signs of the impact of cultural laziness in repetition. It takes more work, but will have greater impact.

  • Find new talent, stressing the “talent”. When hiring, ask the deeper questions, understand the creative process and the impact the person desires to have. The numbers and big names on the resume don't always determine who will make the best creative asset. Ask about their biggest accomplishments, most recent success, and ideas for future wins.

  • Use new energy. Don’t be afraid to move people around and get fresh eyes on projects. Account managers can work with new personnel and draw out creativity. Standing accounts should always have at least one new person per project.

Work doesn’t have to be a non-stop grind. Far from it. But it can be all too easy to fall into a rut and get hung up. It starts with hard work. There’s a saying in the military that “slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” Take the time and effort to do things the right way and you’ll avoid problems in the future, even if it seems like it’s slowing you down in the moment. Maintain focus on the future and the details that are relevant to your business and the tasks you're working on. Keep your people, and yourself, moving forward, whether you're at the top or working your way there.

After all, it's never a good time to slack off.

Paul Mooney is a contributing writer to Present Tense LLC. With a background mixing film, screenwriting, advertising, and a healthy dose of the Marine Corps he has many stories to share. He is a freelance writer and producer living in New York City.

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