The Revolt of the Galley Slaves
By Mike Carlton

“Take care of your troops and they will take care of you."
Army Leadership School

You can spot a good agency person by their low threshold of boredom.

Saturday Afternoon

When I was a kid the Saturday matinee at the local theater cost fourteen cents. For that you got to see some non-descript low budget class C movie.

When the weekend weather was too bad to play outside, that’s where my friends and I headed.


Most of the films were quickly forgettable. But one remains etched in my mind. It was called “The Revolt of the Galley Slaves” or something like that. It took place during Imperial Rome on a Roman galley ship. Its mission was to sail around the Mediterranean in search of plunder for the glory of Caesar.

A galley was like a big rowboat powered by maybe a hundred slaves chained to the oars. The speed of the galley was set by the rhythm of the drum beat and the crack of the whip on the slaves’ backs.

This particular galley was on a routine cruise. The slaves were rowing at their typical speed and cadence.

A Storm

Suddenly, a giant storm came up. The galley was in danger of sinking. The ship needed to pick up speed to overcome the threatening seas. So the Captain ordered the drum beat increased. Which was accompanied by the crack of the whip.

The slaves weren’t stupid. They knew that the ship was in danger. And their lives were in danger with it. So, with almost superhuman effort they picked up the pace and rowed safely though the storm.

The galley, along with all its officers and slaves, was saved.

A Bad Decision

Once the seas calmed, the fatigued slaves looked forward to returning to their normal pace.

But a junior officer told the captain, “Sir, during the storm we discovered that the slaves could row a lot faster than we thought. If we keep them at that accelerated pace we can gather more riches for Caesar and bring more glory upon ourselves.” The captain replied, “Good idea. Do it.”

The Road to Mutiny

So the drum beat remained fast. And the whip cracked. But there was a difference.

During the storm the slaves were primarily motivated by self-preservation. Now that motivation was gone. And they really didn’t care much about the glory of Rome or the honors the ship’s officers might receive.

At the edge of exhaustion, and aching from the whip, they had enough. So, they rose up in mutiny. The captain and his officers were overpowered. They were thrown overboard. And quickly became shark food.

The slaves then sailed the galley off into the sunset to live happily ever after.

The Agency Business?

”What does this have to do with the agency business?” you ask. Actually, quite a lot.

During the Great Recession the advertising agency business was in the midst of one of the worst storms it has ever experienced. Some agencies foundered and slipped forever from sight. Those that survived did so primarily because the productivity of their people increased dramatically.

The numbers graphically tell the tale. At first there were waves of layoffs. Then, ever so slowly, employment began to recover. Today there are still fewer professionals in advertising agencies than there were five years ago. Yet overall advertising spending has risen significantly.

The Drum Cadence

Fewer people are producing more. And they are producing it faster.

Now, Economics 101 teaches us that increased productivity is a good thing. And in most cases it is. But we need to look at how this productivity growth is being achieved. And the implications it has for the future.

The Business of Advertising Agencies

Fundamentally, agencies provide two kinds of services to their clients.

First, they provide big ideas that can significantly influence market behavior for the benefit of their clients. This is basically intellectual work that produces intellectual property.

Second, they implement those ideas through individual components of a communications campaign that alters the perceptions and ultimately the behavior of client customers. This is primarily production work that results in tangible property.

The Horns of a Dilemma

Agencies face a serious dichotomy between these two services. Agencies are hired for their big ideas. But their serious pay often just comes from the implementation of those ideas, not the ideas themselves.

This disconnect between the most important value agencies provide clients and the way many agencies get paid is fraught with all kinds of problems.

Maintaining Cash Flow

The economic downturn of the past few years was particularly hard on agencies. Client budgets went through multiple rounds of cuts. To assure survival, embattled agencies needed to assure adequate gross income while scaling back their staffs.

The most practical way of doing this was to maximize the billable hours of their remaining people. And most of this was implementation work (making ads, brochures, websites and TV spots) rather than intellectual work (conceiving and developing big ideas.)

This strategy worked. And most agencies survived the economic maelstrom.

A Subtle Shift

But there was a price for survival. Talented people who came into the agency business to contribute to the intellectual side were pushed more and more to the implementation side.

In most cases, that wasn’t their choice. But they were not stupid. They knew that keeping their job was directly linked to billable hours. And billable hours meant doing routine production work.

They did what they had to do. But that didn’t mean they liked it.

The Best Agency People

At their core, good agencies are idea driven. They attract people who are also idea driven. And frequently very bright. And often quite talented. The intellectual challenge and sheer fun of conceiving and developing powerful, market-shaping new ideas is the primary force that draws them to agencies.

Historically, junior and mid-range agency people have accepted less pay than they could command elsewhere just to have the opportunity to actively participate in an idea-charged environment.

They recognize that they must do some routine stuff in order to pay their dues. But when they are caught up in turning out repetitive stuff on a continuing basis with diminished opportunity for using their full intellectual power, the best ones quickly become bored.

In fact there’s a saying that you can easily spot a good agency person by their low threshold of boredom.


Like the galley slaves, during the Great Recession many good agency people picked up the pace and cranked out lots of billable stuff. Now, with the economy in a gradual recovery, the good ones want to shift their work balance to issues that are more intellectually challenging.

If their agencies don’t accommodate that, discontent builds. In fact, there is evidence that a significant percentage (like over half) of junior and mid-level agency people are actively seeking a better (more challenging) job.

Enriching agency owners is no more motivating to them than enriching Caesar was to the galley slaves.

As the talent shortage increases and the job market opens up, their discontent can lead to a staffing churn that no agency can afford.

Addressing the Issue

There is no question that today, attraction, retention and growth of junior and mid-level agency talent has become a top priority.

Here are some thoughts that may help in proactively addressing the issue:

1. Leadership
Good people value good leadership. And good leadership is different from good management. It has been said that leadership is about doing the right things and management is about doing things right. Big difference.

The best agency talent is looking to agency leaders to bring greater balance into their work lives. Most good people recognize the economic need to produce a high volume of stuff. And, they’re happy to do it if the work balance is right.

But if they feel that management is preoccupied with the numbers and views them as just some interchangeable production tool, then they are probably packing their bags to leave.

Protecting and enhancing the agency’s investment in them requires leaders that overtly value their intellectual contribution. Then clearly and consistently articulate that position.

And make sure that their deeds are in sync with their words.

2. Growth
The unspoken compact between a talented person and her employer is simple; “I’ll help you become more successful if you help me become more successful.” And, success to ambitious young individuals primarily translates to professional growth.

Good people understand that they must continually grow their skills to achieve the financial and psychic rewards they desire. They will usually put up with short-term frustrations if they feel they are moving forward. And that their employer, in turn, expects them to move forward.

They fear getting stuck in a dead-end job. And are turned-off when they perceive that their leaders are letting that happen to them.

Leaders that continually provide growth opportunities for their people, and demand that their people do in fact grow, create a very positive bond.

3. Challenge
A separate dimension of growth is challenge. No one ever knows what his true capabilities are. All we know is that each of us is capable of much more than we have ever accomplished.

We also know that reaching outside our comfort zone can, and often does, lead to failure. But once in a while it can lead to stunning success. This risk/reward dilemma is played out every day for each of us.

Good agency people expect to work in an environment that celebrates challenge. And encourages people to experiment with notions that exceed conventional thinking. An environment that doesn’t punish failure while seeking a new way, but rather recognizes that failure is part of the price of success. While they may not articulate it directly, good agency people want to be continually nudged out of their comfort zone. Agency leaders that don't do this underestimate the ultimate capabilities of their people and permit a mentality of mediocrity to flourish.

4. Mentoring
While there is currently a lot of talk about mentoring, it is still vastly misunderstood. Most of today’s better agency leaders had excellent mentors when they were younger. There were no formal mentoring programs then. These selfless mentors just intuitively nurtured their young charges. Yet today it seems as if little time is dedicated to passing the gifts they gave on to the next generation.

At its core, mentoring is an act of unconditional love. It is driven by many of the same instincts as parenting. And as such, it is very intimate, personal and long-term. It stems from the desire to see the junior individual develop her maximum skill potential. And, that result alone is the reward for the mentor.

So, if you can be a good parent, you can probably be a good mentor. But, only if you want to be. And are willing to contribute the time and attention necessary.

Good young agency people want and appreciate good mentoring. And will go where they can get it, even if that means financial sacrifice.

5. Coaching
Mentoring and coaching are different. Coaching is less personal, more structured and more task driven. And it is frequently team oriented.

Coaching is skewed toward accomplishing specific and immediate tactical work related objectives. Its measurements of success are usually apparent quite quickly.

A group of individuals, each with strong and complementary skill sets, do not automatically coalesce into a strong team. It takes skilled coaching to weld the individual capabilities into cohesive synchronized team performance.

Leaders who expect teamwork to happen automatically are usually disillusioned by the results. Coaching doesn’t work on autopilot.

And good people expect leaders to provide the coaching necessary for their team to succeed.

6. Training
All good professionals need the intellectual stimulation of focused craft skill training. Most of the more traditional professions like, medicine, law, accounting, architecture, etc., have industry standards for continuing education.

This training can take many forms. Off site seminars. On line programs. In house classes. Regular participation in these kinds of programs assures that practitioner skills are continuously maintained at high professional levels.

Unfortunately, those kinds of processes are not structurally embedded in the advertising agency industry. Yet advertising practitioners have every bit as much need for continuing education as their more traditional brethren.

During the past few years, one of the first expense items to be cut in many agencies was the staff training budget. But the reduction or elimination of these programs has in no way diminished the training needs of good people, or their expectation of it.

Or the value it brings to them and their agency.

7. Networking
Association with peers is important for good agency people. Feelings about their individual skills and capabilities are largely shaped by colleague opinions. Not only within their agency, but more importantly, in the general advertising community.

Good agency people like to network. And recognize the benefits from it.

Now, from agency management’s standpoint, networking can be a two edged knife. Staffers can learn a great deal about the craft and the business from others within the advertising community that will benefit their agency. But, networking can also increase their marketability and chance of becoming known by someone who may offer them a better job.

Because of the cost and the risk of losing good people, many agencies have cut back on paying for, or even allowing time for, staff networking activities.

Yet on balance, encouraging and supporting networking is probably in a good agency’s best interest. Particularly if their people are happy and proud of their shop they can spontaneously become great evangelists for their organization. And in the process make the attraction of additional talent easier.

8. Variety
Repetitive tasks are boring. They put the intellect to sleep. Good agency people get bored quickly. And the smart ones won’t tolerate it.

If bored, they frequently invent mental activities to overcome that boredom. Sometimes those self-invented activities are beneficial to the agency. Sometimes not.

It is not easy for agency leadership to provide continuing variety in the work of bright agency talent. It takes a lot of proactive attention to keep from sliding into a gray dullness. Planned rotation of responsibilities in a way that maximizes talent need for variety while minimizing the discomfort of continuing change takes real leadership thought and care.

Routine tasks and activities are less disruptive. More efficient. And less messy. But allowing routine to create boredom in skilled talent carries with it a very high price.

When asked why they changed jobs, most agency people cite an increase in variety (change of work responsibilities) as a principal reason.

9. Respect
When work production is valued over intellectual contribution respect for the individual diminishes. This is a simple fact. The person turning out stuff is viewed differently from the person creating important ideas.

There is a machine-like quality to an economically driven stuff producer. They know it. And management knows it. And good agency people do not like being thought of in that context. It feels kind of like being an interchangeable cog in a big, impersonal mechanism. Not fun. Not enjoyable.

Good agency people want to be respected for their intellectual contributions and the market results those ideas deliver. These are not always easily measured in immediate units of output or dollars billed.

But they understand that producing things is key to the economic welfare of their agency. So when they are in a period of grinding out stuff their leaders must continue to celebrate their intellectual contribution.

10. Money
You’ll note that this is last on the list. Not that it is unimportant. Compensation is very important. But, it is not the first priority of good agency people.

What they are paid is an outward sign of the value of the contribution they are making to the agency and its clients. They expect that pay to be a fair reflection of that value.

Their compensation is kind of a personal score card of how well the market values them, and thus has great emotional meaning.

But they fully understand that without the intangible psychic benefits of their job, money alone would be insufficient.

It is not unusual for compensation consultants from more mundane industries to be perplexed at how good agency people view the psychic vs. monetary benefits of their jobs. And the overall importance placed on something as simple as fun.

Money is always important. But never underestimate the psychic rewards.

Taking Care of Your Troops

Many years ago I attended an Army Leadership School. One of their most important principles was simple. “Take care of your troops and they will take care of you.”

There is great wisdom in this. Whether you are the captain of a Roman galley or the president of an advertising agency.

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