Adair Festowicz (“Call me Fester”) walked into the boardroom of Left Field Creative Concepts to present his advertising campaign proposal to Dale and Patricia Miller, chief executive and marketing director respectively of Miller Dairy Products. John Leftson, managing director and owner of Left Field, settled into his chair at the head of the boardroom table and glanced apprehensively to his right at Maxine Maxwell, the company’s senior creative director. Neither had seen Adair’s proposal, apart from some early concept outlines.
Normally, John and Maxine would have been fully briefed about the forthcoming presentation and would have contributed suggestions, modifications and cautions to enhance the proposal’s effect. But Fester had been hard to pin down over the past few days, so the usual pre-presentation meeting had not taken place. The Millers were new clients and it was important to make a strong positive impression on them.
Their anxiety was warranted to some degree. In an industry in which creativity bred eccentricity, Fester was one of the more outlandish oddballs. His disregard for punctuality and his style of dress (eclectic at best, punk leftover at worst) brought notoriety but no great concern, as the norms in the “arty” side of the advertising industry were somewhat deviant from mainstream business expectations.
What made Fester difficult to handle were his personality traits. He alternated between being a moody, foul-mouthed loner to being a gregarious, fun-loving and contributing team player. His sense of humor ranged from kiddie pranks (the incident of the life-like black rubber snake in the ladies toilet cubicle) to vicious parodies and cartoon caricatures of colleagues and clients. Fortunately, none of the latter had been seen beyond the walls of the Left Field building.
There were times when Fester refused work assignments, arguing loudly that the project was beneath his talents or that he was not turned on by the prospect of working on such a dull, boring and pedestrian idea. The senior staff soon realised that, if Fester did not want to do something, then it would not be done (by him, at least). His cantankerousness was tolerated because, when he did perform, his work was exemplary, and Left Field had five golden Pigeon Awards from the Business Communications and Advertising Industry Association (one for each year of Fester’s employment with Left Field). The annual awards were for the most effective advertising and communications campaign. In his first year with Left Field, Fester had been a member of the team behind the award-winning campaign, and he had personally developed the other four.
Fester’s talents had resulted in Left Field’s business trebling over the past two years and, if some potential clients had not withdrawn when confronted by Fester’s refusal to touch “ordinary stuff”, it could have increased even further. His oddball and annoying habits were offset by an amazing ability to come up with creative, unusual and relevant ideas that connected a client’s product or service and organisational “personality” to its niche market characteristics. He used his extraordinary artistic and information technology talents to develop powerful messages and delivery modalities that riveted the public’s attention. He had developed a network of specialist support and technical people from whom he could extract valuable advice, service and product necessary for the creation of unique campaign proposals.
“So, what is it today?” John thought as Fester began his presentation.
Within 20 minutes, the Millers were in raptures. Fester was at his creative and persuasive best, and each of the three alternative concepts he presented was exciting and ground-breaking in its own right. Milk would never be seen in the same light again, and the difficulty for John and Maxine would be in helping the Millers choose which conceptual approaches to use as the basis for their campaign.
Things were looking good.
“But wait, there’s more” Fester said, imitating the well known telemarketing advertisement. All eyes swivelled to the screen as he began his final series of PowerPoint displays.
“This concept is based on the premise that the Millers are truly connected with their products and stand behind them 100%.” Fester said with a mischievous smile.
Within five minutes, the Millers had stormed out in rage.
“Hey, it was only a joke,” Fester said. “They oughta loosen up. You’d think I’d knocked their daughter up or something. Where’s their sense of humor?”
The final presentation had comprised a series of cartoons involving the Millers in various compromising positions with cows and bulls under such captions as:
“We’re intimately connected with our products.”
“We stand behind our products.”
“Take the bull by the horns.”
The Millers, staunch members of the local Fellowship of Crusaders, a new-age evangelical group, were outraged. John and Maxine were dumbstruck, embarrassed and incensed that their organisation should be seen as the perpetrator of such inappropriate and offensive material and by the extreme insult it posed for their prospective clients.
“You you you” John spluttered to the obviously unrepentant Fester. “Be in my office in 15 minutes and I mean 15 minutes!” The boardroom door slammed as he crashed out of the room.
“Whoa. What’s up his nose?” Fester said to a shell-shocked Maxine.
Ten minutes of calming down seemed an eternity to John. Fester had to go. His behavior could no longer be tolerated.
The phone rang. The voice was energetic and excited. “Mr Leftson, glad I caught you. It’s Gavin de Marko here, from de Marko Holdings. You’ve probably heard of us.”
John thought: “Only the largest furniture and home decorating franchise in Australia; of course I’ve heard of you.” But he replied: “Er, yes, of course. How can I help?”
De Marko said: “I was out at a restaurant last Friday night and I met one of your people. Fester; great guy! We got talking and he mapped out some concepts for next year’s ad campaign. Exciting stuff. I told him I would like to see more and he mailed me a proposal with four conceptual options, which arrived on Monday. He must have worked on it all weekend.
“Anyway, I’ve spoken to the board and they are keen to proceed with these ideas on the basis that Fester works on our account. It will probably only be two or three million to start with; but, if it works out, we’ll slide the whole eight million of de Marko advertising over to you. We really need to freshen up our image and I think Left Field can do that for us. When can we talk? It will be great to see Fester again. He’s an interesting guy, a bit oddball, but really with it. He’s got a great sense of humor, hasn’t he?”
How should John proceed now? How would you manage the oddballs on staff to capitalise on their capabilities and prevent any negative characteristics influencing clients perceptions of the organisation?
Proposed solution #1
Debra Shorter is joint managing director of the Shorter Group, an integrated marketing communications company in Western Australia. She works as a strategic planner and is a former president of AIM in Western Australia.
The Fester-jester is a well-loved ad stereotype of unbridled exhibitionism and creative indulgence, more prevalent in the 1980s than in the new millennium, I think. Frankly, I am bored with this stereotype because it is not realistic or representative of the creative talent in our industry today. Although I can’t deny that I have met one or two of these characters during my years in the ad industry.
If Fester’s campaigns had been so successful, the odds are that he would have been really tuned into people. Top of his list of attributes would have been insight and understanding. The mythical Fester did not seem to have much of that. As a clever bastard and he obviously was and as a person of, shall we say, positive ego, Fester would want his campaigns to run. I have noticed this seldom happens when you offend a client, .
If you look around at the top creative directors in Australia, they are all fantastic in front of their clients and in managing their client relationships. And they do it in their own style. They might be highly creative, but few are erratic. In the commercial world in which we live, no one can afford it. John Leftson, the managing director, would know that the true value of a client resides in a long-term partnership. Fester’s talents might get a client in through the door, but it sounds as though many are going out the door just as quickly.
Coming up with attention-grabbing, relevant creative ideas day after day requires a lot of energy and an ability to think way beyond the stereotypes. It requires a sense of humor. It requires passion and enthusiasm. It requires insight and being in touch with people and popular culture. These attributes are essential.
Being offensive, foul-mouthed and moody does not sell much to anyone. All these traits are seen in both extroverted and introverted people.
It also should not be assumed that a good creative person must be a raging extrovert. Some of the best creative people I have met have been quiet, gentle, internalising people. Funny, I met an accountant the other day who was a moody kind of bloke, too.
At their best, creative people have talent, energy and enthusiasm that they translate into words, pictures, images and ideas that make a staggering difference to the products and services we sell. In this world of product parity, it is a business asset as important as the bean counter’s talent.
As for their dress sense, even stockbrokers seem to have got over the notion that a suit has anything to do with professionalism. Good ideas are had every day in sneakers and board shorts.
What should Leftson do? Fire Fester. Nicely.
Fester’s behavior is too expensive. It is exhausting for internal teams and for Leftson as manager, no matter the momentary fun and occasional team play. It is expensive in client “churn”. What about Gavin de Marko and the eight million? I hope that a client with a serious budget would not make a decision in this superficial way. Dreaming, perhaps; but, if the client does not value what the rest of the agency offers, then he is also likely to be out the door the minute Fester offends.
The compromise might be to maintain good relations with Fester and put together a consultancy deal for him. Get him out the door, support him, and have him around in smaller doses.
A client as important as de Marko needs depth of management, strategic planning, media buying and service. The agency could provide this and Fester might be happy just to have a part-time, but financially rewarding, role. This would allow Leftson time to build a strong relationship with the de Marko account and put a contingency plan in place for the day the inevitable blow-up with Fester and the client happens. Perhaps Leftson could even try being honest with the client about the situation.
Proposed solution #2
Gordon Stewart is a semi-retired marketing consultant who picks and chooses his clients.
He has worked with oddballs in the past, however he believes that the professionalism of the modern workplace spells the end of many such eccentrics.
There are two important issues here. The first is Fester’s behavior and the second is how this behavior has been allowed to develop unchecked.
The first concern raises immediate problems: how to appease the Millers and what to do about the de Marko opportunity.
However, John has only one real option: Fester has to go. He has crossed the line from valuable oddball to liability. No matter how many awards he wins, Fester will eventually cost the company far more because of his behavior.
No matter what action John takes, the Millers will talk to other companies expressing their outrage at Fester’s joke. To minimise the fallout, Left Field must distance itself from Fester’s eccentricities and must be seen to be dealing with the issue.
It is a hard decision to make, but the company must come first, and an appreciation of Fester’s abilities must be tempered with a respect for clients and for the business. Although Fester has brought in clients and is a talented worker, he has also cost the company clients in the past. And his insulting behavior leaves Left Field vulnerable to legal action.
Fester represents a (thankfully) diminishing breed of oddball. In the past, people have been prepared to accept poor business behavior from “artistic” employees because they were afraid that a normal business environment would diminish creativity.
This is a myth. If Fester, and his ilk were really that good, they would be able to adapt to good business behavior. They would develop good client liaison skills and modify their behavior to encourage long-term relationships with clients. They would realise that energy and creativity are not limited by wearing a suit or being pleasant to people.
John and his team at Left Field must accept some of the responsibility for Fester’s continuing misbehavior. Left Field has allowed Fester to get away with childish pranks and rudeness. It has allowed the damaging situation to develop.
Also, being aware of Fester’s “individuality”, John and Maxine should have insisted on a pre-meeting briefing, no matter how hard Fester was to pin down.
Managing oddballs is a matter of setting limits. You can tolerate eccentricity to a degree; but there has to be a line that both parties acknowledge. This line can be drawn from a commonsense restriction, such as not condoning behavior that leaves the company open to legal action. And there must be an acknowledgement from the oddball that they work for the company, not the other way around.
These lines are drawn over time, with reprimands for initial transgressions, and codes of conduct being established and agreed to.
In some cases, people who are unable to fit in might be used on a contract or consultancy basis. This scenario would probably have suited Fester had he not already been employed with Left Field. It is possible that John could offer him a consultancy, selling it along with the idea of letting Fester pick and choose the jobs he undertakes.
So, right now, John should fire Fester (or offer him a consultancy) and Fester must make a formal apology to the Millers. If John decides to offer him a consultancy, and Fester accepts, Left Field must manage the relationship with strict guidelines.
If John does not fire Fester, Left Field will certainly lose the Miller account and must accept the outcomes of what happens next time Fester offends a client. De Marko might bring his eight million dollars to Left Field, but how long will it stay there once Fester’s “great sense of humor” loses its charm?
The company should have faced up to Fester’s behavior a long time ago and taken steps towards a workable compromise. Insulting pranks involving other staff members are unacceptable and, had they been stamped out while they constituted an internal issue, the Miller situation would not have risen.