By Jarek Czechowicz
Evan Davis is a copywriter for International Advertising and Publishing (IAP) who came to the organisation three years ago. He has strong creative and analytical skills and he works in one of IAP’s boutique divisions, dealing with medium-size long-term accounts. The somewhat reclusive Davis responds productively to an original style of conversation and communication that his manager, Walt Spencer, is more than happy to engage in.
Spencer has had 18 or more years’ experience as an ideas man, “ad man” and all-round creative type. He has had only a few years of hands-on management experience but is well versed in management theory. He and Davis have a good working relationship, as does the rest of Spencer’s team.
The team handles, among several others, the Milliners United (MU) account. Millinery has enjoyed a renewed interest over recent years and MU represents 80,000 members across Australia whose work and interests are represented in Milliners United Journal (MUJ), which includes a catalogue section.
Spencer, himself a creative type at heart, enjoys hands-on involvement in producing MUJ and often adds his own touch to the work that passes across his desk. However, people at MU have different ideas on how MUJ should be developed and Spencer has found him-self referring these ideas back to MU for resolution before he proceeds.
To complicate matters, the directions and content Spencer receives from MU regularly arrive late. This causes bottle- necks in editorial and production schedules.
Spencer constantly finds himself under pressure from MU to meet last-minute requests and under fire from staff who have to make changes past dead-line.
Production deadlines are missed because the production house has to move on to other projects, and distribution is affected. Some contractors and freelancers are paid only after publication.
As a consequence, these delays affect the regularity of payments. Spencer has given up on trying to elicit support from IAP senior managers to help him sort out some of the problems.
They don’t seem to consider the MU account profitable enough to war-rant their attention. At the same time IAP is struggling to attract new clients in a slowing economy.
In response to market demand, IAP senior management has turned its attention to cost cutting and the restructuring of various divisions. The administration of boutique accounts has been moved to another office in another part of town.
Two full-time staff are transferred to Spencer’s team. Their function seems to involve nothing more than questioning the way things are being done, getting in the way, and slowing down production. IAP also decides to install a new payroll system which, in theory, will be more economical to administer. It turns out to be considerably worse than the previous system. Spencer suddenly finds himself trying to get good work out of people who are not being paid on time. This causes some of the less patient contractors and freelancers to threaten IAP with legal action for their pay. All this has occurred in a matter of months.
Unaware of the plight of Spencer and his staff, MU people are concerned that MUJ is not achieving the desired returns and are wondering whether they are getting good value for money. They decide to maintain their account, subject to close review.
Spencer finds himself under increasing pressure to produce MUJ at higher levels of quality. He does not know how much MU is paying IAP but he does know that the budget allocated to him is less than realistic. Despite numerous requests for support from senior management, Spencer finds himself having to face disgruntled MU representatives on his own. He constantly has to explain why he cannot produce a Porsche for the price of a second-hand Volkswagen.
Nevertheless, Spencer manages to deliver a quality publication that is generally held in high regard.
Eking out a budget
Being well liked in the industry, Spencer has secured the services of creative people at less than normal industry rates and, on numerous occasions, for nothing.
Unfortunately the pressure is starting to get the better of Spencer as his workload increases. He feels a strong sense of duty towards his team but he cannot solve the escalating problems on his own. He decides to call Arthur Webb, an old colleague, to see if he might share the management workload.
Webb is based in an IAP division across town and they can telecommute on most aspects of this project. Webb seeks the approval of senior IAP management. They have no objection, providing it costs them nothing and does not interfere with Webb’s other responsibilities. Webb is appointed a manager. He has no previous hands-on management experience, but Spencer is willing to train him.
A likeable and softly spoken literary type, Webb says a lot less than he produces. Sporting a number of industry awards, he produces work of high quality, and his influence could arguably lift the standard of all the creative people on the team.
Davis and Webb have known each other for some years and it has been a while since they last spoke. Webb telephones Davis. “We’d like to commission a new work from you,” says Webb, getting straight to the point in somewhat formal tones. Davis is glad to hear from Webb, but something sounds wrong. Why the formal tone? Who is “we”?
“Who is the work for?” asks Davis.
“For the MU account,” says Webb.
Davis starts to get the picture. Webb is now taking on the role that Spencer previously played. It seems that Spencer has forgotten to mention to Davis that his work will now be processed by Webb before going to Spencer. Webb is probably as surprised as Davis by this minor confusion.
Davis tries to toss around a few ideas about the new work required of him but Webb is not as responsive to this type of dialogue as Spencer was. Webb repeats the instructions a couple of times with minor variations and leaves it at that. He is well intentioned, but ventures no exploration of the possibilities.
Over the next few months, Davis notices the lack of communication from Webb and Spencer. Davis had always enjoyed exploring the creative possibilities with Spencer and they often came up with some ingenious twists. For 30 months Spencer had given Davis almost free creative licence. That creative licence came to an abrupt halt with Webb’s appearance. At the same time it was not clear to Davis whether this was due to Webb or Spencer.
Webb seemed to be concerned about any deviation from his instructions and would politely interpolate his own criticisms of Davis’s work with those of Spencer. The criticisms were warranted, and Davis knew it; a double whammy.
Davis suddenly finds that his work is being returned for correction. A triple whammy, piled on top of late payments at irregular intervals. Davis can see that the quality of his own work is falling and is soon transferred to a new department to do work that, according to Spencer, would be more suited to his creative abilities.
In the meantime, MU is still reviewing its relationship with IAP, which is still too busy restructuring and cost saving to attend to what it considers to be one of its smaller clients. Spencer is doing what he can to improve his own operations. He has even considered quitting management and returning to creative work. Webb is producing quality copy, as expected. With more management experience, he might soon be in a position to take over from Spencer.
Davis is on the sideline, his talent has been lost to the company.
What can Spencer do to get IAP to give its relationship with him and the client MU more attention? Could some of the problems have been avoided between Spencer, Webb and Davis? How can Spencer better manage his relationship with MU? On what can managers base their decisions when the alternatives are constantly changing?
Proposed Solution #1
Dr Travis Kemp is a faculty member of the International Graduate School of Management at the University of South Australia. He is also a coaching psychologist and consults widely in organisational development. Over the past 15 years he has held management positions in human resources and development,most recently with EDS. He is an Associate Fellow of AIM.
Spencer’s peer and professional relationships look to be in good shape, but his client relationships and people leadership are in serious need of attention. He has struggled with appropriately delegating the operational management of the MU account to the capable and consistent Evan Davis. As a result, his attention to the strategic management of the client relationship and MUJ project has suffered, as has the account’s profile and priority with IAP.
Clearly, the expectations of IAP senior management, the boutique accounts division and MU are far from being aligned. Spencer feels that MU is unrealistically demanding in its expectations, and MU regards IAP as unresponsive and delivering a mediocre product.
Rebuilding IAP’s relationship with MU must be Spencer’s immediate focus. He needs to establish clear service-level agreements and operational commitments between IAP and MU. If necessary, the contract may require renegotiation to ensure that meeting the client’s needs is physically and financially feasible for IAP. If an appropriate agreement cannot be reached, a better alternative may be to quit the relationship on good terms, leaving the door open for future collaboration, rather than closing the door permanently by promising and then failing to deliver a quality product.
Spencer also needs to present a strong value proposition to IAP senior management to ensure that IAP refocuses its organisational resources and efforts towards strategic partnership and service provision with this boutique client and with the broader client base. After completing his initial client-relationship rebuilding exercise, Spencer will have valuable grass-roots data on which to construct a sound rationale for this refocused client-centred strategy.
Spencer should ensure that feedback from MU goes directly to IAP senior management with as much clarity and celerity as possible. Nothing is more sobering to business leaders than hearing the “warts and all” analysis of their performance directly from the customer. If Spencer implements this course of action, he will strengthen MU’s relationship with IAP by elevating MU to a position of significance on IAP’s “client performance dashboard” while providing MU with reassurance that its relationship concerns are being resolved. It will also provide immediate feed-back to IAP that can be generalised to other clients, thus protecting wider client relation-ships from similar decline.
Unfortunately, Spencer has reactively traded on his internal relationships to ensure his short-term survival. Turning to Arthur Webb is not a feasible, long-term solution. Webb must now attempt to juggle his present role as an employee of IAP with the substantial additional demands of work on the MU account. In addition, Spencer’s poor communication of the organisational changes has put a dent in his personal relationships with Davis and Webb.
Ideally, Spencer would have consulted Davis at the first hint of trouble and leveraged Davis’s demonstrable creative and analytical skills to contribute to his problem-analysis and solving process. This may have obviated the need to call on Webb’s services at all.
Spencer could always have informally consulted with Webb in the same way as he had done on previous occasions, using Webb as a sounding board and problem-solving collaborator, thereby strengthening rather that straining this relationship.
Unfortunately, Spencer, with a preference for creativity and hands-on involvement, has had little impetus to develop and refine the managerial competencies required to make a successful transition from “professional” to “professional manager”, and the appropriate mentoring and coaching required to translate his theoretical knowledge of management into practice has not been forthcoming.
As a result, Spencer has demonstrated the common symptoms of a middle manager in turmoil and is in danger of becoming yet another casualty of poorly informed and man-aged employee development and succession planning.
Proposed Solution #2
Diana Carroll is managing director of DIANA PR, a professional public relations company offering innovative and imaginative communications solutions.
Diana has enjoyed a successful career in the media industry in Adelaide for almost 20 years. She has a master of arts in communications management and is a guest lecturer in public relations at the University of South Australia. Diana is a board member of SA Great, a state councillor of the Public Relations Institute of Australia,and is a Fellow of AIM.
What a mess. Everything IAP does seems to compound its troubles. And, now, it has disgruntled clients, unhappy sup-pliers, bewildered middle managers, and staff about to go out on stress leave. The key issue is poor communication practice at all levels of the organisation, externally and internally, exacerbated by the imposition of organisational change from a head office that is seemingly removed from the day-to-day realities of the business.
Individuals in an organisation suffer the greatest stress when they carry all the responsibility and accountability but have little control or autonomy. This is clearly the crux of the problem for Davis and Spencer. They have to man age unhappy clients and disgruntled staff and suppliers but have no authority or incentive to implement effective solutions.
IAP needs to implement immediately a client-relationship management policy that clearly delineates the communication structures between the company and its clients and give its staff the power and authority to manage their client relationships in a professional manner.
In the case of MU, it is apparent that the original brief for production of Milliners United Journal was poorly thought out, with no clear objectives, time lines or accountability. The brief must state explicitly the aims and objectives, editorial deadlines and production schedules. Protocols for dealing with late changes should also be worked out up front; for example, clients become much more focused when they realise that an additional charge is payable for every amendment that they make after the editorial deadline.
It may be that the client is unaware of the difficulties and the expense incurred by late changes. Again, that is an issue of communication management.
The client brief should also detail the key contacts to ensure that client and supplier are each speaking with only one voice and a single purpose.
IAP also needs to trust its people enough to empower them to make the decisions that will enhance and improve the client relationship. It is ludicrous to place Spencer in a situation in which he has to discuss budgets with MU but is unaware of how much it is actually being billed.
An extension of the client-relationship management policy should be developed for IAP’s stable of freelancers and other professional associates. They need to understand the new policies and procedures that the company is adopting and be supportive of the changes.
They also need to be cultivated as ambassadors for IAP, not be made to feel like unwilling hostages.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
It looks as though communication prac-tices within the company also need to be reviewed.
The IAP management at head office is obviously devoted to old school, trickle down communication, in which those at the bottom may or may not eventually find out what is going on. IAP needs to develop effective two-way communication structures to ensure that employees at all levels understand the need for change and have some opportunity for constructive input.
Management also needs to get feedback on the implementation of its changes. As the company is structured around numerous operating divisions, management should also implement communication mechanisms intracompany, across the various units in the group.
A discussion of the organisational structure itself is a topic for another day, but one salient point does emerge from the particular problems with MU. On the one hand, this division has a charter to manage medium-size long-term clients; on the other hand, head office seems to be disregarding these clients in its search for new business. IAP managers may be trying to offload the bottom 20% of their clients.
If so, they should at least tell their own people and save everybody a big headache.
More importantly, if times are tough and revenue is slip-ping, management would be well advised to remember that it is always easier and cheaper to make a little more money from an existing client than to find new clients.