Art & Commerce: The Art of Failure

Without honest appraisals, mediocre executives will continue to climb the corporate ladder
I ‘ve been preoccupied lately with a disturbing yet common phenomenon in the agency business: “failing upwards.”
It’s when an executive is screwing up in his or her current job yet manages to get promoted or recruited into a bigger job with higher pay.
This person is not to be confused with someone who just doesn’t take well to new responsibilities. You know, the talented copywriter or art director who fails miserably when put in charge of an entire creative department. Or the competent account guy who is ill-equipped to run an agency.
I’m talking about the people with less-than-impressive track records who are repeatedly given great responsibilities. Like a CEO who runs an agency or two into the ground–only to be rewarded with an enviable post at a widely respected shop.
I wonder if any of this built-in mediocrity is a result of the fact that most agencies do not live by the respected axiom “honesty is the best policy” when someone is fired for poor performance.
Think about it. In the agency business, rarely does anyone actually get “fired.” You “resign,” “leave to pursue other interests,” “mutually agree to part ways” and one of the more curious explanations: “take a leave of absence” or a “sabbatical.”
Now, flip through Fortune or Forbes. These faltering CEOs get “axed,” “fired,” “terminated,” “ousted,” “booted” and “summarily dismissed.” Ouch. The most gentle characterization, my personal favorite, is when they are “shown the door.”
Granted, some of these CEOs get a $15 million parting gift, which makes a public roasting tolerable. Still, the gory details are laid out for all to see. Each shortcoming dissected; each personality quirk analyzed; each new employer dutifully informed. So why do agencies use such mild terminology to disguise a firing? Here are several theories.
The less-cynical observers believe the agency business is more civil than most and that “character assassination” is not appropriate in a relatively small, semi-incestuous community. “I have no interest in making someone look bad or hurting their career,” says one creative director.
The more selfish version of that is: “We don’t want to slam someone because it would make it more difficult for them to [leave us] by finding another job.”
One executive says he refuses to “fire” anyone publicly because it would make everyone look bad–including the person who hired the failed executive.
One respondent prefers to rely on habit and tradition. “You can’t say those things,” he says. When I pressed for a reason, he hesitated and offered meekly, “I don’t know, we just don’t do that in this business.” Brilliant.
Here’s a more logical reason: “Sometimes, I’m very tempted to be more honest and use the word “fire,” because, otherwise, the press and competitors think we lost a serious talent. But then I think of all the people running around this business who I’ll come across again, in a different life, and I think those harsh words would come back to haunt me someday.”
Here’s mine: If you publicly discuss your honest opinions about the perceived faults of a departing executive, you risk getting sued. Just ask Martin Puris or Chris Jones.