Getting The Boot

When Pat Fallon terminated ecd Paul Silburn in January, he took an unusual step: He said so. In a statement characterized by some as “harsh” and even “brutal,” Fallon said simply that he was not happy with the shop’s progress under Silburn, and so Silburn had to go. In doing so, Fallon seemed to violate an industrywide gentleman’s agreement that, though they do not always pick their own departure date, ad execs usually are allowed at least the illusion of leaving on their own terms.

Rarely fired, canned or deep-sixed in the press, ad executives more often “part ways” with their employers, “pursue other [unspecified] opportunities” or “spend time with family.”

And while some industry onlookers can be counted on to read something sinister between the lines, agencies continue to rely on euphemisms when their decision goes from pink slip to press release.

“We’re in the business of wordsmithing, and it’s pretty easy, when you’re letting someone go and you want to soften the blow, to wordsmith,” said Fran Kelly, president of Arnold in Boston. “When the norm is to be gracious [and] you come out with a direct and critical statement, it seems overly harsh.”

Moreover, levying specific criticisms is difficult, said Kelly, particularly in a business where success is dependent on something as ephemeral as personal chemistry. “Our business is a little harder to quantify than in some other businesses,” said Kelly. “People are trying to be respectful of the fact that it’s [partly] about hard measures of performance and more about softer measures—do you have the right chemistry? Do you have the ability to win new business? … It’s not always black and white.”

Dailey & Associates CEO Brian Morris agrees. “Its not like somebody came to work late every day or stole from the company. The goal in this industry is to find the company that fits the best with you,” he said.

And in a business where executive suites come with revolving doors, agency chiefs don’t want to offend someone who may come back as a future employee, consultant or client, said Morris. “Even if you don’t want them back, they may be working with potential prospects. You’d lean toward being as gracious as you could so you’re not seen as the cold-hearted agency,” he said.

“Cold-hearted or straightforward?” asks Jon Bond, co-chairman of MDC’s Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners in New York. Agencies don’t tell the truth about fired executives because they worry clients will think they’ve been sold a damaged product, said Bond. Instead, they should worry about sewing the seeds of distrust. “The cover-up is more destructive than the act. … We put too much damn spin on everything,” Bond said. “That’s one of the reasons people don’t trust people in the business.”

In 2004, Bond’s shop publicly fired Nigel Carr, managing director of the network’s San Francisco office, who then sued the agency. One claim was re-lated to the agency speaking publicly, but the parties settled for an undisclosed sum before a trial was set. Those legal battles are exactly one of the reasons why employers are willing to go easy on lackluster executives who get the axe, said Michael Lasky, a partner and co-chairman of the litigation department at Davis & Gilbert.

Executive contracts often outline specifically why a person can be fired for cause—drug use, felony convictions, gross negligence—and when an executive just isn’t the right fit, the agency often strikes a deal securing a resignation and release from liability. In this case, the executive saves face, and the agency often saves a portion of the money due according to the contract.

And when they’re out the door, it’s best not to change your tune. While agencies are obligated to confirm title and dates of employment, criticizing performance can rob the former employee of his or her next opportunity, said Lasky, and can pave the way for damage claims should the disgruntled former employee file a slander lawsuit. “Truth is always a defense,” Lasky said. “But you could spend a lot of time and energy defending yourself … for someone who wasn’t very important to your agency.”