The Unprofessionals

A few days ago, much to my surprise, I was invited to give a speech to an agency in London on the subject of professionalism—to present a personal view on how we might be a little more professional in the way we work and present ourselves to clients.

People in our industry have always envied the professional status accorded to lawyers, accountants and management consultants, although if such recognition means spending each and every day in the company of boring people in dark suits, I personally see no reason to be jealous. Yet as clients talk increasingly of measurability, accountability and ROI, the pressure to be professional—to think, talk and act like professionals—is mounting.

But there’s a problem. In this quest for professionalism, I believe our people are steadily becoming less effective: less interesting, less intelligent, less persuasive and less creative.

Leonardo Da Vinci once said, “It is by logic we prove, but by intuition we discover.” Unfortunately, Da Vinci isn’t on the reading list of most business schools, and in the Information Age logic is king. Agencies thus structure their account teams, patent their processes and post-rationalize their case histories to demonstrate how logical, analytical and therefore thoroughly professional they are. Meanwhile, our most valuable asset—intuition—being imprecise, unquantifiable and therefore unprofessional, must be hidden from view, locked away in the creative department like the retarded child of a medieval monarch.

We might live in an Information Age, but it is experience, not information, that provides the inspiration for ideas; experience not only of brands, categories and boardrooms, but also of life itself. We need a life, we need distance, to make sense of it all.

The reason why most of us have our best ideas in the shower, or while walking the dog or driving to work, is that the subconscious mind has many times the processing power of the conscious mind. It’s what Da Vinci suspected when he observed that “the greatest geniuses accomplish more by working less.” The subconscious needs time and space to roam, yet our weird notion of what it means to do a professional job means that we are spending ever-increasing hours at work, where we are least likely to come up with ideas, and cutting the downtime when we are in fact most productive and creative.

In recent years a new medical condition has emerged, which is caused by our obsession with always being connected, available and on top of things. Attention Deficit Trait manifests itself in a constant state of readiness to be interrupted, and thus an inability to concentrate on other, more pressing tasks. It’s estimated that the effect on a human brain’s processing ability of waiting for a Blackberry to flash, a computer to chime, or a cell phone to ring is equivalent to smoking two big fat joints. Would you encourage your fellow agency employees to smoke two joints a day? Of course not, yet by demanding that they are always accessible and always respond immediately to any question whatever the time of day and whatever else they are doing is tantamount to the same thing. American office workers now devote an average of three minutes to a task and are interrupted every two minutes. That may not be such an issue if the job simply involves moving information from one place to another, but if the task is to think, to interpret, to solve, then the problem is clear.

We all have to create the time and space for thought, to respond to e-mail when it suits us, not as soon as it arrives, to find the “off” button on our cell phones and Blackberries, to get out of the office once in a while, to create some distance. And when we leave work, we should leave work. Our brains will carry on working whether we like it or not; we will simply be more effective if we are relaxed and reenergized.

I took the first step on this journey two years ago, when I placed my Blackberry beneath the wheels of my car and ran over it. Twice. Once in a forward gear and a second time in reverse. Strangely, the light was still flashing, but a sharp blow with a sledgehammer soon took care of that. Today it might take me a while to respond to e-mails, but by the time I do I tend to have thought about what I want to say. I’m a lot less tired because I’m not reading irrelevant messages late at night (sent by people who have copied all and sundry to show how hard they’re working). And I’m happier because my down-time is my time.

Am I more professional? By most definitions, probably not. But I deal in the currency of ideas, not information. And by that measure I’m probably a whole lot richer.