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Are you surplus to requirements?

David MacGregor

The word is that the advertising industry is going to be shedding personnel. Gloomy forecasts around the traps predict up 25% reductions in numbers. Are you prepared?

With Christmas looming I’d be concerned. It is usually a time when employers get to do their Ebenezer Scrooge impersonations. The gap between ‘letting go’ and restarting the year lets remaining personnel settle over the Christmas break—which is important, because nothing frightens the horses more than layoffs.

I remember working for an agency, back in the 90’s, when huge cuts were made in a large, failing enterprise. It was harrowing. The open plan office was awash with the ‘blood’ of fallen comrades. Over a couple of weeks the numbers dwindled to the extent that it seemed like the Marie Celeste. Needless to say productivity fell ridiculously—in part because the remaining personnel spent as much of their time as possible interviewing for new jobs. In the end, the hapless organisation who had been dutifully paying my salary folded itself into a sister company. Other than some furniture and the detritus of an ad agency (video equipment, awards etc) little remained. By the inevitable end I was long gone, having left to join Paul Jeffreys in our eponymous adventure MacGregor Jeffreys. At least I knew I couldn’t be fired as a result of mismanagement and poor leadership. I could go hungry, but at least I had a place to go and eat my marmite and cheese sandwiches and had a jolly nice business card.

One of the effects of a downturn in advertising is a redistribution of personnel. Independent startups will spring up like field mushrooms. The mother ships who cast them adrift become somewhat vulnerable to the displaced, who will be free to approach their former clients, offering services at a reduced cost—the absence of overhead has a remarkable effect on pricing.  Where some obligation exists not to approach clients such as a restraint of trade, then competitor companies might enjoy the benefit of the freelancer’s category experience.  When it is every man for himself the market behaves in mysterious and unpredicatable ways.

If you work in advertising (or in any other creative industry, for that matter) it pays to assume that you are dispensable. At any time, for any reason—which may have nothing to do with your skills or contribution to your employer’s success—you may find yourself surplus to requirements. It pays to always have a plan B, a contingency for when the unthinkable becomes the inevitable. Do it now.

Assess your skills

Are you current in the techniques and thinking that are shaping your industry? As employees, many people forget to maintain their competitive offering, because they are so focused on delivering the product they were hired to make. Finished artists kept busy with Bull Gum and bromides in the late 80s who didn’t transition to desktop publishing went from feast to famine in short order. This is always important, recession or not, keep your skills up to date. Dig the well when you don’t need the water.

Re-establish connections

Get back in touch with people on your phone list. I don’t mean ‘gizza job’, just get back onto the habit of keeping your network alive. If you aren’t in the loop you will miss out on the opportunities.

Let headhunters know what you’ve been working on

As above, don’t apply for jobs just yet (or do if you see a plum role), but recruitment people in the creative industries need to know who is out there and what their skills are. You are their stock in trade. If you hide your light under a bushel then you might as well not exist—you won’t be in the ‘choice set’.

Have your personal brand worked out

What do you represent in the market. Are you a rainmaker, do you cut through the chaff with insights and competitive ideas, are you a reliable workhorse that makes sure ‘the donuts leave the factory’? Can you articulate your proposition? What makes you irresistible and unique?

If you are in the position of having to retrench your business then Guy Kawasaki has some thoughts on how to cull your costs (cross-posted via ThoughtSpurs):

1. Cut deep and cut once.
Management usually believes that things will get better soon, so it cuts the smallest number of people in anticipation of a miracle. Most of the time, the miracle doesn’t materialize, and the company ends up making multiple cuts. Given the choice, you should cut too deeply and risk the high-quality problem of having to rehire. Multiple cuts are terrible for the morale of the employees who have not been laid off.

2. Move fast.
One hour after your management team discusses the need to lay off employees, the entire company will know that something is happening. Once people “know” a layoff is coming, productivity drops like a rock. You’re either laying people off or you’re not—you should avoid the state of “considering” a layoff.

3. Whack Teddy.
Most executives have hired a friend, a friend of a friend, or a relative as a favor. When a layoff happens, employees will be looking to see what happens to Teddy. “Did he survive the cut or did he go? Is it cronyism or competence that counts at the company?” Make sure that Ted is dead.

4. Don’t ask for pity.
Sometimes managers go to great lengths to show the person they’re laying off (or firing) how hard it is on them. This reminds me of the old definition of chutzpah: A boy murders his parents and then asks the court for leniency because he’s an orphan. The person who suffers is the one being terminated, not the manager.

5. Provide support.
Usually, the people getting laid off aren’t at fault. More likely, it was the fault of top management—the same top management with golden parachutes. Hence, you have a moral obligation to provide services like job counseling, résumé-writing assistance, and job-search help. There are firms that specialize in helping employees during “transitions,” so use them.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of the above advice and go out on your own, there are few things you will need to do to ensure your survival and, even better, your success. But I will save those for my next thrilling installment.