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  • David Meikle

Five ways to spot an agency bullshitter.

“False positive” is a scientific term. It’s used when something gets a positive result from a test that should have produced a negative result. In the world of medicine they are acutely aware false positives (and false negatives) and therefore they will often retest results before acting, particularly if the result seems unlikely and the actions are serious.

In the advertising world, the term false positive has a place too.

I find it a useful way to describe somebody who has all the status and trappings of success in the advertising world, but underneath the surface they don’t really know what they’re doing. I’m glad to say that in my experience there aren’t that many of them anymore, but they still exist, nonetheless. And they still dilute the pool from which the agency world makes its living – the pool of great talent that knows what it’s doing.

Advertising false positives can take several forms. They may have been associated with a great brand and its success - but without having made a significant contribution to it. As a good creative director friend of mine reminds me “success has many fathers, but failure is a bastard”. Others have simply been in the right place at the right time; some have benefitted from a little nepotism but, perhaps most commonly, false positives – bullshitters - simply exude such confidence that their genuine ability has never been properly challenged. But one thing is for certain, as a marketer, false positives are not the kind of people that you want working on your account. And as an agency leader they are bad for business in the long term, and can be notoriously difficult to detect (good upward management is an essential skill for the false positive to remain undetected).

Somewhat ironically, given their purpose, pitch chemistry sessions are somewhere false positives can thrive. They are always slick, confident, occasionally verbose, but always very engaging and entertaining. The chemistry meeting is seemingly designed for them because it provides the perfect camouflage in which they can hide undetected. It asks directly for the things they do best: spit and polish.

Speed dating chemistry sessions are potentially worse still, limiting the amount of time brands have to spot them. In fact, they’re designed to let both sides have just enough time to show their best selves. As exciting as it might be, it doesn’t help when clients depend upon genuine agency talent for its value.

So how should marketers detect and avoid them?

Well, there are tell-tale signs which can help us to spot them:

  1. They will often paraphrase rather than make a new contribution to a discussion.

  2. They’ll use hackneyed generalist advertising maxims.

  3. They have absolute certainty about almost everything, including the future.

  4. They rarely self-educate, believing that they are already the finished article.

  5. They lie, a lot.

The same creative director friend I mentioned before worked for a long time in one of London’s big creative shops. He would occasionally be asked by a keen junior suit how they could become the best they could be and succeed in their chosen career. He would calmly point to the shelf above his desk, which bowed slightly with the weight of numerous books about advertising, old and new, and he’d say:

“Pick five books. Just Five. And if you read these five books you’ll probably know more about advertising than many Group Account Directors in London.”

Maybe that’s a little overstated, but the genuine article, real talent, will have an insatiable desire the learn, whereas most false positives will have the bookshelf, but they won’t have read a business book since Ogilvy on Advertising.

So how do marketers make sure they avoid them?

First, think about your pitch process. Does it really identify and attract the right talent? How do you know? If you are using an intermediary, what are they doing to make sure you don’t get a false positive working on your account? If your pitch has an agency selection strategy but not a talent strategy you could well be in danger. The name above the agency door rarely denotes a false-positive free zone.

Second, if you think you’ve found one then ask them. All of the very many genuinely talented, innovative, intelligent, creative and sometimes slightly strange people that work in the advertising business love intelligent debate. If you ask them what they think you will start a rich discussion. But if they evade challenge with comments like “I’d like to see what my planner thinks about that” it’s time to worry. Because the genuine article, the person that can help build your brands and build your business, will always be ready to talk, discuss, debate.

And if you’re in an agency and you think you’ve found one, for everybody’s sake, it’s best to get rid of them. Accounts are often lost because of them. And good people will leave your agency because of them – colleagues often identify them far more easily than clients.

In fairness to agencies, they're by no means the only organisations afflicted by these people. And if you find you're sharing office space with one and need to get rid, Robert Sutton's The No Asshole Rule is a great place to start.

David Meikle

Author and Founder of How to Buy a Gorilla.

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