Atlas Ran Screaming

My re-read of Atlas Shrugged is proving to be just the thing I needed to tap into motivation I didn't know I had.

More than two years ago, having just been downsized from an agency, I decided I didn't want to work for somebody else anymore. So Underscore was launched and the great struggle of starting a new agency with no clients began. From time to time along the way, I've asked myself whether this was the right decision. Perhaps I should qualify that - I was less concerned with the ends of that decision and more concerned with the means. Did I decide to start Underscore because I was reacting emotionally to being let go from my previous agency? Something always told me that there was more to it than that, but I never could really put my finger on what it was.

Now I'm getting a bit more clarity on the unrealized reasons why I decided to start Underscore. One of the major contributors was the notion of working hard and producing results while moochers and looters hung on for dear life.

For as long as I've worked at agencies that were not my own, I've known that the media department was the big profit center from which much of the agency's work originated. We were the ones bringing in a good deal of the new business, doing much of the strategy and generating the big ideas. We were also the ones having the most direct effect on the bottom lines of our clients. Meanwhile, there were all these extraneous personnel clinging to the business we were bringing in - folks who had nebulous titles and job responsibilities whose salaries were paid with the money we generated. While my department worked long hours going the extra mile to bring in new business and maintain that which we already had, most of these other folks worked 9 to 5, often refusing to do what it would take to build the business. They latched on to "client relationships," taking our existing relationship-building tasks off our plates when we didn't need that. They managed our projects when we already had a handle on schedules and deliverables. They created their own redundant responsibilities and took things away from us that we had built, trying desperately to justify their own existence by any means.

When work slowed down and agencies needed to lay people off, executive management often made the right decisions, looking at revenue-per-employee numbers, billable hours and other metrics that were directly tied to agency and client revenue. That's when they tended to make the right decisions, and media people were generally insulated from layoffs while the looters and moochers were let go.

But sometimes, agencies made the wrong decisions, electing to hang on to the people who were the supposed stewards of the account relationships and cutting the people who actually produced the product, in which case I'd find myself on the street while the moochers and looters lived on for short periods, usually riding the agency's momentum downward until there wasn't enough revenue coming in the door to justify having even them aboard.

Many times I'd find myself in these situations where media was propping up a good number of redundant personnel on the agency side, and it became tough for executive management to let media folks share in our own success. Many media people lament being thrown a bone by executive management in the form of a bump up in title and job responsibilities without the increase in pay that normally comes along with it. This happens to media people all the time - some are placated by the ego boost they get, others see it for what it is - a license for executive management to continue to enjoy the fruits of the media department's labor without having to expend cash.

Without realizing it, I think what we did with Underscore was to create an environment where we were the ones who benefitted from the ideas and the revenue we generated, free of moochers and looters. This really didn't happen consciously by directive, but it was borne out of a subconscious need to be judged by our achievements.

All those years spent slaving away at agencies working on media plans...I was always wondering where all the revenue went and why those old agencies never seemed to grow like they should have. Now I've got a bit more clarity on the situation.

To sum up, I know I made the right decision because the "why" of the whole thing is a lot more clear to me - We wanted to build something where we would be judged by our achievements, not by our ability to carry dead weight.

Of course, this is only one of many reasons for starting an agency, but I'm glad that I've been able to finally put my finger on something that's eluded description.