clientocracy.

Ad agencies love being the bearer of new trends. It makes us look smarter and more creative, which is eventually what our clients pay us for. So here we all are, inventing never-seen-before advertising techniques such as booking a whole TV ad break, inventing new job titles such as “Junior Senior Account Executive” (meaning they’re running out of excuses not to promote you but that you’re almost there so hang on to it), and even new words such as “Meritocracy”. Ah, that “Meritocracy” word you’ve been hearing at job interviews, during your appraisals, and at your agency’s local pub, while talking about your career with your boss.

The funny thing is that Meritocracy is an existing word that has been introduced by a British Politician. It is defined as:

“A system of government wherein appointments are made and responsibilities assigned to individuals based upon their “merits”, namely intelligence, credentials and education, determined through evaluations or examinations.”

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So Meritocracy was first used to refer to governments and agencies decided to extend it to their Industry. It makes sense. After all, an ad agency – like any business entity – works like a government: people at the top taking decisions, people at the bottom actionning (yet another verb invented by ad agencies) theses decisions, with the people at the top rewarding the best – or the ones with most merit – to join them at that top. I have witnessed – directly or through some peers – fair and misleading use of this Meritocracy. For instance, some agencies, with a very blurred and inconsistent appraisals policy, will end up not rewarding their people’s merit as they should. I hear you saying that the reward should not systematically happen after an appraisal – correct, so comes another example. I have countless recollections of people who have been performing above expectations, bringing a true added value to their agency and clients alike but who haven’t been rewarded accordingly. Agencies arguments usually revolve around budget constraints. The funny thing is that, in most cases, these people were eventually being given that reward (promotion or pay rise) when the employee threaten to give their notice.

Budget constraints, client pressure… I think it would be fair to introduce yet another new word: “Clientocracy”. Unfortunately that word also already exists and is also informally used in the world of Politics. Irish 2007 elections candidate Parlon defined the term as:

“Where the select friends of influential parliamentarians get to reap the benefits.”

We could also very well make this definition more relevant to our Industry.

A business entity victim of an unbalanced agency/ client relationship, resulting in making most of its key decisions based on their direct and indirect outcome on that very client.

Yes an agency should always bear its clients in mind when making key decisions, but should it do it to the extent of its people’s careers? In our business, a client is usually paying a yearly fee for a pre-accounted amount of campaigns, that will be provided by a certain amount of people, each at a pre-defined level of seniority and expertise. Therefore, and apart from budget constraints, I don’t see how this would restrain an agency to reward one of its employees’ merit. And even if budget constraints were the issue, then how would you explain that a simple threat of leave would change things? And it works both ways, with another example of an employee being promoted very early (or without merit), because of that same client needs and budget constraints: promoting someone – whether or not he is ready – can be less expensive than hiring a new person at that level. Here again, the client indirectly dictated the promotion, at the expense of that employee’s healthy career (and financial) development.

Just like a true democracy shouldn’t have to yell the fact that it is one, a true agency should be proud of its business and therefore maintain healthy and balanced relationships with its clients for better productivity. It is just against ethic rules to have a client making over 80% of an agency turnover, therefore indirectly dictating each of its business decisions (they may as well acquire and run that agency). Serve your client, but don’t be his slave. And if Clientocracy is definitely a no go, Meritocracy seems to be more used as an excuse to hide the former rather than really rewarding people on their merit. It’s just another utopia – like any word ending up in “cratie”, really.

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