The Inevitable Extinction of the A-hole

There was something I learned in college  in Psychology 101 that stuck with me. I read about a study that showed that, as a kid, having any nickname was better than having none. I found it hard to believe. Really? Being known as “Fatty” or “Doofus” was better than being known as Steve?

Well for years in the advertising industry, it had always seemed that being known as an “asshole” was also better for a person. No one seemed to be penalized for it. Not only was it acceptable, but also it seemed to earn a person more respect. There were the prima donna creatives, who threw things and cursed at people for expecting them to do their job. There were the know-it-all strategists, who treated everyone like idiots and as if they were doing you a favor working on your project. There were micro-managing leaders, who could never be satisfied and always assumed the worst of you. And the over-bearing, patronizing executives, who treated everyone like children. All these a-holes somehow got promoted, took on more important jobs and got paid more money. And no one thought anything of it.

And I’m not talking about demanding, tough, high-expectation types – everybody should be demanding and have high expectations. I’m talking about real assholes. And, I’m here to say that their days are numbered. Here’s why these assholes can’t succeed in the “new normal”.

1. There’s too much collaboration
The new way we work is way too collaborative and integrated to allow for the success of the a-hole. The digital revolution has us working in real time, across channels, with internal and external partners. Command and control is dead and “soloist” leaders can’t succeed – it’s now an ensemble performance that requires a talented maestro to bring the best out of lots of different people and different temperaments.

And those folks who stab others in the back, talk behind peoples’ backs, make fun of others? Those guys won’t get by in this new world either. It’s impossible to keep secrets – so ill intentions and sub rosa communications will always get aired.

2. Everyone needs to grab a shovel
Gone are the days where a senior leader doesn’t have to get his hands dirty. Flat organizations, decreasing fees and tight margins have made teams smaller and less hierarchic. And the “always on” nature of the business demands that everyone be ready, willing and able to do anybody’s job, at any time.

3. Creative is no longer a department
Creativity has never been more important, but it no longer resides in the hands of a few special people wearing black and 3-day stubble. Creativity now is just as likely to come out of an analytics insight or a media idea as a print concept. So this drastically reduces the tolerance for bad creative department behavior. Plus, it’s also just as likely that the writer or art director will be working on designing an email template or writing search copy as a Super Bowl TV spot or a high impact print assignment shot in Tahiti. Try doing that with a chip on your shoulder.

4. Strategy is nothing more than a hypothesis
Strategy is obviously important – it’s the foundation for everything. However, it’s not the bailiwick of a person or a department. In fact, since everything is activated integratedly, strategy needs to be developed and approved jointly by those who will deliver the integrated program.

But more importantly, as the theory of stratecution stipulates, a strategy is just a hypothesis. And it’s just a starting point. It’s nothing without the combined strategic and creative execution and activation that will bring it to life.

5. Digital demands iteration
In the old way of working, a creative idea for TV or print was the execution. There was some evolution, naturally, but the work of execution was simply bringing it to reality. And that gave creative directors incredible power – because only they knew what the idea “really” was, and how to bring it to life.

But the new way of working in the digital world is all about iteration. Everyone learns as you go. A creative idea for a website or a display ad is a beginning – the team will iterate what it will do, how it will work, what to have the viewer do to interact with it, etc. It’s now an ensemble activity, with evolution, and sometimes revolution, a core part of the process. This gives the power to a much broader team – which can include technologists, user-experience specialists, media planners, in addition to the writer and art director.

6. You will be measured
In the old days, anyone could get away with saying the work was great. If it didn’t move product, drive leads, increase consideration, it wasn’t their fault. People could be self-proclaimed successes. But not anymore. We’re all only as good as our results.

So everyone needs to relish the opportunity to focus on measurement. To ensure all programs have mechanisms to track and to read results. And to be watching and attending to those results regularly, eager to adapt and optimize programs to improve their performance. This is hard for the old-school a-hole to accept.

Of course, this doesn’t mean failure isn’t accepted. But what you do with that failure, i.e. what learning you take to the remainder of the program and future efforts, is another form of measurement.

7. Talent needs empowerment
The A-hole executive was able to treat people poorly. Get as much work out of them as possible by controlling them with fear and politics. People were viewed as underlings who were replaceable – and small in comparison to the greatness of the executive.

The new focus of organizations has to be on empowering people – enabling them to accomplish more and be more successful. The move towards calling employees “talent” is a big step towards recognizing the respect and empowerment necessary. Treating people poorly doesn’t accomplish this.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to these dinosaurs becoming extinct. How about you? Have any stories you can share?


  1. A-holes have their purpose.
    My very first boss was a smug, two-faced creep who taught me exactly how not to treat people – a lesson that has served me well ever since.

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