For Shame?

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Yesterday, a friend who works in the advertising world asked me - out of respect for the agency's legacy - not to blog about the Henderson Advertising debacle. His motives are just and noble, and I completely understand where he is coming from, and why he's probably a little annoyed with me today. Henderson Advertising did some pretty cool things in its time. It was the grandaddy of all of Greenville's existing advertising agencies (or at least their godfather, once upon a time). It got the ball rolling in this part of the country, back when the real estate now occupied by BMW North America and Michelin North America headquarters were just cow pastures.

And some very cool people worked there over the years.

I get it. I empathize. And I'm not here to throw stones or rub anybody's nose in their poopoo. The fact of the matter is that I don't have the inside scoop as to why Henderson Advertising abruptly closed its doors this week. I only know bits and pieces of what happened. I couldn't dissect Henderson Advertising's fall even if I wanted to, which I don't.


(Yeah, there's always a but.)

But... the fact remains that Henderson Advertising did close its doors this week, as abruptly as... how did I phrase it yesterday? As abruptly s the snap of a guillotine blade? (Something like that.)

To understand Greenville based Henderson Advertising's relevance to this blog's discussion, you have to understand that they were the first agency ever outside of New York and Chicago to be named Agency Of The Year by Advertising Age Magazine. They used to be big, the way churches are big down in this part of the country. They used to be the standard by which other agencies were judged. They used to be the big dizzle.

Back in 1980.

What's interesting to me is that these guys were as big and cool as it gets once. They owned this market. Heck, they created this market. Back in 1996, they were still at the top of their game... but here we are, ten years later, and they're gone.

Ten years. That's all it took for a giant to lose its grip on the very market it created and tumble to its death.

Here's my question: If ten years ago, a time traveler from the future had come to Henderson Advertising's principals with today's Greenville News, what would they have done differently from that moment forward?

More to the point, if a stranger wearing really bad fashion suddenly materialized in your board room with news that in exactly ten years, your doors would abruptly close, that your only statement to the press would be "We have ceased operations and closed our door effective (enter date here). We are conducting an orderly liquidation but not bankruptcy. And that's all I can tell you because of ongoing litigation at this time," what would you do? (The statement - with the actual date - is the one made by Henderson Advertising Chairman and Chief Exec Ralph Callahan.)

What would you change? What would you do to avoid finding yourself in that situation, just ten years from now?

Fact: Companies don't crash and burn overnight. Not textile mills, not car manufacturers, not energy companies, not banks, and certainly not marketing and advertising firms. These things happen over time, one bad decision at a time, one bad hire at a time, one uninspired move at a time. There's a lot to be learned from Henderson Advertising's fall. There's a lot to be learned from what many agencies of its size have been dealing with over the last ten years - namely loss of revenue, client erosion and diminished relevance. (And no, TiVo didn't kill the big advertising agencies.)

The big agency model which worked so well in the 1980's can't work across the board in 2006 anymore. Not every store in town can be Target, and the lesson is that not every store in town should be. Big agencies, like all big companies, may be able to handle the logistics of large scale projects, but the downside of that capability is that growth increases the distance between an agency's core talent and its clients. More and more layers are created. Don't kid yourselves into thinking that those layers are really links in a chain. They aren't. They're layers. They're walls. That problem gets compounded by the fact that instead of fostering relationships with clients by nurturing a core team of client advisors who truly represent their agency in every way (yes, I am talking about account executives) the big agency model prefers instead to toss new throw-away twenty-somethings at them every six to eighteen months.

There's a lot more that's wrong with the big agency model - except, that is, for the very small number of agencies who really should be big. Most agencies just can't survive by following this model anymore, and Henderson Advertising is perhaps the first of many casualties to come in the next decade. Times are changing. Agencies will either adapt or crash. It's that simple.

So... if you knew that in exactly ten years, your dream would come crashing down, if someone gave you that heads-up, if you had a chance to change the future and turn things around, what would you do?

Well guess what? Someone just did. It doesn't matter of you're Microsoft or Buddy's Garage. The writing's on the wall. You have ten years to turn yourself into the company that you know you should be. The company you'll need to be in order to still be relevant. If you blow this off, 2016 will mark the end of your great little business adventure.

This isn't something you can leave to chance or put off until your schedule looks a bit more manageable. Those ten years are going to go by fast. You don't want to find yourself in a hole with only three years to go. You don't want to wait until your lawyers or accountants tell you there's no light at the end of the tunnel you've dug for yourself. You don't want to go out like Henderson Advertising did.

Your next ten years start now. Today. Every choice you've made until this moment is irrelevant now. Water under the bridge. History. What matters now is what you do with the time that you have left.

Over the next few weeks, I will be looking at the ways that great companies screw up. How they plant the seeds of their own demise... And how some companies, by choosing not to make these mistakes, plant the seeds of their own success.

If Henderson Advertising finds its way in some of these discussions, please don't take it the wrong way. They're just the most tragic example I can come up with of what can happen to even the best of us when we fall asleep at the wheel: Unlike other fallen companies like ENRON (which was big but not so great), Henderson Advertising really was great once. That, more than any other factor, is why their name will come up often.


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