No Mission, no Culture -- No Agency

Fair warning, this entry is a long one. Apologies for that but hopefully the length is worth the read.


The congruities between business and advertising and military planning and operations have always struck me.

Like advertising, armies don't "make anything" -- there is no product they produce other than, I guess, destruction and death, so perhaps unmaking is something of their business, however armies like advertising agencies are only as good as the soldiers who show up every day.

And like armies, agencies win or lose their battles, which is success for the client, on morale and sense of purpose.

I'm reminded of a history recounted by Napoleon's secretary Louis de Bourrienne whose memoirs of Napoleon have largely served as a "look behind the curtain" on the man that conquered most of Europe in the name of the French Revolution.

One of Bourrienne's anecdotes has always stuck in my mind and has been one of my guiding principles in management.

I believe it was during the Danube campaign (which largely took place in what is now the German state of Bavaria but at the time was a separate kingdom allied with France) wherein Napoleon was facing (as always) a larger army fielded by the Austrian Empire. After some initial maneuvering battles which gained the French the geographic and strategic upper-hand, the Austrians tried to slow the French advance by sending light calvary behind the French Army. This essentially cut the French off from any reinforcements, communications, food etc. For most armies of the time, being cut off in this matter was serious concern -- they would not be able to feed the army and, more importantly for imperial armies which largely were manned by mercenaries, to pay the troops which would very quickly led to mass desertions.

The Austrians had hoped that this would force Napoleon to counter-march, i.e. turn around, and march back toward France to reopen the roads. Napoleon, as always, responded to this by continuing to follow his strategy, in other words continuing to marching forward and, in this case, onward into Bavaria.

The campaign would end in what would be a series of running battles across a fifty mile front over three days culminating in the Battle of Eckmuhl which was a serious tactical defeat for the Austrian Empire and ended their designs on Bavaria.

On the eve of these battles, Bourrienne recounts his warning Napoleon that the pay for the army was still being intercepted by the Austrian calvary and that the army would be going to battle without pay and that it might be wise to counter-march to open the roads to France instead of undertaking a large battle. Bourrienne's implication being that because the French troops hadn't been paid for nearly two weeks they wouldn't have the morale to fight.

Bourrienne recounts that Napoleon initially said nothing but continued to examine the campaign maps. Bourrienne, thinking Napoleon hadn't heard, in a louder voice started to warn Napoleon again, to which Napoleon cut him off:

"My dear, Bourrienne, do you really think that men join an army, to wake every morning before dawn, to march 20 kilometers a day in the heat and the rain and the snow, and do it day after day, and do so often without food, far away from their wives and their families the prospect of which is that they will be fired upon by the enemy, all for a palm full of gold?

Do you, Bourrienne, after all this time?*

No, Bourrienne, men march for an idea. They march because they believe in something that the man next to them does as well. Ideas are what our armies are made of and why against every army arrayed against us, and always outnumbered, we are successful.

Bourrienne, in two hours every soldier in this army shall begin to wake as they do every morning, they will check their powder, musket and bayonet, and they will take to the line, and in three hours they will be facing the first of the cannonballs and many will watch their comrades die and quite possibly fall themselves. They are veterans, they know this, but Bourrienne, they will not run -- they shall stand and they shall fight and they shall win and they shall do so without a palm full of gold.


Now surely in advertising we are not fighting for the freedom of an ally, nor democracy, nor keeping our homes safe, nor to bring enlightenment to the world and typically our days don't end under small arms fire.

However, we often ask our people to put in endless hours, to be interested in and to live their clients' brands, to work through last minute changes of campaigns they have toiled months on, spend endless weekends and nights working on new business, or filling in for sick or missing team members and do so with a positive enough attitude that they will simply take up the next impossible request with the poise, confidence and initiative that were instrumental in solving the last impossible task they were given.

I have found that the agencies that simply rely on the fact that people are getting paid and don't give their people a sense of why they are different, why they should come to work in the morning, why they are working with the person next to them are those that overpromise and underdeliver, those with which clients seem chronically unhappy, those that can't seem to keep anyone on a business longer than six month, and are the ones that start losing an account the second it is won

If I was a client in a new business process I think I would pay a lot less attention to the agencies' presentations, their purported differentiated process, their "tools" and pay a lot more attention to what it feels like to walk around the hallways and see if the people there are working with a purpose and with people whom they would want to be in their foxhole.



* Bourrienne and Napoleon were in he same class at military school, and Bourrienne had served as side-kick and secretary since that time and they had been through a number of campaigns by the time of the Danube Campaign recounted here.