Does Management Need to Know It All?

This week, we step back to ask ourselves who really needs to know all the intricacies of online media. At conferences, I see folks of all stripes: new hires looking to pick up the basic skills and tactics, middle managers trying to figure out what services to buy and vendors to hire, senior managers trying to figure out if they can keep their company relevant in a new marketplace.

The first two groups obviously need to know their stuff. But what about the age-old question about management? Do they really need to know?

A lot of the middle managers out there and I speak as one who shared these concerns not long ago would prefer senior management to go along on their happy way toward retirement… without mucking things up in the interactive field.

A surprising number of senior management folks think along similar lines. The fact of the matter is that they grew up in the advertising world with a very different set of expectations. They thought their days would have nothing to do with the Internet or the pompous young people who force them to pay them too much, or the constant invasion of other established media budgets, or the having to become comfortable with uncertainty and long-range plans that get thrown out the window every six months.

Dagnabbit, it was good in the old days, and all this fancy shmancy Internet stuff will all come to naught!

That’s the emotional response with which a good many senior folks seem to respond to the new media. But the rationalization that is made the face they present to the shareholders and the clients is a little different. The senior folks maintain that they have a certain job function that is really quite unaffected by mere changes in the media world. The CEO maintains that’s for business development people and the account service types.

And this starts the CEO’s journey down the grease-slicked path to his or her own private professional hell.

It turns out that a lot of decisions that the more senior folks tend to hoard for themselves have a lot to do with the success or failure of interactive programs at agencies and media companies. In turn, these interactive programs now have a large say in the success or failure of the ventures themselves.

The problems arise when the traditional media expectations of the senior management are challenged by new needs. For instance, it takes about one person per $1 million of media to plan and buy at an ad agency. In the online world, it takes about four times as many people to plan and buy the same amount. But if the CEO is protected in a shell of ignorance, it’s difficult to get the hiring allocations to do this correctly.

The very clients that an agency acquires define the direction an agency takes. There are certain clients that are great for online and others that spell trouble (another column topic for a future week). A lot of agencies out there have management pursuing very large consumer goods companies because they’re very large, have huge traditional media budgets, and are very, very prestigious.

But in the online world, it’s sort of like bragging that you do all the fashions for the Russian military. The work isn’t great, and you don’t get paid.

Scaling is a major problem for managers who don’t understand a great deal of the intricacies of the medium. The very systems that we use, like banner servers, trafficking systems, and databases, need to be available and need to scale with the work. An interesting factoid picked up by rummaging about the industry for a few years: The number of agencies that developed their internal systems in a scalable manner is just about equal to the number of people running agencies who knew anything about online media. And I can count them on my hands and toes.

All this goes to show that the senior management has to attack the online media with youthful energy with a voracity greater than the competition’s. But we have to be honest with ourselves. Not everyone will want to do this, and there is an alternative.

The CEOs and CFOs and COOs can turn over real power to the people who run the interactive sides of their business. Given enough leeway to hire, fire, and run deficits for quarters at a time, these folks can frequently bring home success if left alone.

The very one thing not to do remains to hold onto the reins while maintaining ignorance. If you don’t know what a SQL query is or who the best CGI programmers are in your city, look for someone who knows and cares… because that’s the only hope for success.

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