What a silly headline.
Of course we all already know how to motivate an agency. Carrots and sticks, right? Reward good behavior and punish bad. Give a 20% bonus for hitting performance targets. Get a “make good” whenever the agency makes a mistake.
These are the incentives that have served business for hundreds of years.
It’s a no-brainer to set up incentive plans to provide bonuses and financial rewards based on performance. This will certainly boost creativity and help align goals, right?
Not so fast….
It turns out that the conventional tools of motivation may actually do serious harm, reducing performance, diminishing creativity, encouraging shortcuts and unethical behavior and promoting short-term thinking. Is this the kind of structure you’ve inadvertently fostered with your agency?
Is there a better approach?
Daniel H. Pink is the author of the New York Times best seller “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” (affiliate link), which draws on four decades of research into the science of motivation. In the book, Pink debunks some conventional wisdom about carrots and sticks.
“But once we’re past that threshold [earning a living], carrots and sticks can achieve precisely the opposite of their intended aims. Mechanisms designed to increase motivation can dampen it. Tactics aimed at boosting creativity can reduce it. Programs to promote good deeds can make them disappear. Meanwhile, instead of restraining negative behavior, rewards and punishments can often set it loose — and give rise to cheating, addiction, and dangerously myopic thinking.”
Algorithmic vs. Heuristic Work
Pink distinguishes between algorithmic jobs (a grocery checkout clerk or the person who collects your ticket when you go to a movie) and heuristic jobs, which are more complex and require thinking, creativity, experimentation, initiative, cleverness and innovation.
Carrots and sticks can work well for algorithmic tasks. One study by economist Dan Ariely clearly showed that when he asked a group of MIT students to perform tasks requiring only mechanical skill, “bonuses worked as they would be expected: the higher the pay , the better the performance.” However, when these students were asked to perform a task requiring “even rudimentary cognitive skill,” big rewards resulted in poorer performance. Pink’s book describes study after study that show the same results.
Clearly, designing websites or creating inbound marketing strategies are heuristic tasks.
“Rewards can perform a weird sort of behavior alchemy: They can transform an interesting task into a drudge. They can turn play into work. And by diminishing intrinsic motivation, they can send performance, creativity, and even upstanding behavior toppling like dominoes.”
If you have 10 minutes, RSA Animate created a wonderful and entertaining video that summarizes the key points of the book and explains Pink’s findings.
What Works If Not Reward and Punishment?
So if financial carrots and sticks don’t work, is there a better way to help motivate your agency to excel on your behalf?
Remember that when you hire a marketing agency, you’re hiring people. Creative people. And the truth is that creative people, once they’re reasonably well compensated financially, are primarily motivated by things other than money. The key is to try to create an environment that fosters the intrinsic motivation of the people on your agency team to produce great work.
Pink has identified three elements that promote intrinsic motivation:
Perhaps the most important element is autonomy. Autonomy – allowing employees to explore in their own way, to not be micro-managed – is how 3M ended up developing post-its. It’s how Google now has Gmail. Top down management approaches rarely foster environments of creativity and proactivity, but they do quite a lot to destroy intrinsic motivation.
As Pink puts it:
“The opposite of autonomy is control…. Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement…. We’re born to be players, not pawns. We’re meant to be autonomous individuals, not individual automatons.”
This doesn’t mean to suggest you give free reign to your agency to do whatever they want. But remember that you’re paying them for their thinking, experience and creativity, not just for their ability to execute your ideas. Set a vision and direction, create some boundaries and constraints, and then give your agency team the freedom to explore. You’ll get so much more value and creativity, and you’ll find that the agency team has the desire to go the extra mile.
If all you’re getting from your agency is compliance, it’s possible you’re working with the wrong agency. But, before you find somebody new, first take an honest look in the mirror. Are you the reason that’s all you’re getting? Have you created an environment of micro-management and control? Have you beat the creativity (and therefore the enjoyment) out of your team? Have you devalued your agency’s contributions?
Autonomy requires trust. Do you trust your agency? Without that trust, they can’t possibly do their best work.
Out of autonomy flows the second element that promotes intrinsic motivation – mastery. A huge part of what fuels intrinsic motivation is a desire to master ones craft – to always get better, little by little, day by day. Of course, this means that we can all improve. Michael Jordan was perhaps the greatest basketball player ever, but that doesn’t mean there was no room for him to improve — and that’s what kept him motivated.
“The desire to do something because you find it deeply satisfying and personally challenging inspires the highest levels of creativity, whether it’s in the arts, sciences, or business.” – Teresa Amabile, Professor, Harvard University
Mastery requires a balance between what you must do and what you can do. If something is too difficult, it induces anxiety. If it’s too easy, it causes boredom. Neither is conducive to encouraging “flow”.
Everybody is familiar with “flow”. It’s that feeling you have when you are so immersed and engaged with something that hours pass by in what feels like minutes. Pink writes of a study performed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at the University of Chicago about flow:
“The highest, most satisfying experiences in people’s lives were when they were in flow…. In flow, people lived so deeply in the moment, and felt so utterly in control, that their sense of time, place, and even self melted away. They were autonomous, of course. But more than that, they were engaged.”
Flow is a critical enabler of mastery and is thus a key to intrinsic motivation.
Think a bit about your relationship with your agency. Do you provide opportunities for the people on your team to get better at what they do? To work their way towards mastery? Or do you demand perfection, and create the implication of “how dare you learn on my dime?”
For example, you may hire a programmer to build a content management system (CMS) for your new website. She may be a fantastic programmer who has previously built many CMS. However, you may use a CRM system that she has not previously worked with, even though she understands conceptually how the two systems need to be integrated.
Fundamentally, programming is a creative exercise of exploration every bit as much as is designing an ad campaign. Does your budget and schedule permit her to spend time exploring potential options and devising the best possible solution? Or is her task merely to accomplish this as quickly and cheaply as possible?
Do you as the client start to complain to your account manager, asking why there isn’t somebody on the team already who has done exactly this task before? Or do you provide space to experiment, and allow the team to make some mistakes along the way? From this is mastery, and intrinsic motivation, born.
“The most deeply motivated people — not to mention those who are the most productive and satisfied — hitch their desires to a cause larger than themselves.”
For cause-based organizations, it’s easy to rally your agency around your purpose. Here at Abstract Edge, we were lucky to work for a time with Give Kids the World, an organization that provides memorable, magical, cost-free experiences to children with life-threatening illnesses and their families. We could not have felt more motivated to help this organization achieve its goals, because it provided us with a wonderful feeling that we were doing something that really mattered.
For-profit companies can also provide a sense of purpose to their agencies. When we worked with our former client, Clairol Professional, our primary purpose wasn’t to sell as much hair product as possible. Rather, we created a “higher” purpose by positioning Clairol as the “industry angel”, helping those working in the industry to grow in their careers and reach mastery.
With our current client, Modernizing Medicine, their business goal may be to sell as many EMA systems as possible, but their greater purpose — which helps to motivate us — is to transform the way health care is performed, allowing doctors to spend more time with their patients and reducing medical errors.
One of the most important ways to motivate your agency through a sense of purpose is to include them. Allow agency team members to sit in during planning sessions. Involve them and listen to their ideas. Treat them as real partners, rather than hired guns.
When your agency team really feels like a part of your team, that’s when you’ll get the best, most creative and highest-value work. Sure, it may cost a bit more, but that’s when the agency goes the extra mile. Conversely, when an agency is not included in strategic discussions, or is simply used as a hammer to strike in nails as the client sees fit, it leads to a poorly-motivated relationship of missed opportunities.
Lisa Park, VP of Interactive Marketing at Clairol, spoke about the relationship between Clairol Professional and Abstract Edge:
“Abstract Edge is… always offering us new strategic and empowering marketing ideas — a quality that to us makes them a perfect interactive marketing partner…. Even though they work in a different location, I often feel like they’re right down the hall from me.”
The key point here is that Clairol always included us in strategic planning sessions and made us feel like we were a real part of their team. That approach helped us to do some of our best work for Clairol over a period of many years and kept us highly motivated and engaged.
What Makes a Client Great
One of the best clients we ever had was The Gift of New York, a non-profit initiative which provided admission to New York City’s cultural, arts, entertainment and sports venues, without charge, to the bereaved families of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The program, intended to give solace to the grieving families, ran through the spring of 2003 and served 12,000 families.
The budget was modest and the schedule was aggressive. Team members gladly went beyond the call of duty to achieve the organization’s web goals, producing a web-based management application and a website in a matter of weeks. Everyone was excited to work on this project and nobody ever complained about the effort.
Michael Garrett, the Executive Director of TGNY, stated:
“Abstract Edge collaborated with The Gift of New York to create, compose and construct a brilliantly sensitive and welcoming web site for the families of September 11th. They did so on an impossibly tight schedule and a relatively modest budget, and continued to support us, and remained a pleasure to work with, throughout the 18 months of the life of our charity.”
What made this client so great to work with? Besides being really good, nice people, they provided us with a feeling of autonomy, a path to mastery, and obviously, a strong sense of purpose.
Autonomy – Garrett set a direction and vision and then got out of the way, allowing us to do our best work. He did not micro-manage every detail. He told us what needed to be done and when it needed to be done by, and then he allowed us to do it our way. He was quick with praise, and he trusted us.
Mastery – Our team had strong experience building secure systems, but this case had security needs beyond most projects. Families of the 9/11 victims were asked to register online for access to the programs, but anybody could claim to be a family member (and some jerks did.) Our team took on the challenge of creating a highly secure system that was never once hacked. Ultimately, the database we built for TGNY became the most comprehensive database of victims’ families in existence; Governor George Pataki’s office requested a copy of it because it was more accurate than the one managed by the State of New York.
Garrett and TGNY gave our team the space it needed to master the security challenges. They recognized that some budget would need to be allocated to allow us to research and better understand the best ways to secure the system. Our technology team was intrinsically motivated to improve its knowledge of security issues, knowing this would help them move one step closer to overall technical mastery.
Purpose – No explanation should be necessary.
Are You Doing It Wrong?
So ask yourself, how are you motivating your agencies?
Are you enticing them with carrots and prodding them with sticks?
If you want to get your agencies’ best work, deeper engagement and creativity, and effort beyond the call of duty, you may want to rethink your approach.
Are you a company or organization that values autonomy, mastery and purpose like TGNY, Give Kids the World, Clairol or Modernizing Medicine? If so, please call us. You’ll get the best out of us.