From Mad Man to Glad Man

David Wethey’s Twitter account playfully proclaims him a ‘survivor’ from the Mad Men era of advertising, but David’s much more than that. With over 50 years experience, including running his own advertising agency, he’s seen it change beyond recognition. He’s even helped shape it himself through his innovative approach with Agency Assessments, a spur-of-the-moment business that’s lasted 28 years.

David’s reflections on a life in the industry also yielded two published books, DECIDE: Betters Ways of Making Decisions (2013) and MOTE: The Super Meeting (2015). He now divides his time between speaking on those subjects and working at Agency Assessments. Luckily for us, he’s also found time to share some of his experience with Regus Re:think.

Was there a moment where Agency Assessments clicked?

I hadn’t written the defining business plan. It wasn’t a grand scheme. It was a client ringing me up, and his need to completely rework his marketing organisation – which wasn’t fit for purpose. Then, coincidentally, another friend rang up and said they wanted to buy a PR agency. When I asked why he didn’t rent one like everybody else he said, “because I’ve invented something”. That was Interbrand and they’d just invented brand valuation. So I found myself working for two clients, not as a direct agency but as a kind of consultant/recommender intermediary.

Nobody had done what I was doing, which was to build a consulting service entirely supported by clients. Everybody else represented agencies. To me the only sort of consulting that made any sense was to do do it direct for clients so you could be completely objective about which agency you recommend, and be completely allied with the clients.

Tell us about a lesson you learned the hard way

I’ve always been exceptionally enthusiastic about new things. New clients, new projects and of course Agency Assessments is definitively a project business so I’m constantly looking for new opportunities. I was never as good as I should have been at keeping up with the last lot, I was always really keen to get the next lot. Unless you’ve got a big infrastructure, you waste opportunities for contacts that way, I did it myself.

You also need to not just satisfy the clients, but learn something you can use to become a bit of a thought leader. I’ve really promoted the business over the years from articles and platforms, workshops and seminars, and learning and coming up with the bigger picture.

How important is it to occasionally step back and reassess?

Completely. I hadn’t realised it until I came to write the first of my books. If you’ve sat in what used to be smoke-filled rooms, although now they’ve been sanitised there’s still a lot of hot air in them, deciding which agency you’re going with, the whole science and psychology of how people and companies make decisions is fascinating. But I think in those processes I realised there were bigger lessons on decision-making, and the key thing in DECIDE was that I stepped back and interviewed 25 great deciders and learned an enormous amount from that. We’re taught to be iterative and logical, but gut feel is also incredibly important in everything we do.

Was there a moment when you looked around in a meeting and thought ‘this isn’t working’?

There were lots of them, but because of the Agency Assessments role it was the other way around. Every meeting I’ve organised for 28 years I’ve known what the objective was, who should be there, how long it should take. I had a clear expectation of what the outcome should be, and if the client was involved I would share that with them.

There was real contrast with other meetings where there hadn’t been any kind of preparation. Where it was managed badly and where they just ended without any real conclusion and people shuffled off to the next meeting. I think it’s because I knew what a good meeting was like that I could recognise what a bad meeting was. That’s why I felt like there had to be a constructive book about meetings.

What’s the biggest challenge to businesses today?

I think the biggest problem we have to deal with is the confusion between short, medium and long term. And the real challenge is maximising the possibility of keeping the long term goal in view. Financial reporting coming down to two months or one month has taken a lot leaders’ eyes off long term goals. For me, leaders need to have people guarding the gates, making sure short term things are being done. The moment leaders take their eye off the medium and even long term, organisations fall apart.

What are your tips for staying at the top?

Never stop learning. One of the depressing things about experienced people is how often the experience is just an aggregation of doing the same thing the same way, rather than being a considered and dedicated learner. In your 70s, I think a great deal of young people think you’re running on empty, a throwback to the old days, but I think most of the people who’ve stayed at the top, managed to succeed, are incredibly open to new ideas.

David works in our office at 100 Pall Mall, London. His books DECIDE and MOTE are both available to buy online, and you can find out more about the work of Agency Assessments through their official website.

This interview is from the Regus Re:think magazine and can be found online here