How Arsene Wenger Runs An Ad Agency

There are similarities in the way a creative department and a football club are managed. You have star players. You have a team captain. You have a management board. You have an image to cultivate and protect. You lose. You win. You move on. But before you move on, you want to make history, to show that you were actually born to do this. And because winning is what the job is all about (for the agency, the client, and you), it won’t hurt at all to win some cups along the way.

As they say in soccer, a winner emerges only when one side scores more goals than the other. In other words, it’s not good enough to win, others must lose, too. But where there are players whose victories are usually accompanied with acrimony, there are others who win quietly. Take Arsene Wenger. Perhaps his most cited achievement since he became the coach of Arsenal in 1996 is the transformation of Arsenal’s style of play from “boring, boring Arsenal” to the “most fluid, devastating team in British football.”

Although some people have also credited him with the diversification and globalisation of the Premier League, because he consistently scouted talent overseas and nurtured some of them, such as the monumental Thiery Henry, to international acclaim, Wenger is seen less as a coach capable of winning trophies but more as a philosophical manager. Yet, when the International Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS) finished it’s ranking of the best coaches of the last decade, Arsene Wenger was crowned World Coach of the Decade. Why? Because even though he never won their coach of the year, his got more points in total than everyone else.

Many people still don’t know about that but, quietly, Wenger beat the wildly revered Alex Ferguson and Special-One Jose Mourinho to the IFFHS title. For a small agency with little resources, the creative director could choose to be Arsene Wenger, with his Money Ball style to resource management, or, with good luck, decide to be Mourinho– the opposite.

This, my friend, is how some creative directors become Wenger:

Train Your Players. You will wake up one morning and your best striker will walk out on you. The same afternoon, they will move in with a rival team with deep pockets. But as they go, there will be one undisputed truth: they will give you the credit for their successes, because, if not for you, they wouldn’t have become one of the most accurate weapons in the industry’s collective arsenal. Like George Weah, they will hand you their figurative FIFA World Player of the Year medal.

But for you after that, the question will again be: who’s the next rabidly talented writer/artist just coming out of NYSC that you could make a star. You know there’s no peace for the wicked.

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Work Your A** Off. How do you find respite from constantly having to take younglings through their first steps on the international dancing stage? Sorry, but you don’t. Because training is hard work, and because mentoring is leading by example, you’re always at work, perhaps working too hard for your age and position. You know that your contemporaries in bigger agencies don’t have to grind as hard as you do but you also know that the moment you stop grinding the way you currently do, something fundamental has been altered. Either your company philosophy has changed, or the agency has joined the big leagues.

You Master The Moneyball. For 10 years, Arsene Wenger has been the only manager in the Premier League who has consistently made profits on his signings. He buys low and sells high. And this is possible because of his proclivities for young, unknown stars instead of famous, ageing ones whose ratings are based on last season’s performance. While you do not buy players, you become a master at spotting raw talent and quick studies. You save your agency some money when you recruit a fresh graduate whose skills rival those of a five-year veteran.

Build A-Teams. Between September 1996 and February 2014, Arsenal received 100 red cards. It makes sense that Arsenal players are often described as a bunch of rowdy troublemakers, but as a team, they gel. In some other teams, stars are made to square off, competing with one another for the creative director’s favours, some of which are not accorded to the most deserving but the most shameless grovellers. But in a Wenger team, each is complementary to all. Beautiful football is played when the stars work together like caramel on vanilla. And if a potential doesn’t materialise as expected, you let them off quickly.

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You A Leader, Not A Boss. Cliche alert! But it’s true. The creative director is not your friend; he’s your boss. But that said, he also shares a laugh or two with you when it won’t get in the way of the job. And he puts you in positions where you can make your own decisions. The studio is not a democracy but all ideas are still welcome. That way, the respect is true, not fear disguised as respect. For all-business Wenger, even the fans salute “Le Professeur” because “Wenger Knows Best”.

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So, why take pride in a punishing system rarely results in glory and keeps on the grind like a rat on an anticlockwise spinning wheel? Simple. Some people are more comfortable with the relative peace and quiet that this style offers. Others have effectively adjusted their priorities from a trophy collection career to a profit generation journey. And some just happen to work in a company where that’s the rule, no matter how much profit the company makes.

Eventually, however, everyone wants to be remembered for something. Even the low-key frugal manager wants a bust/statue in the hall of fame. To get to that point, he needs to hustle. Hustling, as explained by Chris Guillebeau in The $100 Startup, is “work and talk fused together.” The famous manager would do some fantastic work and then talk about it or get others to do the talking for him. His approach might be subdued, but Wenger hustles. He has owned his style and the world now knows that. If you do plenty of good work for whatever reason but refuse to talk about it, you would be squandering the good fortune of being able to do what others only dream of. You’re not Wenger. You’re not a hustler. You’re a Matyr. God bless your soul.

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Here’s Chris Ogunlowo, on the Nigerian type of hustle.

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