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Amid the adland talent crunch, don’t underestimate the power of nice

By Jeff Tan | Innovation solutions officer

July 9, 2021 | 4 min read

In Hollywood, business leaders are often stereotyped as aggressive narcissists. While these types certainly do exist, the most successful leaders are the exact opposite, says Dentsu Innovation solutions officer Jeff Tan. He explains why a culture of ‘likeability’ is essential as attracting and retaining employees in adland enters a critical phase.

Smile face

Be nice adland – or else suffer the consequences

One of my first jobs was for a print publication in London. I worked in a division selling ad space for a pharmaceutical magazine that hadn’t even launched yet. My task was to cold call companies vaguely having anything to do with pharma. Most people hung up before I could finish saying: “Hi, my name is Jeff and I’m calling from...”

Let’s just say that trying to sell ad space in a non-existent magazine was rather difficult. It was a tense sales floor. Cursing was the default lexicon and an aggressive alpha mentality the default norm. It was Wolf of Wall Street – with cheaper suits and Cockney accents.

One day, I was sitting across from a more senior colleague who was finishing a conversation with a colleague next to him. As he stood he said: “Is there anything else?”

Trying to lighten the always-tense mood, I piped in: “A cup of tea would be nice, thanks!”

I didn’t read the room (or the culture). Let’s just say that levity was not welcomed at that company.

For the next minute I was yelled at, verbally abused and put in my place. How dare I joke around like an equal with someone who was much more senior than I?

I resigned soon after.

In business, some deride likeability as non-essential. “I don’t care if they’re nice or not, as long as they’re smart,” was what a boss once told me in New York when I was hiring for my team. “We’re not here to make friends,” is often a common statement.

Despite the Hollywood stereotype of business leaders being angry and abusive assholes, research suggests that successful leaders are the exact opposite. Joe Panepinto in Harvard Business Review writes that “leaders who display integrity, compassion, the ability to forgive and forget and accountability – who are what most of us would consider nice – deliver five times the return on assets of their counterparts who never or rarely display those traits.”

Panepinto isn’t alone in suggesting that nice people do not finish last. “Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company,” says Jim Collins in Good to Great, when cataloging the most common traits in highly successful companies. “The good-to-great leaders never wanted to become larger-than-life heroes ... they were seemingly ordinary people quietly producing extraordinary results.”

A few years ago, I was at a leadership conference where Tim Armstrong, then chief executive of Oath, was a guest speaker. He was asked: “What tips do you have for aspiring leaders?” Armstrong simply replied: “Don’t underestimate the power of nice.”

As adland actively works to recruit essential talent, an environment of niceness and amiability isn’t optional. These values are the foundations to building strong and lasting relationships, and creating a culture where people feel respected and valued.

Jeff Tan is Innovation solutions officer at Dentsu International.

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