Personal Branding Under The Microscope

Short Version
David Armano, widely considered to be a really smart guy has left Critical Mass to join a startup company called Dachis Corp. Some people are happy about the above and think this is great. Others are completely pissed.

Long Version
For the last 12 months there’s been a lot of discussion in the interactive space regarding “personal brands.” Not familiar with the concept of personal brands? Let me give you the down and dirty.

For years employees have been cogs in a company’s machine. Employess were expected to live, breathe, and die for the greater good of the organization. But, the rapid evolution of interactive marketing towards “social media” started to change that concept. People mattered. Yes, people mattered. Frank Eliason from Comcast, the man Business Week called “the most famous customer service manager in the U.S., possibly in the world” is perhaps the best example of this evolution.

The people that are pissed about Armano’s decision to leave Critical Mass believe the following:

  1. He was brilliant in getting Critical Mass to fund the trips for his speaking engagements.
  2. He was brilliant in getting Critical Mass to embrace his personal blog, tweeting, and column in Adweek.
  3. He became the outward face of Critical Mass.
  4. He established and built a reputation in the industry because of Critical Mass’ willingness to fund his “personal interests” and “ego.”
  5. He leveraged #1 and #2 to jump to a “better” more lucrative position – and in doing so has left Critical Mass in the lurch.

This comment from a reader of Brian Morrisey’s article on David’s departure captures the spirit and sentiment of those who are pissed at his decision to bail.

Critical Mistake

April 10, 2009
Armano is giving up the sweetest deal of all: Critical Mass paid him a salary to build his own brand at the expense of theirs. So today Armano is a social media rockstar and Critical Mass is still an unknown agency. He’s always feeding us some line about learning from people. Love for him to teach us how he managed to pull that one off.

It’s an interesting point and one I can understand. It’s similar to college basketball coaches that are given an opportunity by a school, paid well, and treated like rock stars – only to abandon that school for a more lucrative or better known school. The people in Memphis are saying this very thing about John Calipari’s decision to leave them for Kentucky.

Here’s the facts, as I see them:

  1. Critical Mass is a great shop
  2. David Armano was a smart guy before coming to Critical Mass
  3. Critical Mass enabled David Armano to become the well know welebrity (his word, not mine) that he is today
  4. David left for a great opportunity
  5. Critical Mass is weakened by his departure

To me it’s that simple. Companies cut employees all the time. Sometimes for good reasons. Sometimes for silly reasons. I’ve been there, I’ve seen it happen, and recently I was part of it.  Whenever we leave an organization we hopefully do it on our own terms and for good reasons.  I left Fallon in 2000 while I was working on BMW Films because the culture had changed too much.  Publicis’ acquisition of the agency really altered the company and made it a place I no longer wanted to be at.  I left Leo Burnett 3 years later for the same reason.  I’ve seen people leave for a title, 5K a year more, and because the company stopped offering free beer on Thursdays.  The point is, people leave a for a variety of reasons.

I’m happy for David. I wish him well. But, this situation definitely shows us the danger of companies investing in personal brands. David has clearly benefited from Critical Mass’ direct investment into his brand, and I’m sure on some level so has Critical Mass.  How much we’ll never know.  What we do know for sure is that Critical Mass invested a lot and now 2 years later they have a massive hole to fill.

  • http://www.robfrankel.com/ Rob Frankel

    Well, there ya go. Another casualty of the wide misunderstanding of what branding really is. In business, nobody is indispensable. And if this guy’s leaving cripples the company, it’s the company’s fault for not having a brand strategy of their own.

    You may want to visit http://www.robfrankelblog.com to get the latest on what personal branding is – and is not.

  • http://www.robfrankel.com Rob Frankel

    Well, there ya go. Another casualty of the wide misunderstanding of what branding really is. In business, nobody is indispensable. And if this guy’s leaving cripples the company, it’s the company’s fault for not having a brand strategy of their own.

    You may want to visit http://www.robfrankelblog.com to get the latest on what personal branding is – and is not.

  • http://www.marketingwithmeaning.com/ Bob Gilbreath

    I really love your comparison to big name coaches at universities, Adam. In those cases, as I’d guess with Armano, the brand name coach builds his or her name with organization support, but it all comes down to winning. I would guess that Armano gave Critical Mass many “wins” – both in PR and in new business.

    So what’s the solution? Maybe companies should treat their brand-name employees like pro football coaches and lock them in to long-term contracts with various incentives for “winning”. The closest thing I’ve seen to this in the ad agency world is a non-compete that you’re forced to sign! Another option is to accept that you’re going to lose your stars eventually and be sure to also promote some lesser-known people into key roles with hopes of them rising up to replace the big egos that eventually depart.

  • http://www.marketingwithmeaning.com Bob Gilbreath

    I really love your comparison to big name coaches at universities, Adam. In those cases, as I’d guess with Armano, the brand name coach builds his or her name with organization support, but it all comes down to winning. I would guess that Armano gave Critical Mass many “wins” – both in PR and in new business.

    So what’s the solution? Maybe companies should treat their brand-name employees like pro football coaches and lock them in to long-term contracts with various incentives for “winning”. The closest thing I’ve seen to this in the ad agency world is a non-compete that you’re forced to sign! Another option is to accept that you’re going to lose your stars eventually and be sure to also promote some lesser-known people into key roles with hopes of them rising up to replace the big egos that eventually depart.

  • http://darmano.typepad.com David Armano

    Adam,

    good thoughts. here are a few of my own:

    Critical Mass provided me with awesome opportunities to do what I was best at, this is true. What’s also true is that some of my speaking engagements were paid for by conference organizers not CM. Another truth is that I only went to conferences if I spoke. In many companies including CM, employees attend conferences fairly regularly especially in emerging spaces to learn new things. CM didn’t get a bad deal here. Neither did I.

    Also, you are assuming it’s a more lucrative position. In the long run if we succeed, it could be. For now, it’s not. Gotta be careful about making assumptions like that, even as a blogger.

    Also, the assumption that CM is worse off without me is a bit spotty. They have respectable blog with employees who can continue, new business with adidas that will continue, a Twitter account now handed over to Len Kendell with over 2k followers and access to any press contacts I had. My departure will not affect their bottom line or business model.

    While I understand the sentiment and perceived mix, the reality is the both CM and myself benefited from each other. If people want to split hairs about who benefited more, that’s their choice. I did my best to promote the company. I have no book to sell, I had no side business and I always but their name before mine.

    However it’s also true that I got approached for all kinds of visibailty opportunities not because of CM but because of what I’ve done myself on the blog etc. Prior to Twitter, the blog was popular when I worked at Digitas. In fact, my most popular concept (influence ripples) was done while I worked for Digitas.

    This is a good thoughtful piece, but it’s really not all that new. Last the very highly visible CEO of agency Organic (Mark Kingdon) left the agency to go to work for second life. Now that’s something that had an impact on Organic. Mine only feels like it because of the visibility within a specific space. CM will be fine. I hope I will be, because this move isn’t the easy path.

  • http://darmano.typepad.com/ David Armano

    Adam,

    good thoughts. here are a few of my own:

    Critical Mass provided me with awesome opportunities to do what I was best at, this is true. What’s also true is that some of my speaking engagements were paid for by conference organizers not CM. Another truth is that I only went to conferences if I spoke. In many companies including CM, employees attend conferences fairly regularly especially in emerging spaces to learn new things. CM didn’t get a bad deal here. Neither did I.

    Also, you are assuming it’s a more lucrative position. In the long run if we succeed, it could be. For now, it’s not. Gotta be careful about making assumptions like that, even as a blogger.

    Also, the assumption that CM is worse off without me is a bit spotty. They have respectable blog with employees who can continue, new business with adidas that will continue, a Twitter account now handed over to Len Kendell with over 2k followers and access to any press contacts I had. My departure will not affect their bottom line or business model.

    While I understand the sentiment and perceived mix, the reality is the both CM and myself benefited from each other. If people want to split hairs about who benefited more, that’s their choice. I did my best to promote the company. I have no book to sell, I had no side business and I always but their name before mine.

    However it’s also true that I got approached for all kinds of visibailty opportunities not because of CM but because of what I’ve done myself on the blog etc. Prior to Twitter, the blog was popular when I worked at Digitas. In fact, my most popular concept (influence ripples) was done while I worked for Digitas.

    This is a good thoughtful piece, but it’s really not all that new. Last the very highly visible CEO of agency Organic (Mark Kingdon) left the agency to go to work for second life. Now that’s something that had an impact on Organic. Mine only feels like it because of the visibility within a specific space. CM will be fine. I hope I will be, because this move isn’t the easy path.

  • http://www.thekmiecs.com adamkmiec

    @Bob

    Good question. I’m not sure I have the answer. Here’s what I think I think :)

    1. The concept of a mutual exchange between organizations and employees is rarely in place. The company seems to forget that they need to invest in, nurture, and empower an employee. The employee seems to forget who gave them the opportunity ;) happens in sports all the time.

    2. Julie Roehm said it best when she described that clients aren’t buying agencies, they’re buying people. Clients will choose 1 agency over another because of people/talent. When that talent leaves clients have and do leave as well. It’s for this reason that I think Critical Mass faired worse.

    I don’t think anything was done maliciously, nor do I
    think that this was part of David’s plan from the beginning. But, I do believe CM funded and enabled him to get to the place he is today. Basically Critical Mass created the situation they are in now. This isn’t unlike a sports team drafting a player, promoting him, teaching him, and funding his growth only to see him bolt for the Yankees.

  • http://Www.thekmiecs.com Adam Kmiec

    @Bob

    Good question. I’m not sure I have the answer. Here’s what I think I think :)

    1. The concept of a mutual exchange between organizations and employees is rarely in place. The company seems to forget that they need to invest in, nurture, and empower an employee. The employee seems to forget who gave them the opportunity ;) happens in sports all the time.

    2. Julie Roehm said it best when she described that clients aren’t buying agencies, they’re buying people. Clients will choose 1 agency over another because of people/talent. When that talent leaves clients have and do leave as well. It’s for this reason that I think Critical Mass faired worse.

    I don’t think anything was done maliciously, nor do I
    think that this was part of David’s plan from the beginning. But, I do believe CM funded and enabled him to get to the place he is today. Basically Critical Mass created the situation they are in now. This isn’t unlike a sports team drafting a player, promoting him, teaching him, and funding his growth only to see him bolt for the Yankees.

  • http://www.thekmiecs.com adamkmiec

    @David-

    You’re assuming that lucrative = money :). Check out my post on the TPRP model for employee value. Money isn’t the end all.

    Your departure hurts Critical Mass because good talent is hard to find. It took Fallon nearly 5 years to overcome the loss of Lubars and Flatt.

    When I left DRAFT a certain piece of business was transferred to another agency. The impact of employees leaving is always felt – even when the employee is the janitor.

    I’m sure CM knew the risk of allowing you to attend the events and publish. If they didn’t that’s a bigger problem. Like you said in the adweek comments there wasn’t anything they could do to keep you – it was about the evolution of you; that’s why I know it’s not just about money :). But would you be ready for this evolution – more importantly would others think you’re ready if CM hadn’t invested in you?

  • http://Www.thekmiecs.com Adam Kmiec

    @David-

    You’re assuming that lucrative = money :). Check out my post on the TPRP model for employee value. Money isn’t the end all.

    Your departure hurts Critical Mass because good talent is hard to find. It took Fallon nearly 5 years to overcome the loss of Lubars and Flatt.

    When I left DRAFT a certain piece of business was transferred to another agency. The impact of employees leaving is always felt – even when the employee is the janitor.

    I’m sure CM knew the risk of allowing you to attend the events and publish. If they didn’t that’s a bigger problem. Like you said in the adweek comments there wasn’t anything they could do to keep you – it was about the evolution of you; that’s why I know it’s not just about money :). But would you be ready for this evolution – more importantly would others think you’re ready if CM hadn’t invested in you?

  • http://bmorrissey.typepad.com/ Brian Morrissey

    It’s an interesting debate. What you’re seeing, I think, is a rebalancing of the employee-employer relationship in some cases. Previously, the organization had much, much more leverage. It legitimized the employee. What we’re seeing with a small subset of people is a revesal of that through a lot of these social media tools. David build up a well-earned reputation and following through hard work and, yes, writing and saying intelligent stuff. CM benefited greatly from that work. But at the end of the day, David build up a great deal of personal brand equity that is his, not CM’s. There’s nothing wrong with that. A lot of the carping is just bitter ad people who lash out in the best of times and absoltely revel in it now that they’re beset by so much uncertainty.

  • http://bmorrissey.typepad.com Brian Morrissey

    It’s an interesting debate. What you’re seeing, I think, is a rebalancing of the employee-employer relationship in some cases. Previously, the organization had much, much more leverage. It legitimized the employee. What we’re seeing with a small subset of people is a revesal of that through a lot of these social media tools. David build up a well-earned reputation and following through hard work and, yes, writing and saying intelligent stuff. CM benefited greatly from that work. But at the end of the day, David build up a great deal of personal brand equity that is his, not CM’s. There’s nothing wrong with that. A lot of the carping is just bitter ad people who lash out in the best of times and absoltely revel in it now that they’re beset by so much uncertainty.

  • http://www.thekmiecs.com adamkmiec

    @Brian

    Totally agree on the rebalance. I posted a similar sentimen on Peter Kim’s blog in response to the P&G Tide Hack Night situation.

    Both benefited from the relationship. But if we were looking at a scorecard I’d see David ahead. At a tactical level I’m assuming he’ll continue to write for Adweek. If he does Critical Mass loses a major chip, no?

  • http://Www.thekmiecs.com Adam Kmiec

    @Brian

    Totally agree on the rebalance. I posted a similar sentimen on Peter Kim’s blog in response to the P&G Tide Hack Night situation.

    Both benefited from the relationship. But if we were looking at a scorecard I’d see David ahead. At a tactical level I’m assuming he’ll continue to write for Adweek. If he does Critical Mass loses a major chip, no?

  • http://www.fastforwardblog.com/?author_name=pthornton Rotkapchen

    1. David was able to do what others cannot in many situations: BE who they are. CM is obviously a culture that allows for individuals to grow to their full potential. The fact that David could do what he did in their culture speaks volumes — only a positive reflection on them.

    2. As is the case with Jerimiah Owyang, due to the nature of his ‘role’ David has been limited to the ‘customer’ side of design. As far as I’m concerned there is far more potential and far more need for the sake of the GDP to have great design resources on the Enterprise side (with a focus on employees and their ability to do their work better).
    3) Because of 1) I’m sure CM is aware of David’s need to stretch his legs a bit more and capitalize on 2).

  • http://www.fastforwardblog.com/?author_name=pthornton Rotkapchen

    1. David was able to do what others cannot in many situations: BE who they are. CM is obviously a culture that allows for individuals to grow to their full potential. The fact that David could do what he did in their culture speaks volumes — only a positive reflection on them.

    2. As is the case with Jerimiah Owyang, due to the nature of his ‘role’ David has been limited to the ‘customer’ side of design. As far as I’m concerned there is far more potential and far more need for the sake of the GDP to have great design resources on the Enterprise side (with a focus on employees and their ability to do their work better).
    3) Because of 1) I’m sure CM is aware of David’s need to stretch his legs a bit more and capitalize on 2).

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