Drunks, tyrants and bullies: Tales of horrible ad bosses

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There are some amazing leaders in the advertising world. These stories are not about them.

Campaign US' Annual Morale Survey has once again revealed that leadership is the No. 1 most-cited cause of low employee morale. All this week, as part of our first-ever Leadership Report, we're exploring the issue through the eyes of those who live it every day.

A bad boss can teach you volumes about leadership skills, particularly how you don't want to act as a manager. We asked industry executives to tell us about the worst bosses they've ever had. Feel free to share yours in the comments. 

What was your worst bad boss experience?

Steve Stone, chief creative officer, Heat, San Francisco
I worked for a guy who would be drunk almost every day. He would mix booze with soda and drink it right out of the can. At 11 a.m. it was mostly soda, but by 3 p.m. it was mostly booze. At about 3:30 p.m. he would call on us to sit in a large group and throw ideas out, he called it "paper the walls." He'd write the ideas down on yellow Post-its and no one could leave until the wall was completely covered. One evening, he actually chased my partner and me out to the parking lot, and as we were pulling away, he asked us to come back because there were a couple holes on the wall that needed to be filled.

Luanne Calvert, CMO, Virgin America Airlines, San Francisco
I had a boss at my out-of-college dream job who told me I laughed too loud. I explained to him, "Sorry, but this is how I laugh." I sure didn't get promoted as fast as the non-laughers, but I learned that while it's important to adapt to the workplace culture, the best jobs make you feel like you belong and that you can be who you are.


Tham Khai Meng, worldwide chief creative officer, co-chairman, Ogilvy & Mather
I worked at an agency in the 1990s where the boss was a tyrant. Everyone was scared of him, but they were more scared of his wife. One weekend the senior managers were invited to the boss's house for drinks. At some point, his wife ran into the room shouting, "Look at the moon! Look at how beautiful the moon is tonight! Let's all go out on the lawn and howl at the moon like wolves!" At that point, half the group went out on the lawn and started howling. The other half, including me, remained inside and looked on in stunned disbelief as some of the most senior managers at our agency ran around the lawn howling.

Rich Silverstein, chairman, Goodby Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco
Starting out, you want to be in awe of your boss, so my worst bad boss experience was realizing that my boss wasn't as talented as he should be. It was shocking. As a result, I went to work for Hal Riney because he was tough and people were scared to work for him. But Hal was the toughest best boss I ever had.


Marianne Malina, president, GSD&M, Austin, Texas
When I was in my 20s working as an account manager, I had this boss at a top West Coast agency who was the ultimate passive-aggressive. Our team would have a meeting to present work to the client, then later, on the phone, our boss would tell the client to disregard everything that was said. Basically, she'd sell our work down the river because she wanted to get a pat on the back from the client. That led to mediocrity and the agency lost a lot of talent, including me.

John Butler, chief creative officer, BSSP, Sausalito, Calif.
I ran into this bad boss behavior more than once. My partner and I would get an assignment that was billed as ours and usually we'd come up with something that our creative director liked and championed. When the internal meeting came to show work, we'd present our work to the account group, but then the CD would present something that he wrote. And because he was the CD, it was his work that wound up being recommended. Our stuff was only meeting fodder, if used at all.  Now I try to impress upon all CDs here, don't compete with your teams.


Terence Reynolds, group creative head, The Richards Group, Dallas
One experience sticks with me. When I was a junior art director in the late 1980s, I had a boss at a large agency in the Southwest who used to scream at me on his speakerphone at the top of his lungs any time something went wrong. When I would see him around the office he wouldn't mention a thing and act as though everything were fine. But sure enough, as soon as he got back to his desk, he would call me on speakerphone again and act like the voice of God. In person, he was just an awkward, quiet guy, so all of his screaming had little effect. It was like being reprimanded by a Hobbit.

Megan Blake, general manager, Wondersauce, New York
My first job out of school, I was an associate account executive working for this trendy account supervisor who seemed so cool, young and successful. But she consistently brought her personal problems to work and sometimes she would show up 30 minutes late and all disheveled from "a long lunch." We were a digital agency in the Midwest that did work for Fortune 500 companies and we lost a piece of business shortly after one of her "long lunch" disappearances.

Michael Olch, owner, Pepper Jelly Advertising, Healdsburg, Calif.
Back in my early New York ad agency days, I slaved for a month on a presentation and came up with some killer ideas for the client. Then my boss took the presentation and presented it as his own, never giving me any praise or recognition. And to top it off, when he was presenting it, he made me handle the slides.


Sandy McEvoy, chief operating officer, Spinifex Group, Los Angeles
We had a really divisive owner at this small, close-knit shop where I worked as head of production in Sydney, Australia. He would say one thing to the creative department to encourage them to stay late and work more, and then he'd say something completely different to the production staff, including derogatory things about the creatives.

But we all talked to each other and knew what he was doing, so we felt no respect or loyalty for him. We just figured everything he told us was a waste of time. It imprinted on me the importance of telling everyone at your agency the same truth, regardless of the department.

Leslie Sims, chief creative officer, Young & Rubicam New York
My CCO at my first job once screamed loud enough for the whole creative department to hear: "Damn it Leslie I want to see three more headlines by noon! Three more by the end of the day! And four more in the morning! Or everyone's fired!" Makes me both glad I quit and miss the 90s.


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