In-house Issues: Sterling vs Draper or Honesty is the Best Corporate Policy

I had the privilege of conducting a workshop this past Saturday with 20 heads of in-house creative teams representing organizations and corporations ranging from Pharma and entertainment to non-profits devoted to the arts and environmental causes.

At one point we were discussing the “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission” adage that I frequently endorse. The thoughtful challenges to my blanket support of this mindset have caused me to rethink how I present this idea.

In the past, I’ve cavalierly encouraged in-house designers to responsibly “buck the system” by taking risks and going outside of admittedly inane processes to achieve goals that will benefit them, their teams and their companies. I still stand by that advice, but with the addition of an important caveat; that the way you break the rules is as important as why you are breaking the rules and what rules you’ve chosen to break. In other words, you should break the rules in the open and with full disclosure. To do otherwise would be an adoption of destructive passive-aggressive behaviors that would ultimately undermine your credibility with your managers and peers.

There is a difference between pursuing your ends with integrity and doing so subversively. As subtle as this distinction may be, the results will surely be radically different. When you proactively go outside of policy, make sure to inform those that will be affected – including your manager. Of course it’s important to carefully explain why you’ve taken this tact and underscore the benefits to the company of you doing so. It’s equally obvious that full disclosure will most likely put you in an uncomfortable position, but if you avoid coming clean you will have absolutely no chance of making a case for the appropriateness of your actions. The fact that you did it in a secretive and “subversive” manner will overshadow your good intentions and the rational choice you made. In other words the “how you did it” will overpower the “what and why you did what you did”.

I’m guessing many of you watch the AMC series “Madmen” given its relevance to our profession. While I don’t always agree with Roger Sterling, the arrogant cocky co-owner of Sterling-Cooper, I’ve always admired his honesty with others and himself. If he’s screwing someone, figuratively or literally, he let’s them know it up front (not that I’m advocating you go around deep-sixing your co-workers or your company). Don Draper, the secretive, dishonest, though empathetic creative director at Sterling-Cooper, is in many ways more despicable and certainly less trust-worthy than Sterling. It may not be easier but it’s much better to be a “Sterling” than a “Draper”.