Toxic Business Partners, Part One
today at 3:28 pm
“Over the course of my decades years as an ad agency creative director, I directed quite a bit of attention toward Networking. Thus I’ve been privy to more than a few atrocity stories about business partners in ad agencies, PR agencies, production firms and various client businesses I’ve serviced. Now that I’m marinating deeply into my retirement years, I thought it might be useful to some of my youthful readers who might be considering entering business partnerships, to hoist a red flag or two. I’ll start with this tale told by a fellow ad agency creative director/partner. Let’s call him X and his two partners Y and Z, shall we?
X set forth the following narrative for me. When they first pitched their ad agency tent, they reached a kind of rationing agreement with respect to what was then referred to “Soft Money Expense Accounts.” As senior partners, X and Y were allocated a larger allowance than Z. From the first launch–with great assiduity, irreproachable meticulousness, and unbroken vigil, X would log his every Soft Money expenditure, making certain not to exceed his annual limit, every cent accounted for in a ledger of fealty to the partnership’s verbal agreement.
Then X fast forwarded me to a scene set about 16 or 17 years into the partnership. In the customary annual meeting with the agency’s outside accounting firm, in reviewing the books, the accounting consultant pointed out to Y and Z (but not X) that–because the IRS seemed to be increasingly watchful these days–they ought to cut back on the bulging expenses they’d been in the habit of declaring. Upon hearing the scold, the heads of both Y and Z snapped–in reflexive unity–toward X’s astonished face . The look on their faces were near identical and surely unmistakeable: hands-in-the-cookie-jar GUILT. Even the consultant’s expression betrayed surprised misgiving tinged with mild disapproval at realizing that X had been blind to their rascal history of fiscal misdeeds It became instantly clear to X , who-like many a Creative was interminably bored by the financial end of the business and thus trusted all that to his partners–that, to put it bluntly, both had been cheating him for almost two decades and that their fudged expense accounts were, in effect, pickpocketing him out of tens of thousands of dollars that should have been showing up in yearly profits.
“What about any immediate post-meeting interchange between you and your partners?” I asked.
“They both did a vanishing act and didn’t converse with me for two or three weeks” X replied. “Besides, I didn’t interact with either one of them either. I could have confidently written the script for their eminently predictable responses. So I never bothered. I guess they thought I had either missed their transparently furtive glances of culpability or were counting on me to overlook-maybe even forget–their malfeasance exposed at the meeting”
X continued” I easily held all the power cards in my hands at the launching of the partnership but had eagerly handed the Presidency to Y. who, from the start, exhibited the behavior characteristic of bosses who–deep in their marrow–know that they’re out of their depth, i.e. he bullied his administrative staff, wielding rage as his cudgel. There had also been talk of cocaine use to fuel that rage. But who knows? Y was surely short of oral communication skills (a peculiar elliptical manner of speech sabotaged intelligibility), short on writing skills (there is no evidence that he ever actually wrote one letter, one report, one notice, etc. and was only seen at his computer playing games or tracking stock investments), short a few million brain cells (a massive compilation of inane gaffes that betrayed his threadbare intellect). In short, it was his shortcomings that ignited his short fuse. So I knew that if I confronted him, he would first deny, then fulminate in the inevitable style of the crooks who– ambushed by TV’s Sixty Minutes investigative reporters– geysered out remorseless invective as they abruptly stamped away. No, addressing the issue with Y would have been an empty exercise in futility. The irony in all this, is that I had consented to become his business partner because of his presumed loyalty and trustworthiness.”
“What about challenging Z?” I asked
” Lost cause. In near unanimity, the agency workforce regarded him as a low-rent Machiavelli. He seemingly couldn’t help himself from boasting to one and all about his latest petty deceit, self-serving gambit, clever ruse, etc. What he hadn’t figured out was that most of us thought were were not exempt from becoming his next dupe. No, I didn’t deal with him because I knew this counterfeit comrade would enter onto the stage with his timeworn act of wounded feelings clamped to sorrowful disappointment at being misunderstood. No, I not longer could take a front-row seat to any of his ersatz theatrics.”
Finally, I wondered aloud “And you’ve never sought any kind of retribution, some form of revenge?”
“Sure,” X asserted, ‘And I’ve exacted it. Y has been sentenced to live with Y for the rest of his life. Ditto Z.”
Moral: No matter how honest you think your business partner, make sure you keep him honest.”