Favors are overrated

This is an important lesson I learned the hard way.  It’s common sense advice that you don’t really think about until you’ve screwed things up, so hopefully this post will save someone from an awkward/painful situation in the future.

Last year, when I was still in school, I was dating a girl who wanted to go into advertising after graduation.  In spite of my warnings that traditional advertising was in decline and wasn’t a good long-term choice, she insisted that she still wanted to pursue it.  Because I was friends with a bunch of people in that industry from the internship I did, I said I’d put in a good word for her.

Now, this girl looked great on first impression.  She had a really high GPA, a flawless record, and was a genuinely sweet person.  But I suspected that she probably would not thrive in that environment.  She was shy and afraid to ask questions.  In spite of my doubts, I told my old boss that she was legit and passed her resume on.

She got the internship, of course.  And when I talked to my boss a few months later, she suggested that I either not recommend people in the future or develop a stronger filter.

It was stupid on my part, because I really valued the relationship I had with my boss.  The recommendation I gave reflected poorly on me, and her trust in me was shaken.  It just wasn’t worth it.  Favors are overrated.

I’ve learned my lesson since then.  I don’t say anyone is legit anymore unless I’m 100% confident and have witnessed their work ethic/talent/creativity/passion firsthand.

If your recommendation has the potential to really screw somebody over (in time and/or money wasted), you can’t take the situation lightly.  You need to carefully balance the person’s track record with your gut feeling.  I knew this girl had a good track record, but my gut was telling me the situation was going to be a disaster.

If you really want to maintain a person’s trust and respect, do them a favor and be coompletely transparent.  Don’t do anyone a favor just because they’re your friend.  If you absolutely have to make a recommendation, give that person a few options.  Say, “I recommend Person A, B, and C.  They’re all good, but I think you should pick whoever suits your needs best.”  It’s an easy way to do damage control.  When they have options, it’s their fault if they make the wrong choice, not yours.

By Charlie Hoehn

14 comments on “Favors are overrated

  1. On a side note, what is it about advertising that entices so many people? Often they have no interest in it, or any “natural” ability that would push them to succeed. Most would never even touch/heard of Seth Godin. To your point, it’s in a decline, salaries are low, and hours are long–but it still attracts so many wanderers…

  2. I think it’s just because it’s a sexy, flashy, and fun industry. Ad agencies (used to) get paid a ridiculous amount of money to come up with cool ideas that might not even work and will only occasionally have a measurable impact. (An aside: you’d be amazed at how high the percentage is for attractive women in the advertising industry — it’s crazy).

    Alex Mann stumbled across a good quote the other day from Banksy, the graffiti artist:

    “The thing I hate the most about advertising is that it attracts all the bright, creative and ambitious young people, leaving us mainly with the slow and self-obsessed to become our artists. Modern art is a disaster area. Never in the field of human history has so much been used by so many to say so little.”

  3. Fun story.

    Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about all the college students (seems most of which are female) who work so hard for the grade and rarely understand what the hell’s going on. That’s not to say your little honey didn’t get what she should have from her classes, but this post reminds me of that type of student.

  4. This is a great post. The quality here is really getting good.

    Charlie, I think I’m about 3 years older than you so believe me when I say start getting used to it. The past 4 years of my life has exclusively been chock full of good people disappointing me with their bad decisions and sucking at life. It is pitiful.

    I think being into advertising is just as much about studying the Cialis ads as it is about critiquing the Superbowl spots. And the reason Modern Art is a wasteland is because if your art doesn’t have mass appeal then it sucks. The only alternative is for it to be so subversively good that it can’t be ignored.

    Finally, I wanted to tell you that I just saw a newly formed group on Facebook called “Forgive Student Loan Debts” After laughing until I vomited, I immediately thought of you and this blog.

  5. There is a simple reason so many young people study and then stay in the advertising industry. The ad community is full of pats on the back and self-proclaimed sucess. Just look how many awards they give themselves each year. And the criteira is very rarely how effective the campaign actually was.

    Even at universities, most advertising professors will scoff at the idea that traditonal advertising is dying. They assure their students that their careers are safe, they will make millions of dollars, and party with celebrities. At least once a week, an Adage blogger will publish a post downplaying new media with no real evidence other than “I’m tired of hearing about it.”

  6. Ok, Charlie – script time!

    So, when someone asks you, “Can you put in a good word for me?” and you don’t want to, what the heck do you say to that person??

    And especially if they’re your (girl/boy)friend?

    I’ve had coworkers that I’d barely spoken with ask me for recommendations. I had one guy ask me for a public (LinkedIn) recommendation of him as a ‘social media writer’ – the only problem was that my only opinion of his writing was that it was, um, not fit to be read.

    I’ve never known what to say or do in those situations, so I usually just awkwardly avoid responding. Not ideal!

    What works for you?


  7. I’m not sure I really get this….

    If you think someone is good, you recommend the person.

    If you don’t think someone is good, you don’t recommend the person.

    A “favor” doesn’t imply that you’re recommending someone who doesn’t deserve it. “Favors” in general aren’t overrated. What is overrated — or rather, dangerous — is recommending people simply because you think you “have to.”

    The “trust your gut” line is a whole separate can of worms. Unless you’re really good and have experience at sizing people up, I’m not sure I would advise people to just trust their gut on a person. But, this is really a different topic!

  8. @Susan – An approach I’ve used is to just ask them right back, “What do you want me to say specifically?” Most will fumble and not really have a clear answer, so you can say, “Well I don’t know what to say if you don’t tell me.” Make them be explicit about it, then warn them that you fully expect them to deliver upon your word if you give it. But never make any promises — just say you’ll do what you can.

    I’ve had friends ask me, quite brazenly, to put in a good word for them with people who have taken months for me to gain credibility with. Asking for a good word is a selfish act, because you’re asking someone to put their cred on the line at no risk to you. It’s better to just remove “putting in a good word” from the equation altogether and have your friend prove their legitimacy the hard way: by earning it.

  9. @Nikc – Thanks for the kind words, and good thoughts on the ad industry. Ads are a way for artists to gain mass appeal instantly and get paid. Sell-outs!

    @patambron – Amen. It’s a sad state of affairs at most universities. They won’t wake up for a few more years.

  10. @Ben – Back then, I knew on the surface-level that it should be as simple as “If they’re good, recommend; if not, don’t.” But I didn’t follow that basic rule because I was an idiot. I had this naive assumption that if I put in a good word for someone, they would feel obligated to actually live up to my recommendation. Lesson learned.

    And trusting your gut is a different discussion, sure, but it shouldn’t be dismissed altogether in these scenarios. If you can discern when it sends up a warning flare, take heed. [By the way, have you written on this topic before?]

  11. Pingback: Developing Trust in the Industry | Front Street Asset

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