The Stanford Prison Experiment is a famous psychological study from 1971. A bunch of university students in California were paid to be shut in a makeshift prison, then randomly assigned as either prisoners or guards. Researchers sat back to see what would happen.
Things got ugly.
The students were soon behaving as though their respective roles were rightfully deserved as opposed to random. The guards became authoritarian, bullying and even sadistic - even though the prisoners were just fellow students who'd done nothing wrong. The experiment was stopped early to prevent it getting out of hand.
A real-life simulation of this experiment is being carried out on a daily basis in offices around the world. Individuals with roughly the same background and abilities find themselves split into either clients or suppliers and assigned to work together.
Things can get ugly.
Given the imbalance of power this situation can slide into psychological bullying, unreasonable demands and unrealistic expectations.
Working in advertising - or in most white-collar industries - generally makes you a prisoner. Here are a couple of times when the guards went bad.
'Just following orders'
A client company had started running an advertising campaign which was well loved and doing an excellent job for the brand. Their newly appointed CEO decided, for whimsical CEO reasons, that he didn't like it. He asked that the marketing team implement a new campaign similar to the one his old company used to do. The marketing team dutifully passed along the CEO's views to the agency and, because ignoring CEOs is considered bad for business, the agency did as it was told.
The resulting campaign was rather generic and went unnoticed by consumers. Sales went down. Before long the marketing team experience significant internal heat and the difficult choice of apportioning blame. They were faced with the option of sacking either the CEO, or the agency.
Spoiler alert, they didn't choose the CEO.
'There are no guarantees'
On one occasion we'd had spent months jumping through hoops for a particularly demanding set of clients. They seemed more interested in making changes in order to prolong the process rather than to improve the outcome. Eventually they became keen on a script, a really exciting script, but demanded another round of changes before they had another look at it.
The agency was up all night making the amendments then re-presented the script. The senior client nodded thoughtfully as I read out the new version. The room was quiet as the junior clients waited for their boss to give his opinion first so that they could all agree with it.
"So, Paul," the senior client said to me. "Can you guarantee that this script would win a Gold Award at the Cannes Festival?"
"Hard to say," I said, admiring the passive-aggressive nature of the question. "But it could have done without all those changes."
The junior clients suddenly became fascinated by the inner workings of their pens. My colleagues started mentally reviewing their CVs.
They were going to fire us. I just let him know that I knew too.
'I love it! No, wait ...'
One Friday afternoon I sat with a client and a creative team as we presented a campaign. The client was ecstatic. We'd had a number of meetings and we were all now on the same page. "Brilliant, you've done it," he said. "That's exactly what I've been looking for. Great job. Well done, guys."
We shook hands, opened some celebratory beers and discussed casting for the TV ad. We all went home happily to enjoy our weekends.
The following week the client rang up the agency CEO to tell us that we were fired.
To this day I have no idea on what basis he made that decision.
No one here gets out alive.
The likelihood is that during their career the mediocre individual will be both a prison guard and a prisoner. Sometimes even at the same time.
Being a prison guard is generally easier, but try not to abuse your position and remember that it could just as easily have been you on the other side.
If you're a prisoner, I'm afraid things can be a little tougher. Unlike in Stanford, it's very difficult to shut down the experiment and get on with your life.
Still, not to worry.
With time off for good behaviour, you should be out in 30 years.
• Paul Catmur worked in Advertising at a quite good level across New Zealand, the UK and Australia including co-founding an agency in Auckland. This is a series of articles about how to make the best out of not being the best