Commentary

Inhuman Trafficking

As if frozen in time, the 100-year-old job-jacket, or its digital equivalent, the job-ticket, is still ubiquitous in the agency world. The process called trafficking is a method of breaking client project and campaign work into tiny pieces, then distributing each piece only to the party responsible. It seems innocuous enough, but it contains some of the worst management practices ever devised. And it’s increasingly at odds with our Millennial-based workforce and the demand for marketing innovation and integration.  

A surprising number of agencies still use a physical trafficking model – with expediters or traffickers carrying plastic job jackets from desk to desk – but most use a digital equivalent, the ticketing or job workflow systems. These systems do reduce lost job jackets or routing delays, but they do nothing to counteract the negative effects of this antiquated model. 

Breaking down and parceling out work is known as Scientific Management. It hails from the production lines of the early 1900s, when unskilled and uneducated rural folk migrated to cities to work in factories. The model assumed that workers could neither understand nor care about the bigger picture – what their jobs were for – and would shirk work whenever possible. Management was to provide the risk of punishment as the key incentive for productivity. Other aspects included work-time standards, which today persist in soul-deadening trafficking instructions as, “Design gets 1.5 hours to finish this.”  

To be fair, mid-20th Century agencies were much more like assembly lines, with relatively unskilled workers doing highly repetitive print work. Today, though, marketing demands almost constant innovation, adaptation, integration, and velocity that can only be satisfied through collaboration and teamwork – something no assembly line can provide. 

Even 70 years ago, management theorists realized that reducing work into almost meaningless pieces, over-managing workers, and restricting information tended to de-skill and de-humanize the workplace. The very act of splitting work and people’s time into tiny pieces makes them feel like interchangeable “means of production.” They’re not: they’re people. 

Quite the opposite, today’s Millennial knowledge workers often know more than agency management about specific marketing methods or technologies. Most important, they are extremely motivated. The dumbing down of work, and the implied control and punishment system is pretty much the opposite of what is needed.  

Don’t get me wrong – you can run an agency using a trafficking model. It is just that you’re missing a whole lot. You’re losing workers to the endless and uninspired grind. You’re losing productivity to the almost constant thrashing as workers get pushed and pulled from project to project, client to client. Trafficking methods assume these changes have negligible impact, yet empirical research shows that they carry a high cost. Major context shifts take 15 to 30 minutes of transition time in lost productivity, and unplanned shifts extract an even higher toll on worker stamina and morale.  

These costs become obvious when you replace trafficking with a self-managed team model. Instead of assigning piecework with instructions, managing output and translating to final result, you let the teams tackle the end objective together. Worker engagement, quality of work, speed of work, and client satisfaction rise dramatically. 

Agencies can resuscitate creativity, morale and innovation by eliminating trafficking and workflow systems, which are the last vestiges of 1920s factory management practices. Successful agencies will innovate in management the same way that they advise their clients to innovate in marketing: Adapt to the new generation of consumer/worker, give them what they want, and eliminate the rest. 

2 comments about "Inhuman Trafficking".
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  1. Adam Higdon from Adobe, May 22, 2015 at 7:39 a.m.

    Your title is in epically poor taste.  That's the limit of your creative ability?  Or are so you so dull to plight of millions of women and children being taken from their homes every year and forced into being sex slaves.

  2. M Huang from Freelancer, September 7, 2015 at 9:17 p.m.

    I think we'll always have a battle with people who sell the work vs. people that want to create the work unfortunately. Hopefully one day we'll all find a way to live symbiotically and create wonderful work that is meaningful for everyone.

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