The lack of formal titles can tell you a lot about an agency

A title really should explain what a person does, one would think. In PR, where clear communications is the backbone of the discipline, this would be especially true, wouldn't it? By Gideon Fidelzeid

Everyone remembers Gordon Gekko's iconic "Greed is Good" speech from the classic 1987 film Wall Street. The part I recall most vividly is his rant against the "33 different vice presidents" at fictional company Teldar Paper. "I have spent the last two months analyzing what all these guys do," says Michael Douglas' Gekko, "and I still can't figure it out."

A title really should explain what a person does, one would think. In PR, where clear communications is the backbone of the discipline, this would be especially true, wouldn't it? So I began to think of firms where employees have rather creative titles - one small agency comes to mind whose partners go by "left brain" and "right brain" - and those whose employees have no titles at all. In the latter case, I wondered if the lack of identification indicated uncertainty or perhaps a lack of organization.

In speaking with individuals representing such firms, it's apparent that quite a bit of thought went into going title-less.

"Many of us have lived at firms where the emphasis was totally on getting the next title," recalled one agency leader. "Taking those away reminds people that it's about the work."

Further examination of this philosophy reveals that a lack of titles can be quite empowering, particularly at the junior and senior levels. A younger staffer might not feel pigeonholed into a set type of work. If you're equally titled to those more senior than yourself, you might be inclined to tackle more challenging tasks.

"At the most senior level," that same agency head added, "not having a title lets me really focus on the best counsel."

The executive went on to note how stacked titles could create a culture where people really get caught up in who has the right to talk to whom, who should and shouldn't be on a pitch team, etc.

Should all firms eschew titles? Certainly not. Titles provide structure. They motivate employees to strive for that obvious next level. In many cases, the organized environment that these titles espouse enables individuals to do their best work.

I have come to appreciate that a lack of titles can be viewed as a representation of that agency's entrepreneurial culture, particularly in-house. Indeed, some people can - and do - thrive in such an environment. But in terms of external outreach, these firms carry an extra responsibility of being very clear about who handles various tasks. A lack of titles can clearly work on the inside, but it really has to make sense on the outside, too. After all, you don't want the media or, worse still, a potential client quoting Gekko about you.

Gideon Fidelzeid is the senior editor at PRWeek. He can be reached at gideon.fidelzeid@prweek.com.

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