26 April 2013

Book Review: Work Like A Spy

Work Like A Spy: Business Tips from a Former CIA Officer
By J.C. Carleson
Portfolio/Penguin, 192 pages

There’s an industry blog called Agency Spy that purports to be “deep inside” your agency.  

They’ve got nothing on the CIA.

Work Like A Spy explains how CIA practices might work in the business world.  It’s been reviewed on that general premise (here and here) so this post concentrates on how practices at “The Agency” might work at your agency.  In what ways are secret agents and advertising agents similar?

What’s It Like to Work Like A Spy?

J.C. Carleson (a pseudonym, of course) was both a CIA case officer and a corporate executive.  If you’re squeamish about taking advice from the CIA, start by reading the last two pages of the book, which summarize her advice – and her ethical standards.  Her advice in one sentence is that getting information important to your business “is a matter of asking the right people the right questions in the right way.”  Is that “right way” ethical?  According to Carleson, “It is possible to use clandestine techniques to get ahead in the corporate world while still maintaining your integrity.”  If you don’t believe her, then put down the book. 

Those who press on will get Carleson’s advice in three parts:  an introduction to the clandestine world; how to apply clandestine techniques internally; how to apply them externally.  Sprinkled throughout are CIA stories generally less exciting than James Bond – but one of her main themes is that typical CIA work resembles typical corporate work more than it resembles the typical Hollywood treatment.

It’s important to point out that, like any book by former CIA employees, Work Like A Spy had to be vetted by “The Agency”.  This may account for generally bland tonality, occasionally ham-handed editing, and overly-obvious appeals to ethics.  On the other hand, this book is virtually free of business jargon.

It’s also a relatively short book, worth one airplane ride to the client.

Secret Agents and Advertising Agents

Here are the passages most applicable to the advertising world.

Hiring People (pages 89-98).  Advertising depends on the right people on the right teams, so we might derive some lessons from the government agency with the disproportionately largest budget for recruiting and hiring.  One amusing line is that the ideal CIA candidate is “a Boy Scout with a latent dark side” – admit it, you work with some of those.  Some of the strategies ring true for agencies:  encourage frequent rotation, make room for lone wolves, etc.  Others sound obvious, but do we really practice them?  For example, mixing groups that don’t normally interact could be done more regularly in large agencies.

Keeping Clients (pages 185-189).  As clients continue to stray from the AOR model, bringing in multiple agencies on the same brand, agencies will feel freer to poach each other’s business.  Carleson’s advice is to study the competition’s M.O., exploit their major changes (we all have them these days), and fight back against their attempts to spy on you.  Not everyone in this business is ethical (ha!) and you can be sure some skullduggery is afoot.  Earlier, in Chapter 3, Carleson gives good advice on protecting your agency’s secrets – doubly important because these are often also your client’s secrets.

Winning Business (pages 144-156).  The author knows something about “Making a Sale” (the name of this chapter) given that her job was to convince someone to betray their own country – with really bad consequences if they got caught.  There is a ton of great advice; each one of the eight techniques listed merits some consideration.  Taking a step back, though, the real value of this section is that it reminds you we are in a relationship business.


A key theme of this book is “elicitation”:  You gain information and insight not by dirty tricks, not by interrogation, and not even by direct questions.  Think about consumer research.  Don’t you love focus group questions like “Just why do you like this layout better than that one?”  The idea is that you can get the answers you need from listening and patience. 

Indeed, these are also the foundations of good relationships.  “A good CIA officer,” Carleson writes, “is charismatic without being flashy, inquisitive without being nosy, friendly without being boisterous, smart without being pedantic, and confident without seeming arrogant.  Above all, a good spy is a great listener.”  

That sounds like the kind of person I’d like to work with in an ad agency.  As long as they’re on my side, of course.

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