Similarities between Ad Agencies and Football Clubs

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time playing Football Manager 2014. Be warned, this entire article is a convoluted soccer analogy. 

Believe it or not, this is a game--a game people pay real money to play.
Believe it or not, this is a game–a game people pay real money to play.


Football Manager is a simulation game that lets the player control every aspect of a professional soccer club, including signing and managing players, developing tactics, talking to the media and more. Featuring real teams and real players, the game is highly regarded as one of the world’s most detailed simulations. It’s even used by some professional clubs as a scouting tool.

And for a lot of reasons, agencies and football clubs seem to have a lot in common.

The similarities between football and agency life are purely within the realm of “shower thoughts” but a quick analysis of those similarities reveals some interesting realities about operating any sort of organization. The terminology is different, but the behaviors are the same.


On the pitch, 11 soccer players try to score goals against an opposing team. Simple to explain, but hard to get right. Agencies actually operate in a similar way. In an agency, staff work against deadlines, conflicting demands and other challenges to successfully launch ads, campaigns and other items.

On the pitch, players have different roles and responsibilities, and we can see analogues in the agency world:

  • Defenders and Goalkeepers: Defenders make sure the other team doesn’t score. In an agency, that role typically falls to account services, who work to manage client relationships and set up the activities that have an impact up-field.
  • Midfielders: They control the pitch and the tempo. Working with all functions, project managers ensure that everyone has what they need to succeed, but can fall back to defend when good situations turn bad.
  • Wingers: Fast movers along the edges, strategists and account planners set up creatives for great executions. A good creative brief is like an accurate cross into a small opening.
  • Strikers: The goal scorers. Like the tip of the spear, creatives are the ones who produce the final product. With everyone else supporting creative, there are plenty of opportunities to score. But at the end of the day, it’s up to creative to execute.

Bearing these roles in mind, agency problems can arise when there’s a lack of chemistry or communication between functions. Other problems can arise when there aren’t enough “players” for a position. One midfielder isn’t enough to manage an entire field of play. Likewise, one project manager isn’t enough to run an entire agency’s accounts.

Player Attributes

In the sporting world, assigning players and coaches various stats for different skills is an effective way of measuring the strength of your team and identifying weaknesses.

In the agency world, we can potentially measure the skill of employees based on what they know (technical skills), how they think and interact with people (mental) and how they present themselves to others (physical). Below is a non-exhaustive shortlist of the skills we can use to measure the individual skills of agency people.

  • Creative Tools – The ability to use tools such as Illustrator and Photoshop
  • PM Tools – The ability to use Project Management tools and systems
  • Office Suite – The ability to use Microsoft Office tools, such as Word, Excel and Powerpoint
  • Business Acumen – Knowledge and understanding of client and internal business matters
  • Social Contacts – The number of valuable contacts you have; important for business development and solving business problems
  • Intelligence – How much you know about things in general–not necessarily related to marketing
  • Adaptability – How quickly you learn new things
  • Determination – How much passion you have for completing tasks
  • Idea Generation – Ability to creatively approach problems
  • Empathy – Ability to understand other people’s emotions and motivations
  • Leadership – How effective you are at organizing and motivating people to complete specific objectives
  • Ambition – How much desire you have to advance
  • Persuasion – Ability to convince people that your idea is the best idea
  • Style – How well you present yourself
  • Intimidation – How approachable you are
  • Energy – Your ability to keep on going
  • Health – How frequently you get sick (lower rank = more sick days)

Beyond all this is a measure of perceived value–how much a given employee believes he or she is worth to the agency. The higher this value, the higher salary the employee will demand.

Everyone in an agency would possess a ranking from 0 to 20. John Smith might have a 20  in Persuasion and a 0 in Ambition. He would be completely switched off, which is a shame because he could convince a client to accept really bold creative. Someone with 0 in Persuasion but 20 in Ambition would be relentlessly tone deaf, and frustrated at his inability to advance inside the organization.

Let’s play a quick game.

I’ve randomly generated faces (using this hilarious and amazing site: and random statistics for each of those attributes. Let’s judge six candidates as if we’re looking to staff an agency:


Creative Tools 3
PM Tools 14
Office Suite 11
Business Acumen 16
Social Contacts 15
Intelligence 19
Adaptability 7
Determination 16
Idea Generation 10
Empathy 14
Leadership 10
Ambition 4
Persuasion 17
Style 19
Intimidation 18
Energy 3
Health 15
Perceived Value (1-5) 3.06


Scout’s Notes: First, let’s not judge a book by its cover. I’m sure Ellie is more beautiful on the inside than on the outside. Now then, we’ll assume she sent her CV to our fake agency looking for any suitable job, so let’s see what she’s good at (>15):

  • Business Acumen – 16
  • Intelligence – 19
  • Determination – 16
  • Persuasion – 17
  • Style – 19
  • Intimidation – 18

Ellie is very smart and has the right skills for a good accounts person. He’s persuasive, stylish and intimidating, which means most clients wouldn’t mess with her. The fact that she’s got good business acumen means she can back her arguments up with solid knowledge. Now for her weaknesses (<5):

  • Creative Tools – 3
  • Ambition – 4
  • Energy – 3

Not many weaknesses. As an accounts person, she wouldn’t need to use creative software and the lack of energy and ambition might even be a good thing… under the right circumstances. Her lack of ambition means that she’ll likely want to stay in her current role for a long time, which means that turnover shouldn’t be a big problem. That said, she’ll never be an all-star. More of a solid performer.

And with a 3.06 PV rating (out of 5), she’ll be a little expensive, but as a long term investment, she’s worth it.



Creative Tools 18
PM Tools 3
Office Suite 17
Business Acumen 0
Social Contacts 4
Intelligence 1
Adaptability 8
Determination 6
Idea Generation 14
Empathy 2
Leadership 1
Ambition 14
Persuasion 10
Style 20
Intimidation 2
Energy 12
Health 12
Perceived Value (1-5) 2.12


Scout’s Notes: Marica, Marica, Marica… Great mullet. But is she an appropriate candidate? Let’s look at the good:

  • Creative Tools – 18
  • Office Suite – 17
  • Style – 20

That style ranking… Mullets are in apparently.  Now for the bad:

  • PM Tools – 3
  • Business Acumen – 0
  • Social Contacts – 4
  • Empathy – 2
  • Leadership – 1
  • Intimidation – 2

This person doesn’t even know what a business is. Her average stats across the board really don’t do her any favors in any of the other categories.

Utterly forgettable intern candidate. Pass.


Creative Tools 8
PM Tools 8
Office Suite 4
Business Acumen 7
Social Contacts 6
Intelligence 11
Adaptability 11
Determination 9
Idea Generation 16
Empathy 4
Leadership 4
Ambition 12
Persuasion 7
Style 7
Intimidation 7
Energy 11
Health 2
Perceived Value (1-5) 1.97


Scout’s Notes: Aside from his broken nose, Egbert could be a hero in disguise. Let’s see his positives:

Uh oh. Literally no stats above 12.  What are his particular weaknesses?

  • Office Suite – 4
  • Empathy – 4
  • Leadership – 4
  • Health – 2

Most of his other skills are below 10. Sickly. Poor leadership. Not good at Microsoft Word.

Poor Egbert.

Recommended to competing agency. Pass.


Creative Tools 9
PM Tools 16
Office Suite 18
Business Acumen 13
Social Contacts 9
Intelligence 13
Adaptability 8
Determination 18
Idea Generation 5
Empathy 6
Leadership 19
Ambition 6
Persuasion 2
Style 1
Intimidation 14
Energy 1
Health 15
Perceived Value (1-5) 2.54

Scout’s Notes: The random faces all have such strange noses. Maybe the applicants all came from a highly irradiated place. Pripyat, perhaps. At any rate, let’s meet Ellie:

  • Office Suite – 18
  • PM Tools – 16
  • Determination – 18
  • Leadership – 19

We might have a PM here. Let’s look at the downside:

  • Persuasion – 2
  • Style – 1
  • Energy – 1

Despite the fact that she might shut down after 11am each day, her determination means that the job will get done… eventually. Not a bad choice for a PM, since client-facing responsibilities would not necessarily be a major part of the job. Her PV of 2.54 makes her a reasonable addition to our team.



Creative Tools 14
PM Tools 5
Office Suite 12
Business Acumen 7
Social Contacts 10
Intelligence 6
Adaptability 18
Determination 19
Idea Generation 20
Empathy 17
Leadership 18
Ambition 15
Persuasion 14
Style 6
Intimidation 18
Energy 8
Health 18
Perceived Value (1-5) 3.31


Scout’s Notes: Look at this guy! Exhausted maybe, but has potential. On to the good stuff:

  • Adaptability – 18
  • Determination – 19
  • Idea Generation – 20
  • Empathy – 17
  • Leadership – 18
  • Intimidation – 18
  • Health – 18

And weaknesses?

None. While he’s not particularly intelligent, he could make a world-class creative director. He’s always changing his style to reflect the world around him, determined to get the job done and can lead others to greatness. His PV of 3.31 means that he’ll be a bit expensive, but with those stats, he’ll be worth it. And he almost never gets sick!




Creative Tools 3
PM Tools 18
Office Suite 9
Business Acumen 6
Social Contacts 4
Intelligence 1
Adaptability 3
Determination 13
Idea Generation 3
Empathy 9
Leadership 7
Ambition 5
Persuasion 8
Style 8
Intimidation 2
Energy 0
Health 8
Perceived Value (1-5) 1.57


Scout’s Notes: Ezra, something tells me you’ve gone through life rather misunderstood. Was it your eyes? Your teeth? Your lack of energy? Probably the teeth. Any redeeming characteristics?

  • PM Tools – 18

On the other hand:

  • Creative Tools – 3
  • Social Contacts – 4
  • Intelligence – 1
  • Adaptability – 3
  • Idea Generation – 3
  • Intimidation – 2
  • Energy – 0

Dumb, stubborn and listless. Ezra’s best ideas come out of his nose, which might be why he doesn’t have many friends. I’m sorry Ezra, but we can’t hire y–

What’s that? His father is the Global Head of Retail?

You’ll make a fine account planner, son. Hired.

Of course, not all statistics are created equal, but the exercise above illustrates an important factor in any organization’s staffing requirements: if you’ve got a limited budget, then you will have to make tradeoffs somewhere. Let’s say you have a budget that equates to a total PV of 3.5. With the candidates above, you could hire the amazing creative, Jian or you could hire two less skilled options, Ezra and Egbert. Do you need manpower (adding depth to the roster) or a single key addition to fill a gap (a play maker)?

The skills above refer to current skills, not potential ones. Ezra might very well be the world’s greatest strategist, but his stats wouldn’t reflect this. He might have potential value that is difficult to measure. In addition, some skills are very difficult to assess up front. Things like style or intelligence can be measured in an interview, but leadership could take months to manifest. That’s why a an all-star hire could turn out to be a flop.

And this, folks, is why we have probation periods.


Nothing else in the soccer world reminds me of agency life quite as much as transfers. Players are rarely loyal to their clubs the moment a good offer pops up. The same thing happens in agencies. When someone calls in sick, transfer rumors abound.  It doesn’t hurt that a fifth of the articles in industry publications are about senior transfers between agencies. Can you believe FC BBDO traded John to Saachi Utd? I’m shocked! I thought he was going to Real Edelman. 

Some people criticize soccer for the mercenary attitude of its top players, but at least the sport is honest about its disloyalty. A good manager is better off accepting reality, and view his or her team as a soccer team than as an American football team–which is bound by longer term contracts and team-loyalty. That recognition allows him or her to continuously develop the team to endure past turnover.

Star Players

I like agency life and I like soccer. Sure they’re both frustrating sometimes, but it can also be really rewarding when everything clicks into place and something great is produced.

I write this article today as the Philadelphia Union has defeated FC Dallas to go to the finals of the US Open Cup. In the semi-final match, Philly’s goalkeeper Zach MacMath saved two penalties which led the Union to its victory. Sometimes, no matter how strong your team is as a whole, a single player can make all the difference.

In the agency world, this is true too. Great ideas usually come from a single person. Committee-style brainstorming is often ineffective as it becomes a contest for people to decide who in the room is the smartest.

The agency world also hosts an incredible amount of self-styled experts and charlatans who rest on past successes or uncertain qualifications. Finding these weak links is very important. After all, with a great defense, a goalkeeper might go untested until it’s penalty time.

The Right Team

An all-star striker won’t accomplish much without the support of the rest of the team. Similarly, a well functioning office need not be comprised of amazing players; what’s more important is that the players play together effectively.

That last sentence is fodder for an inspirational poster, but it ought to be an uncomfortable reality for some people. If you are a brilliant writer, but don’t work well with others, then you are not necessarily as valuable to the agency as you might think.

In Football Manager, I can get an accurate appraisal of players and their collaborative qualities. Real life is much harder. But by thinking of the organizational systems common to both football and agencies, we can better approach the problems we frequently face within agency environments.

This was a silly article. Hope you enjoyed it.


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