39. Family Style, Free Agency or Alliances?

Welcome to Episode 39 of Navigating the Fustercluck—a podcast full of snackable insights to help you navigate the everchanging world of creativity & marketing. That’s why this episode explores 3 distinct employer/employee relationships:


  1. Family 
  2. Free agents
  3. Alliances


My name is Wegs, like eggs with a W, joining you from Deaf Mule Studios in Dallas, where we’re here to talk about something I know of firsthand: 


The Workplace is Changing


Once upon a time, you finished school and were on your way.


And along with countless others in the same situation, you stepped onto the career escalator and took the long, steady climb up.


Some got fast-tracked. And some waited their turn and got to the very top.


You did your share and eventually, you called it a day and complained about how the work was way better back in your day. (It wasn’t.)


The Escalator is Broken


Well, today, that escalator is broken. There is no steady climb. Companies don’t always keep you. No matter how hardworking you are. How loyal you are. Not even how talented you are. And if you’re over 40, you may find yourselves among those who feel that the industry no longer wants you. It may lead you to ask…


What Do You Call a Broken Escalator?


So, what’s the answer? What DO you call a broken elevator? Stairs. 

Yes…They. Are. Stairs. They may require more work on your part, but they will work. 


However, it will be more competitive. May even involve additional…ughhh…political skills. 


Disappointment Plus


That’s what this will be for some of you. Disappointment Plus. The realization that you may never find a place that feels like home, or people you think of as family. 

That “family” is no longer a concept that applies in the work world. That you may be changing jobs every 2-3 years. That things may never feel comfortable. But maybe you shouldn’t. After all…


There’s No Growth in the Comfort Zone and No Comfort in the Growth Zone.


Plus, think about it…Is the concept of family the best model we have?


Families Are Based on Unconditional Love


No matter what, your family has your back. Even when Uncle Al downs some overly fermented “cranberry sauce” at Thanksgiving and moons your neighbors’ dog, he’s still family. Unconditional love, however, doesn’t cut it at the office. Mistakes count. And sometimes the company changes and they just don’t need your skills anymore.


That said, family has its advantages. You grow roots. Make friends. Climb the ladder. And fundamentally, you feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourself. 


Hell High


On the flipside, family-style is often a recipe for favoritism, gossiping, politics bullying and drama. It can be a helluva like high school. Hell High, where different cliques trying to stake their claim to the running the office without paying enough attention to the actual business. And the work that builds it.


In fact, it’s not about the business, it’s about maintaining and controlling the bureaucracy. I’ve seen situations where people are quite willing to let things slide as long as they’re in charge. I think they believe that once they’ve eliminated their competition, that everything will be champagne & roses. Why? Because in their heads they’re the good guys. The smart ones. Amazing how many leaders get the notion that they’re the ones wearing the white hats and anyone who challenges their views wears a black hat. Check out our first 3 episodes, all focused on office politics to go more in depth on that…


Obedience Is Not Loyalty


I’ve also witnessed how family style agencies often confuse obedience with loyalty. Loyalty doesn’t mean that I support your every decision and move. Or that I take your side in any and all disputes. It means we share the same values and are working to uphold those ideals as we build something together.


The kind of “loyalty” too many people expect is very similar to another kind of family- A mafia family. And it can be just as deadly. To your culture that is.


So there are some of the pros and cons to the family -style approach. Now let’s compare and contrast that to the free agency style. What some people call…


Free Agent Nation


So, family style has its pros & cons. Well, what’s on the flipside? Well, the opposite of Family Style is probably Free Agent Nation. 


Free Agent Nation is not all good. And it’s not all bad. It depends on what you want out of the business. And out of life.


The Good, the Bad & the Ugly


Here’s the good. If you’re a lone wolf who loves the freedom of managing their own time and being their own boss, Free Agent Nation can be great. The money is good. You’re once removed from the office politics. And you can wear a onesie at home and don’t have to worry about breaking the dress code. 


Of course, business will ebb & flow and you spend a lot of time putting yourself out there. But build your clientele up and you’ve got some freedom.


The Bad


The bad is that you may not come face-to-face with the politics, you may feel their reverberations. If your person leaves, will you still receive work. Will you get plum assignments? Will you ever shoot anything? Will your portfolio grow stale? These are things to consider.


The Ugly


You grow tired of being on an island. No sense of connection. Drifting into irrelevance. These are the ugly possibilities. At least those are the fears.


Is There a Happy Medium?


OK, so far I haven’t laid out a particularly pretty picture for either the Family Style Approach of Free Agent Nation. Is there another way? Why yes. And it’s not perfect either! But it may make the most sense for today’s landscape.


Let’s call it…


The Team Approach


Warning! Warning! Sports analogy coming. Sports analogy coming. 


But I promise this one will make sense to everyone, including those who hate sports.


The San Antonio Spurs


Over the course of 15 years, the Spurs won the NBA Championship 5 times. Do you know how many players were on all 5 of those teams? One. Tim Duncan.


Now there were others who were there for multiple rings but only one was there throughout. Yet, the Spurs are considered one of the most tightknit “families” in all sports. The players understand the system. Respect the system and play the system. And sometimes that means that they will no longer be on the team. Yet most would love to come back. And many do boomerang back.


The one thing everyone understands? Things change. So they stay flexible. And by learning this system they are more attractive to other teams. The same can be true of creative teams. Needs change. And roles evolve. Take permalancers for instance.




Permalancers are people who are often on retainer for 10-20 hours a week. They offer flexibility and they receive flexibility. And they like it. There’s some baseline security with the opportunity to stretch their talents at multiple places. Or spend more time with their families. And so on and so forth.


There are also other less than permanent roles developing.


Some are laid out in the The Alliance, a book by Chris Yeh, Ben Casnocha and Reid Hoffman the co-founder of LinkedIn. They talk about employers and employees looking out for one another as allies rather than as family or free agents. This takes place primarily in 3 different ways and positions:


  1. Rotational
  2. Transformational
  3. Foundational


The common denominator is that each comes with a tour of duty that has a pre-defined window of time attached to it.




These are people brought in for 1-3 years to plug basic holes while being given the opportunity to earn another tour at a higher level. It’s like a more structured and serious internship. And if the training is at a high level, that’s not a bad thing.




These roles are more individualized and often last 3-5 years. They’re transformational for both the individual and the company. In advertising it may be someone from Silicon Valley coming in to transform an innovation approach. A digital expert or engineer.




This is the one relationship that may be permanent. It’s more about the things that don’t change- core values. These tend to be long-term leaders. Though I question why holding companies tend to hold onto agency leaders so long. Too many would not be missed if they were let go.


  1. Rotational
  2. Transformational
  3. Foundational


Again, that’s from, The Alliance by Reid Hoffman.


A book that sees the working relationship as neither familial nor free agency. But rather mutually advantageous short-term tours.


Time to Take a Short Breather… (EXHALE.)


…We’re here at Deaf Mule Studios to remind everyone that this is Navigating the Fustercluck. And I’m your host, Wegs. Before we close out…




I’m a pretty easygoing guy. Fairly flexible. I can go with the flow regardless of the system. Yet, even though it’s not so fashionable right now, I lean toward Family Style. Why? Because I’m a builder. And perhaps I’m just egotistical enough to believe that I can help grow a sustainable culture that can avoid the pitfalls laid out earlier. We all have different personalities and styles. You’ll have to decide for yourself what system works best for you. Or create another way.


Well, that about wraps up our 38th episode of Navigating the Fustercluck. 

Here from Deaf Mule Studios, I’m your host, Wegs, like eggs with a W, and thanks again for listening in. Until next time, please feel free to reach out to me personally at wegs24x7@gmail.com or NavigatingTheFustercluck.com, where you can find transcripts to this episode and every other of our 31 efforts. Finally , remember, we’re all in this together. So thanks for hanging in there. Here’s to you. Here’s to the future.