Don’t Forget Murtaugh: The Lethal Weapon Conundrum

If you bring up “Lethal Weapon”, everybody remembers Mel Gibson. And why not? His character, Martin Riggs, is an iconic action hero, powerful, skillful, but flawed.

What many people forget is that there’s a strong argument for Danny Glover’s Roger Murtaugh being the main character. He’s the guy we spend more time with initially. He’s a dependable family man and has strong detective skills. But Murtaugh doesn’t bring the spectacle the way Riggs does.

How is this relevant to supporting your Copywriting, Editorial, or even Design team? In my experience, the clients always want Riggs, even when Murtaugh may be the professional who they really need. And it’s your job to help lead them to the truth.

For a few years, our team consisted of one Senior Copywriter (let’s call her Riggs) backed up by a number of freelance Copywriters (collectively, Murtaugh). Riggs was an excellent writer with good client-facing skills and also a very visible presence around the office. The same could not always be said of Murtaugh who, despite being very capable, didn’t have the same high profile and… pizazz.

Thing is, you don’t always need Riggs. Often, solid, dependable Murtaugh can get the job done just as well – in some cases, even better, and with less drama. Additionally, one of the problems with Riggs is the cost that comes with him. In the “Lethal Weapon” franchise, that cost comes in the form of explosions, property damage, and high body count. In the office, the cost is more likely to come in the form, of, well, literal extra cost. Depending on your model, your clients may not care about the added expense, but it’s rarely in their best interests to constantly use a higher-end, more expensive resource like a Senior Copywriter when a Copywriter can do the work.

Beyond the financial aspect, there’s potential negative impact to the team. When senior members are used primarily, they are often forced to work below their ability and your Riggs may get bored with the lower end assignments and jump ship for a new movie franchise. At the same time, junior members are not given the opportunity to develop. This leads to frustration – and quite possible possibly attrition – all around.

So how can you train your clients? Most importantly, don’t be afraid to say no. We all want our clients to be happy, but that doesn’t mean we should give them something that’s not in their best interests in the long run. I had a period where everyone always asked for Riggs –all the time! There were days that it seemed like I had to say no to those requests just to make a strategic point. The battle to teach the clients that there were other resources worth exploring was all uphill, but it was a worthy battle.

We also had a lot of success with hand-offs. Send Riggs in first, then let Murtaugh follow behind. In this way, the clients feel that they’re getting the attention they want, but they gradually learn to respect the skills of Murtaugh to the point that they eventually don’t even miss that Riggs is no longer showing up first to clear the room, guns blazing.

Another vital thing we can do beyond managing the Riggs scenarios is to protect our people. Even though my Copywriters were the ones on the frontline, often interfacing directly with clients more than I did, I made it clear to all parties that all assignments had to go through me. A small part of this was about control, but mostly, it was about protection and making sure that I, not my team members, would be the one on the hook to deliver bad news. It’s often seductively easy for a team member to just say, “Sure! I can work on that project, too!” but that can be a slippery slope that I make every attempt to manage.

Finally, I suggest that you offer services, not people. During the time in which the need for our Copy team grew most dramatically, everyone who asked for Riggs (meaning everyone) asked for her by name. I always asked why they wanted Riggs – was it level of experience, prior knowledge of a given product, or just comfort? Regardless of what they said, I promised them a resource that matched their needs, but never promised to deliver Riggs. If Murtaugh was more appropriate, I would explain why, and, in some cases, would also ask Riggs to offer a recommendation of support. Needless to say, there were times the clients weren’t happy, but those times became rarer and rarer as the clients realized their needs were being met by a wider variety of talent.

One of my most satisfying days managing the Copy team came when our most difficult client requested support by saying “I need someone like Murtaugh.” Not only was he acknowledging that he would accept the appropriate level of support, but he was requesting the service, not the person, a victory as sweet as Riggs besting Mister Joshua at the end of the first “Lethal Weapon” movie.

George Krubski is an Associate Studio Manager at Merck Creative Studios (managed by The BOSS Group & Cella). In this role he oversees an editorial team two-dozen strong and supports implementation of studio-wide initiatives. George has two decades of experience as an editor, writer, and manager. He has helped build, rebuild, or develop editorial teams at a half-dozen organizations.

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