As an agency owner, you know that if you’re not ready to evolve your agency, you’d better get ready to retire. The agency business is undergoing an incredible metamorphosis and most agency owners are running at full speed to keep up.
That’s where my conversation with Jason Falls, Senior Vice-President, Digital Strategy at Elasticity and author of several books on social fmedia and email marketing, started. (listen to the podcast here) From there we move to agency hierarchy and structure, the impact of millennials on current day politics and the importance of developing coopetition with other agencies.
It’s a whirlwind hour of debate, stories and a few good laughs. I think you’ll not only enjoy it, but you’ll also get some insights on coopetition that you can put into play right away.
To listen – you can visit the Build A Better Agency site (http://buildabetteragency.com/jason-falls/) and grab either the iTunes or Stitcher files or just listen to it from the web.
If you’d rather just read the conversation, the transcript is below.
If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Build a Better Agency, where we show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invest in employees, and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25 plus years of expertise as both an agency owner and agency consultant to you, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.
Drew: Hey everybody, this is Drew McLellan, and I am really excited to be with you today. As an agency owner, I know all too well the risks we take every day. This podcast is about making sure if we’re going to take the risk we also get to enjoy the rewards. Along with running my agency for the last 20 years, I also work with over 200 small to mid-size agency owners every year, helping them retool their agencies, so they get the rewards of their efforts. The podcast is really my way of extending that work, and trying to help more agency owners just like you.
That’s why I’m really excited today to have our guest Jason Falls with us. I think he’s going to really have a lot to say about how we need to retool and reinvent our agencies for the future. Let me tell you a little bit about Jason for those of you who may be unfamiliar with him. Jason is actually one of the most widely read and respected voices in digital marketing and social media industries today. If you have been online at all in the last decade you probably are very familiar with him probably, already following Jason. He leads digital strategy for Elasticity, and he also shares his no-nonsense ideas regularly at his own website, JasonFalls.com. He loves his hometown, Louisville, sports, and bourbon. He’s also written some great books that many of you are probably already familiar with, but if not you need to get familiar. One of them is called “No Bullshit Social Media,” and the other is “The Rebel’s Guide to Email Marketing.” With that, Jason, welcome to the podcast.
Jason: Thanks for having me, Drew. Great to be here.
Drew: Glad to have you. So give everybody an idea. You have an interesting professional history in terms of you’ve been on the agency a couple times. You’ve been on the client side. Give everyone a sense of the breadth of your exposure to the business.
Jason: Sure. My first real teeth cutting in the marketing communications world was witnessing it all as I was growing up. My mother was the editor of a local newspaper in a small town, and I was just a fly on the wall in the office. Graduated through that process, and worked at a radio station when I was a teenager. I spent 15 years as a PR guy in college athletics, they call them…well, they used to call them sports information directors. And so I was really on the client side more than anything else on the brand side, but had very limited exposure to agencies until the early to mid 2000s. I got out of college athletics when my son was born, and started working at Doe-Anderson, which is a national advertising agency in Louisville, Kentucky. I was on the PR team there, but that was when social media was really starting to blow up.
I started offering up ideas to our clients, and before you knew it I was director of social media, then vice president and director of interactive. I was at the agency there for about four years, I branched out on my own and started Social Media Explorer, which was the name of my blog, then became my business. It grew into a small boutique agency that I later sold to a business partner, because I got lured away by CafePress to go work on the brand side of the internet retailer for a few years. Then about a year ago I made the transition away from CafePress back to the agency side of things at Elasticity. So you’re right, I’ve been on a couple of different sides of the aisle and in several iterations, both at Doe-Anderson and at Social Media Explorer, and then now at Elasticity. I’ve had the really good fortune to partner with a lot of other agencies, so I’ve seen and worked with everyone from the big Omnicoms and BBDOs of the world, to the small one and two person consultancies, and everywhere in between, so I’ve gotten a lot of exposure to agencies over the years.
Drew: So what is it about agency life? Because I believe it is in our DNA. What is it about agency life that keeps luring you back?
Jason: It’s a combination of the flexibility that agency life offers, and the variety. You’re not doing the same thing every day. If you are, you’re probably just really good at that one thing and you really enjoy doing it, but you can almost not help to be jumping from task to task or from project to project, and working with very, very different clients, very different strategies, very different executions, and I enjoy the variety. I don’t know that I would blame it on attention deficit disorder, but I would certainly blame it on the fact that I’m not easily sucked into a long drawn out process. I like variety in my day.
I really think it’s just that variety of challenge, and variety of content that you deal with and certainly the variety of clients. I’ve gone from sitting in meetings with a legal team for a bank to working with alcohol, wine and spirits brands, to working with consumer product good retail folks, and I enjoy having a breadth of experience that encompasses all of that.
Drew: Yeah, I think there is, for some folks it is, a little bit of the attention deficit thing, but I also think it’s we enjoy the constant challenge, and you’re right. When you have to run from one meeting to another and one meeting you’re talking about banking regulations and the next you’re talking about varieties of wine, it forces you to use all aspects of your brain for sure.
Jason: You’ve got to come ready to work because you can’t get bogged down.
Drew: Yeah. You’ve also been around for a while, and you’ve seen the evolution of agencies, and I know you were on the cutting edge of when social was a big phenomena that is now just the norm for all of us today. But you’ve watched agencies try to evolve over time, and I’m curious about it. What do you think that agencies…where do you think they’re missing the boat? What are agencies missing? If an agency is struggling today, where have they missed in the evolution chain? Where do they need to go?
Jason: Well, I still think that even though social and digital has become very much the norm for a lot of agencies, I still think a lot are still missing the boat. I think there are way too many agencies out there that are still leading with above the line advertising, and maybe it’s because that’s what they’re really good at. If that’s what you’re really good at, and you don’t have the digital capabilities, that’s okay. The disciplines have been even further divided with the digital explosion. I think it’s okay now to say, “Hey we’re an above the line creative agency,” or, “We’re a branding agency,” or, “We’re just digital,” or, “We really just do email.” I think that division of labor and division of expertise throughout the industry has been good in a lot of ways, because you have specialists now. Whereas, 20 years ago, one agency said they handled everything, and they might subcontract out half the work, but they at least sold the fact that they had every discipline in-house.
But I see so many agencies, especially the big ones, the larger the agency, the more the deficit is on the digital and social side of things. People don’t realize that social is no longer an add-on, social is no longer just something that you can upsell a client on to get a few more dollars in your retainer every month. You’ve got to, most companies these days have got to have some sort of direct connection with their consumers in the online space, and if an agency that specializes in above the line advertising, or public relations, or whatever, doesn’t have that capability internally in-house, they’re not only missing the boat, but the overall integrated marketing that they try to offer their clients is going to lose something. It’s going to be missing a critical component.
I still see many, many, many agencies that are missing that. The other thing that I think many agencies are missing are the humility and the ability to say, “Hey you know what? We don’t have to do everything. We can partner with other agencies that are somewhat like us, but that are stronger in areas that we’re weak.” I’ve had more fun, and have had more successful creative projects go through the agencies that I’ve worked with and the brands that I’ve worked with, when you’ve got multiple agency partners collaborating. Because you take one who does a really good job with point of sale, one that does a really good job with digital, one that does a really good job with above the line, and then another one that does a really good job with public relations. If you can somehow from the brand side manage those four or five components together so that they’re working together as a team, and not constantly trying to tug business away from each other, you get a pretty damn good end product. I think too many agencies are still far too territorial in how they approach their client work in terms of coopetition.
Drew: Yeah. I think that you probably just made a bunch of agency owners clutch at their chest when you talk about coopetition with other agencies, but we did some proprietary research last summer, and we were talking to CMOs about their agency relationships, and one of the things that like it or not came screaming out of that research was that most clients want to have multiple agency relationships, and they expect us all to get along.
Jason: Yeah, and I’ll be honest with you. In 15 years of working directly with, at or for agencies, and 25 or so years broadly in the business, I can still count on maybe both hands, but not more than both hands, the number of agencies that I’ve worked with over the years that were just really good strong collaborative partners that weren’t threatening to me, that didn’t feel threatened by me, and we got along really well. There’s been a handful of collaborative efforts over the years that I’m really, really proud of and have had a lot of fun working on, but there always seems to be a hesitation from the other agency partners that, “Hey we don’t want you coming after our business, but at the same time we’re going to go after your business, and we don’t trust you any farther than we can throw you and all that good stuff.”
I think if you can get past that and just realize that, “Hey we’re here to work on behalf of the brand and do what’s best for them. You’re going to benefit, I’m going to benefit and if we work together then the brand’s going to benefit. Let’s get all that nonsense out of the way and actually do some good work together.” I don’t see that very often still to this day. If we saw more of it I think we’d have a lot happier relationships with each other and the brands that we work with would be a lot happier too.
Drew: Well, my guess is that agencies would hang onto clients longer, because they would be part of that collaborative team that’s bringing them solutions that are delivering the results, right?
Jason: Absolutely. I don’t know what the number is now, but a few years ago, the average lifespan of a CMO was somewhere in the neighborhood…south of 23 months. It was less than two years, and part of that is because you have, it’s not the main reason, but part of that is because you have someone who has to go in and completely change or turn around the marketing, so they fire everybody that’s involved, all the agency partners that are involved with the brand, they clean house, they get their own people in there, and they’re given a very short leash with which to move and maneuver and make a difference. Then when they get new agency partners in there, the new agency partners come in and contribute to the problem by saying, “No. We’re holistic, we’re integrated, we do everything.” Even though secretly and quietly they’re going out and sub-contracting out half the work, because they don’t do everything. They’re just not brave enough or smart enough to admit it. Or another agency comes in, and it’s territorial, and there’s in-fighting and nobody trusts each other, and then the work suffers. The work suffers, the CMO gets fired again.
Drew: Yeah. I think the CMO tenure has extended a little, but I think it’s past 24 months, but it’s certainly not to 36, so still the problem exists. I think post-recession a lot of businesses are expecting very fast results, and when they don’t get them it’s pretty easy just to go, “Well you know what? We’re going to make the board of directors or the leadership team happy, we’re going to cut the CMO, and we’re going to start all over again.” CMOs are under an incredible amount of pressure I believe to deliver results and in a very tangible metric driven way, and I think that’s one of the things that a lot of agencies are struggling with is how to get to that more measurable metric driven model. Again, part of that is I think when you are playing outside of your sweet spot and you’re trying to do things that really aren’t in your core expertise, it’s pretty tough to deliver that level of quality that’s going to drive results for the client.
Jason: Yeah. When you talk about areas of communications and marketing like public relations and things of that nature, you’re looking at areas that until the digital age exploded, they have been very, very hard to measure. And so when you have boards of directors and CEOs and executive teams coming and saying to the CMO or even to the agency partners, “Look, we have to know what our return is. We’ve got to be able to measure everything infinitely.” Then you have 30 and 40 and 50-year-old PR firms coming to the table with, “Well, here’s your ad equivalency value.”
Today’s modern CMO looks at that and says, “Okay, you’re fired because that’s useless. That doesn’t tell me anything.” You’ve got this combination of problems of short CMO tenures, agencies not working well with one another, old school thinking where they have not adjusted to the fact that the media landscape and the ability to measure and whatnot has changed, and the old school thinking that digital is just a fad or it’s not something you need to lead with, and that leads to a whole heck of a lot of problems for agencies that…If we all sat down and just had a few more conversations as friends, colleagues and partners we could probably figure out.
Drew: Absolutely. If an owner is listening to this podcast, and they are reluctantly recognizing themselves in the description you just gave, what’s your recommendation or recipe for getting on the right path with a few of your business building strategies? What do they need to do first to ready their agency for the future do you believe?
Jason: I think the first thing you’ve got to do is be really honest with yourself. You’ve got to say, “We’re a full service advertising agency.” There’s a pretty good chance you’re not. There’s a pretty good chance you’re just lying to yourself when you say that. What you need to do is say, “Okay, where are we strong? Are we strong with media planning and buying? Are we strong with creative? Are we strong with digital? Are we strong with public relations? Where are our real strengths? What are we really good at? What’s our sweet spot?” Then conversely, be really honest with yourself about what your weaknesses are, and then look to agency partners. Look to people maybe within an agency network that you belong with. Maybe there’s another small boutique agency in town that doesn’t typically compete with you on the types of accounts that you go after, but they have a really good set of professionals and a really good approach to an area that you’re not strong in, whether it’s partnering with a digital marketing firm, or a PR firm or even a media house.
Find those partners that are not really that big of a competitive threat, but potential for coopetition, and reach out to them and say, “Hey we could both do a lot more business if we work together rather than apart. So let’s just do that as a partnership. Let me pitch your services when I’m out there going after business, you come to the table with me. And then you can pitch our services, and we’re probably going to be able to get more business together than we could apart.” I think being really honest with yourself on your strengths and weaknesses, and then identifying those people who are not really competitive threats but can be helpful to you, it’s really an enlightening eye opening exercise. I’ve done it a couple of times now, and it’s really interesting to see those people that you know work across town at that competitive place. You start to see them in a different light, and you start to appreciate their work a lot better to.
Drew: Absolutely. As you know, part of AMI are the owner peer networks, and I see agencies from across the country when they get to know each other and they’re in a safe space identifying, “Hey, you know what? You do PR a lot better than we do, and there’s an opportunity for both of us.” I see the partnering and actually what I see is both of their AGI’s going up, both of their pressure for new business going down, and the client relationships are stronger.
Jason: Absolutely. It’s funny. I’ll try to do this as diplomatically as possible. I was in on a bid for client work not too long ago, and it was for a combination website design and build and then content strategy. I put together a proposal and we did jump through all the hoops to do the pitching and all that good stuff. I’m not sure exactly what it came down to, it was that recent, I haven’t had the full download from the client yet, but we didn’t get the work. And a little disappointed, but at the same time, part of what they were leaning for was more of an agency that could do some brand…some digital branding work on the website side of the project, and the content piece of it was secondary, and we would probably be stronger on the content piece. Well, it turns out that two days later I happen to have a conversation with a friend of mine who works at another agency in town. They won the work because they’re really strong with digital branding. I said, “I know you guys won the work and congratulations. You actually beat me out for it.”
He said to me, “You know what? I was actually thinking we’re not real strong on the content piece. You guys are. I’d like to take you back to the brand as a partner.” That’s exactly the kind of relationship you should be looking for. Those are the kind of relationships between what I call coopetition. Competitors that you can cooperate with and collaborate with. Those are the kind of fruitful relationships that are going to add to your bottom line and your top line as an agency, both yours and theirs, and you’re going to have a lot more fun, and do a lot better work.
Drew: I could not agree more. Let’s say that an agency is open to this idea of coopetition. Are there some ground rules when you are either being approached by another agency or you want to approach another agency for partnership? What you’ve mentioned, that you’ve had several that have been successful. Were there some ground rules or some common understandings that eased both owners’ worries, or the pressure of, “Oh I’ve got a fox in my hen house” kind of a thing, that made that work better for you guys?
Jason: Well, just in my overall professional experience, you want to try to get as much of the relationship in writing as possible, because when it comes down to it, if there’s the possibility that that fox in the hen house is going to eat one of the hens, then you need to be able to have some formal policy and paperwork to turn back to and say, “Well, you messed this up, so we’ve got to fix it.” And there’s ways to put in those fixes. Getting things in writing is always advisable.
How it normally happens though is you just have a level of trust in your relationship built up with the principal at the other agency, and you can do the agreement on a handshake. Again, I don’t recommend that all the time, because having things in writing will cover your butt and theirs, but I think the key important piece of it is to include the brand. Include the client in the conversation, because if all three parties are very clear on where the lines are drawn, who’s responsible for what, and who’s not responsible for what, and the brand agrees and says, “Hey we like this relationship because agency A is really strong here, here and here, agency B is really strong there, there, and there, and working together you’re going to be able to collaborate to produce the best possible end product for us.” If everybody’s aware of all the components, you’ve got that brand person there for checks and balances, and it typically features a lot less teeth grinding and worry throughout the course of the relationship, because you’ve got that third party there to balance it all out.
Drew: Yeah. I think that’s a key point that again, this is where a lot of agency owners make their mistake. You have mentioned a couple times kind of try and do it in the skulk of darkness that you’re bringing in another partner, or that you’re farming some of the work out. That’s when it gets easy for misunderstandings and for people, on purpose or not, to cross the line. I think you’re right. I think when you are willing to bring the client into the conversation and be very clear about your expertise and where you have…you’re wanting, but yay for you, because you’re all about the partnership and the client, so you’ve brought a great partner to the table who balances out your weakness. I think that’s when it gets to be a much more collaborative environment, as opposed to a secret you’re keeping.
Jason: Exactly. Think of it like this. If you’re the owner of an agency, just put yourself into the role real quickly of being a strategic consultant. Let’s say you’ve retired, and you’re just going to be a strategic consultant. When the client comes to you for that strategic counsel, what’s your job? Your job is to give them that counsel, and then help them find the components that will execute on that council the most effective and efficient way possible. So look at the resources inside your agency as your preferred vendor set, and then look at the resources outside your agency as other vendors that you can choose from to take the best possible product to your client, because ultimately that’s your job. Yes, from an internal standpoint, you’re there to worry about the bottom line business growth, percentage growth, revenue growth for your agency, but when you really get down to it, your job is to take the best possible solution to that client at the end of the day. And the best possible solution more often than not is not completely included within the walls of your agency.
Drew: Yeah. Absolutely. As I listen you talk, I think about why wouldn’t every agency embrace coopetition? I think it’s a couple things. I’m curious for you to add to the list. I think one is agencies are so worried about the bottom line, and things have been tough for agencies over the last few years. I think they’re getting a lot better, but I think we still have that aftershock of the recession, and agency owners are still very conscious of making sure that they can hit the monthly nut and make payroll and do all of those things. When they think about a strategic partnership, they see dollars going out the door as opposed to a bigger pot of money for everybody. I also think there’s ego involved. I think you have to have a healthy ego to own an agency. I think you have to believe in yourself and be confident.
But I also think that every agency owner likes to believe that their shop is the end all and be all, as opposed to as you say being a little more honest with themselves and recognizing, “You know what? We are great at some things, but there are other things where we could either use some tutelage, or we could have a good partner with us.”
Jason: That’s true, and if you think about it, almost everybody that owns an agency, almost everybody that certainly is on the creative side of any agency, what do we do when we’re together with our colleagues? We look at our competition, we look at other agencies, and we tear them down. We say, “Oh, that’s a stupid business strategy, that didn’t work. I don’t know what those guys are thinking.” Well, that to me is like a bunch of junior high cheerleaders sitting around the lunch room table making fun of the girl with glasses right?
Jason: That’s what we’re doing in that situation. When you realize, when you grow up, and you get out into the real world, you realize, “You know what? She was actually a pretty smart girl, and I should have been a better friend to her back then.” We should be better friends to each other now, because when you peel back the bullshit, you get to the core of what these agencies really are and can do, and you realize that there’s a little bit of good in all of them somewhere, and if you find the little bit of good that maybe you’re missing, now you’ve got something pretty cool.
Drew: Absolutely. Yeah, you’re right. I think anybody who’s still standing today after ’08 probably has a pretty good job.
Jason: It’s true.
Drew: Yeah. So you’re back in the agency world, so you’re now thinking, you’re taking care clients, but you’re also thinking about the future, as part of the leadership of that agency. What’s on your radar screen for what’s coming down the pike?
Jason: Well, we are getting ready to enter a very interesting era in the history of marketing, and I don’t know that very many people are thinking about it and talking about it, quite in the way that I am, and I’m not saying I’m necessarily some big innovative thinker here. I just, I’m putting a slightly different spin on it. We’ve been talking about marketing to millennials for a long time now, but what you’re starting to now finally see is millennials are gradually becoming, the buying power is shifting into their hands and their pockets. If you think about it, the presidential election that is coming up will be the first election that most millennials will have the opportunity to truly vote in, or most millennials, and then just a half a generation beyond the folks who were born around 2000.
It’s really going to be the first time that they’ve been able to vote and make a real impact in the presidential election. It’s also for the gen Y and the front end of millennials, it’s really the first time in their lives that they have true buying power, that they have a savings account, that they have discretionary income, and so the next five to 10 years is going to be very interesting for many industries, particularly those who are like financial services and health care and insurance that are behind everybody else by a half decade or so in the use of technology, in the use of mobile, in the use of digital, because this group of people that’s about to start to own a lot of power, not just from a buying perspective, but from a political perspective over the course of the next decade, these people consume their information very, very differently than the boomer generation or generation X even.
They get their information differently, they share and spread information at different rates than the previous generations that came before them, and so if you’re not already starting to adjust how you communicate with your audiences, what channels you choose, the frequency with which you get in front of them, you’re going to start to see declining returns I think, because you’ve already needed to start to have made that shift, and it’s only going to become amplified in the next few years. There are warning signs and I keep going back to the political spectrum.
There have been warning signs for the last few years in congressional races, in gubernatorial races and whatnot, that have…I think are interesting. You’re starting to see more and more independent, moderate, and middle of the road candidates garner more and more of the vote, and it’s because the democratic and the republican candidates are so polarizing now that they’re completely turning off this new generation of voters. There’s a very good possibility that the person who is elected president in 2016 might be a third party candidate or a candidate that none of us of are really even considering seriously now, because the person who wins is typically the person who comes up and has the fresh ideas as close to the election day as possible. And with this new generation of voters, that might be someone completely out of left field.
Dear God I hope it’s not Donald Trump personally, but at the same time, I think we’re getting ready to see a big shift in how people spend money, and therefore we’re getting ready to see a big shift in how we communicate with those people. So you’ve got to be thinking about technology, you’ve got to be thinking about digital channels and how people consume media and how frequency of reach has to be factored into getting in front of those audiences. The next ten years is going to be really interesting and you’re going to see a lot of brands who are still communicating the way they did in 1989 stay 1989 in terms of revenue gain and everything else. They’re not going to be going anywhere, because they’re going to be losing their audience.
Drew: That’s a really interesting point, because when we think about millennials today, either as agency owners or as business owners, we mostly think of them as the wet behind the ears employees who want completely different benefits, and don’t want to work past 5 o’clock, and fill in the blank, fill in the blank. But we really haven’t had to deal with them as a buying power yet, but you’re absolutely right. It’s funny because I was just talking to an agency owner the other day and he said, for the first time they’re starting to bump into clients who, people who are making the buying decision on the client side, are that first tier, that born in 2000 millennial, and that it’s a completely different game for them all of a sudden. So you’re right, that is going to be fascinating.
Jason: If you think about it, and this is really, really frightening. But if you think about it, there’s a whole generation in the next two years, three years, there’s an entire generation of people, or half generation of people, that are not going to remember 9/11. They were too young. I know it sucks for us, Drew, because we’re getting old enough. We can remember things from the ’70s and ’80s, and there’s plenty of people around that can’t remember that stuff, but we’re getting ready to run into a group of people who don’t know who Michael Jackson is, right?
Drew: Right, crazy.
Jason: The world is changing, and if we’re not changing with it, we’re going to…we’re going to all have to go be college professors.
Drew: Yeah. You’re so right about that. One of the things I love about agency life is that we can help clients recognize and move towards that kind of change with our own. I think that’s one of the things that makes agency life so exciting is that we can help our clients recognize things like that on the landscape that they’re either not, they’re either ignoring, because they don’t want to know, or they’re not…it’s not on their radar screen. That’s our job I think to help them look down into the future and go, “Oh, oh, that’s coming. We better start thinking about that now.”
Jason: Yeah. Our job is professional figure-outers.
Drew: Isn’t that the truth?
Jason: So we’ve got to start doing that, don’t we?
Drew: Is that what’s on your business card?
Jason: Exactly. That would make a good one. I actually think I have “Director of Bourbon Consumption Strategies” on my business card right now, but I like “professional Figure-outer” better.
Drew: Well, the bourbon thing can just be the hobby right?
Drew: As we talk about all of these things, it’s daunting when you think about, I believe, it’s more challenging today to own or run or be a leader in an agency than ever before. That rate of change is faster than we’ve ever seen. To your point, you and I have been around the block for a long time, and things are changing much faster in this phase of my career than they were when I first got my first agency job. How do you stay current? How do you…given that we’ve got to be always future facing, and we’ve got to wrap our arms around this idea that we can’t be everything to everybody, and we’ve got to be more collaborative. How do you stay on top of all of those things, and how do you keep your brain fresh?
Jason: The answer that question for me is I just ask a lot of questions. It’s not just reading the Wireds and the Fast Companys, and the other digital publications and marketing publications even, that focus on the age of technology and the changes that we’re seeing. I’m fortunate to have a handful of nieces and nephews who are teenagers, and so I’m constantly asking them about how are you communicating? What are the new technologies that you’re using? Show me your favorite apps on your phone. I have a 10-year old son and a 7-year old daughter, and so they’re not quite to the point of having their own devices yet. But I’m going to be tapping into them over the course the next few years to find out how the younger generations are doing this, because that’s going to at least keep me somewhat balanced.
It’s really just asking the questions and making sure that you’re continually plugged into groups of people that you’re not…that’s not your sweet spot. I’m in my mid 40s and I’m on the back end of generation X I guess, if you want to say the older end of generation X. It’s not unusual to see me at a young advertising professional event or organization, or talking to people who are in their early 20s who are account folks at agencies, and finding out how do they work? How do they talk? How do they communicate? How are they dealing with their clients? Are they viewing their clients differently than I did when I was that age?
Just trying to keep abreast and ask a lot of questions to figure out how different types of people are communicating, how they’re sharing information, who they’re sharing that information with. Then, of course, I think it’s always good, and some agencies have a really good habit of doing this and some don’t, but I think it’s always good to keep your finger on the pulse of the existing research on consumers and consumer segments out there. Whether you’re a subscriber for Gartner or Forrester or Edison Research, or any of the good research firms out there that do consumer profiles of who’s using media and how they’re consuming it.
You just have to know that stuff and you have to constantly refresh yourself to know how people are using other mediums and how communication works these days because even all of us who are supposed to be the best communicators fail in communicating about 80% of the time. We have to constantly be filling our heads with as much new information as possible, and that’s everything from sitting down playing video games with your kids or your grandkids to picking up a new device in the mall and playing with it to see how it works. To reading the blogs of the day in the tech world to see what the latest, greatest apps are out there for various types of phones. It’s our job to figure it out, so you’ve got to know the tools with which people are using to do those things, so that you can help solve those problems.
Drew: Absolutely. And so as a leader in an agency, how do you take that business building knowledge and that vision of here’s where we’re headed. How do you infuse that through the agency so that everyone is focused in the same direction?
Jason: Well, I think the most effective way that I’ve found to do it or that I’ve seen done, I’ve done it some, but it’s really been other leaders within the agencies that I’ve worked for, is really tearing down the hierarchy within your own agency. And when you have the all hands meetings and whatnot it’s not…the leadership team is talking to the account folks or talking to the minions as it were. It’s, “Hey we’re all sitting at the same table, and we’re all in the same business. So let’s all be equals here and let’s try to figure out how can we best solve problems for our clients.”
So whether it’s lunch and learns, whether it’s discussions on emerging technology, whether it’s having some of the wireless providers, the phone providers, come in and say, “Hey, here’s the new stuff coming out and so here’s how you need to be thinking about it.” And having even your younger generation folks sitting at the table with the executive team to say, “Oh I’ve seen that before. My friends use it, here’s how we’re…my age group is thinking about this type of device or whatnot.”
Everything you can do to flatten that organization so that everybody’s at the same table contributing to the same goal of producing the best possible results for your clients, I think the easier it’s going to be to infuse that vision throughout.
Drew: Yeah. Absolutely. I think a lot of agency owners are good at that, but I think it’s one of those things that it happens episodically and we need to be more purposeful about it.
Jason: Yeah, I think it’s one of the biggest frustrations I’ve heard from especially younger generations, who obviously feel somewhat more entitled I think than we did when we first joined the marketing ranks. The biggest complaint that I hear is that there’s so much that happens in the operation of an account or the operation of the agency that they’re not exposed to that we still have these silos, even if it’s just the executive silo over here, and then everybody else over there. We still have these silos that we feel like there’s got to be some protection of information, and we don’t want information to flow in and out of certain areas.
The most successful cultures I’ve seen in agency organizations are the ones where the information flows side to side as much as top to bottom. Again, it’s that flattening of the organization, and making sure that even the new folks who you bring on feel included in everything from the entire client project and strategy to the overall operations of the agency and how the agency health is going. I think you’ll find it very surprising how much more buy-in and enthusiasm you get from employees the more you share with them.
Drew: Yeah. One of the things I hear all the time when I’m leading an AE boot camp or something is the employees want to be a part of something, but they want to understand the vision, and they want their voice to matter, and so exactly what you’re describing that kind of culture.
Jason: Exactly, exactly.
Drew: As always, I love chatting with you, and even though we’re not doing it over a drink this time, I could do it for much longer, but I want to be mindful of our time and also the folks listening to the podcast. So, I want to get to the point where…one of my pet peeves about books are books or speeches or presentations where they don’t give me something tangible to go do. And one of the things I loved about both of your books, and I’ve certainly seen you speak a bunch of times, and one of the things I love about the way you communicate is that you always boil it down to really tangible action steps. So when you think about the conversation we’ve just had and you know that we have agency owners and other agency leaders listening to this, what are one or two things that they could do right now this week to take action on the kinds of things that we’ve been chatting about?
Jason: Well, it’s really easy, I think. The first thing you do is you sit down, maybe it’s with a cocktail tonight at home and you get out your journal or your pad of paper and your pen and you say, “Okay. Here are the big buckets of what we do as an agency. Now, let’s be honest, what are we really good at and what are we not so good at?” Just give yourself an honest assessment. If you need a little help, if you need a little encouragement, if you think your babies butt don’t stink, then call a couple friends in the agency. Maybe they work in other markets, maybe they used to work in your market and they’re familiar with you, or maybe it’s even somebody at a competitor who you trust. Somebody who’s a friend away from the office and say, “Okay. Hey give me a real rundown. What do you think our agency’s good at, and what do you think we struggle with?”
Do that for yourself and try to paint a real honest portrait of who you are, what you’re good at, and what your weaknesses are. And then maybe do the same for not necessarily your direct competitors in your market, but look at those smaller boutique firms around that you’ve heard of that they do good websites, or they do good public relations, or they’ve got a couple real good creative folks on their team, and see where there might be some partnership opportunities to balance out where you’re weak. And then take those folks to lunch, just go talk to them and say, “Hey, we’re in the same business. Let’s chat. I was thinking we’ve got a little bit of a deficiency in this area, you guys seem to be really good at it. Why don’t we talk about working together every now and then, see if it works out?”
Start the conversations. All you’ve got to do is start with making your list. What are you good at? What are you not so good at? Look at some of those smaller boutique firms around that maybe you know about, but you don’t know really well. Get to know them a little bit better and see if there’s gaps that they can help you fill. If you do those two or three things, you’re going to start to see some opportunities.
Drew: Awesome. All right. Any final thoughts on coopetition or something that you believe agency owners need to hear?
Jason: We’ve already said it. Look for partnerships. Focus really, really intently on delivering the best possible marketing and communication solutions to your clients, because that’s what your job is. And those solutions are not always within the four walls of your offices. And flatten that organization. Get your young people involved. Give them a little bit more access to how the agency’s nuts and bolts work, because you’ll be surprised at some of the contributions you can come up with when you do that.
Drew: Absolutely. I know how crazy busy you are. You were telling me before we started the recording what your travel schedule looks like, so I know what it takes to even carve out an hour. So thank you very much for making the time to do this and sharing your decades of experience with everybody listening. I really appreciate it.
Jason: Anytime Drew. Glad to do it.
Drew: Give everybody some ways that they can track you down if they want to follow you or learn more about your work, or read more of your writing.
Jason: Sure. I’m Jason Falls just about everywhere. It’s pretty easy. Falls is F-A-L-L-S, just like Niagara. So Jason Falls on Twitter, Jason Falls on Facebook, Skype, all the different social networks. JasonFalls.com is a real good hub to find not only some of my thoughts in writing but some links to my social networks and things of that nature. And then Elasticity, and we are very open to partnering with folks, we’re pretty strong with content marketing and creative, especially in the digital and social space, we’re at GoElastic.com. We’re headquartered in St. Louis. I run our office in Louisville. We also have a small office in Chicago, and we work with people all over the country. So would love to chat, even if it’s just a chat, or if we’ve got an opportunity to partner with you, we’d love to talk to you about that too.
Drew: Awesome. Thank you again my friend, it was great chatting with you, and I will catch up with you soon.
Jason: All right, Drew.
Drew: All right. Thanks.
That’s all for this episode of Build a Better Agency. Be sure to visit agencymanagementinstitute.com to learn more about our workshops and other ways we serve small to mid-sized agencies. While you’re there, sign up for our e-newsletter, grab our free e-book, and check out the blog. Growing a bigger, better agency that makes more money, attracts bigger clients and doesn’t consume your life is possible here on Build a Better Agency.