Episode 404

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Agency culture has encountered a massive shift post-pandemic. With hybrid and remote work more common than ever, weaving our missions, goals, values, and purpose into our teams requires a different approach than before.

This week, we’re talking to Chad Kearns, an agency culture expert, to discuss how agency leaders are at the forefront of agency culture and should run their agency according to their core values. If you don’t align yourself with your own mission and values, your team won’t be operating at its peak, which can throw the whole agency off balance.

If it sounds high-stakes, it’s because it is. Everything starts with agency culture — from screening a potential new hire to your employee retention rate. Tune in to learn how to align your agency to your core values and discover what people value the most when choosing to work for an agency.

A big thank you to our podcast’s presenting sponsor, White Label IQ. They’re an amazing resource for agencies who want to outsource their design, dev, or PPC work at wholesale prices. Check out their special offer (10 free hours!) for podcast listeners here.

agency culture

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • People are at the core of the agency world
  • How cultural concerns have changed post-pandemic
  • Challenges that clients face today with agency culture
  • Finding right-fit employees who will embody your agency culture
  • Aligning yourself and exemplifying your mission, values, and goals to your team
  • Where agencies often fail to uphold their core values and missions
  • Culture goes beyond social interaction
  • How to attract better talent aligned with your agency values
  • Why good onboarding is imperative for healthy agency culture

“I'm really proud to see that more and more agency owners are taking that cultural importance to the forefront of what they're doing and how they're leading their business.” @Chad_Kearns Click To Tweet
“It's the people that you're spending your time with, and you're going through the day-to-day, that ultimately keeps people around and attracts people to this environment.” @Chad_Kearns Click To Tweet
“It starts with the agency owner, or agency leaders, who are guiding and owning those values. They have to be the ones to exemplify it.” @Chad_Kearns Click To Tweet
“Behind the closed door, how do you prioritize where the dollars go? That is a very telling factor of the true priorities of a leader and the organization, especially when times get tough.” @Chad_Kearns Click To Tweet
“Realizing that stepping away for a week and not checking in at all was so much more beneficial than checking my email once a day while I was on vacation. It made a massive difference.” @Chad_Kearns Click To Tweet

Ways to Contact Chad:

Resources:

Announcer:

Running an agency can be a lonely proposition, but it doesn’t have to be. We can learn how to be better, faster, if we learn together. Welcome to Agency Management Institute’s, Build a Better Agency Podcast presented by a White Label IQ. Tune in every week for insights on how small to mid-size agencies are surviving and thriving in today’s market. With 25 plus years of experience, as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McClellan.

Drew McClellan:

Hey everybody, Drew McClellan here from Agency Management Institute back this week with another episode of Build a Better Agency on a very important and hot topic. So more on that in a quick second. Just want to remind you, that next month we are offering a workshop that we offered, I think in 2022, and it got rave reviews, to the point that we knew we had to bring it back. No, maybe it was 2021, well, it does matter, in the last couple years, it was post-pandemic. We did it down in Florida and it’s called, Rethink Innovation. And the whole premise of the workshop is this, that we need, we absolutely need, the reason why agents or clients hire us is because they want big ideas from us. They want outside perspective, and they want big ideas. And we struggle sometimes to bring that to clients. In many cases, you, the agency owner or leader, are one of only a handful of people inside the shop who can just randomly and on-demand, come up with big, creative and strategic ideas.

And so Carla Johnson wrote a book called, Rethink Innovation, where she did research and she studied, what happens to our ability to be innovative? We’re all born as kids, being very innovative. I’ve talked about this before, but give a kid a couple cardboard boxes, a wooden spoon and some tape, and they can create an afternoon of activity and fun and imaginary worlds. But somewhere along the way, as we get older, even in our world, that ability to be innovative on-demand, and that’s the key. We can’t wait for the muses anymore, to be innovative on-demand becomes really critical. So Carla did this research, ended up writing a great book, but more importantly than that, for our purposes, out of the research came a framework, a way to reinvigorate every human being’s ability to be innovative. And so whether you’re trying to solve a problem internally, a process or system problem, a growth problem, or you’re trying to solve thorny problems for clients or prospects, Carla’s framework is a way for you to spread that workload and to get everybody’s brain power going towards big, big ideas on behalf of clients.

So that workshop is here in Denver, it’s July 11th and 12th. Highly recommended it. It’s 9:00 to 5:00 on the first day, 9:00 to 3:00 the second day, so you can fly out on Wednesday after we’re all done. But it is remarkable watching Carla teach this workshop, when we did it last time, was just mesmerizing. And the best thing is, you send one person or two people, they bring the framework, the deck, all the things back, and then you can teach it to everyone in your shop. Carla’s belief is, and I’ve seen it from the people who attended the workshop the first time, Carla’s belief is that every single person in your organization is capable of being innovative and coming up with the big idea, whether it’s your intern or your accountant or your account director or your creative director or your entry level art director, whoever it may be, everybody has the capability and the capacity to be innovative on-demand. You just need to know how to show it to them.

When I talk to you guys, a lot of times you’ll say, “I just know how to do it. I don’t know how to teach it.” That’s why this workshop is so powerful. Yes, you’ll learn how you do it, even if you don’t understand how it happens inside your brain, but more importantly, you’ll have a framework that you can teach your team so that you are not the one burdened or the bottleneck for big ideas. So July 11th and 12th here in Denver, go to the website, agencymanagementinstitute.com, under the How We Help tab, you’ll see, Workshops, and you can register there. Discount for your second and third person, of course, and as always, if you don’t like it, if it’s not valuable, if you think, “Ugh, I didn’t get my money’s worth.” We will refund your money in a heartbeat.

I’ve never had to do it, but we’re happy to offer it. So this is a no-risk situation for you. Denver is gorgeous in July, make a vacation out of it, but come out here and learn how to help your team think bigger and better on behalf of your clients. Okay? All right. Speaking of your team, today’s guest is going to be all about your team. So Chad Kearns used to own an agency, sold it, and now works for an organization that helps agencies and other businesses create culture and employee retention and all the things that we are worried about today. How do we attract the right talent? How do we keep the right talent? What matters to employees today? So Chad’s going to talk about all of that, both from his perspective of formerly being an agency owner and today now, as a consultant in this space. So let’s get to that conversation because I have a ton of questions for him. Chad, welcome to the podcast.

Chad Kearns:

Thanks, Drew.

Drew McClellan:

Hey, give everybody a little sense of your background and how you came to know all the things we’re about to talk about?

Chad Kearns:

Yeah, thanks for having me. I grew up in the agency or in the agency world. So I started at Portent, a small independent agency, back in 2012 is when I got my start there. I was still in college, I was still an undergrad when I started as an intern and started learning paid media at that time, learning how to buy ads on Facebook, running Google ads, starting to learn to work with clients, and just learning everything that went on in an agency, really for the first time. I got a really, really cool opportunity as my internship ended to build out a internal program, a program that had never been ran before at the agency, trying to work with and target small businesses. How do we go out and market to small businesses? How do we provide services on the paid media front for small businesses?

And grew a program there, ended up building out a team, which was really, really cool, kind of an entrepreneur within the agency, building out a service line for the first time. Ended up doing that for a number of years. Built a team that I’m really proud of, that service line is still running today, 10 plus maybe 12 years later, and ultimately went on to lead Portent from the very head of the agency. So did that for a number of years. Portent was a 50 plus person agency by the time I left. We ended up going through acquisition over my last couple years there and ultimately decided to step away. So a little bit of background there, just on my agency life and how I got to where I am today.

Drew McClellan:

Awesome. And so you left the agency to do what?

Chad Kearns:

Yeah, so now I’m with a very small firm called Fired Up! Culture, and we are all about building culture, engagement, developing leaders within the agency environment, is really the area that I’m focusing on. My background, where I come from, I was actually a client, we had hired Fired Up! Culture. So for my last seven or eight years working at Portent in the agency, Fired Up! was right there along the way with us. Really focused on people, really focused on culture. How do we get the most out of our people? How do we build a culture where people want to show up and do their best and stay in the agency environment?

Drew McClellan:

Yeah. It’s interesting. So Danielle and I spend pretty much seven days a week talking to agency owners and culture is such a hot topic right now. Post-pandemic, hiring has been just a beast, not only just salary requirements, which have skyrocketed, but just how do you find the right people? Everyone is struggling with how they’re working. Are they working from an office? Are they working from home? Are they hybrid? And all of the cultural implications of those kinds of decisions. So this is such an important topic, and as you know as a former agency leader, there is no asset that is more important to an agency owner than their people. I mean, we just can’t do the work without them. I don’t care how great you are at AI or technology or whatever, you still need the bodies and the brains and the hearts of your people. And so I can see why you would be drawn to that work, given how important it is. When did you make the move to Fired Up?

Chad Kearns:

Just about a year ago. Yeah.

Drew McClellan:

Okay. So post-pandemic?

Chad Kearns:

Post-pandemic. Yep.

Drew McClellan:

Okay.

Chad Kearns:

Correct.

Drew McClellan:

Okay. So talk to us a little bit about what you are seeing on the landscape of how cultural concerns have changed pre and post-pandemic?

Chad Kearns:

I’m really proud to see that more and more agency owners are taking that cultural importance to the forefront of what they’re doing and how they’re leading their business. I actually do think for the most part, the agency owners I know and that I’ve worked with and the leaders in that field, have been relatively people focused for a very long time, even-

Drew McClellan:

No doubt.

Chad Kearns:

… no doubt, right?

Drew McClellan:

Yeah.

Chad Kearns:

Before COVID, we know that the people are what make the business run. The people are what keep our clients around. The people are the ones who allow us to grow our businesses and grow our agencies. So I don’t-

Drew McClellan:

And beyond that, I don’t know about you, but what drew me to agency life originally, was a combination of the work and the people that I got to work with. I just find agency people fascinating, in terms of how smart they are and typically how funny they are. And most agency people are very committed and passionate about the work. And so I think for most agency owners, part of why they care about culture is, these are the people they want to hang out with and be with and create with.

Chad Kearns:

… yeah, well said. And how often do you talk to people in the agency world? Doesn’t matter if they’re an intern, doesn’t matter if they’re an owner, anywhere around there they say, “Why do you like your agency? Why do you like being here?” 90% of the time-

Drew McClellan:

Right.

Chad Kearns:

… the answer is the people, right? And that is the challenges that clients can bring, the reward that clients can bring as well, right? The ups and the downs through all of that type of work. But it’s the people that you’re spending your time with. It’s the people that you’re around going through it day-to-day that ultimately, keep people around and attract people to this environment.

Drew McClellan:

Yeah. So given all of that, what are some of the challenges that you are seeing your clients face today, that are a little stickier than they used to be?

Chad Kearns:

Yeah, I think one of the things that we continue coming back to with a lot of the folks that we’re working with, it starts at the very front of purpose of the organization, right?

Drew McClellan:

Right.

Chad Kearns:

Purpose, vision, values, goals and then the layer that I’ll add on top of that is, how do those things, how does that why, the purpose, relate to people in the agency? How are they a part of it? How does what I do every day, when I show up, when I sit down to do my work, how does that connect to the goals of the organization? And so much of what we do starts there. If that foundation isn’t built, if it’s not strong, if it’s not clear for the leaders at the top of the organization, and if it doesn’t trickle down throughout the agency, there’s a lot of work to be done.

Drew McClellan:

Yeah. Yeah. I’m always astonished. We talk a lot about mission, vision, values in agencies, we talk about it in workshops. I always lead a roundtable session on it at the summit, and I’m always surprised because I think agency leaders and owners are people focused and I think they’re also visionary. And so I would expect somebody with those two traits to have a lock on that mission, vision, values, and to be able to articulate not only what our values are, but how do they show up, how are they woven through the organization? And I’m always kind of surprised at how often I bump into an agency that has not done that work. Do you see that across the board?

Chad Kearns:

Yeah. I agree with you on leadership, having the vision, being that creative spot, being able to pull those things out. I think prioritizing the time and making the space for it on a recurring basis within the day-to-day of the agency, that’s the challenge.

Drew McClellan:

Right.

Chad Kearns:

Because you start talking about mission, vision, values, these big topics, these big conversations, it’s not something that can be decided in a two-day leadership offsite, presented once at an agency, all hands and then-

Drew McClellan:

Yeah. Put on a shelf.

Chad Kearns:

… as a leader, you expect everyone to adapt it and run with it and take it forever. It has to be something that is woven into the culture, woven into everyday operations. And I think it is hard for leaders to continue to come back to that enough times until it is ingrained, right?

Drew McClellan:

Yeah.

Chad Kearns:

I know many folks are not back into offices full-time. We’re not just going to throw up an office poster and everyone’s going to take those values or that mission or goals and run with it. It’s got to be talked about and lived every single day throughout the agency.

Drew McClellan:

Yeah. And one of the other things that we find in our work with agencies is that, when mission, vision, values are sort of committee driven, they tend to be what I would call, pablum, they’re words like, honesty and integrity and well, creativity, be curious, but there’s no meaning put behind them so that they are unique to the agency. And if the agency owner doesn’t feel those in their heart, he or she is not going to make decisions based on those. So I always worry when we’re going to put 10 people in a room and we’re all going to get stickers and vote on the buzzwords, kind of thing. I really do believe, and I’m curious because I know this is part of the work that you do, I’m curious, if you agree or disagree? I believe that they have to be born from the agency owner or leader, and yes, you want to gut check them with your leadership team and the team at large, but if they’re not your core values, then you are not going to run your business based on them.

Chad Kearns:

It’s got no shot if it doesn’t come from the leader of the organization. Absolutely no shot.

Drew McClellan:

Yeah. But to your point, even if they’ve done the hard work, because you’re right, it does require some introspection and some reflection to get past, it’s no different than the creative work we do. The first draft of anything-

Chad Kearns:

Totally.

Drew McClellan:

… is the expected answer, no matter what kind of creative work you’re doing, it is pushing past draft two, three, four, five, six, to where you really get to the heart of what you’re willing to not bend on and to really run your business based on these core values and the mission and vision that’s come out of those. It takes some time. But assuming the agency owner or leader has done that work, I think a lot of people feel like, now they’re done and to your point, that’s actually just the beginning. Now it’s like, “Okay, how do I make these relevant to my employees? How do I weave them into our interview process, our review process, our employee recognition programs? How do I share them with clients and how do they dictate process and systems and decisions that we make?” That’s really where the work comes in.

Chad Kearns:

Absolutely. I mean, there’s a full life cycle around this stuff, and I’m glad you mentioned the recruiting process, right? It starts before the interview, even-

Drew McClellan:

Right.

Chad Kearns:

… before recruiting and how are you going out and sourcing candidates and how are you finding them, and what messages are you sharing with folks before they even consider walking into an interview? Right?

Drew McClellan:

Right.

Chad Kearns:

How are you training your people to interview for folks and what are they looking for in ideal candidates, aside from the technical skills that they bring for the role? It starts so early on and just who you bring in and who sticks around for the long term.

Drew McClellan:

Well, and that’s the key, is the who sticks around part. So one of the biggest challenges in agencies today, is retention of great employees. And if the values aren’t aligned from the beginning, you can count on that person not sticking around or worse, sticking around and not being aligned with how you want your business to run. And now you’re going to face a difficult decision at some point in time because I don’t care how good they are technically… Danielle and I have this conversation with agency owners pretty much in every coaching call we have. I don’t care how good they’re at their job, if they aren’t the right fit, if they do not add to the culture and they do not add to the value set of the organization, they are not a good fit and they can’t stay long-term.

Chad Kearns:

I completely agree, but how hard is that as being the agency owner and making that decision? I think that was one of the things that I was really tested by throughout the years in leading Portent. We’ve got a really great person, clients like them, technically, they’re really, really strong, they’re delivering great work, but they’re hard to work with or they don’t follow the process or they’re not bought in. And I think especially you mentioned a little bit ago, the hiring environment that we’re in and that is such a hard place to be. I have empathy for those in those positions today, for the leaders in those positions today, who need to make those decisions because it’s not easy. And bringing somebody in, going out to look for somebody-

Drew McClellan:

It’s expensive.

Chad Kearns:

… going through the interview process, hiring somebody, onboarding them, and then hoping they work out. It’s expensive from a dollar standpoint, but it’s expensive from a time standpoint, as well.

Drew McClellan:

Right.

Chad Kearns:

And that’s probably the larger cost that frankly, a lot of agency leaders don’t have more time to give. And then I think that’s the push and pull that a lot of folks feel is, how can I get by with this person? Or how much longer can I get by with this person before they start doing longer term damage to what we’re trying to do as a whole, as an agency?

Drew McClellan:

Which I think gets back to, this is why the core values have to really matter to the owner, because that’s where the rubber meets the road. Living by your values, means you’re going to make some really hard and sometimes expensive decisions because they’re the right things to do, even though they’re not the easy things to do. And I think one of the things we forget about as leaders is, when you stand in front of a room and you talk about the core values and the mission and vision of the agency, and to your point, you put up the posters or everyone’s got the laminated card in their wallet, your employee recognition program is based on the values, and then your employees see you tolerating someone who clearly does not live by the values, the damage is unbelievable.

Chad Kearns:

Yeah. I think it starts with the agency owner itself or the agency leaders who are guiding and owning those values. They have to be the ones to exemplify it, not just live it, but exemplify it and that can be really, really hard, as well. So when you start talking about, how do we get traction and how do we get buy-in, fair or not fair, everybody watches the leaders to see what they do and how they do it, right?

Drew McClellan:

Right.

Chad Kearns:

And in order to get that traction, you have to exemplify, you have to be the standard bearer, for everybody else to have a chance to even follow.

Drew McClellan:

So are there some places in the role of leader? And you work with your clients to help them very, very publicly live the values. Are there certain places where, boy, if you don’t do it here or you don’t do it there, now we have employees questioning our commitment to the values and are these really just the values of the month or the week or the year, as opposed to something that is at the core of the organization?

Chad Kearns:

Yeah. We talk about those key communication points a lot with the folks that I work with, whether that be an all-hands meeting that happens every month or every quarter, whether that is, we have a lot of leaders that we work with who are sending weekly or biweekly emails. And really that communication point, those key communication points, when you have your, so to speak, leader hat on, you’re getting up in front of the agency, whether that’s in-person, whether it’s over Zoom, whether it’s via Slack or email, those are the places where it’s really time to shine. Those are the places where it’s really time to drive home, “Here’s what we’re doing, here’s why we’re doing it, and importantly, here’s how we’re going to do it, as well.