Episode 355

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Some of the most significant innovations have been born out of the most challenging hardships, and agency innovations are no different. For the past two years, agency owners have been through the wringer. Some of you have even wondered if it’s time to shut your doors and move on to something different. You’re all. Just. Exhausted.

I often use the analogy that your agency is a ship, and you are the captain. It’s your responsibility to make sure that the ship doesn’t sink. For the past 24 months, this meant finding shelter and waiting out the storm. But we must rethink that analogy for the new times we’re finding ourselves in. With pandemic days easing up, I’m now telling you it’s time to head back into open waters.

While things haven’t completely settled down yet, this is our time to shine. We’ve spent the past two years adapting, changing the game plan, and moving through a figurative storm of hardship. But that has primed us for greatness and equipped us to move forward into a new renaissance of ideas and agency innovation. It’s time to relinquish control, take new risks, and see that these hard times have made you and your agency stronger and ready for brand new ventures.

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.
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What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • I made a mistake in overemphasizing the importance of finding a safe harbor to get us through the pandemic. We need to rethink this.
  • Where your focus should be turning now to drive your agency innovations
  • Why control and leading with a type-A personality was suitable for the pandemic but might not be as supportive now
  • Why creativity and agency innovation is so important right at this moment
  • How taking risks will push your agency forward into the new era
  • What past tragedies and renaissances can teach us about where we’re heading in the future
  • That your only choice as an agency owner right now is to leave safe harbor no matter whether you’re ready to close up shop or move forward as an agency
  • The questions you should be asking yourself as an agency owner to be a renaissance leader

“I know that all of you listening are in a very vulnerable place. I know you're tired. And I know the last two years have been grueling. We have literally been carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders for 24 months.” @DrewMcLellan Share on X“Watching all of you survive the shutdown, reinvent the way you did business, and help your clients land on their feet—that was inspirational for me.” @DrewMcLellan Share on X“Yes, when the waters get too rough, we're at risk, and it's frightening. And it's also exhilarating. None of you own an agency because you're risk-averse.” @DrewMcLellan Share on X“We're at the cusp of a season of opportunity that we haven't seen in a very long time. We’re at the beginning of another Renaissance.” @DrewMcLellan Share on X“You know the waters are rough when you walk out of your cabin, and you see that the crew has placed throw-up bags all along the railing of the hallway. But then the storm passed, and the open waters held nothing but possibilities.” @DrewMcLellan Share on X

Ways to contact Drew McLellan:



It doesn’t matter what kind of an agency you run, traditional, digital, media buying, web dev, PR, whatever your focus, you still need to run a profitable business. The Build a Better Agency Podcast, presented by White Label IQ, will show you how to make more money and keep more of what you made. Let us help you build an agency that is sustainable, scalable, and if you want down the road, sellable. Bringing his 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey, everybody, Drew McLellan here, from Agency Management Institute this week. I know the cadence has been a little weird. I’ve done more solo casts in July than normal, but with the holidays and everything else going on, it just made sense to do that. And there were some things I really wanted to talk to you about, but this is actually my official solo cast. So this is just you and me talking about something that I think is important for you to think about, or something that I’ve been talking to a lot of you about. And I’ll tell you a little bit in a minute, what that’s all about and what we’re going to talk about today. But I wanted to let you know a couple things, we’ve got some workshops coming up. We are shifting our workshops, which I told you before in an earlier podcast, the AE Bootcamps from Chicago to Denver, and those will start.

We have the Advanced AE Bootcamp in September, and we have a regular AE Bootcamp in October. So you can find out more about those on the website and also, Money Matters is coming up, and that’s December 5th and 6th, and that’s in Orlando. Money Matters is probably the workshop that, I love teaching all the workshops, but Money Matters is probably the one I love teaching the most, because it just creates so many aha moments for agency owners. And agency owners will come up to me and say, “God, I wish I had known this 10 years ago or 20 years ago”, over and over and over again. And so, we talk about how to make more money, how to keep more the money you make, tax strategies, pricing strategies, the financial metrics that tell you in an instant, whether or not your agency is healthy, lots of things like that get taught in that workshop.

So again, Advanced AE Bootcamp in mid-September AE Bootcamp in mid-October, both of those in Denver. And then Money Matters in December. I’m pretty sure it’s the 5th and 6th, in Orlando, Florida. So all right, that’s what we have coming up this fall for workshops. And then, the other thing with moving the workshops to Denver, we’ll be able to teach them twice a year. So we’re going to offer the Advanced AE Bootcamp again in the spring, and the regular AE Bootcamp also in the spring. So make sure you check that out on the website. All right. So let me tell you a little bit about this solo cast. What I want to do is, I want to deliver if you will, the keynote that I did at the summit. So I will tell you a couple things before I dive into the keynote. Number one, this is going to be a longer episode because the keynote was 45 minutes.

So buckle in for that. Number two, if you’d rather watch it, if you’d actually rather watch the real keynote with the slides and all those sort of things, happen to have some great pictures of Antarctica in the slides, we will put the URL in the show notes. So if you don’t want to listen and you’d rather watch, you can do that as well. And just go to the show notes on the website. So go to agencymanagementinstitute.com, under the Resources button, you’ll see Podcast, and this episode will be the very top podcast. If you’re listening in real time. Otherwise you can just scroll down until you find it, click on the show notes… Or click on the podcast episode and you’ll see the show notes and we’ll have that link there. But for those of you that just want the audio, I’m going to give that to you now.

So if I’m walking the dog with you or we are on a treadmill or something like that, and watching does not behoove you, then we’ll just do it this way. So many of you, if you’re regular listeners know that my daughter, Kelsey and I had set a goal of visiting every continent before she graduated from nursing school. We got to our seventh and last continent in December, of 2019. And that continent was Antarctica. Now you can’t go to Antarctica without hearing the story of Ernest Shackleton. Ernest Shackleton was a British explorer who shipped the Endurance, sunk in the Antarctic in 1915. But what a lot of people don’t know is, it actually took months for it to sink. What actually put the endurance at risk was that they got stuck. The ship was literally surrounded by sea ice or pack ice as it’s sometimes called, and could not escape.

It remained trapped in that ice for 10 months before it sank. The way sea ice works is that, it gets bigger and bigger as the pieces bump together. When they collide, they freeze together and they form these sheets of ice. Now, at times, these sheets of ice can be a thousand miles wide and are so dense that they literally become a land mass and they can double the size of the continent itself. And that’s what trapped Shackleton ship and put his entire crew in life threatening peril. So that’s an uplifting story to hear as you’re about to get on a boat for a week in the very same waters. So the night before we embarked, they told us this story and they even served us Shackleton scotch the night before we entered the Antarctic, I have to say it was an amazing trip.

Really just a remarkable place, a really awe inspiring place. Colors are incredible. And you really do feel like you are at the end of the world. So we’re having this amazing time. We just gotten back on the boat after exploring an iceberg with hundreds of penguins, many of them with brand new baby hatchling. So we were on adorable overload, and the weather had been really cold, but clear. And then it was not. So one thing we learned, is that storms come up very quickly in the Antarctic in less than two hours. We went from a beautiful sunny day, to being in the middle of a storm with 150 mile an hour winds, snow, sleet, and really, really rough water. Our boat was pretty small, 70 passengers and 70 crew. It had five decks, and in the height of the storm, the waves are crashing up over the third deck.

So to say the least, it was a little intense in a lot of ways. I think that’s what we’ve endured for the last two years. Early March of 2020, sunny skies. By mid-March of 2020, hurricane level winds. And our ship was at risk. The water was crashing over our highest decks and we had to seek shelter. Last year in my keynote, I stood on stage and I said, couple things. Number one, “I don’t want to give a keynote.” Now I know I couldn’t play that card again. But then I went on to talk about my greatest professional failure. So in the 2022 presentation, I wanted to talk to the audience, and now to you, about a mistake I made that I think might be affecting you. So apparently for me, a keynote means part speech, part therapy, and maybe a little bit of confession. Actually this keynote turned out not to be so much of a confession, but an important course correction.

But first, before we get into that, I want to acknowledge that I know that you all, all of you listening are in a very vulnerable place. I know you’re tired. And I know the last two years have been grueling. We have literally been carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders for 24 months. We had COVID and then we had clients leaving, fighting to regain ground with biz dev. And then of course, there was the great resignation. Once we got around the bend and we were actually starting to re-earn business, we didn’t have the staff to actually service the business. We’re still dealing with work from home and employees who think they can dictate how we work and clients who got used to COVID discounted pricing, at the very same time that all of our costs have been escalating. And that’s just the work stuff.

We’ve also been juggling, all of us, all of our own personal experiences and loss with COVID, and everything else that’s happened in the last two years. It’s really overwhelming. A few weeks before the summit, I got an email from an agency owner that said, “The last two years have been exhausting and I just don’t have the strength, the emotional energy, or the time to rebuild. Maybe it’s time to be done.” You know what? Her feelings are not an isolated case. I know that many of you have, in the middle of the night, wondered the exact same thing when you had yet another employee resigned, when your biggest client called to say that they were frustrated with your team’s inability to deliver on time, or when your own to-do list seems so daunting because you’re working too much in the business these days, because you don’t have enough staff.

And you know what, for some of you, maybe it is time, as that agency owner put it, “To be done.” But the question is, how do you know? You are so fried. What if this is just a moment? What if you could get your mojo back? Would you feel differently? And for others, you’re like, “Give up, quit, stop lock the door. Are you kidding me? This is a reset. I get to reinvent.” You’re reinvigorated by all of the opportunity ahead of you. For you, the question is how do you make that happen when you’re just trying to keep up? Because honestly, even if you’re kicking, you’re tired, you could have made 30% profit and taking home a half a million dollars last year, and you are still feeling the strain. Now I have to admit, I’m right there with you. There have been some amazing highs.

Last year’s summit was healing and hopeful. Watching all of you survive the shutdown, reinvent the way you did business and help your clients land on your feet. That was inspirational for me. Being a resource that you could count on and being in the fortunate position to talk some of you down off the ledge when you needed it, was a gift, but these last two years have also cost me in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I experienced every emotion on the spectrum. My livelihood was threatened. Imagine being a membership based organization that drives most of its revenue from bringing people together. Remember, the first summit was supposed to be in May, of 2020. And by March, when everything shut down, I was hanging out on a very long and shaky limb. I had no idea if or when we’d pull off the summit. I wanted to support and help all of you and get you through what you were experiencing.

I was giving my best counsel, but I’d never led clients through a pandemic before. So that was scary for me. What if I got it wrong? The consequences could have been catastrophic. I’ve never worked longer hours or been more tired. And despite that, there were some who felt I didn’t do enough and made sure that I knew it. Over the last two years, my integrity was questioned. My motives were challenged. And some days it felt like I could not give enough of myself to make a difference, despite my best efforts. So I see you. I see your exhaustion, because I see mine, but I fear that I may also have been right. That maybe you’ve hung onto something I told you back in March of 2020, for too long. And I need to correct that right now. We can blame the pandemic and the great resignation for all the things we’re experiencing.

But to be honest, I have to admit, I’m feeling a little responsible. Every day I really do bust a hump to lift you up, guide you through the tough stuff, teach you best practices and try and be a little inspiring. But in this case, I’m afraid that you might have hung onto something I said for longer than you needed to, partially because I said it without the caveat I should have added. And partially because it feels so safe and so good right now. Back in March of 2020, when we were just trying to get our feet under us as the pandemic began to shake the foundation of everything we knew, I used one of my favorite analogies. Your agency is a ship and you are the ship’s captain. Now I don’t use it as frequently as I mentioned, poor Bette, but I’ve used that analogy for many circumstances, because I know it’s true.

You tend to focus on the individuals in your boat, but you often forget that if the ship goes down, everybody drowns. Your job is to protect the ship, first and foremost. As the pandemic started, I told you that your sole responsibility was to get the ship through the storm and find calm waters, that we had to endure the rough seas so we could set sail again, once the storm died down. I should have underlined that last sentence, that we had to endure the rough seas so we could set sail again, once the storm died down, I told you to find protected waters, to find a quiet bay, a safe harbor, inlet, seek shelter. I used all of those words and you listened. Many of us were talking every day to each other by email or in the Q&As we were doing back then, whatever other medium we could come up with. We talked about you not getting financially upside down.

We talked about the availability of PPP loans here in the states. We talked about shedding expenses and if you had to, downsizing, all to keep the ship from taking on water. In that moment, that was spot on advice. I stand by it. We were in full crisis mode. It was all about survival. We needed solace and shelter. The calm waters were the safest place, until they weren’t. So as the storm raged on in the Antarctic, the captain of our ship came over the PA system and told us to stay in our cabins, and that the ship was headed for a nearby inlet to try and escape the storm. Remember these inlets are created by these gigantic icebergs that are forming a semi circle, so they would act as a windshield for us. When we got to the inlet, it was like somebody flipped a switch.

The winds were gone, the snow and sleet was fluffy and beautiful. And we all headed out to the decks to look around. It was so gorgeous, and we were safe. So I did the same thing our ships captain did. I told you to seek shelter and you did it. You saved your ship, you got your crew through the storm. And now you’re just trying to catch your breath. Now you’ve earned the right to just sit in the still water for a bit, except, and this is where I think I messed up, staying in the still water will actually kill you. So we had a bit of a misunderstanding between us. I wanted you to very much seek shelter and solace in the inlet during the storm, but I did not mean you should stay there. It’s just too dangerous. So a couple hours after we escaped the storm, Kelsey and I went back out on the deck to just take it all in. The glaciers and icebergs were all around us.

The sky was a vivid blue, was gorgeous and calm. The snowflakes were just these big fluffy flakes. That’s when we noticed the sea ice. At first there was just a little, and it was pretty far away. It was beautiful, little floating pieces of ice glittering in the water, but the pieces started getting closer and then they multiplied. The pieces of ice actually started bumping into each other and forming ice sheets so large that penguins were playing on them, but it still felt better than being out in the storm, until it didn’t. That’s how it was for all of us towards the tail end of 2020. When we finally reached the safe harbor, we were out of the storm, the waters were calm. We were safe. We had sought and found solace. In that moment, solace was about feeling like we were back in control.

Things may not have been warm and sunny, but at least they felt a little more stable. Of course, we were grasping for control because everything felt so out of control. And what control looked like in that moment was standing still and leaning over the rail of our ship, gasping for air. But pretty soon, our lungs were full again and the waters were still calm. Control is good. Let’s admit it. For most of us type A’s, it feels really good, but there are some consequences to that level of control. First, it’s unsustainable. Second, it’s actually an inhibitor to much of what we want to do.

None of us started or bought our agencies because it promised calm and control. We actually thrive on the challenges, the chaos and the change. Another way to look at this dichotomy between solace and storm or control versus change, is that we need both. Solace lets us catch our breath, but it also allows us to fall into dormancy. When things are dormant for too long, we get stagnant and bored and we lose our mojo because there’s nothing driving us to get better or grow. Instead of leading, we’re retreating out of fear and we get stuck.

We all know how scary this storm can be. Sleepless night scary. But on the other hand, the storm also puts wind in our sail and pushes us in new directions. It teaches us to adapt and it forces us to get stronger. Yes, when the waters get too rough, we’re at risk, and it’s frightening. And it’s also exhilarating. None of you own an agency because you’re risk adverse. The problem is this. The longer we stay in the solace, the scarier the open waters look and feel, which is a very dangerous head game to play. There’s an even bigger risk, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Much of our role as agency owners is to find the balance between control and change. There’s always a tension there, which is really about fear and risk and courage. And by the way, sometimes fear is exactly what we should be feeling.

And other times we have to find the courage to step out of our comfortable solace and get back on open water. There are times when being in control is absolutely right. For good reasons, in March of 2020, we tilted our focus to control, which was right in that moment. But we began to label change as bad, when really it was just the storm. In that moment, we were at the risk of losing everything. Now, back in the spring and summer of 2020, control meant we’d stop the client departure bleeding. We did the hard things in terms of reducing staff if we had to, and those still on our team were safe and healthy and stable. Thanks to federal aid, our finances were buoyed up, by the end of the year most agencies were actually in a very strong cash position. Solace and being tucked into the safe harbor was good.

The storm, aka change, and risk were bad, but I want to remind you that even in the midst of the storm, some of you headed back out into open water and sought change. Actually some of you created change. Why? Because, we’re actually at the cusp of a season of opportunity that we haven’t seen in a very long time. We are at the beginning of another Renaissance. After every major world event, usually a bad one, like the bubonic plague or World War II. There was a rebirth, a time of incredible innovation, creativity and an economic boon. See if this sounds familiar. People are put in a circumstance, both out of their control and far beyond what they could have possibly imagined. Everything changes rapidly and with little warning. In each of the events that led to a Renaissance, our very existence was threatened. We faced our own mortality.

We lost loved ones. Though the plague was as grim as it sounds, there was a silver lining. It also helped create the conditions necessary for arguably the greatest post pandemic recovery of all times. The Great Renaissance. Back then, what they saw was authorities and how we did it got challenged and reinvented. Priorities changed and new business models emerged, necessity inspired a whole new level of innovation and creativity. Back then, the Renaissance was known for its art, its music and its architecture. The period is commonly associated with Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, his majestic statue of David, Gutenberg’s printing press and DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, but the Renaissance also laid the foundatio