Episode 355:

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 Click To Tweet“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 Click To Tweet“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 Click To Tweet“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 Click To Tweet“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 Click To Tweet

Ways to contact Drew McLellan:

Resources:

Intro:

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 foundation for the very fabric of our modern society, capitalism. As feudalism died, along with the plague, individual wealth took its place. Merchants and commerce, banking, property investments, and advances in science propelled people forward, and our corporate roots began to grow.

This was a moment in time when they had to reinvent, they had to try new things, they had to do what had never been done before. All of that sounds amazingly familiar, doesn’t it? The crisis was the catalyst for dramatic change, creativity and the birth of many new and lasting innovations. Now following World War II, we also experienced a Renaissance. Wages were 50% higher than they were five years prior and unemployment was almost completely eliminated. Black men and women entered the workforce for the first time. Shipyards cut the time it took to build a ship from 365 days to less than a week. The flu vaccine was invented, as was the first computer. Historians, business leaders, and our own experience would suggest that we are entering into an era like the Great Renaissance. The question is, what part will we play? Are we the leaders who will get challenged and replaced?

Or are we the innovators that will create new business models and drive innovation and creativity? Some of you leverage the constraints that expand and grow, as opposed to being contained or stuck. I’m going to give you a couple examples. Nicole Mahoney owns an agency called Break the Ice Media. All they do is handle travel and tourism clients. Imagine what the spring and summer of 2020 was like for her and her team. In fact, when I am preaching specialization and nicheing down and the generalists in the room want to argue with me, even pre COVID what they would say as well, “What happens if the niche dries up or has a crisis like travel could?” So during the first season of COVID, I was getting a lot of, I told you so’s, from those folks. Well, guess what? I told you. So Nicole and her team got creative.

They pivoted hard despite losing over 75% of their revenue. They used the constraints to find new ways to serve their clients. They became experts in setting up and managing virtual events and they helped their clients find new ways to connect with their audiences and collaborate with their peers. They also pivoted their podcast and other content to help their clients survive the storm. They became such a valuable resource that they actually grew their audience. They became more relevant to their niche. And when the travel and tourism industry began to leave the safety of the inlet and get back out on the open water, guess who they called? Today, Break the Ice Media, which by the way, is a mighty team of nine, is stronger, more profitable and being sought out by industry leaders, not only in the US, but as far away as Australia. They didn’t stay in solace and safety.

They took risks. They tried new things and they got back out on the open water. They leveraged changes to their prospects and clients’ advantage, and it has paid off in spades. Break the Ice Media, the traveling tourism agency who stood tall during a pandemic when no one could travel. When all of their clients were at huge risk of having to close shop, was one of the AMI agencies that recovered the fastest and in the strongest position. And then there was another agency, Willow Marketing, owned by Brad Gillum and Kim Jones. Many of their clients are associations, associations that drive much of their revenue from membership and huge events and conferences. Most of the work that Willow did for those clients didn’t or could not be done during the pandemic. Now Willow could have stayed in the safety of the harbor, but instead, they packaged up research projects and member retention programs and helped their association clients be so valuable to their members, that they couldn’t imagine leaving.

For the past two years, Brad, from Willow has been a keynote speaker at the largest conference for association executives. Because of all of the intel and support, Willow was able to provide their chosen niche. They do fresh research every year with Susan Beyer, from Audience Audit, another AMI agency. And they took the risk and made that investment during the pandemic, because they knew the insights would help their clients survive. Their clients did survive. And today, thanks to the service Willow provided, the industry is rewarding them with loyalty, new opportunity and healthy bottom line. Change and being out in the open water got a bad wrap, when really it was just the storm, but too much control or staying in solace for too long should get a bad wrap too. I will admit to you that one of the professional milestones I am most proud of, is not one AMI agency had to shut their doors because of the pandemic.

I’m not saying it wasn’t brutal for many of you. I’m not suggesting you didn’t suffer losses of dollars, good people and lots of sleep. I’m so proud of you for not giving up, for fighting hard to endure the storm, for finding all the ways you could survive and actually thrive in what I know will be the craziest season of our professional lives. There were many non AMI agencies, especially larger agencies who did not survive, who went from 2000 people to being out of business, who didn’t pivot, who were absolutely stuck. They stayed in a safe place for too long, until it was not safe anymore. Here’s the deal.

What feels safe is actually our biggest risk. If we stay in the inlet for too long and we don’t get back out on open water, we can’t develop new offerings. We can’t keep getting smarter. We can’t launch beta tests or find new ways to help clients. In the agency research that AMI does every year with Susan at Audience audit, one of the recurring themes we hear over and over again, is that clients hire us because we challenge them with new ideas, new opportunities and insights that we bring to them from our other experiences.

One of the main reasons an agency gets fired, is because the client feels like they’re just phoning it in, doing the same thing over and over and getting stale. We get fired when we’re dormant for too long. When we see control in the safety of the inlet, it’s a short term win. Sometimes in March of 2020, we need the safety. But if we stay there for too long, the very thing that is giving us a sense of security, is also eroding our business. This is our greatest threat, but it’s also our most amazing opportunity. We are entering into this Renaissance period of our time. We can literally reinvent our industry, the work we do, how we serve clients, how we build our teams and how lucrative it is to own an agency.

Here’s the truth that I need you to know. Boats are meant to move and they can’t move in the still waters of a safe harbor. We get to new places because we’re out on the open water and we can explore, and the wind takes us out further and faster than sometimes we can even imagine. Now being the captain of a ship, super demanding and being out on open water, even when the skies are blue, takes our focus and our energy. And during a storm, when we are fighting with all we have to keep the ship afloat and on course, when we are gripping the wheel so tight for that long, that’s exhausting. We came into the inlet, depleted, exhausted and scared. In that moment that respite of the safety allowed us to breathe, to reassess, and to just take care of everyone’s basic needs.

There is absolutely value in control and safety, but there’s also value in change and growth. Here’s the question that I believe many people are answering, but it’s the wrong question. The question many of you have asked yourself is this, do I want to keep this ship here in the inlet where it’s safe and calm, or do I want to venture out into the open waters and get back in the race? I hate to break it to you, but whether you’re ready to close your shop down and rent umbrellas to beach goers, or you’ve got a ton of gas left in your tank and you not only want to jump back into the race, but you want to win it. In either case, your only choice is to leave the safe Harbor. Why? Because no matter what, you need supplies. Here’s the other truth we need to remember.

We need supplies to stay fueled. The crisis has passed and we’re feeling depleted. Our supplies running low. We just want to rest in the inlet for a bit. I totally get it. But whether you’re like that agency owner who said, “I just don’t have the strength, emotional energy or time to rebuild, maybe it’s time to be done”, or you’re like, “I am the next freaking DaVinci. And I am about to create change.” You still need what you can only get, out in the open sea. The right question. The question I want all of you to ask yourself is this. When I get back onto the open water, because that’s inevitable, what supplies should I be searching for? Let’s say you’re ready to hang it up. That the pandemic took it out of you and you are ready to be done. For you, the supplies are related to succession. To sell your agency to an employer, an outside buyer, or even if you just want to close up the shop, you can’t do that in a vacuum.

You need your agency to be viable, to serve clients. You want to wind it down well, right? Or let’s say you’re loaded for bear and you like the idea of being a Renaissance leader. What supplies do you need? New ideas, new partnerships, new team members with different skill sets and perspective. The truth is, we cannot stay where the waters are always calm. It’s actually for us, the most dangerous place to be. So pretty soon, back to the Antarctic, no matter where on the deck we stood, we could see the sea ice, lots of sea ice. In that moment, I understood how Shackleton’s ship got trapped. The sea ice moved in, it surrounded the ship, and then it formed an ice pack around it. It was like the ship became part of an ice island and was powerless to break free or be able to steer itself.

It went wherever the sea ice island wanted to go. As we’re standing there, the captain came over the PA again, and said we had to go back out into the open water, that despite the calm waters, the inlet was actually more dangerous for us. Pretty soon, we wouldn’t be able to navigate around the sea ice and we’d be trapped. The same is true for us today. We have to get back out there, or just sit and wait to be overcome. Out in the open water is where we can fire up our engines and go full throttle. Out in the open water is where we get fresh fish and other supplies are plentiful out in the open water, there are other ships, so we don’t have to go it alone. Even if you want to hang it up, to do it well and right, as opposed to having it done to you, you have to get back out there.

The open waters, which seems so daunting, are our survival. It’s where we go to catch the wind and go places we’ve never gone before. And by the way, lots of you have already gotten back out there. You’ve been fired up about the possibilities. You’ve created new offerings and programs. A lot of you have landed the largest client in your agency’s history. You’re building an audience of prospects, who are leaning in to hear what you’re teaching. You have stepped into the Renaissance. I had my own mini crisis back 2010. We had just survived the great Recession. And my agency was finally back on his feet after being knocked back to its knees, like many of you also experienced back then. I was leaning over the railing of my ship, gasping for air. Now I’m a single dad who had primary custody back when that was a rarity, Kelsey and I forged out on our own when she was about 18 months old, we were and are incredibly close.

And as her senior year of high school began, I realized I was in for a huge seat change. My entire life had been built around being her dad. I left the office every day at 3:00 PM for a school pickup. We had many adventures together, and that was all about to change. I knew her going to college was going to be one of the most dramatic shifts of my entire life, as melodramatic as that sounds. And I knew I was going to be miserable for a while, until I settled into that new normal. I decided I needed something new I could sink my teeth into. My agency was finally running really well, and I had made myself reasonably irrelevant there. I’m not handy at all. So I knew a home project was not a wise choice. I’ve been offered several adjunct professor teaching jobs, but that didn’t seem quite right.

The teaching part appealed to me and I did not want to teach people who were just there to fulfill a prerequisite, or because it was part of a degree track. And that’s when the founder of what was the precursor to AMI approached me. And remember, I was a peer group member. So I was a client of his. Back then it was three peer groups and two workshops. So a relatively small endeavor. Anyway, he approached me and he said he wanted to retire and he thought I was the person who could take what he’d started and turn it into something more. Now remember, I’m still catching my breath from the recession. So my first response to him was, “I already own one risky business. I do not need a second.” Translation, my agency is running smoothly. The calm waters here in the inlet are just fine. Thank you.

But in my heart, I knew that if I stayed in the safe place, I was going to wither away when Kelsey went to college. I had to take control of the change, to restock what would sustain me. I had to get back out into the open water and risk another storm, to get what I needed. And what I needed was something big, something that would occupy my heart and my mind while it all settled into new normal. I needed something that would fire off my endorphins and keep my adrenaline pumping, to counterbalance all of the emotions I’d be experiencing as an empty nester. Does any of that sound familiar? That’s where we’re all at today. We are floating in the still water, but the sea ice is getting closer. And if we don’t get back out into the open water, we will run out of energy, just like the agency owner said to me, “The last two years have been exhausting and I just don’t have the strength, emotional energy or time to rebuild. Maybe it’s time to be done.”

Now, if you think you’re ready to be done and you need supplies tied to succession, ask yourself these questions. How do I want it to end? Is it okay to just shut the door? How do I want to take care of our clients and my team as I wind this down? And most important of all, what does the next chapter for me look like? Now, if you are ready to be a Renaissance leader and you need supplies tied to stimulation and growth, ask yourself these questions. If anything was possible, because right now it is, what would I want to change? How do I want to work? Is it work from home, in the office, from a beach? Who are my A players?

And what does an A player look like today? Has that changed? And most important of all, how do I change the game to get more of what I love, need and want? We have to take control of the change, to restock what will sustain and fuel us. We have to trade solace and shelter for supplies and stimulation, or we will atrophy and die. I want to remind you that these endorphins and all that adrenaline, the thrill of the ride is why we all started our agencies to begin with. We wanted to be the captain of our own ship, because we understood that’s where the greatest adventure and opportunities could be found. We have to get back to open water if you haven’t already. And by the way, I’m not suggesting that you can’t decide that enough is enough and you want out. You did the admirable thing, you got the ship to safety.

You get to decide what happens next. We’re seeing more M&A activity in our industry than I have ever seen in my 30 years. But even that is a change you want to control and steer, so that you end up where you want to be, as opposed to having it done to you. And you know that if that’s what you truly need, we are here to help you sort that out. Supplies and stimulation for most of us will be about innovation, new partners, new offerings, and some new ways of doing business. But for a handful of you, it might mean successors and winding it down in a way that you want, so you can walk away with your head held high. You’re the captain of the ship. So you get to decide, but either way, it’s time to get back out there.

And so, back to our Antarctic adventure, one last time. The captain took our boat back into the open waters, because of the storm we had to deviate from the route they’d originally been on. We went a new way. And I will be honest with you, that first day on the open water was dicey. 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. That new way led to two amazing days on the open water, where we saw a mother whale and her calf breaching alongside us. The new way led us to being able to walk on a glacier that hadn’t seen humans in decades. The new way led to us discovering a brand new iceberg that had been calved off a glacier during the storm. Back in 2010, when I said yes to the stimulation of buying AMI, it meant going back out into the open water in a huge way for me.

That led to new workshops, peer groups, a podcast, and the summit, being able to bring 300 agency owners together to spend two days learning from each other. That yes, has completely changed my professional and personal life in ways that I could never have imagined. Many of the people who truly hold my heart are people who listen to this podcast, who are at the summit, who come to the workshops, and it’s AMI who put them in my path. My life would be dramatically different and far less if I had not been willing to leave the safe harbor of my agency, for this new adventure. For Nicole and Brad and Kim, and for many of you, the last two years, as tough as they, were led to some of the most profitable years ever, to new clients and a reinvigorated staff. For others, it’s led them to us at AMI.

So we could help them thoughtfully plan their succession or their growth. All because boats can’t move in still water. The inlet feels safe, but it’s actually the most dangerous place for us to stay. We have to go where the supplies we need are waiting for us. For most of us, those supplies are stimulation, new ideas, new glaciers to explore. And for a few, the supply you need is a successor, a new chapter, a graceful and profitable ending. I know this sounds daunting, and I know it’s hard to even fathom going back out there, but the good news is, you’re not going into uncharted waters and you’re not going by yourself. We’re out there with and for one another. We aren’t lone boats. We are a flotilla of boats, sharing supplies, taking turns at the helm, keeping an eye out for another storm, but we’re also keeping an eye out for how we can take full advantage of this new Renaissance period, how we can be at the forefront of innovation, change and opportunity.

But most of all, we’re keeping an eye out for one another, because we know from last year’s summit keynote, that we grow and learn faster when we do it together. If you want to shake this feeling of weight and exhaustion that so many of you have been carrying around for the last two years, you need to replace it with exhilaration. You need to feel those endorphins. You need to stand on the bow of your ship and feel how this moment in time is propelling you to new opportunities. And you need to know that AMI is out there waiting to guide you, that we are all out there together, and that there’s never, ever going to be a storm bigger than all of us. You are still standing today, making money, providing jobs and helping clients grow their business in a small way, because you’re part of the AMI family, the AMI flotilla, if you will. If you want to find amazing employees and keep them fired up and on the team, share that exhilaration, share your vision of innovation and creativity.

Invite them to join you in the Renaissance. They feel your mood and energy. So show up as an inspired leader and invite them to join the journey and the adventure. It’s time for us to stop looking backwards, to stop carrying the weight of the last two years. It is time for us to chart a new course, to decide what kind of supplies we need to get us to the next adventure, and then to fire up our engines and go get them. There are new glaciers out there for us to discover and claim as our own. We just have to be bold enough and brave enough to get back out on the open water, so we can see them. And I promise you, as you step back out into the open water, we will be there ready to help you. And you’re going to see a lot of other agencies there too.

So let’s do this together. Let’s embrace the Renaissance. Let’s go back into the open water and let’s recognize that’s where we are safe, rather than where we are now. That’s it. That was the keynote. And I hope that it resonated with you like it did that audience. I hope that it reminds you of why you started your agency or why you work at an agency and the things that thrill you, the things that feed you, the things that ignite your passion and your heart, and let’s get back out there and get them. Okay. All right. That wraps up this episode. Couple quick things. One, first of all, thanks for hanging in for that long. I know that was a long solo cast, but I didn’t want to trim the keynote for this medium. I wanted to give you everything that I gave the live audience.

Also want to thank our friends at White Label IQ. As you know, they are the presenting sponsor. They get rave reviews from a lot of AMI agencies, and I know they work with agencies that are not a part of AMI as well. They do White Label design dev and PPC, really, really good people. So huge thank you to them, but most of all, as always, a thank you to you. Thanks for coming back. Thanks for listening every week. Thank you. Thank you for your passion and thank you for at least considering what I had to say today, and thinking about how you would like this Renaissance period to be, how you want it to change your business, how you want it to change your family’s life. You want to change the lives of your employees and their families. We have huge opportunity and we would be foolish not to take full advantage of it. All right, I’ll be back next week. Next week, I’ll have a guest and we will get back into our normal cadence. Until then, thanks for listening, and I’ll see you next week.

Thanks for spending some time with us. Visit our website, to learn about our workshops, owner peer groups, and download our salary and benefit survey. Be sure you also sign up for our free podcast giveaways at agencymanagementinstitute.com/podcastgiveaway.