Episode 352

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This holiday week, the idea of freedom is at the forefront of many people’s minds. It’s a topic that touches so many facets of our lives every day. In today’s episode, I want to turn my focus to agency owners, and what freedoms we should be taking full advantage of that will ultimately benefit your agency culture.

Many of us chose to start our own agencies because it granted us privileges that being an employee did not. And while we may think we’re taking full advantage of them, the reality is that we could be offering ourselves so much more.

Today, I’ll cover seven freedoms that agency owners can (and absolutely should) be taking advantage of. From who you work with and hire, how you spend your work time, to your own role in your agency, and more. You chose to work for yourself, and now is the time to reflect on if you’re making it work for you.

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 Owners

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • Why we should take full advantage of our freedoms as agency owners
  • What specific privileges we have, and how to leverage them to work for you and your agency
  • Why agency owners shouldn’t hire employees based solely on their talent
  • Why it’s important to share your vision when choosing who you hire
  • How putting up with bad attitudes from employees limits the freedoms we have as agency owners
  • Why we should have more freedom than our employees when it comes to our schedules
  • Why your time should work for your life, and not the other way around
  • What you should be doing when it comes to leveraging your financial freedoms as an agency owner
  • The freedoms agency owners have when it comes to walking away or staying in the business
  • Why agency owners take on the risk of running a business but aren’t comfortable taking the rewards
“There are freedoms we have as agency owners that we do not take full advantage of.” @DrewMcLellan Share on X “We have the freedom to serve the clients that fit our values and what we care about and what gives us pleasure in terms of actually enjoying the work.” @DrewMcLellan Share on X “Choosing human beings that you want on the team, and not just because of their talent, but also because of their heart, their mind, and their spirit is a huge freedom that I think we sacrifice all the time.” @DrewMcLellan Share on X “There is no excuse for you not taking more time off. You absolutely can and should do that. And this is one of the freedoms that almost every one of you listening violates.” @DrewMcLellan Share on X “You have the freedom to rearrange your time around your life, as opposed to having to rearrange your life around your time.” @DrewMcLellan Share on X

Ways to contact Drew McLellan:


Speaker 1:

It doesn’t matter what kind of an agency you run, traditional, digital, media buying, web development, 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 make. 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. It is the week of 4th of July. Here in the US, if you are an American citizen, you know this is what we call Independence Day. It is the holiday that we celebrate our independence and our freedom. Freedom has certainly been a word that has been on my heart lately, certainly with everything that’s going on politically in the US right now.

It just seemed like with the 4th of July and the focus on freedoms, and I think our national focus on freedom right now and choices, I wanted to stop. I shouldn’t be doing a solocast right now, I’m out of order, but I want to talk to you a little bit about this concept of freedom. This, by the way, I’m now talking to all of you, whether you’re from the US or any place else. But I think when I think about freedom in the context of agency owners, I think that we don’t take advantage of the freedoms that we have and the opportunities we have to feel that freedom, and so I actually want to talk to you a little bit today about that.

But before I do, I want to just give you an update on some things that are happening at AMI. As many of you know, I have moved from the midwest to Denver, Colorado. We’re going to be moving a lot of our events to Denver as well. This is particularly going to affect those of you who send folks to the AE bootcamp and the advanced AE bootcamp. We have an AE bootcamp coming up August 1st and 2nd. At least for the foreseeable future, that’ll be the last AE bootcamp we do in Chicago. After that, we are going to start doing them in Denver. The next advanced AE bootcamp is going to be September 15th and 16th in Denver, then we’re going to do the regular, the entry level if you will, AE bootcamp, for folks who have four or five years or less of experience, October 13th and 14th, also in Denver.

I just wanted to let you know that we’re shifting some of our events to Denver, partially so I can travel a little less, also because the conference center that we used in Chicago has made some changes that make feeding our attendees super challenging. Since we know you don’t want to go all day without food, that combination of factors has made us find a really great venue on a college campus, actually in a student union, to host our events in Denver. Just heads up that this regular AE bootcamp, so again, for entry level people through the first four or five years of their career, coordinators, junior AEs, project managers, you may call them a variety of things, but anybody early in their career, that workshop will be in Chicago, August 1st and 2nd. Then if that one doesn’t work for you, we’ll be doing the same workshop again October 13th and 14th. Just wanted to give you that heads up.

All right, let’s talk a little bit about freedom. I think there are a ton of freedoms that we have as agency owners. If you’re an agency employee, some of this may not be as applicable to you, quite honestly. I think there are certain privileges of ownership, so maybe it’ll inspire you to buy an agency or start an agency someday, but what I’m going to talk about today is predominantly to, and about, the agency owners.

I think there are freedoms that we have, as agency owners, that we do not take full advantage of. I would like to suggest to you, during this week of celebrating freedoms and during this moment where a lot of people are talking about the concept of freedoms, I just want to remind you that it’s a privilege. It really is a privilege to have freedoms. It’s a shame and it’s a waste when we don’t take full advantage of the freedoms that we have. Let’s talk about some of the freedoms that we have as agency owners. I want you to do a little litmus test on yourself, asking yourself, are you really taking full advantage of these freedoms?

The first one I want to talk about is I can remember when I broke away from the agency I was working for to start my agency back in 1995. One of the very first rules we established was that we were not going to work for any client that we thought was a jerk, that we had spent too much of our career serving people that we didn’t like, that we didn’t respect, that didn’t treat us with respect, and we were not willing to make that compromise anymore. I will tell you, in the many years since 1995, there have been times when financially we were in a position that we sucked it up for a while. I’m not suggesting that you always have the freedom to say no to somebody who walks in with a big bag of money, but I do think that predominantly, over the course of my career as an agency owner, and for sure in my work at AMI, my no asshole rule has been pretty firm.

It just makes the work so much more pleasurable when you work with and for people that you like, and that you care about, and that you’re rooting for, and who appreciate you, and are grateful, and are decent human beings doing good work are important work. Freedom number one that I think many agencies underutilize is that we have the freedom to serve the clients that fit our values and what we care about and what gives us pleasure in terms of actually enjoying the work. That’s litmus test number one, are you doing a good job of only serving clients that make you happy and, frankly, also make you money. Serving good, good people and paying for the privilege of serving them is also not in your business’s best interest. It is not just about them being good people or doing important work, but also that they value what we do and they’re willing to pay for it and they’re willing to be reasonable about what we charge and all of those sort of things. That’s freedom number one.

Freedom number two, and it goes hand in glove with this first one, is we, as agency owners, get to choose the people that we surround ourselves with, the people we put on our team, the people who help us accomplish the agency’s goals. We probably have all had somebody working for us that we didn’t love and that maybe we just didn’t align with, or our values were a little askew. That just makes the work a lot harder, a lot harder. I think one of the most important freedoms that we can have is that we surround ourselves with people who are pulling the wagon in the same direction, that share the same vision that we do, which of course requires us to share our vision.

But when they get on board with that and they’re excited about it and they’re excited about helping you accomplish that goal, when they treat clients and coworkers and vendors the way you want them to be treated, when they are respectful of the agency and how the agency helps them take care of themselves and their families, when they’re appreciative of you going out of your way to give them a bonus or some extra time off or whatever you do, I know how generous you all are with your team, and having people who actually appreciate that and make the effort to send an email or write a thank you note or at least stop you in the hallway and say, “You know what? That was really cool what you did, thank you,” that matters.

Choosing human beings that you want on the team, and not just because of their talent, but also because of their heart and their mind and their spirit, is a huge freedom that I think we sacrifice all the time. I know a lot of you are doing it right now because you feel like you can’t replace anybody and so you’re tolerating really bad behavior or serious attitude issues or whatever it may be because you think you can’t find someone better. I’m here to tell you’re wrong, you absolutely are wrong. I am watching agencies every day level up the team by letting somebody go and replacing them with someone different who is a better fit. What is that saying which we have all uttered a million times, but we don’t live in our own lives, which is you hire for attitude and you can train the rest. When you hire for aptitude, you end up firing for attitude. Choosing the people that wear your team jersey is a huge freedom that we have that I think we often underutilize.

Another big freedom that you have, that I know, I know for a fact you do not take full advantage of, is you are the fricking owner of the agency. You should be able to take off more time than you do. I’m talking in big chunks, like going to Europe for two or three weeks, and I’m also talking about long weekends or leaving the office at 2:00 rather than 5:00, or whatever it may be. You let your employees do it all day long. It might be to go to their kids’ ballet recital or to take someone to a dentist or to stay at home for the refrigerator repair person or whatever it is, you are incredibly lenient and generous with your people. A lot of you give your team a certain number of days off or you have unlimited PTO and you allow them to stretch the boundaries of those rules so that they can take advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel or do something that they really want to do, but you don’t do it for yourself. That’s insane.

First of all, let’s say you say to me, “You know what, Drew? I cannot take time off. We’re a little agency, I’m the chief copywriter,” whatever, blah, blah, blah. Then you know what? You can still go to the places you want to go with your family or your friends, get up early, work for a couple hours uninterrupted, it’s like a whole day of work, and by 10:00 or 11:00, you can be out with your family or your friends, swimming with dolphins or skiing down a slope or whatever your thing is. But there is no excuse for you not taking more time off, you absolutely can and should do that.

This is one of the freedoms that almost every one of you listening violates. If you have to work a couple hours, work a couple hours, if you can stay unplugged and actually take the time off, all the better, but traveling with the people that you love, or on your own if that’s your thing, should be something that you … Time off might be that you don’t travel at all, that you’re retired and you just want to sit around in your apartment in your underwear. I don’t care, but the point is no one should have more opportunity to rearrange time in terms of when you’re in the office, when you’re somewhere else, when you’re getting your work done, when you’re playing rather than working, all of those things, no one should be able to take more advantage of that than you do, and no one takes less advantage of it than you do. I think that absolutely has to change.

Another way of thinking about time is how you spend your time in the agency. You know that I prescribe that agency owners spend 50% of their work time doing biz development, and that’s a long list of things, they spend some time mentoring their team, they spend some time loving on the clients, they spend some time doing the administrative things they have to do running the business, looking at the financials, all of that. That, in my opinion, is the perfect equation of how an agency owner should spend their time. But you know what? I don’t own your agency, you do. You have the freedom to decide how you want to spend your time.

Now, there are consequences. Let’s say you want to be the creative director or the head of account service because you love doing strategy and being with clients, you absolutely have the freedom to do that. The consequences are it’s going to be harder for you to sell, it’s harder for you to do the work that only owners do because you’re doing work that other people could do, whatever. The point is, you get to decide, it is your business. If you want to spend your day being the CFO or the traffic manager or the person who sits at the front desk and greets the UPS guy, I don’t really care. Well, I do care because I think it’s wrong, but I don’t get to vote, maybe that’s a better way to say it. You get to decide how you spend your time in the agency doing work that you love and you can hire someone to do all of the other things. Again, consequences with all the choices, including the choices that I recommend, but you get to choose.

All right, I’m going to take a quick break and then I’m going to come back and tell you about all the other freedoms that I want you to take bigger and more advantage of through the rest of this year and going into 2023. I’ll be right back.

Hey, I promise we will get right back to the conversation, but I wanted to make sure you knew that we have two AE bootcamps coming up, two live workshops. The first one is the Advanced AE Bootcamp. That’s going to be for folks who have five years or so of experience being an AE in an agency. That’s going to be in Chicago, June 16th and 17th. You can register by going to the AMI website and going under the How We Help and finding the Workshop tab, and you’ll find the Advanced AE Bootcamp there. Again, it’s two full days of learning and sharing. The AEs not only learn from us, the instructors, but they also learn from each other throughout the workshop. We get rave reviews and it’s a great way for your AEs to really level up and become a leader inside your organization. Again, June 16th and 17th for the Advanced AE Bootcamp.

Then August 1st and 2nd, the regular AE Bootcamp. That’s going to be for folks with less than five years of experience, account coordinators, project managers, AEs, anybody who is new into their career and still trying to figure out what the AE thing is all about. Honestly, it’s about helping them understand that they need to move from being an order taker to helping grow your client’s business and growing the agency’s business. Again, August 1st and 2nd, also in Chicago. Hopefully we’ll see some of your folks there. All right, let’s get back to the conversation.

Okay, I just talked to you about how you spend your time. Another freedom that you have is how to rearrange time. As many of you know, I am a single dad. I had my daughter with me almost all of the time as she was growing up. Literally, literally from the time she started kindergarten until she graduated from high school, I ended my workday at anywhere between 2:30 and 3:30, depending on when she was done with school.

Before she was old enough to drive, I would pick her up at school every day in the afternoon and we would drive home and we would have a snack and we would talk about her day, because I knew that ride home, that energy when she came out of school and had all the news about at what everybody had done at recess or at lunch or how they did on a test or whatever it might be, I knew she was bubbling with that news. If I wasn’t home and I didn’t get to capture that right after school, by the time we sat down to have dinner and I said, “Hey, how was your day?” I would’ve gotten, “Fine,” that was it. I wanted to be home and I wanted to make sure she was doing her homework and I wanted that time with her.

I rearranged time to work for my life, because you know what? I owned the joint and so I got to do that. I just made it very clear to my team, to our clients, that I was unavailable after let’s say 3:00. Again, every day I picked her up and I would be home and present with her through dinner. Then after dinner, when she was littler she was in bed, and when she was older she had homework or she might be watching TV or whatever, I did what I called the second shift. What I did was I would work four or five hours. Once she was winding down for the night or by the time she got into bed, I then worked the second shift. What I was doing was I wasn’t working fewer hours, but I was rearranging the time so that it worked for my life.

I don’t regret that one iota. I mean, there were opportunities for us to pitch business that I said no to because I wasn’t available in the afternoon. Most people accommodated that and moved it when I just said, “You know what? I’m sorry, I can’t be available after 3:00.” I don’t have to explain why I don’t have to tell somebody what that is. By the way, you don’t have to have children to do this. I wish I had thought of this earlier, if you’re somebody whose motor doesn’t really get running until ten in the morning, then work ten to six or ten to seven, or if you’re somebody who is energized and full of ideas at 5:00 AM, which I think is sick and wrong by the way, but nonetheless, let’s say that’s how you’re wired, then great, work from five to three.

Whatever that looks like, you get to rearrange time. For me, I cut a donut in the middle of my day and I was unavailable. For you, it might be, again, an early start or a late start or working 12 hours Monday through Thursday so you could have Friday off, but you have the freedom to rearrange your time around your life, as opposed to having to rearrange your life around your time.

Another freedom that I want you to think about and I want you to be mindful of, and this is what I see a lot of you not taking full advantage of, is you have the freedom to make more money than you do and you have the freedom to take money out of the business in a plethora of ways that serve you, both short term and long term. That’s your salary for sure. That is contributing to your retirement funds, IRA, 401k, whatever that may be in the states or in your country, you have the right to start and fund a defined benefits program so that you are putting money away for yourself and your team members, kind of like a private pension. You absolutely have the right and the freedom and should make the choice to cut yourself bonus checks on a regular basis and to manage pass throughs through the business to maximize your tax deductions and spend more of your pre-tax money rather than post-tax money.

Most of you do not pay yourself well enough. What you’re going to say is, “Well, I know, but if I do that, Drew, then I have to cut someone on my staff or I can’t do this or that or the other thing.” Yep, that’s exactly right. That’s a choice. What I’m saying is all too often you choose over and over and over again, and granted, you have the freedom to do this, but I want you to see that you do it, you choose over and over and over again to take care of everybody else’s family. You keep people longer than you should, you give people big raises, you do all these amazing things for your employees. I’m not suggesting you don’t do that for them, but you should not leave yourself in the dust. You should not make yourself an afterthought that gets the scraps.

You absolutely should be building compensation from your agency with you first in line, and you should be paying yourself through multiple channels. That’s a whole different podcast for another day, but what I’m telling you is you should pull more money out of the business and build your wealth outside of the business. The way you start doing that is by paying yourself in all the ways I listed more aggressively so that you have more money at the end of the month that you can do things with that allow you to build and diversify your income and your resources and your wealth outside of the actual business.

Last but not least, and I’m sure there are even more freedoms than what I’ve thought about, but the last one I want to talk to you about in terms of this episode is you have the freedom to not do this anymore. If this is not fun for you anymore, if you don’t wake up and you’re not excited to go to work, or you are dreading Mondays, or you are so exhausted and you’ve already taken time off and you’ve done a sabbatical and you’ve done all the other things to try and cure that and you just know your heart isn’t in it anymore, you have the freedom to walk away. You can sell the agency, you can just shut it down, there’s all kinds of ways for you to get out of the business.

Equally so, if you love it and you’re 75, you have the freedom to stay in it and keep doing it and soak it up because it gives you energy and it gives you purpose. But you get to decide when and where you hang up your spurs and call it a day. That is a freedom you have as an owner.

Every one of these freedoms comes with the reality that you took all the risk of starting the agency or buying the agency. All of you bear the risk every single day, but you do not maximize the freedoms that you have. You don’t make choices that allow you to have the most fulfilled and an enriched life that you can. That’s about the people you surround yourself with, that’s the way you use time, it’s about money, it’s about where and how you spend your time, and it’s also about whether or not you want to keep doing this work.

On this episode and this week of independence here in the States, in this moment where we’re all thinking about freedom and choices and things like that, I just want to remind you that we have privileges that come with owning the business. I think it’s a shame and I think it’s a crime when we don’t take advantage of those things, because they are gifted to us because we took the risk. If you have the risky side of the business, why in the world wouldn’t you make sure that you have the upside of the business as well? You owe it to yourself, you owe it to your family, to your friends, honestly, you owe it to your employees, you owe to your clients, to serve everyone well, including yourself. It means that you can’t put yourself at the end of the line.

Choose the people you serve, choose the people you surround yourself with, choose how you work, the kind of work you do, the hours that you work, how much time you take off, the money that you take out of the business to build wealth other places, and how and when you want to call it a day. Choose those freedoms and choose them wisely and with intention and choose them well, because most people are never that privileged. Most people work for someone else their entire life and they are never offered most of these freedoms. Even our employees, who we’re super generous with, have ties that bind them in ways that we, as owners, do not.

Do not squander that freedom, do not waste that opportunity, do not take less than what you are entitled to have, in all the ways that that means. It’s time for you to declare your independence. It is time for you to take advantage of your freedoms and make choices that give you the best life possible because it’s almost disrespectful when you don’t, because most people would kill to have the opportunity that you have to make those choices to take advantage of those freedoms. For you not to do that, it feels disrespectful, it feels disrespectful to yourself and to the opportunity.

I’m just saying I’m hoping that this week you give that some thought. I know for many of you have a short week or maybe you’re taking the whole week off. It’s a perfect time to think about all the things I just said and ask yourself, am I really taking full advantage of the freedoms that I have? If I’m not, why aren’t I? What’s in the way? Do I feel guilty? Do I feel like I can’t afford it? Am I afraid to try it? Am I worried about what my employees will think or say or do, or my clients? Screw all of that, that’s ridiculous. Figure out a way to take full advantage of the freedoms and privileges you are afforded, because you know what? You’re taking full on the risk, so let’s make sure you take the other side too.

Okay, that’s it for this week. Of course, I want to thank our friends at White Label IQ, they are either presenting sponsor. They do white label design, dev and PPC. You can hear more about them or read more about them at whitelabeliq.com/AMI. They’ve got a special deal there for you if you’re a first time customer. Lots of AMI agencies rave about them, they’re an amazing sponsor of the summit as well. We are super grateful to them, good, good people. They let me keep hanging out with you every week, so I thank them from the bottom of my heart.

Whether you’re here in the States and you have a short week or you’re somewhere else in the world and you’re working a full week, don’t squander the freedoms. Take a little time this week to think about if you are or aren’t taking advantage of all the things that are laid in front of you because you own the business. I hope that you will figure out ways to take full advantage. All right, I’ll be back next week. Thanks for listening, I appreciate all of you. Thank you.

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.